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New Texts Out Now: Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret, and Eric Denis, Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East

[Cover of [Cover of "Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East"]

Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret and Eric Denis, editors. Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East: Case Studies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Myriam Ababsa (MA), Baudouin Dupret (BD), and Eric Denis (ED): The first impulse behind this book came out of Eric Denis’ and Baudouin Dupret’s collaboration during the nineties at the French Institute in Cairo (CEDEJ), when the former conducted major research on urbanization and the latter on legal practice. When Dupret moved to Damascus, he was granted some funding from a research agency to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between the law and urban transformations in southern countries; he asked Myriam Ababsa, who was based in Amman, to step in as a geographer specializing in urbanization within the Bilad al-Sham. A small team was built, which met a couple of times and finally put together this volume. The whole group of authors had the opportunity to discuss a common conceptual frame, as well as their individual contributions to this volume, at the Mediterranean Research Meeting organized by Florence’s European University Institute.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

MA, BD, ED: Our main questions are related to the production of architectural and legal forms and norms. Actually, Forms and Norms was the title we first had in mind. One striking phenomenon in MENA countries is the development of neighborhoods out of the framework of urban planification and regulation. Buildings are erected and their property is transferred. It means that architectural forms are produced according to certain patterns, with specific shapes, in relationship to each other, along alleys with access them, and with connections to commodities like water and electricity. At the same time, these housing units are purchased, sold, and rented; their legal status is established and sometimes challenged; taxes are levied and bills are collected, that is, they become objects around which legal practices develop.

Since this is the central topic of this volume, it means that several and often parallel sets of literatures are addressed, including Middle East studies, urban planning, cities and development, sociolegal studies, and ethnography. The book is also connected to a tradition that remained up to now very confidential in the social sciences dealing with MENA countries—that is, ethnomethodology, which is best characterized as the descriptive study of the ways in which the people (ethno) develop their own means (methods) to make sense of and act in their specific environments. This is the reason why many studies included in this volume devote their attention to the concrete practices of informal neighborhoods and of inhabitants regarding their real-estate and goods.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

MA: I am trained in social geography, and I first worked on the perception of the Beirut demarcation line and its neighbors’ daily practices beginning in 1994. I then turned to Syria, where I analyzed public policies and ideologies, focusing on the implementation of the Euphrates Project and social practices in the city of Raqqa in 2001-2004 in my book Raqqa : territoires et pratiques sociales d'une ville syrienne. I have been based in Jordan since 2000, and have worked on upgrading policies and social housing in Amman; I have also published a collective book with D. Rami Daher of the German Jordanian University, Cities, Urban Practices and Nation Building in Jordan.

ED: I work in geography and urban studies. My research focuses on urban dynamics in Egypt and Sudan, and I have published extensively on metropolitan physical planning and economics, as well as on regional urbanization and small cities. Coming in to working on this volume, my work was already dealing with questions of negotiated territory and everyday life in cities.

BD: I was educated both in law and in the social sciences. I have published extensively in the field of the sociology and anthropology of law and legislation in the Middle East. My analysis has evolved into an ethnomethodological study of the production of norms, especially legal, in Arab contexts, including courts and parliaments. My main publication in this domain is entitled Adjudication in Action: An Ethnomethodology of Law, Morality and Justice, and deals with the practice of criminal law in Egypt.

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

MA, BD, ED: Our main hope is to open up the field of ethnographic studies of ordinary practices in the MENA area, especially when dealing with cities and the phenomenon of informality. To our mind, research has often been stuck at a very abstract, overhanging level, and therefore has largely missed the phenomenon of what was actually at stake for the people on the ground. Addressing the practical means by which people deal with the building, renting, and selling of their housing is probably the best way to adopt policies that do not conflict with, but rather accommodate, their best interests.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MA: I have a forthcoming project, an Atlas of Jordan, put together with a team of forty European and Jordanian scholars, in English and Arabic, and published by the Presses de l’Institut français du Proche-Orient. I am currently associated with the University of Paris I research program, “Integrated Territorial Analysis of the (European) Neighborhoods” (CNRS / CIST). I am also preparing a book on urban governance and participation in the Middle East.

ED: I am presently working with Baudouin Dupret on a comparative research project dealing with land titling practices in the Indian, Moroccan, and Ethiopian urban contexts. In India, I am conducting research on subaltern urbanization, looking at the multiple and ordinary ways people are producing and negotiating town environments far from megacities. I am also working on the linkages between real property and city forms.

BD: I am currently working on issues related to practical epistemology, that is, the ways people make sense of issues like truth, time, space, evidence, or reality in the conduct of their daily, ordinary life. I recently published part of this work in a book entitled Practices of Truth: An Ethnomethodological Inquiry into Arab Contexts.

J: In what ways does your book diverge from other literature examining the nature of urban spaces in the Middle East?

MA, BD, ED: The accent on the ordinary practices remains an original entry in urban studies. It gives clear arguments in favor of approaches rejecting any a priori exceptionality of the Middle East urban scenes. Looking at the everyday way people are, every day, producing and negotiating their living spaces helps us to understand why reforms, including constitutional and legal reforms, are not radically transforming the way of life of urban societies. They are absorbed in a web of practices. Inherited forms and norms, including property documentations in use and ways of building or sharing the street, are the most active “dispositifs” through which locally, external impulses, influences, and novelties are encoded and slowly lead to some changes. This inertia of the ordinary built environment and everyday life are very much under-appreciated by the existing literature.

Excerpt from Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East: Case Studies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey

From “Introduction: Forms and Norms: Questioning Illegal Urban Housing in the Middle East”

This book aims at describing and taking seriously two major transformations that have been observed in the Middle East during the last thirty years: first, the accelerated changes in public policies toward neighborhoods characterized as irregular or illegal, and second, the claim that this form of housing in urban areas constitutes the ordinary and majority condition.[1]

There is nothing specific or original about these observations; and indeed the aim of this volume is to emphasize their banality in favor of empirical work aimed at describing interactions specifically located within the urban sphere. This is as part of a wider trend within the social sciences that seeks to think afresh the ways in which to observe societies of the Middle East.

Here, and for longer perhaps than anywhere else in the world, the mode of analysis remained constrained by a dualistic way of thinking, one which pitted state apparatuses against populations utterly deprived of any ability to influence their governments’ policies. The few works that dealt with illegal urban housing in the Middle East underscored the lack of institutionalized forms of governance, especially when contrasted with India and Latin America, where neighborhood associations and nongovernmental organizations are active in the protection of squatters’ rights.[2]

However, several new studies dealing with strenuous avenues of political participation in Cairo (Singerman 1996), political participation on the street as the locus of popular micro-interventions and the quiet encroachment of the poor on the city of Tehran during the 1980s (Bayat 1997), and ordinary citizens’ participation in the Arab world (Berry-Chikhaoui and Deboulet 2000), made it possible to break with this burdensome tradition. They all proposed relevant tracks for researching urban space through examination of the most ordinary interactions around which agreements take place.

Without falling into the trap of radical readings of Middle Eastern politics, which had a tendency to overshadow analyses of the simplest daily interactions (cf. Hoodfar 1997), and which contributed in turn to denying any efficacy to “limited democracy” regimes, these approaches share a real heuristic force. They establish a continuum between different modes of action and bind ordinary citizens, public agents, and entrepreneurs to one another through their daily interactions. Recent work in legal anthropology (cf. Dupret 2006) testifies to such an approach: through the observation of daily practices within local tribunals, it shows how legal norms are produced and how the relationship with positive law is constructed. The precise description of interactions, routines, and ordinary practices sheds light on the way in which “bits and pieces” of cities, neighborhoods, or broader urban formations appear, are reproduced, balance each other, evolve, and transform. It seems therefore unproductive to continue thinking about changing urban environments exclusively in terms of social contradictions and profound inequalities. Exploring the ways in which agreements are reached and compromises emerge proves much more heuristic, even in a context of highly asymmetrical relationships. It does not equate to an irenic vision of empirical realities; rather, it aims to eschew criticism in favor of close attention to the day-to-day mechanisms that make up urban phenomena.

In the context of the daily practices and legal documents negotiated by inhabitants, we observe a crossing of institutionalized borders, which are in turn blurred and re-made with the cooperation of state agents. As the anthropologist Fredrik Barth puts it, border drawing is a collaborative or conflictual, and thus, social, accomplishment, the sides of the divide concurring in the definition of the “wherefrom I speak” that is necessary in interaction. This means that instead of dichotomies pitting permanence against change, public against private, and state against society, it seems more fruitful to adopt an endogenous perspective. This approach reflects real experiences and processes that therefore appear far less contradictory and chaotic than when observed through broad and fixed categories.

Illegal housing constitutes the most obvious example of the rejection of such a dichotomy. Although illegal housing, by definition, infringes upon formal legal rules, it has become the norm for the majority of the inhabitants in all the metropolises under study in this volume—Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Amman. It is less heuristic than ever, as we closely scrutinize this so-called illegality, to describe and analyze this quiet and steady production of housing—with all its buildings and life investments—as partaking in a scheme that pits formal against informal or legal against illegal, therefore shaping two separate markets, informal and formal real-estate networks, and legal systems (cf. El Kadi 1990). Similarly, the analysis from above, which considers the authoritarian state as dominating its “non-citizens,” whom it controls in a patron-client relationship while maintaining them within a no-law margin via illegal housing, falls short, regardless of the importance of relations of dominance and the unfair use of force to back arbitrary decisions. Here again, denouncing inequity cannot account for its operational modes; moreover, such an approach radically erases what social practices are in terms of complexity, fluidity, order, and (conflicting) negotiation and collaboration.

Let us go further with the example of the law, around which many contributions to this volume revolve. The study of legal practices can follow different tracks. The theory of legal pluralism, which posits the co-existence of multiple laws alongside state law, was once fashionable. Instead of the state as sole producer of the law, this theory held that law-making was the production of a multiplicity of semi-autonomous and self-regulated social fields. According to this perspective, the state itself is little more than the aggregate of multiple social fields. Whereas it is perfectly legitimate to posit the law and the state as objects of sociological analysis, the unlimited extension of the notion of law-making to any form of normativity seems excessive. Instead of the legal dichotomy between the monism of state law and the pluralism of non-state instances, we suggest a double shift in our viewpoint: On the one hand, it is necessary to analyze normative systems close to state law, in the sense that they are grounded in written or oral rules which a group of specific persons is deemed to know and interpret, that they are endowed with persons in charge of their enforcement, and they are referred to by people as a legal system alternative to state law; on the other hand, it is also necessary to examine the ways in which people grasp their legal environment, understand it, and act in the relevant contexts, constantly reconciling a plurality of social norms to the unified character of the law in force. This is the challenge of the praxeological approach to law, which seeks to study, while faced with multiple customary systems, fluctuating legal practices, and the impact of hegemonic state laws, the organizations and hierarchies designed in an endogenous manner by the people involved in a specific course of action. These organizations are necessarily neither institutionalized nor stable. Contexts of interaction lead people to establish circumstantial hierarchies, to select priorities, and to proceed to what is conventionally called “forum shopping.” However, the same contexts can also compel them to act within one system rather than another and to have no choice in competent legal forums, which nevertheless does not mean that they have no specific practice of these instances.

This praxeological approach to law asks how inhabitants produce their legality in practice: through the payment of taxes or fines which are used as means to warrant a right; through the use of seals, a finance ministry’s official forms; engineer’s documents; notary documents; evidence required by the Cadastre Department; or the use of “customary” contracts (very widespread in Jordan and Syria).

The chapters in this volume defy theoretical dichotomies, for which they substitute a close observation of ordinary situations. Nothing contributes more to the understanding of how urban societies are produced than the detailed, not-too-interpretive description of the ways in which housing deemed a priori illegal is secured, a transaction concluded, a conflict resolved, the breadth or the use of a street in construction is determined and enforced, and so on. Add to that the description of how a land-titling policy is conceived of, formerly recognized equipments are claimed, a neighborhood is equipped with electric wires, sewerage systems, school facilities, and asphalted roads. The ambition of the volume is to restore the obvious continuum in the consolidation, building after building, of the popular neighborhoods of the cities under study, while showing the proximity of social relationships and the forms of solidarity that are mobilized.

Instead of looking for the Middle East’s specificities in politics, we suggest adopting a research policy that scrutinizes the “proximate”: denying the holistic and culturalist exception for the sake of the study of daily routines and practices. The first ambition is therefore to upgrade the knowledge of urban land tenure dynamics, eventually underscoring the banality of current trends (something that can hardly be reconciled with the quest for something specifically characterizing the Middle East taken as a whole).

We assumed that there is a tendency for these neighborhoods to be considered afresh by the actors of urban politics—government employees, counsellors, international experts, and development agencies. This approach induces new relationships, and new contexts of interaction between inhabitants and the agents of urban development, urbanism, and taxation agencies. All these situations make more palatable (because they are more diverse and numerous) the possibilities for negotiation and adaptation involved in complex and pluralistic forms of governance. This holds true for social science analysis, the methodological and epistemological renewing of which is closely connected to the dynamics of “real life,” and has a direct impact on it (in a looping, or feedback, effect which is essential with regard to what was stated above).

As urban planning disappears in favor of juxtaposed projects and delegated urban development, there is a momentum for the tacit acknowledgment of the positions/possessions that were previously acquired and of their regularization. Access to networks of urban services depends on criteria of profitability and on the inhabitants’ financial capacity; networks no longer belong to the sovereign power of ministries and urban public agencies. In the same way, forced and massive dispossessions orchestrated by ruling governments disappear, giving way to “market evictions” (Lasserve 2007), which introduce new forms of land and tenure insecurity in the very place where land titling procedures appeared to guarantee stability (see Chapter 11 in this volume by Jean-François Pérouse).

The current convergence of urban land markets and the blurring of the line dividing legal and illegal lead us to regard urban dynamics as being less regulated than previously assumed and therefore inherently uncertain and unstable. They also lead us to consider the period that was dominated by public intervention, which gave way in the early 1990s to economic liberalization without political democracy, as a long “bracketing” of urban construction. Today, the production of urban forms on the scale of plots, buildings, transactions, or even the more ambitious projects of developers, appears in a clearer and more assertive manner. Obviously, the evident liberalization of the city’s “production forces” encouraged us to observe the inhabitants’ strategies to secure and transfer those properties.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the 2010–2011 revolutionary movements in the Middle East represent popular protests against the trend of economic liberalization led by authoritarian governments. In Egypt in particular, economic reforms of the 1990s have had a considerable effect on popular housing, inducing greater pressures on land access, land grabbing by businessmen, and greater insecurity of tenure.

The issue of historical development is a background one, since the dynamics we observe are not new in any sense, be they in architecture, popular urbanism, or in the realm of legal regulations. The dynamics of urban relationships described here can be traced back to modes of urban growth that have existed in the Middle East since at least the Ottoman unification. These represent ordinary ways of producing urban units, according to forms that are suitable, inherited, and still active, and hence according to what Bernard Lepetit (1993) called the “traces” of history.


[1] This book was written as part of a research program on public policy and legal practice on the management of informal settlements supervised by Baudouin Dupret within the ANR (l’Agence Nationale de la Recherche) “Citadain” program: “City and Law in the Arab World and India” (2006–2009) directed by Philippe Cadène (Paris VII).

[2] According to Nezzar AlSayyad, urban informality in Latin America involves political belonging and sets a relationship of reciprocity between groups of squatters and the state, whereas in the Middle East, to the contrary, the depoliticizing of informality sanctions the squatters’ projects; in Latin America, squatting develops or is boosted in contexts of political change—polls for instance. These same changes tend to take place in the Middle East during phases of economic change (AlSayyad 1993, 14).

[Excerpted from Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East, edited by Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret, and Eric Denis. Copyright © 2012 by the American University in Cairo Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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