[URBANTH-L] REV: Nielsen and Skovgaard-Petersen (eds),_Middle Eastern Cities 1900-1950_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Wed Dec 8 18:20:39 EST 2004

[X-posted from the listserv H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban (December, 2004)

Hans Chr. Korsholm Nielsen and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen (eds). _Middle
Eastern Cities 1900-1950, Public Places and Public Spheres in
Transformation_. Proceedings of the Danish Institute in Damascus, I.
Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2001. 175 pp. ISBN 87-7288-906-3.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Hélène Vacher, Department of Planning, Aalborg
University <vacher at plan.aau.dk>

The book _Middle Eastern Cities 1900-1950_ is the outcome of the
international symposium on Middle Eastern Cities 1900-1950, which was
held in Damascus in May 1998, organised jointly by the University of
Copenhagen, the University of Aarhus and the Danish Institute in
Damascus. This Institute, located in a 16th-century mansion in the old
town of Damascus, was founded in 1995 for a test period of five years,
with Peder Mortensen as its first director. This collection of essays is
the first and  promising volume, which inaugurated the Institute's
series of proceedings.

The volume explores from different perspectives, ranging from
anthropology and literary studies to architectural and urban history,
the forms and functions of public places in the Middle East's cities, as
they were shaped in relation with the emergence of new dimensions of
public spheres in the first part of the twentieth century. The last two
decades have witnessed a flourishing of studies on Middle Eastern cities
through different historical sequences. However, few have chosen to
focus on public places and public spheres as areas of encounter at a
time that, to varying degrees, witnessed both the fusion and the
fragmentation of urban forms and their representations in the West as
well as in the East. Unencumbered by any 'post-colonial' or
'post-modern' studies jargons, the book is well written as well as
abundantly and mostly aptly illustrated. The nine papers fulfil the
announced programme, looking at the city as it was "conceived, perceived
and experienced".

Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, assistant professor of Arabic at the Carsten
Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen,
sets the perspective for the volume, which aims to depart from the
dualistic view whereby Western cities are understood as universal agents
of transformation while the 'Islamic city' is seen as a backwater of
traditionalism. Within the context of the drastic changes that occurred
in the urban forms and patterns of urbanization throughout many of the
cities in the Middle East during the early twentieth century, the
development of the civic sphere together with new types of public areas
are a case in point. It has been widely held that the spreading of
Western influence, a quasi-viral phenomenon, had, on the wings of
colonisation, subverted the most entrenched values of local societies.
Skovgaard-Petersen invites pursuing new avenues away from such a
cliché-ridden framework. While the impact of modern urban planning and
the specificities of colonial dominance are not contested, most of the
contributions vividly illustrate the porosity of material and
intellectual barriers. This is particularly so in relation to the
"effendis" as actors of transformation. Sitting at the terrace of a
Café, observing, commenting and acting on the 'local' and the 'global',
the 'traditional' and the 'modern', the 'educated men' increasingly
became an alternative model to that of the 'learned men'.

Skovgaard-Petersen suggests a variety of approaches to explore the
Middle Eastern cities as "perceived and experienced". Benedict
Anderson's conceptualisation of 'imagined communities' can be drawn upon
to consider new feelings of belonging to a place, and the relations
between modern Arabic literature, the media, and the urban experience.
Marshall Berman's cross-analyses of literature, social history and urban
modernity might also be a source of ideas to investigate modernity as it
was experienced in locations where industrialisation remained marginal.
The emergence of new modes of thinking and experiencing time and space
as described by Stephen Kern's work could also be relevant to examine
the shaping of urban public spheres in other cultures.

Walter Armbrust's article discusses the methodological underpinnings of
an anthropological history operating in a non-Western context through
the example of early Egyptian cinema and musical performances. He
distances himself from Timothy Mitchell's view of modernization and
rather draws  upon Michel de Certeau's work to focus on how the
actualisation of the 'city text' might carry gradual change of normative
social 'order' as  represented in urban space (1). Thus the author
emphasizes the particular 'as imagined differently in different places'
over the primacy of a universal form of modernity. He describes a number
of strategies pursued by cinema stars or by musicians to link up the
past to the artistic sphere of the present, and details how 'modern'
European elements are reassembled into a 'system of meaningful social
contrasts'. The examples of performers such as Umm Kulthum and Muhammad
'Abd al-Wahhab during their early careers are particularly illuminating
in this context.  The final point aims at showing that the dichotomised
order depicted by Europeans opposing tradition and modernity was not
necessarily embraced by Egyptians, who mostly proved be more
imaginative, both spontaneously and out of necessity.

Mercedes Volait's article centres on the introduction of urban planning
in the Middle East as brought into practice by Egyptian engineers or
architects. Together with an in-depth analysis of the first master plan
for Cairo, drafted in 1926-29, she explores the building up of a local
expertise in Egypt. This early-nineteenth-century tradition, which can
be traced back to Muhammad Ali, was to have a strong impact after the
end of British rule in 1922. The plan was a pragmatic adaptation of both
the garden-city concept and the comprehensive planning principles then
current in Britain, including city improvements and civic amenities,
extension schemes, zoning provisions, etc. The plan's author, the
engineer Mahmud Sabri Mahbub, trained in England and a member of the
Royal Town Planning Institute, wished to reverse the former British
policy of laissez-faire.  He insisted on the need to design a new legal
framework to check speculation and stressed the social dimension of
urban reforms. While his master plan was never implemented as a whole,
some of its provisions were executed.

Among others projects analysed by Volait are more formal exercises
centred on the design of public places. Such was a plan by the architect
Mahmud Riyad, also educated in England and 'director of works' at the
Waqfs Ministry during the 1930s. In the Liverpool Civic-Design style
prevailing in this period, he put forth a type of monumental composition
in the 'grand manner' form aiming at creating an impressive city
district. Such projects might have had appeal to the rising educated
middle class. But, on the whole, the influence of the planning milieu
seems to have been fairly restricted, even among technical elites. Rural
development was then perceived as the cornerstone of nation building.
The resistance to Western approaches in the design of public places
seems to have been more the result of atavistic reactions on the part of
the landed gentry than the product of suspicious traditionalism.

Karin van Nieuwkerk looks at the different attitudes towards two types
of female entertainment in public places, as embodied by the famous
Muhammad Ali Street and the neighbouring Ezbekkiya Square in Cairo. This
quarter is revealed to us as a distinctly dichotomised space, reflecting
two quite different types of entertainment: on the one hand activities
linked to nightclubs, on the other the provision of musical and dancing
performances at wedding parties. The author investigates the ethos and
tight code of conduct that rules the milieu of wedding performers, who
are expected to abide by the values applying to  "daughter of the
country" even when working in a "non-traditional" and open sphere. By
contrast, "nightclub girls" used to be regarded as persons of low social
standing, despite their frequently high level of artistic performance.
While established in close spatial vicinity and held in equal contempt
by outsiders, both milieus considered themselves as belonging to a
highly differentiated hierarchy. One might finally wonder if the
contempt attached to nightclub performers designed to attract foreigners
did not in the end help to build a more legitimate appearance for women
working in public, something deemed utterly dishonourable at the time.
Nieuwkerk's account of the formation of an autonomous sphere in Muhammad
Ali Street is stimulating, but might have gained from a parallel
analysis of places.

Christel Braae takes us through the making of early museums in Egypt,
Iraq and Syria. The early nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of
huge areas for tourists, which was reflected in voluminous guidebooks.
The author reminds us of the ensuing network of international-class
'Grand hotels', cafés, parks and sumptuous leisure areas intended for a
clientele of rentiers, officers or flâneurs. Within this territory,
archaeological sites and monuments formed the main magnets, with the
museum becoming a key institution in introducing visiting tourists to
the 'oriental wonders'.  A museum was also a significant landmark in the
monumental system of colonial cities. The classical roots of Western
civilisation were at first privileged, but soon testimonies of Muslim
civilization were also included, putting the colonial state in the garb
of a "protector".   Braae shows that the notion of the museum was widely
accepted, while at the same time becoming a contested ground between
different parties that aimed at controlling the "policy of the past".
The initial struggle to stop the extensive siphoning off of historical
artefacts and the evolving archaeological policy of the protectorates
introduce us into the meandering network of what can be seen as both a
"colonial" and a "national" project. By creating a public through the
process of shaping a historical and cultural identity, the author
concludes that these places of ritual citizenship proved to be, at the
end of the colonial era, a powerful device that contributed to the
making of modern city life.

Elisabeth Thompson presents an in-depth analysis of gendered politics in
public places in Damascus by focusing on the question of the attendance
of women at cinemas. Marjeh Square, already transformed by the Ottomans
in the 1890s into an administrative centre, was developed as a business
and transport node and had by the beginning of the twentieth century
become a cultural magnet. The evolving character of the square, with its
flourishing cinemas, is taken by the author as a thread to analyse the
rising influence of gender politics in the city. She demonstrates very
convincingly how the transformations of a particular place have their
own dynamics in relation to the place's position relative to changes in
city scale and social grouping. Marjeh Square came to play a "vital
integrative function" as a geographic crossroads between the "old city",
the colonial district and the popular suburbs. As one of the main public
attractions, cinemas had by the end of the 1920s become one of the
sensitive spots of urban politics, a subject of contention between the
colonial authorities, the nationalists and the rising Islamist populist
parties. The debate over the type of movies shown became an all-out
conflict when matinees started to be organized for women.

Elisabeth Thomson tells us in some detail how the positions over women
entering public places were linked to the rapidly changing political
scene of the Protectorate. Later, the conflict over women attending
cinemas was also fuelled by the relative decline of Marjeh Square as an
integrating device for the city. When the centre of cultural life for
wealthy and middle-class city dwellers started shifting toward the
French colonial district, this led to a downgrading of Marjeh Square's
cultural functions, and its role as a "border" increasingly became as
strong as its role as a centre. Cinemas thus formed volatile epicentres,
places reflecting the rapid sharpening of class and gender cleavages in
a colonial set-up.

Henning Goldbæk takes us to Istanbul, seen through the eyes of the Garip
poets, three poets who published their poems together under this title
in 1941, "garip" here meaning "strange" or "awkward". Departing from the
classical, divan tradition in Turkish poetry, these poets were looking
for the 'shock of the new'. Therefore Garip has to be considered in
parallel to the Tanzimat discourse, which stressed 'order',
'organisation' and the like. The city as seen by the poets was also a
'city of order', though the workings of this early modernity only
managed to deliver fragments of its message. The author reminds us of
General Von Molkte's plan, Bouvard's embellishment schemes, engineer
Arnodin's scheme of a ring-road linking Asia to Europe, and, at a later
period, of Henri Prost's long-term involvement in the planning of
Istanbul. But modernity had not followed as expected. Through invocation
and intimation, the three poets seem to have captured fluid experiences
of modernity that was perceived as a ubiquitous as well as elusive

Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen's article is about the doing and
undoing  of public places. As products of specific urban practices that
do not accrue in an irreversible and unidirectional way, public areas
are undergoing processes of change. The author illustrates this point by
presenting transformations of public places in Sana'a between the second
occupation by the Turks in 1872 and the fall of the Caliphate in 1924.
He brings out the difference between the spatial structure prior to the
Turkish occupation, where streets were mostly resulting from parcelling
sedimentation, and the planned schemes providing for recreational space.
As Ronald Lewcock had observed during his preliminary studies on the
heritage of the city: "One of the first acts of the Turks was to restore
the mosque of al-Baririyyah and the tree-lined road between the citadel,
the mosque (...) and Bab  Shaub becoming once again the centre of the
fashionable quarter of the town; it was here that the foreign rulers had
their shops and cafés, as well as the new military academy, two civilian
schools and an industrial school" (2). Using as sources plans and
accounts of visiting foreigners, Korsholm follows the process of the
appearance and disappearance of the Turkish installations. This "paper
archaeology" is quite fascinating, and one might have liked a greater
number of plans.

Focusing on the "suq" as a manifestation of Yemenite social
organisation, Korsholm sheds light on the distinctive forms of trading
places in relation to different purposes and practices among the
indigenous and foreign population. While the Yemenite place of the suq
is associated with 'good faith' economy among people who are socially
related and do not 'waste' time in their commercial activities, the
trading places with their cafés as developed by the Turks were perceived
as places for entertainment. Such a dichotomy that has been described by
a number of travellers, as an opposition between a traditional spatial
order and a modern one was to be transformed once the Turkish occupation
ended. This distinction between the private and public spheres crossing
the local and the foreign ones could have been further explored in other
places. For instance, enlarging the inquiry to the social practices as
actualised in the "mafraj" - the main room of a Yemenite house,
especially arranged for entertainment during the afternoon, could have
brought other perspectives with regards to the long Yemenite disdain for
street cafés (3). In his conclusion, Korsholm puts strong emphasis on
enduring cultural patterns that define uses of physical structure, which
are eventually 're-conquered' as it happened in Sana'a with the end of
the Ottoman rule.

In the last essay, Anton Escher adopts the opposite standpoint to most
articles in this volume by addressing the question of the public sphere,
not as introduced by colonialism or by foreign modernity, but as it was
to be found in a traditional 'medina'. The specificity of "Islamic
urbanism" has repeatedly been the subject of heated controversy, and
cannot be discussed here (4). Escher focuses on five photographs by the
artist Ré Soupault (1901-1996) as documents of the life in the Tunis
medina between 1938 and 1942. The author describes the medina as a place
of almost full social control where "the inhabitants (...) live and work
in a sphere of omnipresent polarization" (p. 164); the pictures do
indeed feature a striking gender separation. He concludes: "the public
sphere in the medina is made possible only by the absence of woman" (p.

The analysis of the pictures is done with care and precision, while
taking at face value the gaze of a grand dame of photojournalism. Some
interpretations are therefore not always convincing such as the one
presented by the author in the light of the fourth 'document'. The
author's final purpose is to suggest an ideal model, which could allow
mapping "the phenomenon of social construction of the public sphere with
respect to gender" (p. 172). While this model tends to present the
medina as a stable, tight-knit and self-contained unit, where every
action in the public sphere must conform to an internalised set of
rules, the author counterbalances the implicit rigidity of such a model
by allowing that his is a view of social constructions as a whole, while
individuals did actually enjoy a degree of free play, and that infinite
variations are possible depending on the regional, historical and
political context.

The book introduces the reader to a wide range of themes, which are
viewed through an anthropological approach of the urban phenomenon in
the former Ottoman sphere. With a focus on practice as a means to
explore the relationship of public areas with 'modernization' within the
context of colonization, this collection of essays can be seen as an
attempt to push scholar inquiry away from formalist approach towards
urban changes in non-Western cultures.  Urban history was until recently
inclined to present "colonial cities" as split into two spheres, the
indigenous and the foreign one, reflecting the dominance of the
colonizing powers. This dichotomy, which can be found in many
encyclopaedias' articles, has often been nuanced by taking into account
local history and geography, and has remained largely valid from a
historiographic point of view. Nevertheless, such an approach has
brought about confusion between the intended colonial project and the
urban forms as they actually developed, while entailing categories such
as "Islamic" or "colonial" quarters. Significantly, the title chosen by
Korsholm Nielsen and Skovgaard-Pedersen for this volume does not lay
stress on the colonial character of Middle Eastern cities between 1900
and 1950. It belongs to a growing body of research that, while keeping
the colonial projects in view, concentrates on the study of local
configurations, interactions and adaptations, conflicts, contextualized
strategies or tactics, or hybridisation of forms (5).

The book also addresses important issues linked to the dynamics of
private and public spheres, such as modernity and the process of
cultural innovation as they have been shaped by and embedded in the
social and historical realities of Middle-Eastern cities. Whereas the
wide scope of these questions could not be easily encompassed, it might
have been useful to sketch practical strategies for drawing lines
between private and public, or situating the opaque interface between
private and public, with respect to various cultural horizons. The
notion of public 'space' has  been put under scrutiny on different
grounds, and has been alternatively described as a positive factor of
interaction, strengthening modern citizenship and grounding cultural
innovation, or disparaged as a delusive and restricted device for
sociability (6). Be that as it may, what is "public" gets its very
consistency as a result of the combined influences of manifold social
practices, social institutions and technologies, not forgetting the
cumulative effect of market forces, and is accordingly variegated.

One particular dimension of 'public places" that permeates a number of
the essays is closely related to early town planning, which seems to
include 'civic art' as well as 'technological rationality', and both can
be seen  as socially constructed and consequently may be changed, even
after a  physical design is implemented. Town planning is obviously
about public space, places and spheres.

In a somewhat parallel and converging way, another recent collective
work entitled "Public Space in the Middle East and the Arab World:
Between Urbanism and Urban Customs" (7) questions essentialist
assumptions attached to modernization. Jean-Charles Depaule recalls two
classical attitudes concerning public space in a so-called traditional
Middle-Eastern city: to negate its very existence or to give weight to
its presence through possibly weak evidences. He argues that these two
positions, though contradictory, are underpinned by a common implicit
assumption of public space as a harbinger of progress and
rationalization. Such a background entails throwing together
'traditional' practices of spatial appropriation with forms of common
good (that may converge with the Western idea of public utility), and
neglecting places that may have existed as 'public' without having been
perceived as such by Western cultures (for instance, ephemeral locations
of festivals or sports competitions beyond city  walls). This cultural
horizon might also hinder approaching other cultural horizons, in which
the 'modern' Middle-Eastern city has been evolving in the way it is
experienced by its inhabitants. The book edited by Korsholm Nielsen and
Skovgaard-Petersen shares similar concern and should be a source of
inspiration not only for scholars and researchers but also for all those
with a keen interest in the relationship between space and consciousness
in the context of urban modernity, with Middle Eastern cities themselves
not being in any way foreign to this very modernity.

(1) Mitchell, T. "Colonizing Egypt". Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988.
(2) Lewcock, R. "The Old Walled City of Sana'a". Paris: UNESCO Press,
1986, p. 48.
(3) For example, it has been suggested for 'public space' in Middle East
cities to be considered as a network of discontinuous and heterogeneous
places. See Chevallier, D. "L'espace social de la ville arabe". Paris:
Éditions Maisonneuve et Larose, 1979.
(4) For a discussion of the concept of Islamic City, see Abu-Lughod, J.,
"The Islamic City: Historic Myth, Islamic Essence and Contemporary
Relevance". International Journal of Middle East Studies (1987) Vol.19,
pp. 167-171.
(5) The process of hybridisation as applied to colonial cities has been
particularly discussed in AlSayyad, N. (ed.) "Hybrid Urbanism: On the
Identity Discourse and the Built Environment". Westport: Præger Publ.,
2001. See also Nasr, J. and Volait, M. (ed.) Urbanism, Imported or
Exported? Native Aspirations and Foreign Plans. Chichester:
Wiley-Academy, 2003.
(6) See Sennett, R., The Spaces of Democracy, in Beauregard, R. and
Body-Gendrot, S. (ed.) "The Urban Moment". London: Sage, 1999.
(7) "Public space in the Middle East and the Arab World: Between
Urbanism and Urban Customs". In Géocarrefour, Vol. 77 (3), 2002. See
especially the conclusion by J.-C. Depaule in this thematic issue.

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