Glory and peril in the Arab city

Friday 03/07/2015
The Bay of Algiers with the old town of the Algerian capital known as the Kasbah in the background.

Paris - The glorious past, some­times troubled present and uncertain future of Arab cities was debated at the Arab World Insti­tute, as architects, urban planners and academics from Europe and the Arab world shared ideas on Arab city planning.

With cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad, Jerusa­lem, Tunis and Algiers firmly es­tablished as places of orientalist fantasy and excess, how have these cities, some of them with popula­tions in excess of 10 million, re­sponded to present challenges, the participants asked.

Arab city planning has a splen­did past, as seen in the monuments and urban fabric of cities across the Arab world, but much of this is being lost, or inappropriately conserved, as a result of breakneck population growth and modernisa­tion.

Some Arab cities are in danger of losing their historical charac­ter as entire districts are levelled for development. Others are be­ing destroyed by violence, with Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad — the cities of the Thousand and One Nights — either being choked by uncontrolled population growth or suffering from losses as a result of conflict.

In the Gulf, urban development over the past two decades has seen a race towards gigantism, with fan­tasy versions of the Arab architec­tural heritage outdoing in luxury even the most extravagant dreams of the caliphs of old Baghdad.

As cities in the Mediterranean Arab world struggle with the effects of uncontrolled development, ru­ral-to-urban migration, pollution and civil conflict, the shiny new cities of the Gulf outdo each other in high technology and oriental­ist design, producing monuments of Arab post-modernism linked to their role as commercial hubs.

Meanwhile, Umayyad mosques are being reduced to dust in Syria, Ottoman and Mameluk districts demolished in Cairo, and Bagh­dad, once one of the Arab world’s most cosmopolitan cities, is living through a period of edgy segrega­tion, with armed checkpoints at the end of streets and districts sur­rounded by walls.

The debate on the Arab city in Paris on June 5th-7th was the first of what it is hoped will be an an­nual event, confirming the Arab World Institute’s reputation as a major international forum for dis­cussion on the Arab world.

According to Jack Lang, the in­stitute’s president and a former French culture minister, the idea is “to help us situate ourselves in the present and prepare ourselves for a future that the Arab and European peoples will share”.

Speaking on behalf of the organ­isers, historian Mercedes Volait, known for her work on modern Cai­ro, said that more than 60% of the population of the Arab world lives in large cities. This is likely to grow, presenting new challenges for Arab city-planning and demanding new solutions.

It also comes at a time when many Arab cities are entering the world’s imagination in new ways. As several speakers pointed out, some Arab urban areas — notably Tahrir Square in Cairo and Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis — are being recognised worldwide because of the role they played in the “Arab spring” revolutions.

Much of the work presented was by French architects and scholars, including architectural historian Robert Ilbert, Anne-Marie Eddé, author of an important biogra­phy of Saladin, and Caecilia Pieri, known for her work on modern Baghdad.

Some of it focused on the cul­tural significance of urban spaces. Egyptian historian Nelly Hanna spoke on the small-scale work­shops of 19th-century Cairo, the kind of dense economic life that forms the backdrop to the novels of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Franck Mermier, former director of the French Institute in Aden, spoke on the way city life is experienced in Yemen.

Inevitably, though, the conse­quences of war loomed large. Pieri spoke of major challenges facing contemporary Baghdad, ravaged by conflict and with vast informal areas lacking connection to utili­ties.

Debates over the post-war re­construction of Beirut in the 1990s were revisited in the context of the reconstruction that will be needed in Syria, where much of Aleppo and parts of Damascus and other cities have been destroyed.

But it is not just war that threat­ens these great cities. Tunisian ar­chitectural historian Leila Ammar gave a grim account of the neglect threatening downtown Tunis, where the loss of colonial-period buildings risks changing the city’s character.

Egyptian architect Omneya Abdel-Barr spoke of destruction in Islamic Cairo, where failure to enforce regulations, inappropri­ate legislation and mounting real-estate speculation were leading to the loss of Mameluk and Ottoman-period buildings.

The loss of even one historic building could produce an empty space that vitiated the urban fabric, she told The Arab Weekly.

Speculative building projects throwing up tower blocks were ru­ining the historic centre. “The most important monument in Cairo is the city itself,” she commented. It was this that was in danger of be­ing changed out of all recognition by population pressures and eco­nomic development.