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The Janet Abu-Lughod I Knew

[Janet Abu-Loghod speaking at the IASTE conference, Berkeley, 1990. Photo courtesy of IASTE.] [Janet Abu-Loghod speaking at the IASTE conference, Berkeley, 1990. Photo courtesy of IASTE.]

I first met Janet L. Abu-Lughod in December 1990 when I invited her to be a keynote speaker for the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE) held that year in Berkeley, California. The conference theme, “First World/Third World,” was right down Janet’s alley. She was, of course, by then a recognized public intellectual and a well-established scholar whose contributions spanned fields as disparate as urban sociology, planning history, and Middle Eastern Studies. But, for me, she was the Janet who fell in love with Cairo of the 1960s, and who wrote Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious, a magnificent book that became the bible for all Cairo scholars thereafter. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Janet Abu-Lughod was to Cairo of the twentieth century what Maqrizi was to the city in the fourteenth, and Ali Mubarak to Cairo in the nineteenth century. Cairo was an encyclopedic, meticulously researched, and beautifully written book. She produced it mainly during the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when obtaining data on the city was even more difficult than it is today. It was the first book of its sort to attempt to connect Cairo’s contemporary reality to its one thousand years of Islamic history, and to offer an explanation for some of its urban problems based on that history. 

For my generation of Cairo scholars, Janet was a guru, the mother of the Cairo school of urban studies. But she was never content with being merely the foremost expert on Cairo. A decade after her Cairo book appeared, Janet wrote Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco and went on to do important work on other cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, becoming an innovative and leading scholar in comparative urban studies. Janet distinguished herself as a scholar who was always willing to take risks and who refused to limit herself to a particular specialty. Her scholarship spanned across centuries and continents, from the thirteenth century to the present, from the Middle East to North Africa and back to North America. She was an urbanist par excellence, endlessly fascinated by all cities, particularly the cities of the Arab and Islamic Worlds. 

The concept of the “Islamic city” was the subject of much debate among scholars in disciplines from architectural history to urban geography, before Janet appeared on the scene. Her seminal contribution, in a somewhat short historiographical article published in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, finally resolved the scholarly confusion of the time, and eventually became a classic. In that article, Janet clarified and critiqued the Orientalist chain of authority that plagued the study of the cities of Islam, and warned against making generalizations based on singular cases. She showed how the stereotypical and monolithic model of the Islamic city was based on a number of limited examples from Morocco and Syria, and she went on to illustrate how the Islamic City model was invented. The debate was never again the same after this article was understood and absorbed by a new generation of scholars. And yet, despite being critical of the Islamic city category, I remember one of Janet’s most memorable statements during one of the conferences was “one always knows when one is in the presence of an Islamic city, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the textures.” 

I met Janet several times after our first meeting—in Tunis in 1994, at a memorable IASTE conference I organized with Ananya Roy which explored the "Utility of Tradition," and again in 1998 at another conference in Cairo under the theme “Consuming Tradition, Manufacturing Heritage,” where she was a panelist. It was at that time that Janet started to lay a guilt trip on me. Every time I met her after that conference, she would ask: “When are you going to do a book on Cairo?,” and every time I would respond that I planned to start working on it in the very near future. The book finally came out in 2011, and I was very fortunate to visit Janet in her apartment in New York City two months before her passing. Although she was in very frail condition, she was as sharp as always. I had the extreme privilege of spending two hours with her, during which, with her customary acuity and grace, she shared insights that will stay with me forever.

Janet L. Abu-Lughod, “The Islamic City—Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19, no.2 (1987) 155-176.

[This article is part of a series commemorating Janet Abu Lughod. Click here to read the Introduction to the series and view a complete listing of articles included in the series].

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