The disappearing cities of the Arab world

Friday 31/07/2015
A view of the damaged UNESCO-listed citadel in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

London - Over the past 50 years some of the most his­torically rich cities of the Arab world have been subject to appalling dam­age. The past five years of conflict across the region, which has result­ed in the damage or destruction of priceless world heritage, most nota­bly in Syria and Iraq, is just the latest iteration of a decades-long process of vandalism.
The symposium Disappearing Cit­ies of the Arab World, hosted at the British Museum in London as part of the Shubbak Festival of Arab culture, explored the often bleak realities of contemporary Arab cities and how these realities came to be. A recur­ring theme of the symposium was how the preservation or destruction of heritage is not a mere happen­stance, but the result of the often brutal exercise of power.
The keynote speaker, Israeli archi­tect and writer Sharon Rotbard, most clearly enunciated this in his explo­ration of the architectural history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the subject of his critically acclaimed book White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The opening of White City Black City starkly puts forward the relationship between cities and power. “Cities and histo­ries are constructed in a similar man­ner — always by the victor, always for the victor, and always according to the victors’ record,” writes Rotbard.
Rotbard explored how Tel Aviv, initially a suburb of the Arab port of Jaffa, erased the ancient city and turned its remnants into a suburb of something allegedly new. Tel Aviv, says Rotbard, is built on myths, one being that it simply rose from empty sand dunes.
The Arab city of Jaffa did not dis­appear to make way for Tel Aviv, however. It was killed.
In 1936 Britain demolished the his­toric heart of the city, evacuating its residents and destroying 237 build­ings to clear a way to the harbour. The Israelis continued what colonial forebears had started, leaving little trace of the Arab past. “Jaffa”, says Rotbard, “has become anything but an Arab city.”
Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees, a na­tive of Aleppo, recalled how seeing on the news a building he used to walk by regularly during his child­hood now in a state of utter destruc­tion led him to remember the city. Writing about a city wracked by war is in this sense an act of resistance, bringing back to life and recording the existence of something that once was. In the light of what has become of Aleppo, destroyed by gruelling ur­ban warfare, writing for Sirees seems a forlorn act heavy with pathos. The day after the symposium, a large sec­tion of Aleppo’s historic citadel was destroyed.
Art historian Mohamed Elshahed showed a series of 19 snapshots of the destruction of heritage in Egypt, noting that “disappearance” as a term “masks extraordinary violence — buildings and cities don’t disap­pear, they are demolished, dyna­mited, bombed, attacked, bulldozed, razed to the ground”.
This violence is not necessarily imperial or colonial in nature, but often the result of neglect and bad government. Of the many instances cited by Elshahed, he noted an entire industry in Egypt dedicated to help­ing the owners of potential heritage sites destroy their own property be­fore it is listed. Perhaps one of the most puzzling cases of destruction was documented by Ziauddin Sard­ar, a frequent visitor to the holy city of Mecca who has seen its heritage destroyed over the years and remade in the image of Houston, Texas. That the ancient city of the Prophet of Is­lam should have been remade in the image of an American oil town that is barely 175 years old was no accident, says Sardar. Rather, it is the result of the admiration of the numerous Sau­di notables who studied at the Uni­versity of Texas and were impressed by Houston.
This in itself is arguably the ex­pression of a colonial relationship.
The result of the destruction of the old city is that Mecca, argued Sardar, “is not a disappearing city, it already has disappeared. It has no relevance whatsoever to its fourteen hundred years of history.”
The message of Disappearing Cit­ies of the Arab World is that Arab her­itage is under attack both from with­out and within.
As so persuasively argued by Rot­bard, heritage is inextricably linked with power.
The state of so many Arab cities points to a disenfranchised Arab populace living under dictatorship and totally unregulated market forc­es. Elshahed succinctly described the situation: “Propaganda aside, there are facts on the ground that are undeniable. Our cities are mis­managed, public spaces are being restricted and our heritage, particu­larly modern heritage, is left to melt into thin air. The result is an Arabian condition in which the past is unre­corded, the present is unstable and the future is uncertain.”