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New Texts Out Now: Nelida Fuccaro, Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East

Nelida Fuccaro, ed. Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J) What made you write this book?

Nelida Fuccaro (NF) This edited volume is the result of a long-standing collective effort. It arises form a conference held at SOAS in February 2013 which I organised with Rasmus Elling as part of an international collaborative project on urban violence in the modern Middle East. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Deutsch Forschungsgemeinschaft this project ran between 2011 and 2014 and was led by myself and Ulrike Freitag. It supported a team of researchers based at SOAS and the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin and a network of scholars from Europe, the Middle East, and the US.  This book is the second of two edited volumes to result from the project, the first of which was published in 2015 as Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes from Empire to Nation States.

I became convinced that violence was a very fruitful theme of historical investigation into the modern Middle East ten years ago when I started reading some of the literature on public violence and communalism in mediaeval Europe, and colonial South Asia and Africa. I found this scholarship both appealing and challenging. Being exposed to the violent pasts of other regions reminded me of how inaccurate were some popular and media representations of violence as a peculiar Middle Eastern condition. From a more scholarly standpoint this literature highlighted violence’s complex and intricate connections with the experience of the every-day. In other words, it made me reflect about its ordinary - as opposed to extraordinary - quality. Moreover, I felt that these studies showcased a remarkable depth and breadth as they exposed violence’s varied manifestations, modalities and actors. This multi-sided approach to and nuanced understanding of such a sensitive yet important topic seemed to fill a gap in Middle Eastern history, and area studies in general, particularly as until then regional specialists had tended to tackle violence in disguise, as contentious politics, conflict, authoritarianism, rebellion and the likes. The more I delved into violence the more I became aware of the dangers posed by its elusive nature. I nonetheless felt that to continue treating it as an elephant in the room did not do any justice to its eclectic and heuristic powers. Given my interests in urban history, I also saw a great deal of potential in combining it with the study of cities as the central places of the imperial, colonial and national states that ruled the Middle East in the modern era.   

(J) What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

(NF) The twelve chapters included in the book tap into some critical literature on violence and cities which explore themes as diverse as power, space and place, language, modernity and colonial discipline. Classic works on Indian communalism, European crowds, colonial and industrial urbanism, and urban radicalism have been particularly influential. So have recent studies on violence such as Ussama Maqdisi’s book on nineteenth-century Lebanon The Culture of Sectarianism. Part I of the volume (including my own chapter and that by Rasmus Elling) is written as a critical synthesis of key themes and debates which should inform a future research agenda on the Middle East and which are also relevant to the case studies included Part II, III and IV of the book, all of which are based on original research.

The SOAS conference helped to identify the ‘violent event’ as the backbone of the volume, a theme inspired by literature on contentious politics. Specific episodes of violence alongside performers and victims form the baseline of the ten chapters which discuss the case studies. Yet contributors go further beyond the classic event- and agency-based analysis by skilfully bringing in a variety of contexts: urban space and institutions, discipline and resistance, and meaning and language. They also reflect upon different forms of violence: physical, structural, organized and spontaneous. Some of the chapters also give a voice to narrators and interpreters: from the local chronicles and eye witnesses of late Mamluk Cairo and Ottoman Tunis respectively, to the Ba‘th officials of war-torn Basra in the 1980s. We felt it was important to read and map different languages of violence for methodological and ethical reasons. As historians we always need to scrutinize our sources and to interrogate the idioms of power, legitimacy and legality they use.

On the urban side, the volume as a whole takes up Warren Magnusson’s invitation to "see like a city," and to question states as the prism through which we read politics and public life. In fact, many of the chapters show that urban life generated its own forms of violence, closely connected to, but not necessarily coterminous with, those produced by imperial, colonial and national administrations. Equally inspirational were different strands of urban sociology which have theorized cities as organic social and political orders, and recent empirically-based work on the everyday state in contemporary Cairo by my SOAS colleague Salwa Ismail. Zooming into the city as a particular place of experience also demanded a particular focus on the connections between place, space and power in order to explain how and why urban locations actively shaped mobilisation, memory, and state repression. Many chapters link violent activism and state intervention to the urban environment by grounding violent acts in traditional and modern places of collective life: mosques, quarters, market places, suburban areas, political clubs, public squares and entertainment venues.

(J) How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

(NF) There are several connections with my previous work on the urban history of the Persian Gulf and on communalism and the state in Iraq. I first became interested in violence while I was writing my book on Manama: Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800, a city that has experienced quite a lot of turmoil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As sectarian strife and violent unrest have been one of the recurring features of Bahrain’s political landscape I turned to literature on Indian communalism and contentious politics in order to develop a more nuanced frame of understanding of Manama’s political culture. Chapter 5 of the book which deals with the urban public sphere is particularly indebted to some of these readings. The chapter on Kirkuk I wrote for this edited volume has given me an opportunity to build on my earlier work on rural Iraq during the monarchy and crucially to venture into Iraq’s urban worlds. Besides my own article on Kirkuk this collection nurtures the scanty urban historiography of modern Iraq with the inclusion of two excellent pieces on Basra and Baghdad. 

(J) Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

(NF) This edited collection was conceived with a broad readership in mind, both academic and non-academic. The non-specialist reader hopefully will find plenty of historical vistas on cities in a region that is familiar either through personal and professional connections or media exposure. As to regional scholars and students I would like them to use the volume to develop their research and thinking about the cities and societies of the modern Middle East in new,  more "connective" and interdisciplinary directions. I hope that this book will also attract the attention of non-regional specialists working on cities or violence, prompting them to take more consistent notice of their Middle Eastern counterparts. While the case studies only deal with the Middle East, they have benefitted substantially from the input of scholars and scholarship from outside the region. Cross-fertilisation in the other direction would be extremely desirable.

I would also like the volume to make a contribution to what I feel is the ethical imperative to normalise public and academic perceptions of violence. This is not to justify bloodshed or to turn a blind eye to cruelty but to try to make sense of it beyond clichés and easy generalisations, also as a way to pay respect to victims.  When I conceived the collective project with the ZMO team back in 2009 the Arab spring had not yet happened. Since 2011, when the research for this volume started, the backlash of the Arab uprisings, the escalation of ISIS terrorism and sectarian upheaval have transformed violence into a sort of cottage industry. Like other project participants I felt the pressure and responsibility of researching such a "sexy" topic as we were confronted with the horrendous suffering endured by many people throughout the region. By the time I was writing the epilogue to the volume in February 2015 ISIS militants had transformed Mosul and Raqqa into archetypal "carceral" cities as residents were subject to the enforcement of jihadist discipline and shocking punishment. The question that came to my mind then was how in a foreseeable future one could treat these abuses as "historical facts" in the same way as the book that was about to go to press was claiming to have done. Fortunately, I had a comforting thought: that by retelling stories of violence this volume was going to contribute to defeat its tyranny.   

(J) What other projects are you working on now?

(NF) I now work on the social and cultural history of the early oil industry in Iraq and Arab states of the Persian Gulf, a topic that I have already tackled in combination with cities and violence in a number of publications. I have focussed on oil cities and urban modernity in an edited collection that was published in 2013 in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and Middle East. Oil has also been an essential ingredient of my research for the urban violence project as I led the SOAS research cluster on oil urbanism and violence, a theme that features prominently in both edited volumes that resulted from the project, and in my own work on Kirkuk.  While building on some of this research my new project wishes to bring attention to the history of oil as an industry and as a particular type of extractive/corporate enterprise, to the different material worlds created by the black gold including urban and industrial infrastructure and new public cultures, and to the influence of petroleum on the lived experiences and social imaginaries of the local populations.

Excerpts from Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East:

Since 2011, Middle Eastern and North African cities have been at the center of political unrest and popular uprisings leading to the fall of dictators, protracted civil wars, and in some cases authoritarian revival. The Arab Spring and its aftermath have pushed the predicament of the city to the forefront Middle Eastern politics. Yet, until recently, media coverage and academic analysis have often overlooked the urban nature of these uprisings. While recognizing that violent disorder was performed in cities, popular mobilization was presented as part of national and transnational spheres of public contention. Media analysts and academics tended to treat the cities of the Arab Spring as stage sets—parade grounds for popular anger and state repression—depicting mass protests as a new twist in the ongoing struggle between governments and people. The result was that spaces and places of conflict, the stakes associated with them, and the specifically urban dynamics of crowd mobilization were often taken for granted, and not analyzed as constitutive of social and political struggles.

Although recent studies of the Arab Spring have started to fill this “urban” gap, the general lack of attention to cities as localities able to shape patterns, ideas, institutions, and practices of social and political life (including conflict) is symptomatic of a broader trend affecting our understanding of past and present landscapes of violence in the Middle East: the tendency to simply consider violence as located in cities (often through the prism of states) rather than being of cities. It is in this spirit that we should take up Warren Magnusson’s invitation in the epigraph that opens this chapter to “see like a city”—which, in his understanding, refers to a new reading of contemporary politics not as the exclusive domain of sovereign authority, but as the result of the cumulative practices of urban life. Seeking solutions to current urban problems at a global scale, Magnusson also reminds us that latent urban tension and unrest is not confined to the Middle East or to the Arab Spring, but is a worldwide phenomenon that demands urgent attention, precipitated by sprawling urbanization and by the relentless expansion of transnational capital and social inequality.


State-centered accounts of violence gloss over, or at best reveal only partially, the forms of activism and resistance produced by the city as an organic “social order of parts” with a complex and multiform associational life that in itself constitutes a potential arena of violent conflict. In this respect, urban societies have always been implicated in the definition of forms, expressions, and meanings of violence, partly as a result of the deeply entrenched urban roots of competition over territory, resources, and security. Residents have often taken matters into their own hands. Since the 1940s, spontaneous and unregulated suburbanization on the margins of expanding urban centers has often led to the re-emergence of traditional forms of community protection in shantytowns: armed patrols by residents, strong men, and youth gangs. The advance of the security state in late twentieth-century Cairo and Tehran forced the urban poor and the informal communities living at the fringes of these two Middle Eastern megalopolises to adopt nonviolent forms of activism as tactics of “quiet encroachment.” The grounding of acts of violence and violent events in the city—making them of the city—entails a shift in emphasis from the macro level of the institutional setting of the state to the micro level of its spaces of encounter with residents: streets and neighborhoods, workplace and home, urban peripheries and public buildings.


Using place, proximity, and activism to “see like a city” entails recognizing the power of urban locations to form and reproduce social and political relations and experience. Close encounters in these locations have been the catalysts of violent social and political transformations that have reverberated beyond the city—from the revolutionary bazaars of Tehran, teeming with clerics, students, and protesters, to the squares of colonial Cairo crowded with demonstrators and soldiers; from the schools, mosques, and industrial sites that propelled the insurrectional waves of post-colonial Baghdad, to the barracks of late Ottoman Istanbul and Salonika, where the Young Turk Revolution was planned and executed. The ability to control, visualize and manipulate urban spaces also contributed to their transformation into places of material and symbolic value. An understanding of the geographies of risk faced by urban and state administrations was an important tool of government. The collection of topographical and cartographical data made streets, alleys, squares, and neighborhoods visible and accessible to police and military forces. Intimate knowledge of the built environment was not only the prerogative of surveyors, bureaucrats, and policemen, but also a tool in the hands of rioters, protesters, and urban gangs.

In short, treating violence as contingent upon place and upon the rhythms of urban life can reveal how the physical, material, and immaterial qualities of the city become enmeshed with various forms of state and social power. At a basic level, it problematizes simplistic binary understandings of the relations between state and society, between rulers and ruled, and between citizens and the government. More specifically, given the centrality of the city in shaping the Middle East as we know it today, reading sovereign authority through the prism of the city helps to fine-tune the violent contours of the states that ruled urban society. This reading exposes the interface between urban activism and state repression, between street violence and security regimes, between urban norms and institution-building, and between civic identity, nationality, and citizenship. The nexus between city and state also poses the question of the analytical and physical boundaries of modern Middle Eastern cities, reminding us that their social and political histories can be read at different scales as simultaneously separating, connective, and disruptive. Famously, twentieth-century Iranian cities served as the economic and political linchpins of late Qajar and Pahlavi rule, the nodes that joined together royal power, dynastic authority and European encroachment in Iranian life into a network of forces. At the same time, they were the powerhouses of the Constitutional and Islamic Revolutions—the violent popular movements that obliterated these regimes. While it is evident that towns and cities of the Middle East have constituted distinctive historical formations, it is nonetheless clear that the frontiers of urban life have been open-ended. What constitutes the “urban,” and where it stops, are questions that continue to be debated. Interdependency has provided a popular conceptual framework in exploring urban-rural relations in the Middle East, in order to explain the variation and frequency of popular protest, food riots, and elite factionalism inside early modern and modern urban centers. Contemporary urbanism is predicated upon the idea of the networked or global city—a city that is losing its boundaries, whose materiality is submerged by global flows. “Seeing like a city” thus becomes a process of zooming in and out, with an awareness of the often invisible and fluid boundaries between city and state demarcation.


The following chapters elaborate on some of the themes, debates, and evidence presented in this introduction. In Chapter 2, Rasmus Christian Elling explores further some of the methodological, interpretive, and ethical issues faced by Middle Eastern historians. Using the case studies included in the book to illustrate some of his discussion, Elling delves into the relevance of language and space in the writing of urban histories of violence. For him, this is an exercise in translation that requires an acute attention to linguistic registers and to different vocabularies of violence that often make dissonant semantics. Parts II, III, and IV consist of chapters based on original research, written as historical ethnographies of violent events. Reflecting the diversity of Middle Eastern urbanism from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries, the case studies cover a broad range of urban centers: Cairo, Tunis, and Baghdad as imperial and national capitals; provincial towns such as Jeddah, Nablus, and Basra; and oil settlements such as Dhahran and Abadan. While the choice of a diverse range of urban locations and historical settings allows a close reading of local specificities, it also helps us to “see like a city”—to single out common elements, processes, spaces, and power dynamics that conspired to produce violence as a social and political experience of urban life. With this agenda in mind, and in the spirit of some of the arguments presented in the Introduction, the chapters are organized thematically, rather than according to geographical region, chronological sequence, urban typology, or any particular taxonomy of violence.


While they are separated into three parts, the case studies nonetheless remain in dialog with one other. Some of the chapters could have been included in different sections but they have been arranged so as to draw out particular themes. Part II (“Civic Struggles: Norms and Practices of Conflict”) deals with the question of urban networks as distinctive arenas of public violence structured by political and legal norms and social practices, as well as by close encounters between residents, elites, and public authorities. By focusing on the intricate architectures of power that have underpinned civic conflict, the chapters reveal the intimate bonds connecting—and the often fine lines separating—violent actions, social and political routines, and various manifestations of elite, social, and state power.


Broadening the geographical and political horizons of the city, Part III (“Urban Connections: The City as a Frontline”) disentangles the interface between the local and its “others” in the manifestations of violent dissent. Urban violence is treated as a particularly urban condition of interdependence binding actors and spaces of violent upheaval to hinterlands, as well as to imperial, state, regional, and global forces. These chapters situate this condition at the heart of the sociopolitical and spatial transformation of urban environments as the nodes connecting centers and peripheries. Critical attention is devoted to the dynamic and creative nature of urban life as a frontline arena of conflict, always positioned in the vanguard of social activism and repression.


In contrast with the systemic and scalar approaches adopted in Parts II and III, Part IV (“Eventful Ruptures: Order and Disorder”) tackles violence as a moment and tactic of disruption that both fractures and re-composes the sociopolitical and spatial orders of the city. Concentrating on the interplay between riotous urban crowds and various forms of state and military discipline, the chapters present examples of violent spatial politics that transformed urban sites into icons of communal, national, and class struggle, offering sharply defined images of episodes and places of collective violence as constitutive elements of urban political cultures.

[Excerpted from Nelida Fuccaro, ed., Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East, by permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press ©2016 No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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