Scholars in Context: Ahmad Sukkar
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research? What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
Ahmad Sukkar (AS): My cross-disciplinary research and teaching areas lie between architectural and urban theory, history, criticism, design, and activism, on the one hand, and religious philosophy, cosmology, and spiritual studies, on the other. My research interests include architecture and urbanism in the Islamic world and the modern Middle East, especially the concept and application of the sacred and the secular in the built environment of the Arab world in comparison with the Western world. Within architectural humanities, urban social sciences, and Islamic studies, I am particularly interested in design ethics, spatial theology and justice, urban conflict, contested cultural heritage, displacement and informality, sustainable and resilient conservation and reconstruction, and urban development planning, especially in Syria. In European and Middle Eastern universities, I have designed and taught a wide range of theoretical courses and design studios in Islamic architecture, traditional and vernacular architecture, Emirati art and design, social urbanism, Syria’s reconstruction and development, and contemporary and digital design.
J: What brought you to this work? How does it connect to or depart from your previous work? What was the source of inspiration?
AS: Marked with a national award in geometric drawing, my dreamy childhood and energetic adolescence were characterized by reflective love of the musical philosophy of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers, as well as adventurous travel within Syria. Studying architecture was an obvious destiny. I excelled during my undergraduate studies at Damascus University, especially in architectural design, history, and theories. After graduation, I worked at a leading architectural office in Syria on award-winning governmental projects and competitions. I also worked as a teaching and research fellow at Damascus University. I later received a scholarship to complete both a master’s and doctoral degree in the United Kingdom, with the aim of subsequently returning to the University of Damascus to start a tenure track assistant professorship.
In London, the thesis of the group project of my first master’s degree in algorithmic architecture and parametric urbanism at the Architectural Association received a distinction and an international award and was published widely. I next worked on an award-winning project in France with Zaha Hadid Architects. It was helpful for my future career as a professor at Damascus University and a practising architect in Syria to have a theoretical focus in my doctoral studies different from, but complementary to, the professional focus of my master’s. Therefore, my second master’s degree and PhD in humanities and cultural studies at the London Consortium—a unique collaboration between the University of London, the Architectural Association, and other institutes—focused on the philosophical concept of the body, space, and architecture in the Islamic world, especially the Levant. My doctoral thesis was shortlisted for the British Association for Islamic Studies’ De Gruyter Prize for the Study of Islam and the Muslim World and won an International Classical Islamic World Book Prize. I have set on a dense program of publications, including an article on mystical philosophy that appears in the Brill journal Mawlana Rumi Review and a creative story on architecture that appears at Al-Adab, one of the Arab world’s leading literary journals.
However, the eruption of the Syrian crisis before the end of my doctoral studies changed the course of my academic and professional life. Touched both emotionally and intellectually, I have dedicated my research to contested heritage, urban conflict, reconstruction, and development in the Middle East, especially Syria. In order to be able to apply my previous theoretical and practical studies and professional experience, I had to widen my scholarship from the humanities and design to social sciences and activism, which took years of postdoctoral research and social activities to include contemporary aspects of the Middle East and the Arab world. Ethics, in connection with aesthetics, became even more central to my research, teaching, and activities. With my colleagues and urban activists Hani Fakhani and Sawsan Abou Zainedin, I have co-authored a comprehensive peer-reviewed research article on Syrian displacement and architectural informality in Lebanon, published by the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and funded by the Ford Foundation. The International Journal of Islamic Architecture published my review for the international conference on reconstructing neighborhoods of war, which took place at the Orient-Institut Beirut in 2018 and drew on lessons learnt from places of conflict and disasters in the world, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Japan, and the Balkans.
My lifelong journey in the world turned into a continuous shuttle between the East and the West, from Syria to the United Kingdom, Lebanon, the United States, and, more recently, the United Arab Emirates. In these and other countries, I have held research and teaching positions in leading universities and research institutes and have served as an examiner, critic, consultant, and member of steering committees for numerous universities, think tanks, and policy institutes.
J: What other projects are you working on now? What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
AS: I am currently working on publishing two volumes related to my doctoral and postdoctoral studies. I am also publishing the outcome of my long-term research projects in different academic and non-academic venues. With a specialized team of international academics and practitioners, I am preparing for publication a comprehensive textbook and teaching toolkit, including an interactive online platform and audio-visual materials, on socially just urban planning and development in Syria. The Organization of Arab Architects at the Federation of Arab Engineers is publishing my essay on equality and advancement in architectural education in the Arab world beyond Covid-19.
Creative bridging of the theory-practice gap between architectural humanities, urban social sciences, ethics, activism, and technology remains a constant inspiration for active academic, intellectual, professional, social, and cultural impact. My audiences vary significantly according to the focus of my publications and talks; however, the majority of my publications talk to those who, like myself, consider themselves students of life and citizens of the world.
J: What are your aims as a scholar, teacher, and architect?
AS: As an Assistant Professor at the University of Sharjah, a Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) Global Academy scholar, an MIT Aga Khan Fellow Alumni, and a former fellow of several other organizations, I hope that my international institutional connections will enable me to actively contribute to bridging Arab, Islamic, and Middle Eastern intelligentsia with global artistic, architectural, urban, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, and social movements. At the scale of my home country, I hope to contribute to reconnecting the lost generation of Syrian intellectual and professional capital in the diaspora with Syrian society and universities, especially Damascus University.