In what ways is the study of cities important to the broader field of Middle East studies, and what are the broader trajectories of such forms of analysis? For insight into the issues that underpin such a question, the following interview was conducted on 30 August 2013 with Nezar AlSayyad, who is Professor of Architecture, Planning, Urban Design, and Urban History at the University of California Berkeley, and current editor of Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review. In the interview, AlSayyad discusses why a Middle Eastern city is a convenient yet not necessarily useful term, how the built environment is a product of our social relations, and why urbanists are entrusted with making the connections between social and political conditions in the project of social change. He highlights the importance of investigating the use of space in social movements, mass uprisings, and emerging forms of political participation—arguing that the history of the Middle East is in many ways the history of its cities. The original interview was recorded, and subsequently transcribed by Duncan Wane.
Hiba Bou Akar (HB): Professor AlSayyad, I would like to first thank you for agreeing to this interview which marks the launch of Jadaliyya’s Cities Page. We hope this endeavor ushers in the beginning of many future intellectual engagements on urban questions concerning the Middle East. I would like to start by asking you the following question: As an esteemed historian of Middle Eastern cities, what is a “Middle Eastern City” at this moment in time? Is this even a valid question to ask?
Nezar AlSayyad (NA): A similar question is raised in a forthcoming book on urban design in the Arab world edited by Robert Saliba of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and published by Ashgate. In my introductory chapter entitled “The Arab City, the Middle Eastern City, the Islamic City: Reflections on a Concept,” I develop an in-depth answer to this question: “Is there a Middle Eastern city? What is a Middle Eastern city? And is it even a valid question to ask at this specific time?” So I will give you a very specific answer here to this first question.
I think the answer to the question “Is there a Middle Eastern city?” relates to the question “Is there a Middle East?” I am sure you are aware of the history of that term and the emergence of the concept of the Middle East. The question that I always ask people is: “middle of what, and east of where?” We know the answer to that question: it was born out of a very specific colonial legacy.
For me, however, I think what is really important is to recognize that the origin of a concept is often independent from its sustainability. The “Middle East” is a concept that has been sustained for a long time. That is not necessarily because colonialism continued to exist, although it does, of course, in very different post-colonial forms. But the term has been sustained mainly because the people for whom it was intended ended up adopting it as a form of self-description.
No one in the Middle East was talking about what they were as a specifically Middle Eastern thing, but over time, after the rise of independent nation states – whether we are talking about Turkey, Egypt, or the Levant – there were eventually two groups of people who adopted this terminology. There were politicians who engaged in the rhetoric of nationhood and nation-building, and scholars trying to put themselves on the scene, adopting and inheriting quite a lot of the historical lineage that comes from the work of orientalist scholars, and in a sense not being able to free themselves from that legacy. Both of these groups adopted the terminology with a degree of flexibility, sometimes using the term “Arab,” sometimes “Middle Eastern,” and sometimes “Islamic.”
I think that although the category itself is not a very valid or vibrant category, it is a very convenient category—because many different people can use it to mean many different things, at different points of time to achieve different objectives. Therefore, for me, the term which least reflects anything is the “Middle Eastern city.” I prefer “the Arab city,” and I think that “the Islamic city,” as difficult as it is, is a term which better encompasses other cultural traits and other cultural aspects of urbanism that extend beyond the Middle East.
So my response to the question would be: is it a valid question to ask? Absolutely. Is it a useful question to ask? Yes, but to a limited extent. That depends on who asks the question, and to what ends they ask it.
Something you did not ask, but which I think is very relevant, is the consideration of whether this is a good question to ask at this specific moment of globalization – that is much more difficult to answer. The challenge that globalization poses to any city in any region is a challenge that is posed to regionalism in general, not necessarily to any particular form of regionalism. So, I would say that if we take globalization as a challenge to the idea of a Middle Eastern city, equally it is a challenge to the idea of a Chinese city, an Asian city, or a Latin American city.
HB: Between regionalism and globalization, do we even have what could be thought of as the quintessential Middle Eastern city given that a city like Cairo is very different from Dubai, which is very different from Beirut in terms of the social, economic, historical, geo-political aspects of their urbanization? Or, is it about certain dominant spatial “features” particularly religious ones (e.g. minarets)?
NA: Yes, of course, the discourse on the Middle Eastern city was about precisely that issue. That is where the term ‘Middle East’ is quite vulnerable, and that is why if you use the term “Arab” or “Arab-Islamic,” you are talking about something with a much higher degree of specificity. With those terms, you can definitely say there are common shared characteristics.
I remember a beautiful quote by Janet Abu-Lughod, published in one of her very early books back in the late 1970s, in which she spoke about Islamic cities rather than Middle Eastern cities. Her point was that there seems to be a unifying visual pattern to cities of Islam, to the point that if you take me blindfolded to a city, and you remove my blindfold, I would be able to tell you whether this is an Islamic city or not. Why? Because there are certain visual traits, including minarets, but there are also sounds, smells, actions, and activities of people on the streets. There is a residential environment, which reflects specific social or societal values connected with privacy or gender segregation, and so on.
So yes, I would say that the Middle Eastern city as a category is a lot less useful when one comes up with these things. And you have to remember, what is the Middle East today?
HB: For those of us interested in the political, how would you explain the significance of understanding the social production of the built environment in the project of social change?
NA: That is a very good question. For me, and possibly for you, it is an obvious question whose answer to a general audience requires us to refresh their memory of things that are completely embedded within the field of Middle Eastern studies, and within Arab or Middle Eastern culture.
For example, the built environment is an excellent indicator or reflection of culture: its practices and social norms, and even its structure. Another very important aspect of the built environment is that it is not static, it responds to immediate changes in family structure, in societal structure, in the economy, and so on.
No city stays the same. If you look at the city in 1990, then you look at it again in 2010, over twenty years much has happened to it. But you do have a frame of reference, the city has left some significant history according to which you can judge the change that occurred. For me, the built environment is an excellent indicator of the nature of the society, and of the type of changes occurring in that society in response to specific greater forces.
Now, one of the very important things that I should mention, at least within the Arab tradition, is that this is not necessarily new. Ibn Khaldoun wrote about it 500 years ago, and in fact wrote about it such that the history of a nation, according to the Khaldounian way of thinking, is the history of its cities. I would argue that the history of the Middle East is certainly the history of its cities; without the cities there is really nothing there which would allow you to see change.
Urbanism cannot and should not be seen as this separate arena, which only architects, planners or geographers look at. It is something so fundamental that historians who write history without looking at the built environment miss a whole set of artifacts.
HB: This brings me to my next question: Could history explain, in part, the present in Middle Eastern cities? For example, Cairo has been the center of Egypt’s uprisings. Damascus did not play a similarly significant role in the Syrian uprising. Would a comparative history of the urban development of the two cities explain the rises and falls of the uprisings, and the different courses that the uprisings took?
NA: That is not only a very difficult question to answer, but also the answer depends greatly on the context which one defines for it. I participate in a lot of interviews in which journalists ask me questions because they want to know the future. I am a historian: I am not in the business of prediction. But you are actually asking a question about the present, and asking it in a way that requires reflection on the past.
That question is: are the histories of Cairo and Damascus, as cities within their regions and states, so fundamentally different, do they play such fundamentally different roles that this can explain why each city plays such a different role in their uprisings?
Very simply, my answer to that question is no. History cannot really fully explain that. History serves us as an interrogative tool, not as a predictive tool. As an interrogative tool, it allows us to theorize that perhaps Damascus, as a city, was more rural than urban? Maybe it never reached a metropolitan size which allowed people to come together so they could engage in this kind of revolution? Maybe Damascus is located in a region within Syria where it simply cannot be the center of action?
By the same token, one can take a very different approach. Egypt has a population of eighty million people. Cairo alone has a population of twenty million people, unlike Damascus or Syria. Here, we are dealing with a primate city, so there is a different set of circumstances in which that primate city can sometimes substitute completely for the nation, not in terms of importance, but rather in terms of representation. In a primate city, almost all of the forces will be represented. Hence it becomes the center of action in a particular uprising.
By the way, it is a mistake to say that the uprising was centered in Cairo. It was city-centered, but Cairo sustained it. If you look at how the uprising occurred, it started in Suez and Alexandria, not in Cairo. Yet, what facilitated the fact that it succeeded in Cairo was the presence of Tahrir Square, a square which was misnamed, because there really was no tahrir at Tahrir, a square that is so huge that it is really four squares, a square which is located at the intersection of all of Cairo’s most important streets. This facilitates transportation: pedestrians can arrive in hordes and people can be delivered in cars or buses.
So you can actually argue that it is not about Cairo, it is about the existence of this square in Cairo, which was extremely amenable to this kind of public gathering, and hence could be used as a principal form of social movement and an articulation of political position.
HB: To follow up, could the different histories of class and socioeconomic differences in these two cities be a better indicator of the different roles they played in the geographies of the uprisings?
NA: No, I think it again goes back to the issue that I raised, because of the tremendous accessibility of Tahrir Square from areas that are very different in the city. In fact, depending on how you define the region around it, around Tahrir Square, there is Manial to the south, Giza to the west, Mohandiseen to the northeast, Shoubra to the north, and downtown Cairo to the east. What you have are five or six neighborhoods that represent very different classes, so people of different classes can easily access the square.
HB: Your scholarship has engaged extensively with “cinematic urbanism.” If we are to discuss the co-constitution of the reel and the real in Middle Eastern Cities at this moment, what do you think we should be talking about?
NA: Again, a difficult question to answer. You may have noticed that almost all of my work is related either to the Middle East or to the Third World. That book, Cinematic Urbanism, is the exception. At one time I actually thought I would write a book called The Middle Eastern Cinematic City or The Arab Cinematic City. However, I completely abandoned the project before I began thinking about it seriously. That was partly because the paradigm of the cinematic city, while it may be applicable to the Middle East, lacks enough material that would allow us to pursue it more creatively. By this I mean that the paradigm, the entire idea of the cinematic city and the book Cinematic Urbanism, the position between “the real and the reel” does not exist in certain cities.
The presentation or configuration of those cities as they have appeared in film, and possibly as they have been invented in film, often becomes the mechanism through which we experience those cities. So for me there is no New York without Woody Allen’s New York or Martin Scorsese’s New York. The two become two sides of the same coin, they self-sustain each other, the real sustains the cinematic and the cinematic sustains the real. In the case of the Middle Eastern city, I do not believe that we have yet reached that point. It is very difficult to see where the connections exist. The representation of Damascus or Cairo in film is often not a product of these cities in reality. In a similar manner, one can ask about Mahfouz’s Cairo, Aswani’s Cairo, or Shahine’s Alexandria as they appeared on film.
The paradigm has its own limitations. I think we will have to wait and see to what extent the different virtual media which have been created and used during the uprisings are media, which will continue to be used, and to what extent they will define the face of Cairo or Damascus. To what extent is Facebook going to be part of the life of Cairenes? We do not know. We have to wait and see.
HB: Based on how the Arab uprisings have been represented, photographed, and digitally transmitted in the age of the social media, could we make a claim that serious attention to reel world representations of mass mobilization is necessary for more effective social change in the real one? Do you agree that this might be how the reel and the real constitute each other at this moment in the Middle East?
NA: No, I do not. They influence each other but I am not sure that they are part of the same coin as they are in other places. I say that because the Middle East has always been rife with rumors. People often operate on conspiracy theories, so you may see an image which means something, and it is being interpreted by many of the conspiracy theorists in another manner, which supports their own view of that theory. That image has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of what happened. I have become more suspicious of images that come from Middle Eastern cities – more specifically ones that come from media coverage of uprisings – because they are intended to serve a political purpose more than they are intended to document, and allow people to reflect upon what is going on.
HB: As a practicing architect and planner, what do you think are the major features – successes or failures–of planning and architecture expertise in the Middle East (Dubai, Mecca, Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, etc.)?
NA: Well, I think that, again, it very much depends on the terms themselves. What does one define as architecture, what does one define as planning? The category of the Middle East itself, as applied to the profession of architecture and planning, for me is not a workable category. In a sense, the practice of architecture and planning today, in the world, is so transnational that very often it does not really matter where you are in the world.
What matters is that you have a client, that you understand this client. Sometimes you have complications with understanding the client because you do not know the culture, yet you can still employ people who understand it and who can make your work much more appropriate for this case. If you look at all of the big projects in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates, and even in Egypt or Lebanon, they were all initiated, anchored, guided by, and usually even led by international firms that have no particular base.
These offices may exist in London or New York or Tokyo, but ultimately they have different branches all over the world. They work within the very specific regional culture of architecture and planning, and they are limited by the regulatory mechanisms in each context. The regulatory mechanisms are very different between different countries in the Middle East. Turkey and Egypt are very good examples of how different they can be, and I would say that the same applies architecturally because the aesthetics of taste and the history of different forms are again so fundamentally different between Iran and North Africa that it does not make any sense to talk about the profession of architecture and planning in the context of the Middle East as a homogeneous category. It does not exist.
HB: Are we in the “post-Arab Spring” phase? If yes, what does the “post” refer to?
NA: I have several comments to make here. First, I do not like to apply or use the term “revolutions” to describe what has happened in the Middle East, whether it is Tunisia or Egypt. I also do not like the term “coup,” and I have made that argument also about what happened in Egypt between 30 June and 3 July, the specific timeframe I am addressing in this discussion. I say that for very specific reasons: I think what happened then can definitely be called an uprising, and it is an uprising which is highly indicative of the frustrations which exist in many countries in the Middle East, particularly Arab countries in this case, although we have seen it recently in Turkey, and much earlier in Iran.
There was an analogy I used a while ago, maybe seven or eight years ago, in a book called Cairo Cosmopolitan, which was edited by Diane Singerman and Paul Amar. I was describing what was going on in some of those cities–in this case I was talking specifically about Cairo, but it could apply to others–as a bomb within a tomb. The tomb is these cities which are so antiquated that they have not been rejuvenated, which are still under tremendous oppressions of tradition, whether it is social or political tradition, and which have been completely unable to renew themselves. But, there is a bomb, also, sitting in that tomb, in which there are so many different active forces that cannot accept the political history or specific aspects of the social reality.
I think the “Arab Spring” was the bomb within that tomb exploding. What you have is these charred remains of decayed bodies that are scattered throughout the landscape. That explosion is one from which a new kind of life has to emerge. What kind of life, at this moment, as an urbanist, I do not really know. I think that it is something that will be difficult to predict. Hopefully, we will see the emergence of political structures that give people more say in their own lives.
HB: What do you think are important research topics that scholars of urbanism in the Middle East need to attend to and engage with at this historical phase?
NA: I think one of the things we should certainly be looking at, something which is really important is the use of space in social movements, in political revolt, the use of space to send messages or to bring about a degree of political and social participation, the use of space to create community action, consensus, and to engage in different forms of decision making. For me, all of these are essential, and they are effective. Geographers and anthropologists may look at them and remove a few of these items or add a few more but ultimately there will still be many items in common across the disciplines.
I say that not only because space has emerged as this new form of expression, which did not necessarily exist in the Middle East as in other countries, but also because of what happened in Egypt between 30 June and 3 July, which is a situation almost unprecedented in the history of the Middle East, and possibly in the history of the world. Note that I am talking about a very particular timeframe during which people claimed the streets in unparalleled ways. While people describe what happened between 30 June and 3 July as a “coup,” it was not a coup for a very specific reason. A coup could have occurred later, and then it would have been a legitimate description, but on that specific day, 30 June, there were twice as many people out on the street calling for the removal of Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as there had been supposedly voting for them exactly a year earlier in June 2012.
So for me, this represents a fundamental change, because in the West, in the United States, in Europe we have come to accept representative electoral democracy as the only form of democracy. We go to the polls every four years, we have elections, we elect someone and we are stuck with that person for four years, even if they mess up, and we have come to accept that is the way it is. It is what happened with George W. Bush. Yet, George W. Bush was elected with as much of a thin edge as Morsi was over Shafik. Shafik was a hated figure, and he still got forty-nine percent of the vote! So, Morsi comes to power, with one percent of the vote, operates as if he has a tremendous mandate not only to do what he wants, but also to engage in tremendous corruption that also was meant to change the entire face of the country. The provision for “recall election” possibility that was drafted in the initial constitution by the liberals, but was removed by the Islamists before Egyptians voted, is one of the reasons why some analysts called the 3 July action by the army in support of the demonstrators a coup.
I think this is the problem: the West did not recognize that what happened in Egypt between the 30 June and the 3 July was a different form of democracy, supported by millions of people– direct democracy. It is significant then to recognize that we have different forms of political participation emerging in the Middle East. Partly this is happening because of the political oppression, which has existed for the last hundred years, both during and after colonialism, with the rise of the nation state and the emergence of dictators who inherited the colonial political structures.
The challenge right now, and I am going beyond urbanism, the challenge for politicians and social theorists is how to harness this, how to cultivate it in order to create a more lasting structure in which the population would actually come to accept, not only the limits, but also the possibilities of the security that electoral democracy has to offer. Egyptians did not believe that electoral democracy was likely to be the thing that they could hang on to in June 2013, because it had failed them in June 2012. That is the reason why so many Egyptians who were against the military and who wanted the military out are now supportive of a government, which only came to power through military intervention.
That is what I think we–as scholars of urbanism–should be concentrating on: the spatial aspects of that phenomenon. As scholars of the Middle East, we need to concentrate on its social and political aspects. Urbanists, as you probably know from my position, can never afford to be apolitical. In a sense, they are the ones who have to make the connections.
HB: Since as you eloquently put it “Urbanists can never afford to be apolitical,” what do you think is the importance of a Cities page on Jadaliyya?
NA: As I said earlier, the history of the Middle East is the history of its cities. We speak of Cairo, Beirut or Baghdad often as a substitute for Egypt, Lebanon or Iraq. The Jadaliyya Cities page can serve the very important purpose of reminding us that in the Middle East, the urban and the national are often one and the same.