The inhabitants and users of a city may be innocent but the planners, politicians and architects that make a city, and bring it into being, are never. The construction of a certain genre of building, the location and dislocation of public spaces and infrastructure are all packed with socio-political and economic meaning. Al-Medina wa al-Medina (The City and The City) is a column focused on the urban fabric of the Middle East and to unpack the urban processes within these cities. The column is an analysis of the intersection between the built environment, (geo)politics and anthropology.
The globe has undergone a rapid process of urbanization and the Middle East is no exception to this. Over half of the Arab world’s population now live in urban areas. The Middle East has a particularly special and long relationship with urbanism.
An implausible number of cities vie for the title of oldest inhabited city in the world. In Lebanon, in typical Lebanese fashion, a gluttony of cities compete for the honour: Byblos, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. In Syria: Damascus and Aleppo; Egypt: Fayyoum and Cairo; Yemen: San’aa; Palestine: Jericho and Jerusalem.
The region is also home to some of the newest urban spaces in the world. The dense city-states of the Gulf, such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, have all arisen in the last fifty years. The transformation of these Gulf city-states from small trading posts to central nodes in the global capitalist system has been unprecedented and has radically shifted and disrupted political, social and economic power in the region.
There are huge variations and experiences in the built environment in the Middle East. Despite this, the urban experience is underexplored. In the wake of the Arab Uprisings, an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon, the need to understand the Arab urban context is critical. The utilization of public space for political expression and social media were both central vectors in the uprisings and could not have occurred if it was not for the rise of urbanism. The importance of space and place for political action has been rendered visible.
Through this column I will bring you the latest news, happenings and analysis from the places and spaces of the multiple urban centres in the Middle East. Covered in the column will be broad themes and overviews, such as the five most important cities in the Middle East to politics and urbanism. And to the micro concerns of graffiti, to the socio-political, cultural and architectural histories of certain buildings, to the scenes of certain streets. This column is an ode to the urban experience in the Middle East, but to also an attempt to accept it and understand it on its own terms.
The title of the column is inspired by China Miéville’s novel The City & The City. This book is located in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. From above these two cities are in fact a united geographical space, but in the everyday practices of the city they are divided. Citizens of the respective cities are banned from crossing into the other and they are taught to ‘unsee’ the events taking place in each other’s city. Worse the inhabitants of Besźel and Ul Qoma are taught to believe and recognize attributes of the other city without actual knowledge or experience of them.
In the Middle East the parallels to the experience of the fantasy world of Besźel and Ul Qoma are grounded in the reality of the street. The misunderstanding and misconceptions between the Middle East and the West, is a subject of much debate. Indeed, Your Middle East is a direct corrective to the manipulations and mistranslations. However, within the Middle East there are also increased division in the urban and regional fabric. Complex processes of class, sectarianism, race, migration, the political of oil and others have resulted in cleavages in the experiences of the urban environments in the Middle East. This column is aimed at correcting the increased homogenisation that has spread throughout the region and attempt to stop the ‘unseeing’.