Deen Sharp and Claire Panetta, eds. Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings (New York: Urban Research, 2016).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Deen Sharp (DS): The idea for this book grew out of two articles that I wrote for Jadaliyya in 2012. The first was published in August 2012 and entitled “Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings: Downtown Cairo and the Fall of Mubarak.” This article noted how, at the very moment the rich and powerful had created a scheme to displace and dispossess thousands of residents of downtown Cairo, the city’s inhabitants united in open revolt. The piece stressed the importance of urban space–beyond Tahrir Square and its environs–to the mass mobilizations that transpired in 2011. I pushed this idea further in the second article, “Beware of Small Cities,” in which I traced the Arab uprisings through non-metropolitan urban spaces and highlighted their centrality to the unfolding events.
As I was writing these articles, the first wave of scholarship on the uprisings began to coalesce. This literature was overwhelmingly focused on the large mobilizations that occurred in metropolitan public squares. This preoccupation provided encouragement that a scholarly study looking “beyond the square” was warranted. Also, at this time, Michael Sorkin was establishing Urban Research, a publishing house that seeks to produce books examining the urban condition. Sorkin urged me to put together a publication based on the work I had done for Jadaliyya. I took him up on this offer, approached Claire, my colleague at the CUNY Graduate Center, to co-edit, and the result is this volume.
Jadaliyya (J): What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
Claire Panetta (CP): As Deen noted, this book is meant to fill a gap in the research on urbanism and the regional political upheaval of the past five years. In this way, the essays in the volume respond to the early scholarship on sociospatial dynamics and the Arab uprisings–in particular that which looked at the role of central spaces and squares (such as Tahrir Square) in the unfolding of events. However, the book is not intended as a critique of that literature, which did much to deepen our understanding of the histories and spatial dynamics of the places in which people gathered to demand political change. Instead, it is meant to push the conversation onto new terrain. The essays cover a range of topics, time frames, and locations. They address spatial concerns in areas that fall outside what is often considered the Middle East, in places that have yet to experience mass uprisings, and at moments predating or postdating the outbreak of events in 2010. They also examine a range of sociospatial phenomena, including spatial fragmentation, neoliberal urban development, the practices of urbicide, the rise of suburbs and gated communities, processes of gentrification, and the relationship between the so-called center and periphery. By gathering such a diverse set of essays and letting them sit side by side–however uneasily at times, we want to encourage people to think more broadly and creatively about the ongoing political turmoil and its sociospatial causes and consequences.
Jadaliyya (J): How do you see this book contributing to urban and Middle East studies?
DS: The book, of course, contributes to the significant literature on the Arab uprisings. As Claire pointed out, the idea was not to critique the existing literature’s focus on the metropolitan core but to expand and give nuance to this engagement–in part by bringing together a geographically diverse set of essays, specifically at the urban scale. For instance, the authors examine the informal neighborhood of Fikirtepe in Istanbul, the “villages” surrounding Manama, the working class neighborhood of Bab el-Oued in Algiers, and Kufr ‘Aqab located in between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Collectively the essays contribute to three interrelated topics within urban and Middle East studies: sociospatial relations, sociospatial fragmentation, and neoliberalism. Several contributors examine the highly complex sociospatial relationships between peripheral urban spaces and the urban core, and their analyses help to deepen our understanding of the symbiotic nature of this relationship. Other authors grapple with the idea of sociospatial fragmentation, arguing that such fragmentation has a range of consequences and can be both destructive of social networks and/or urban space and generative of such. The authors also show that these phenomena are underpinned by manifestations of what is widely–but not without controversy–understood as neoliberal urban development. In this regard, several essays look at how urban conditions born of neoliberal urbanism facilitated or inhibited the development of protests, while others consider how the uprisings have informed neoliberal development processes elsewhere in the region. The essays provide important grounded insights on neoliberal urbanism in the Middle East.
Jadaliyya (J): How does this book intersect with your previous and/or current research?
CP: This book connects very directly with my current research, which is for my dissertation and which I have been pursuing in Cairo for the past two years. My project looks at the shifting politics of urban revitalization in Egypt’s capital after 2011, with particular emphasis on the preservation of architectural heritage in several centrally located neighborhoods. Specifically, I have been working in “Downtown Cairo” and “Islamic Cairo,” two areas with rich architectural legacies that have long played important symbolic and material roles in the urban and national landscapes. I have been studying the various urban rehabilitation initiatives being implemented in these neighborhoods by both local and non-local actors. Through my investigation of these projects, I am trying to understand how and why, in a moment of protracted political turmoil, specific urban spaces and historicized structures have become canvases for the articulation of changing social and political values and ideas. My project is therefore predicated on the idea that the events of early 2011 had–and continue to have–a profound impact on spatial politics–i.e., the very premise underpinning the essays in this volume. Given that Deen, the contributors, and I were all working on the book while I was conducting fieldwork, it is safe to say that the essays here have greatly informed my own research and thinking–so I have to thank our wonderful authors for helping me to develop my own project.
DS: I detailed above how the seeds of this book were planted in two articles I wrote for Jadaliyya. My essay on “urbicide” in Syria led me to organize a panel event with UN officials and policy makers on the topic of urban violence and conflict. Held in April 2016, “The Nexus of Urbanization, Violence and Conflict” event was the start of an ongoing discussion that will contribute to the scholarly and policy literature on urban violence and conflict. Of course, the book also intersects with my PhD research. My project is focused on Beirut and the “reconstruction” process in the “post-war era” (1991-onwards). In part, the dissertation seeks to understand the business processes connected to the “reconstruction” project that centered in downtown Beirut. Yet it also focuses on urban-based activism in the city and the struggles for what might be understood as “spatial justice.” Specifically, I am looking at the contestation over the Fouad Boutros Highway and the struggles of Syrian refugees to find suitable shelter and housing in Beirut. The essays in Beyond the Square–particularly those dealing with neoliberal urbanism–have been instrumental in helping me to develop my thinking about the mechanics of Beirut’s redevelopment. Like Claire, I am deeply indebted to our contributors, as the very focus of my PhD has no doubt been shaped by reading and editing their essays.
Jadaliyya (J): The book includes artwork by Julie Mehretu and Tammam Azzam. Could you say something about their contributions?
CP: Early on in the process of putting together the book, Deen proposed we approach Julie Mehretu about including her work on Egypt–specifically, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) (2012) and Cairo (2013). Asking her felt like a long shot so we were both over the moon when she agreed to be involved. Once we looked at the works and saw the thematic overlaps with the book’s essays, we decided that they should be included as a stand-alone contribution to the volume–and not simply as the cover art. To that end, we tried to engage her work directly in the introduction as we did with the essays themselves. The book has another visual component in the form of two pieces by Tammam Azzam, which are included in Deen’s essay on Syria: Storeys (2015) and The Kiss (Freedom Graffiti) (2013). As with Mehretu’s work, Azzam’s artwork is intended to speak back to the writing in which it is embedded. Our objective here was fairly straightforward: to take advantage of the fact that artists have shown an interest in some of the very issues with which this book is concerned and to encourage readers to consider the artwork both in conjunction with the scholarship and as another lens onto the spatial dynamics of the Arab uprisings.
Excerpts from Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings
From “Exopolis: Between Ramallah and Jerusalem,” by Helga Tawil-Souri:
At 5:30 AM, Ahmad’s alarm buzzes. The sun hasn’t yet risen over Kufr ’Aqab. He crawls over the body sleeping on the rolled-out mattress on the door next to him. Eyes half-closed, he heads to the kitchen, fills a pot with water, dumps in half a spoonful of sugar, and leaves it to boil. He goes to the bathroom, where the mist on the mirror has not yet evaporated; Fouad just finished his shower after a long night of work and is heading to bed. Ahmad splashes cold water on his face, rubs his cheek, decides the stubble can last another day, and brushes his teeth. He’s back in the kitchen before the water boils: perfect timing to add a heaping spoonful of coffee and light a cigarette. Looking out the kitchen window, he sees dozens of multistory apartment buildings and, behind the neighboring building on the left, the “separation” wall. In February 2002, when Ahmad moved into this apartment, which he shares with eight other people, there were only a handful of buildings in what was then a peripheral, quasi-rural area across the road from the Qalandia refugee camp. Back then there was no wall either.
Kufr ’Aqab is an exopolis: a space outside the urban environment that helps to sustain that very same urban center, a space defined by and responding to urban changes beyond its reach, a space where residents remain largely outside urban (and national) citizenship. A place becomes an exopolis through a process in which individuals and communities are rendered outside (éxō) the city (in Greek, polis). The condition necessarily results from a spatial process, but also from material, economic, infrastructural, and symbolic processes of casting out.
Kufr ’Aqab is made geographically, economically, and legally unstable and uncertain by Israeli policies of exclusion. At the same time, it is part of the production of a regime in which segregation and inequality are increasingly legitimized by Israeli policies everywhere. It is also affected by profit-seeking Palestinian developers, landowners, and landlords, and by the everyday choices of Palestinians who live and work there. This exopolis does not exist ex nihilo, but is actively produced, even if that production takes place in negative terms, such as by the absence of the rule of law and/or planning.
From “Urban Protest in Bahrain: (Re)configuring Public Space,” by G. Ollamh and C. Lanthier:
Groups of young men from Bilad Saiba, a village about 12 km west of central Manama, had spent hours barricading most of the village entrances with makeshift assemblages of bricks, large rubbish bins, and palm trunks.1 It was a Friday in late 2011; for hours, male mourners from across Bahrain had been flocking to Bilad Saiba to attend the funeral of a man killed by police in an isolated incident three days prior. The blockaded village entrances presaged a confrontation with an entirely different group that was also gathering near Bilad Saiba: in an empty dirt lot across the road from one entrance, scores of blue-uniformed police officers stood waiting near clusters of jeeps and buses.
At the funeral’s conclusion, mourners left the cemetery with heightened emotions. The general sense of tension rose as the mass of men marched, with Bahraini flags held high, toward the main village entrance. As the men approached, the police vehicles lumbered to meet them, at which point the riot police quickly dismounted and advanced. The inevitable clash was short and intense. Amid acrid clouds of tear gas, the police forced the crowd back into the village. The message was clear: protests within its borders might be tolerated, but any extending beyond them would not. Belying the intensity of the fight, the scene had returned to normal within an hour; lingering whiffs of tear gas and spent projectiles on the sides of the roads provided the only clues that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. Since February 2011, this cat and mouse scene has become a regular part of life in the villages at the periphery of Bahrain’s conurbation.
In the aftermath of the most acute period of demonstrations in February and March 2011, the [Bahraini] state, aware of the prominent media attention generated by centralized protests, emphasized the urban center’s quiet as evidence that the protest movement had ended. The government made this claim despite the continuation of protests outside Pearl Roundabout. In fact, protests at the urban center comprise only a small portion of the Bahraini uprising’s total activity since February 2011; the majority has occurred—and continues to occur—at the periphery.
Protests at the periphery entail offensive strategies as demonstrators seek to achieve various aims or draw wider attention to their demands, but also defensive strategies as they seek to protect themselves from state violence. In both instances, protesters have incorporated a number of tactics to sustain their activities. These practices include favoring mass gatherings; disseminating political graffiti, both textual and image-based; erecting makeshift street barricades; and deliberately causing power outages. These latter tactics are particularly useful in helping protestors to thwart the movement of police officers within the [capital’s] villages. Interestingly…funerals have emerged as central protest events. The state’s violent suppression tactics have resulted in deaths; these deaths are commemorated at events that soon turn toward political protest. These in turn lead to confrontations with security forces, which can result in further deaths, in a cycle that fuels tensions and the intensity of the uprising.
Moreover, pushing the uprising to the periphery may have increased virtual protest activity. Each village has its own media collective that uses YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to organize local actions and to coordinate with other villages’ collectives. These platforms are also used to disseminate information about arrests, protests, and international media coverage of the uprising in Bahrain. In this way, the collectives represent localized social networks. These networks are based upon existing networks, including those of kinship and various villages’ shared political aims; however, they are also helping to forge new connections across Bahrain, and sometimes beyond its borders. Collectively, they illustrate the dialogue between virtual and material space regarding mobilization and spatial production.
[Excerpted from Deen Sharp and Claire Panetta, editors, Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings, by permission of the editors. © 2016 Urban Research. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Urban Research. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]