About hiddencities

Freelance journalist and writer.

Anniversary in the city

Wednesday was the anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th uprising. Today is the anniversary of the Day of Rage, January 28th, when the people beat back the police and state security forces who had for so long cracked down on dissent and gathering in Cairo’s streets. The continued ability of Egyptians to mass mobilize, and to transform urban space into expressions of popular will and determination, is remarkable. This is my favorite photo from the revolution’s first anniversary:

Larbi Sadiki’s recent op-ed on al-Jazeera English on “January 25th and the republic of Tahrir,” captures the centrality of space and urban control in Egypt’s uprising and ongoing revolution. And images like the one above demonstrate the persistence of public gatherings and of an altered urban environment in Egypt. The city as the arena for mass protest, the millioniyyah (the millions’ march), reflects a new popular, political and social order. Gone, hopefully, is the era of authoritarian urban planning and rule.

Agency was displayed in multiple colours, prayers, words, shapes, cries, songs, dances and slogans. Perhaps, nothing equals the beauty of such creativity than Egyptians taking over the public square to make it their own and taking charge of time. That is when 31 years of dictatorial urban planning and of regimented timing ceased to have an effect.

When they re-fashioned time and space to suit the moment of liberation, the state was thrown into complete disarray. Never before in the history of humankind was there a Friday of anger. Every Friday, there were the security forces lining up the streets leading up to Al-Azhar mosque and other places where the state kept a watchful eye on citizens it distrusted and controlled via fear. Time was designed to worry about livelihood and the rest of it was apportioned between commuting, working and looking for ways to escape thinking about the things that mattered most at the subliminal level: tahrir from hunger and from tyranny, from Mubarak and from the expanding Gamal club and co.

When Egyptians, like other Arabs, discovered that to topple a state required wresting time and space from the state, they realised they found the antidote to misrule. It was licence for liberators and for liberation, inverting authoritarian orders, resisting in rebellious terms, and in ways no police force in the world was ever trained to sabotage much less handle.

Zamalek 1896

The island of Zamalek in earlier days, before it was Cairo’s leafy enclave on the Nile. Both photos read, “The quarter (district, neighborhood) of Zamalek, 1896.”

I’m posting these photos partly in reply to Mohamed’s new blog, Vintage Egypt: a visual history of mid-twentieth century Egypt (more or less?) in old advertisements. For a later but still historical image of Zamalek, here is one he found:

Letter from Cairo – LARB

“Why are we destroying our own city with our own hands?” the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, “Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds… buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)…” Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

This month’s battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d’Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

Molotovs hit the institute — exactly who threw them is not clear — and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn’t try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: “I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. “They fired at us with shotguns,” a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. “A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck.” Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute’s 192,000-volume collection. “When the government wants to protect something, they do,” Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. “Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Shelf Life

I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

2050 or Bust

This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Sharia al Muizz Li Din Allah in Cairo, from the Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda, August 2011.

The Embassy Fortress

So it seems the State Department’s office that regulates embassies’ design standards is once again returning to, well, design principles. Though for the US government that means much more than just architectural style: “design” for the bureau of Overseas Building Operations also means security issues, costs, and other factors that have made American embassies so drab and so evocative of tone-deaf, aggressive, and bunker-mentality foreign policy. But look at their website! The future London embassy might not be Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi, but it’s better than Baghdad… and certainly Cairo too.

I’m reminded of a paper I wrote as a modernism-loving undergraduate in Poughkeepsie, where I took up the challenge of not only defending, but praising the most ostracized building on campus: the 1959 foreign language building designed by Paul Schweikher. Here it is in its heyday. The building has aged badly, lost the purity of its concrete, vaulted barrel roofline, lost an Alvar Aalto-inspired auditorium, had AC units put in all the windows, and the Erwin Hauer-designed sculptural screens have been neglected. What does this have to do with American embassies? The building — a self-promoted island for foreign language study removed from the campus — was of a headier era of American design principles and international aspirations, often expressed through modernism. The building was raised on a plinth, the image of modernist (elevated) separation. English was not to be spoken inside; only foreign languages, especially Russian, sitting at booths in a state-of-the-art electronic language lab.

The ideas behind a facility dedicated to modern language learning techniques grew out of the design competition and construction of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York. The expression of these aims through modernist architecture had been set with the new “world headquarters” in New York, drafted by an international team of architects led by American Wallace Harrison and constantly prodded and berated by Le Corbusier. In addition, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted high school and higher education funding for mathematics, sciences and foreign languages, pointed to the political age of high-minded American ideals, like training for the foreign service and prosperity through modernization and development.

The foreign language building in question was inspired by an unrealized design for a new American embassy in Amman, Jordan in 1954, by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph’s Amman embassy was a kind of modernist tent, and not nearly the modernism-meets-the-Orient of Josep Lluis Sert’s American embassy in Baghdad. But Rudolph’s design was rejected, apparently for being designed too much like a “fortress.” In 1954 an embassy in Jordan could not be removed from the city; in 1959 the foreign language building that it inspired opened on the edge of a prestigious women’s college campus, asserting its concrete separation from all the brick, ivy, and quadrangles.

All this is to say that I have a soft-spot, or maybe a misplaced nostalgia, for concrete modernism, or at least for the illusion of American foreign policy ideals that they might represent. Or maybe I just like the irony of Rudolph’s Amman embassy being rejected for the very reason that has dictated American embassy design for decades. But before I get carried away with this bit of news from the State Department: a change toward design does not mean that good architecture will prevail. Just look at the runners-up for the London embassy contest. Eager praise for unforgiving, 1950s high modernism aside, would the US ever approve a great embassy design like this, today?

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

On Cairo: Histories of a City

Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today’s Cairo

Frederick Deknatel, The National, September 16, 2011

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It’s an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers’ desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad’s book, a colourful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo’s many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, “the first Cairo”, on the Nile’s west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river’s east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building’s era, bringing in both neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme’s work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme’s painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Read the rest at The National.

The politics of restoration on Sharia al-Mu’izz

All of the buildings refurbished by the government’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project around Sharia al-Mu’izz have a marble plaque to commemorate their reopening after restoration. This is expressed, of course, in gaudy script that honors the patronage and support of the president, Hosni Mubarak, his wife Suzanne, the culture minister, Farouk Hosny, and Abdel Azeem Wazeer, governor of Cairo. This plaque, commemorating the reopening in February 2010 of the complex of Sultan Barquq on Sharia al-Mui’zz, has been defaced since the January 25 revolution.The government’s Historic Cairo project was solely economic development through heritage tourism, which is their only strategy and motivation for architectural restoration and preservation. The area aimed to turn the historic spine of medieval Cairo into a controlled pedestrian zone; cars would only be allowed in the evenings, with traffic heavily controlled or restricted during the day. The new promenade, lined with antique and shisha shops, glows in the evening thanks to professional lighting from Italy. A travel writer for the New York Times basked in “A Cairo Street Free from Traffic and Haggling.” Not surprisingly, the refurbishment of al-Mu’izz was and continues to be criticized as a beautification of the facades on al-Muizz only, or a Disney-fication of the historic heart of Fatimid Cairo. The alleys extending off the main street in either direction in Gamaliyya are home to scrap metal shops that the previous regime wanted to expel. Residents applaud the infrastructure improvements, like the new sewage system and street paving. But the HCRP’s creation of a plaza outside al-Hakim required removing the busy lemon, onion and garlic markets — banished to al-Obour off the highway to Ismailiya on the fringes of Cairo, according to people I talked to there. Tourists want open space with row upon row of shisha shops, according to the government’s plan; they don’t want the shaabi activities of vegetable markets for the people who actually live there.

The HCRP was not urban renewal but heritage tourism in the busy, medieval center of Cairo. The Ministry of Culture’s dream of turning al-Muizz and the rest of Fatimid Cairo into an “open-air museum,” however, is on hold, and hopefully has been dashed. Since January, al-Muizz is full of cars and motorcycles and micro-trucks again — since the revolution, there has been no enforcement of al-Mui’zz as a pedestrian zone. Police are few. The realities of the city, and its place as a bustling commercial area, have overtaken the government’s plan in the absence of enforcement.

Bonfils photo of Barquq from Archnet.

How does the architecture and its management and restoration impact the relationships with residents in the area and the state? The Ministry of Culture, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, approach historic buildings as lifeless and without context, designating them as monuments with little connection or vitality for the people living next door. They have to be treated exclusively as visitors’ sites, a place for a tourist to see. The complexes of Qalawun and Barquq, of course, are sites of major religious, historical and architectural importance in Cairo — and yet their restoration has removed them from street-level activities and made them only a backdrop for tourists, with professional lighting at night. Qalawun is no longer a congregational mosque. Both it and Barquq are only open until the early afternoon, though people on al-Muizz say this is for security reasons in the absence of police and the threat of looters.

For many Egyptians, restoration and the Historic Cairo project on al-Mui’zz evoke the fraud and vanities of former culture minister Farouk Hosny. His former deputy Ayman Abdel Moneim directed the project until he went to jail for corruption in 2007. As Moneim told Ahram Weekly earlier that year:

“This two-year long survey will result in integrated socio-economic revitalisation plan linking the urban and the socio-cultural fabric of the city’s core,” Abdel-Moneim confidently predicted, adding that its provisions would be enshrined in legislation to preserve monuments and protect the area from further encroachment.

Moneim was sent to prison, convicted of taking money from the contractors doing the restoration work, in addition to other charges of bribery. There is nothing to suggest in the HCRP a social development or integrated revitalization project. One architect I spoke to cynically said that the impetus and goal of the project was to add a day to the tourists’ itinerary of Cairo — after the Pyramids, and the Museum, the government hoped, visitors could wander al-Muizz and the sanitized alleys of Fatimid Cairo beyond Khan al-Khalili.

If people are isolated from their own architectural heritage, which is seen to be used and protected only to serve regime corruption and neoliberal economic policies, what is left? What is the local, lived impact of restorations carried out for narrow economic interests under urban authoritarianism?

For one, it starts with defacing the marble plaque that commemorates the restoration project of the Barquq complex. The plaque does not acknowledge the building’s history or architecture, but instead the patronage of the regime that insisted on owning culture and urban heritage.


Bayn al-Qasrayn, refurbished

“The Minister of Culture sees heritage tourism as ‘the ultimate panacea for the
Islamic monuments in Cairo.’ Others see the government’s plan not as preserving
that heritage for Egypt and the world, but of selling it to tourists and of turning
medieval Cairo into a sanitized tourist district featuring inauthentic but atmospheric
monuments deprived of their living character. The Minister of Culture’s vision of this
area as an open-air museum and an important tourist destination is one that calls for a
delicate and sensitive balance between the forces of preservation and those of renewal.
When tourism, rather than history, becomes the prime motive in restoring
buildings restraint is negated and authenticity goes out the window.”

This is Caroline Williams’s harsh assessment of the Ministry of Culture’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project, in the Middle East Journal (2002). They didn’t line Sharia al-Mui’zz with trees (yet). And the buildings do glow at night — right across from the unvisited shops selling yet more shishas. As an architect working in preservation told me in a recent conversation, about the government’s “rehabilitation” on Sharia al-Mui’zz, particularly the northern section near al-Hakim, which was once home to bustling lemon and onion markets: “The entire street is a shisha market! The entire medieval Cairo of our times is a shish market!”

The two photos show Bayn al-Qasrayn, or “between the two palaces”, the central, ceremonial plaza of Fatimid Cairo on Sharia al-Mui’zz lil-Din Allah, so named because it sat between the eastern and western palaces built by the Fatimid caliphs. Well-crafted woodwork on display in the Museum of Islamic Art are all that remain of these palaces, but the name has stayed. The Mamelukes asserted their power and architectural might here, in complex of Sultan Qalawun (built in just 13 months in 1284-1285!) and the Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq.

“By the end of the month Al-Muizz will have regained its mediaeval allure,” Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly in 2008. “”Workers whose small enterprises adversely affect the monuments will be transferred elsewhere unless they change their activities.” The Mameluks definitely illuminated their monumental architectural with sunken floor lighting, and surrounded themselves with water pipes.

More on Flickr.

Tahrir clashes, people vs. police

Tonight for the first time since late January, when Egyptians overwhelmed the police and began their revolution, protestors battled the Central Security Forces in central Cairo. Tear gas was fired dozens of times, loud, low booms echoing in and around Tahrir. Blocks away things seem normal enough; I was walking back to my apartment near the Interior Ministry, having heard that protestors were squaring off with the CSF with stones and courage. For hours now I’ve been following Jazeera and Twitter, and closing windows against the waft of tear gas. Protestors fought their way up Mohamed Mahmoud St., in front of the AUC, building barricades. The smell of burning rubber was in the air, and clouds of smoke and gas. And behind it, chants. Where is the otherwise ever-present military? As of now, the clashes have been going on for nearly 6 hours.

Jack Shenker has an early report on the clashes in the Guardian. So does Abdel Rahman-Hussein at Al Masry Al Youm.

YA5

YA5 is a new arts journal from Portland, Oregon. One of its founders and editors is David Knowles, a Vassar crony and artist and book designer. YA5′s first issue was released in April, “The Art Issue.” “The Music Issue” has just been released. There will be five issues a year, the others being Food, Design, and Film. I had a piece in issue 1 on Iraqi artists in Syria, a reflection on my time in Damascus in 2009, where the best times were long evenings in the apartment of a Baghdad artist and his friends.

Follow the link to download the Art Issue in pdf from YA5′s site.

Adam Curtis, archives, and the US in Syria, 1947-49

BBC documentary filmmaker and part-time blogger Adam Curtis went into the archives and returned with a timely reminder of what Americans mean when they talk about intervention. Or rather what they choose to forget. A chapter of Syrian history that is glossed in nearly all media coverage of the uprising since March:

Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

The archive interview with Miles Copeland reveals the CIA as it once was: dastardly, knowing, but also frank and direct in a way that American foreign policy and politicos aren’t anymore. Among the old BBC reels is footage of Hama in 1977. As Curtis writes, “They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town.”

You can practically hear the groan of the norias in the silent, washed out color stock.

Read the full post, and watch the various clips, at Curtis’s BBC blog.

Another good read on Syria

Reported pieces from Syria are few, so it’s great to read such a good one as Asne Seierstad’s piece in Newsweek, beautifully written and deeply reported. Most of all she captures the mood of surveillance and fear of the ever-present Mubkhabarat here:

Surveillance dominates every aspect of life. The secret police—the Mukhabarat—is divided into an intricate system of departments and subdepartments; no part of society is left unexamined. A network of agents spans Syria. Some have tenure; others work part time. Who could be a better observer than the greengrocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman? Who can better keep tabs on a family than the schoolteacher who asks what Daddy says about the man on the posters?

And in the following scene of Friday prayers at the Umayyad mosque in the Old City:

This Friday the Umayyad Mosque is stage to a modern drama. The mosque is the only legal gathering place, and still strictly monitored by the security forces. Every word from the imam’s mouth is noted.

The bazaar is empty. The stalls are closed. Iron shutters protect glass jars and baskets. A whiff of cardamom rests over the spice market. The leather craftsman has left behind a faint tang of hide, the soapmaker a trace of lavender. The tourists have gone; only the locals are left, small boys on bicycles, grandfathers on their chairs. Police units on motorcycles have closed off several streets. Some plan a protest after prayers.

The silence is oppressive. The area teems with Mukhabarat. Everyone knows who they are, even though they act like normal men. They squat on curbsides, lean against walls, sit on benches or together by doorways. They’re dressed in shirts and trousers, like other men. Though they might be more broad-shouldered than the average Syrian, and certainly have a stronger proclivity for leather jackets, the clothes aren’t what set them apart. It’s their glance.

They possess a way of looking that is inquisitive but not curious. It’s one-way; they want to take, not meet. Their conversation, or lack thereof, is the other giveaway. Between most people there is at least a little chitchat. These men hardly talk, and when they do, they do it without facial expressions, without a jab in the side, a poke on the shoulder. They don’t talk like people really talk. They are on assignment.

Photo by Ed Kashi.

What to read on Syria

Joshua Landis recently posted this long account, anonymous, written by an American in Syria. Read it. It’s the best writing on Syria so far, in my humble opinion, and I’ve seen it all over the ‘social networks’ for days. Fear and confusion reign; there is propaganda from the government, perhaps exaggeration or at least unreliable sources and information from media barred from the country; and worst of all people seem to be digging in. Not only the government and it’s myriad security arms and special army units. But sects and communities, though the picture isn’t stable, and nothing is certain. As the author writes:

Amidst the new voicing of patriotism and all this rhetoric about unity, Syrians are terribly divided. People like Nisreen are not trying to empathize with those who are protesting, to understand their difficulties and motivations, but instead cling to easy explanations that vilify them. And people like Na’ima are writing off the sectarian fears being experienced by many, without trying to understand their experience. These fears may or may not be justified, but they are certainly not absurd. The real tragedy that I observe is that different groups are not working to understand each other. This is the main problem of Syria today: Syrians do not understand each other. If only they could reach across the divide a little and consider the fears and concerns of the other side.

This is just one short excerpt from a long, excellent read. The rest is at Syria Comment.

Baghdad Chassis

On the second floor of the Imperial War Museum in London, on a back wall near the stairs, is a large tiled eagle from Baghdad. Its caption is simple: “Built into the wall of a German residence facing the Tigris. Removed on the order of Lt General Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force after the capture of Baghdad, 11 March 1917.” Below, in the ground floor atrium full of polished, 20th-century military hardware—much of which never actually saw combat—is a car destroyed in Baghdad in 2007. The car’s title, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007,” refers to the day a suicide bomber drove a truck down Mutanabi Street and blew it up, killing 38 people and injuring over 100 others.

Mutanabi Street is Baghdad’s book souq, a center of literary trade and activity since the time of the Abbasids, the Islamic dynasty that founded Baghdad in the 8th century. Modern Mutanabi Street is home to bookshops, a busy Friday book market and al-Shahbandar, a storied café that opened in 1917. Down the street from al-Shahbandar is the Serai, the former administrative officers of the Ottomans, who ruled Baghdad from the 16th century. In the Serai in 1921, the British crowned Faisal as the first king of the new mandate state of Iraq. In 2008 the restored book market on Mutanabi Street reopened, but without cars and with fewer book stalls.

Read the rest at Guernica.

Possibilities in Tahrir

I’ve been looking at this picture — an old postcard of Tahrir I got in Cairo in 2009 and now have on my book shelf in England — since January 25th.

Today I read this essay by Mohamed ElShahed in the Architect’s Newspaper, about the history of architectural possibilities in Midan Tahrir, and I had to approach the picture again:

With the current revolution underway, architects, planners, and dreamers have been calling for meetings, discussions, and debates on what to do with the square. Topics of discussion include: should it be redesigned and how; how will the revolution and the martyrs be memorialized; and should it be renamed…

… Cairo has always been a city of great works of architecture and intelligent city planning. It is also a city marked by many failures at the hands of hasty architects and unimaginative politicians. Yet no one politician or architect has been able to lay claim over the design and symbolism of Tahrir Square, which remains as a collection of fragments from many failed or unfinished plans and urban fantasies.

An appropriate book arrived in the mail today, just in time for questions of urban modernity in the Middle East. I’ve been looking for pieces about Tahrir’s architectural history and how the built environment affected political action in the Egyptian revolution, and this other very interesting piece by ElShahed gets at that, with great photos of Tahrir in the early 1960s and in the Mubarak years, when everything green was replaced by permanent construction sites and hemmed by fences, “part of the government’s policy of discouraging public assembly.”

The statue-less column in the center of the midan is long gone, though we can still remember it with Sonallah Ibrahim:

The importance of this square does not lie in the fact that it constitutes the center of the city, or that it is surrounded by strategically important buildings like the Hilton Hotel, the Egyptian Museum, the Mugama (which comprises 1,400 offices occupied by thirty thousand employees who deal with sixty thousand people per day), and the American University. Nor is it important because at its center stands an empty statue base erected twenty-five years ago, after the death of Abd al-Nasser, for which the Egyptians have yet to choose a personality to occupy it; nor because, according to a popular joke initially targeting one of the Arab kings, it is the space used by the prime minister to distribute the national budget: he stands at the center of the square and hurls the national budget into the air, taking what lands on the ground for himself and giving what remains in the air to the people.

On Saudi Arabia’s eastern province

With protests spreading to Bahrain, a Shia majority country ruled for two centuries by a Sunni monarchy, media attention is again fixed on a sectarian split to explain unrest. It isn’t simply a matter of sectarianism, though, but a broader, popular movement against a palace and its orbit that prospers while the majority does not. From The Econonist: “the protests have not been exclusively Shia. Bahrainis of both sects have inveighed against corruption, inequality and their toothless parliament. But the Shias are the angrier, saying they are generally excluded from the army, the police and the higher ranks of the civil service.”

Bahrain sits just off the coast of Saudi Arabia’s oil frontier, the eastern province, home to a large, restive Shia population that has long been alienated and oppressed by Riyadh and excluded from the great oil wealth in the area. In my latest piece for The Nation, I reviewed Toby Craig Jones’s book Desert Kingdom, about the politics of oil and water in Saudi Arabia. Jones argues that technology, development and the control of nature, paid for by oil wealth, underlie Saudi authoritarianism. In 1979 Shiites in the eastern province rebelled against this techno-political order; Jones tells the story of the revolt in one expert chapter, “The Wages of Oil.” With speculation about protests spreading to Saudi — today there are reports of small protests in the eastern province — I wanted to highlight part of my Nation piece, about uneven development that sparked revolt:

Among the Saudi government’s costly and unsuccessful engineering schemes was a huge irrigation project in the oil-rich eastern province completed in 1971. The region, known as al-Hasa, is also home to a wealth of oases that are a verdant contrast to the sand and brown mountains of the Hijaz, in western Arabia, and the Najd, the central heartland of Ibn Saud and his followers. Before the discovery of oil, al-Hasa was more than a way station for caravans and desert travelers. It was a center of date agriculture and settled commerce near the shore where hundreds of thousands of mixed Sunni and Shiite farmers and merchants lived—a level of diversity not found anywhere else in Sunni Arabia. The Shiites were a slight majority but were mostly part of the working class of a sectarian hierarchy; many of the large farms with access to the best springs were owned by Sunnis.

The al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project (IDP) was meant to redirect precious oasis water and maximize date farming. The IDP was a technical failure—the amount of arable land actually shrank—but it also further ostracized an already marginalized, mostly landless class of Shiite date farmers who blamed the government’s drainage scheme for their environmental plight. Though the completion of a huge oasis canal system in a land of deserts was touted by the international press and the government’s public relations machine, it enflamed the Shiites of al-Hasa. They directed their ire at the government and Aramco, the engineer of uneven economic development on the oil-boom coast. In 1979, the same year that hardline Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-Utaybi took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca to challenge Saudi religious authority, which in their minds had been corrupted by oil wealth and close American ties, the Shiites in the eastern province rebelled. It was an uprising, Jones writes, “fueled by a combination of revolutionary fervor, environmental activism, and anger at having been left behind in the age of great oil wealth.” An Aramco consultant had carried out the survey of al-Hasa that underpinned the drainage scheme, and it duly noted the sectarian tensions of the oasis. The consultant, Federico Vidal, was a member of the company’s Arabian Affairs Division, an intelligence arm of the oil giant modeled on the Cairo branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. These foreign technical advisers, Jones writes, “lent themselves to the project of legitimizing Saudi political authority because of the claim that science and expertise were, in fact, apolitical.” With the IDP, the state was not only trying to secure needed water supplies but to control a restive religious minority that threatened its absolute, authoritarian rule.

After the unrest of 1979, however, the kingdom adopted a more outwardly religious mantle to justify political rule. The seizure of the Grand Mosque by Sunni rebels signaled a shift in internal Saudi opposition away from Pan-Arab nationalists who rejected Wahhabi rule in Arabia, and the Saudis responded accordingly. In 1986 King Fahd officially adopted the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to stake out his legitimacy against mounting Islamist critics. After all, the Arab nationalist opponents of the ’50s and ’60s had been replaced, in the words of historian Timothy Niblock, by “Wahhabi militants whose social base was in the Najdi heartland and whose fathers and grandfathers had formed the backbone of the Ikhwan who had fought for ‘Abd al-‘Aziz” in founding the modern state. With these critics seeing science and development as materialist threats to the kingdom’s Islamic values, the royal family has responded, as it did in the ’60s, by claiming to be “both the agent of progress and the custodian of tradition,” as Jones writes. “What is old is new again in Saudi Arabia.”

Read in full at The Nation (subscriber wall).

Update: Toby Jones was quoted by Robert Worth in the NYT, on the rumors that Saudi has come to al-Khalifa’s aid: “Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

Turning Oil Into Water – The Nation

This article appeared in the February 28, 2011 edition of The Nation.

A little-known fact about Saudi Arabia: it was until recently the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat. From 1980 to 2005, the Saudis spent some $85 billion, nearly 20 percent of the total oil revenue accumulated during the period, on subsidies for wheat farmers. In a country with a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves but no natural rivers or lakes, the environmental cost of cultivating wheat was extraordinary. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water had by the 1980s built some 200 dams, seeking to trap and redirect precious, finite water from oases and ancient underground aquifers. One economist estimated that the irrigation cost for Saudi wheat farms from 1980 to 2000—more than 300 billion cubic meters of water—was “the equivalent of six years’ flow of the Nile River.” An American delegation to the kingdom likened “the growing of cereals at an exorbitant cost in the desert” to “planting bananas under glass in Alaska.”

Desert Kingdom
How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
By Toby Craig Jones.
Buy this book

Another little-known, but more fantastic, fact about Saudi Arabia: in the late ’70s the Saudi government entertained the idea of wrapping a 100 million-ton iceberg in plastic and towing it from Antarctica to the Red Sea, where it would melt and provide much-needed fresh water. One of the king’s nephews, Mohammad al-Faisal, spearheaded the project, and his consultants included French engineers and a polar explorer. He invested millions of his fortune in a start-up called Iceberg Transport International, “a company whose sole purpose was to haul icebergs to the water-poor,” as Toby Craig Jones writes in his provocative book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. The company didn’t last. Its high point came on the campus of Iowa State University, where in 1977 Faisal, “at considerable personal expense,” successfully displayed a 4,785-pound “mini-berg” shipped from Alaska for “a conference on iceberg utilization.” At the conference, the berg was crushed into bits used to ice delegates’ drinks. But no amount of capital or limelight could make towing icebergs feasible. “Once you get north of the equator,” an American engineer told Faisal in Iowa, “you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow.” As it turned out, higher-ranking royalty in government had already abandoned Faisal’s iceberg scheme and committed their oil wealth to building dozens of expensive desalination plants for watering the kingdom.

Saudi authoritarianism may be founded on the Al Saud family’s “grand bargain” with the Wahhabist clergy, Jones writes, but religion has not been the sole instrument of state power. It has often been complemented by the government’s management, manipulation and control of natural resources, most of all water. “Over the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil,” Jones writes, even though the ability to do the former is funded by the latter. “The process has virtually turned oil into water.”

On the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, more than twenty desalination plants, at a cost of billions in oil revenue, make seawater fresh for the country’s 28 million people. Today four cities are being built from scratch in the desert, hopeful future job hubs for the kingdom’s younger generation. Their names may be banal, but at least they reveal intent: King Abdullah Economic City, Knowledge Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, Jazan Economic City. Rather than invest in the crumbling, historic center of the port city of Jeddah, or the slums in the sprawling capital, Riyadh, the government has elected—in keeping with urban planning trends across the region—to build anew, on the desert periphery, in drab suburban tracts and glass towers that are thought to signal progress. The first coeducational university in the kingdom, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, recently opened on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah, with an endowment of roughly $10 billion. The scale of development suggests that the Saudi government has solved its water crisis. Otherwise, how else could high-rise cities reliant on air-conditioning and potable water sprout in the desert?

Read the rest at The Nation. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so why not subscribe?