About hiddencities

Freelance journalist and writer.

The Syria I Knew – On the Fall of the House of Assad

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I have a piece in the LARB on David Lesch’s Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, that includes some reflection on my time in Damascus in 2008-09. The photo above is the view from my apartment in the Old City, which I wrote about here:

At the apartment I lived in for most of a year in Syria between 2008 and 2009, in the Old City of Damascus, I had Arabic lessons with one of my tutors in a small kitchen. Whenever I brought up politics with my tutor — like the potential for negotiation with Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967 — he got quiet, removed the SIM card from his cell phone, then mine, and chose his words carefully. If it seemed paranoid — so your phone is being tapped, but how can they listen when it is off? — taking out the SIM card was the preamble to any vaguely sensitive discussion in Syria. The feeling of being monitored was always present. Neighbors and grocers knew your schedule, your friends, and their schedules.

The apartment was on the top floor — the roof, really — of a modern, five-story walk-up on Straight Street. The kitchen peered down into the courtyard of a traditional Damascene house below, which had been renovated, like many others, into a boutique hotel, and which is now likely empty or boarded up while the city fears the fight to come. My kitchen window looked east, past the Roman-era Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City, to the Ghouta suburbs that today are slowly falling, by fierce firefight, into rebel hands.

From my roof looking west across the city, I’d stare at Mount Qassioun, which looms over Damascus even as housing creeps up its steep, arid slopes. The mountain is reportedly now being fortified by the Syrian military, a final redoubt in the regime’s defense of the capital. Qassioun is celebrated as the mountaintop from which the Prophet Muhammad first saw Damascus. He didn’t climb down and enter the city, though; you could only enter paradise once. Now, regime artillery on the mountain is used to shell restive suburbs below.

Read the whole piece at the LARB.

The Revolution Added Two Years: On Cairo

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I have a long reported essay in the new issue of The Nation on the neoliberal urban development schemes of the Mubarak regime, which have found new life under the government of Mohamed Morsi and the increased political role of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the magazine the story is running with two of my photos; I put some others in this post. Here is the opening:

In Cairo, there is a street named after the Arab League. It’s a grand boulevard that cuts through Mohandiseen, a neighborhood built in the 1950s to house engineers and other civil servants, whose ranks swelled during the 1960s with the guarantee of employment under the state socialism of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These days, the boulevard is lined with luxury car showrooms, drab mid-rises and fast-food chains, all forming the commercial spine of an upscale area too expensive for most clerks and bureaucrats. Last December, on one of the quiet streets that radiates off the boulevard, I visited the office of an architect named Dina Shehayeb. A professor at the Housing and Building National Research Center in Cairo, Shehayeb also runs her own firm, which focuses on community-based development and the revitalization of historic areas. The deadly street battles of late November between the police and unarmed protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square had ended, and the attacks on protesters by military police outside the People’s Assembly near Tahrir were a week away. Cairo was relatively calm. But in her office, Shehayeb spoke heatedly of a city transformed during the reign of the recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.

“We had thirty years of the government pushing us to informality,” she said, alluding to Cairo’s vast “informal” areas: dense urban districts built without official planning or permits, often in cheap red brick and concrete on agricultural land that once formed the Nile’s flood plain. Some two-thirds of Cairenes live in informal areas, the urban reality in a country where the government has never provided enough housing; during Mubarak’s three decades of power in Egypt, state assets and land were sold off in a costly dream of turning Cairo’s desert outskirts into satellite cities and gated suburbs. But Shehayeb was also talking about Mohandiseen, where someone with money and connections can skirt lax planning guidelines and build a tower on a street of low-rise buildings. “It was governance by informality, articulated and made ambiguous on purpose,” she said. “Things were always done with vagueness, uncertainty and contradiction.”

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Read the rest at The Nation.

Baghdad, city of mirages and artifacts

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Alvar and Aino Aalto, Project for the Fine Arts Museum of Baghdad within the Civic Center, 1957-1963, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

Last spring I saw a show of modernist architectural plans for Baghdad in the 1950s at the Center for Architecture in New York. I tried to cover the exhibition, but I caught it too late to make it timely. Now, home for the holidays, I came across the show again; it’s traveled up to the Boston Society of Architects.

From the curators:

City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982 presents built and unbuilt work by 11 architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Josep Lluís Sert, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and Robert Venturi FAIA. Models of various scales of the built and unbuilt work by these and other architects are accompanied by a large-scale model of Baghdad.

The history of modern architecture in Baghdad is not well known and remains relatively underexplored. Specialists in Iraq and in exile throughout the world have undertaken detailed analyses of the topic, but many of the studies have been difficult to access in Europe and the United States, and the destruction of war has made it impossible to recover the complete modernist record of Iraq. The exhibition describes an era in which Baghdad was a thriving, cosmopolitan city, and when an ambitious program of modernization led to proposals and built work by leading international architects. 

The show is really about speculative modernist architecture and unbuilt urban plans in the Middle East. Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad? Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli? The latter was recently brought up in the International Herald Tribune, on the occasion both of Niemeyer’s death at 104 and Syria’s war spilling over the border into Lebanon. I wrote a similar, but more personal piece in The National in 2010, reflecting on a visit to Niemeyer’s unfinished fairground in northern Lebanon. That piece included some thoughts on Baghdad:

As we left Niemeyer’s park at dusk, the guard was gladly opening the gate for a wedding party in a black Mercedes SUV. They had come to take photos with the sunset. Against which concrete background we did not know. The pyramid? The Lebanese pavilion? The arch? Earlier, standing below the arch, following the uneven bend of one side, I didn’t think of Lebanon. As a visitor from Cairo, I thought about other cities in the region a half-century ago that looked to modernism to stage their national and urban aspirations. A few years before Lebanese bureaucrats were consulting with Niemeyer on what he imagined would “become for Tripoli a centre of attraction, of cultural interest, artistically and recreationally of the greatest importance with its theatres, museums, athletic and leisure centres”, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Iraq at the behest of King Faisal II, who sought a Western architectural remaking of his capital not unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi today.

But Wright’s sweeping development for “Greater Baghdad” was never built. The coup leaders who killed Faisal II and his family at their palace in the summer of 1958 also killed Wright’s overblown plan for a university, museums, opera house and an outsized statue of Harun al Rashid at the tip of an island in the Tigris that Wright had renamed Edena. Wright died anyway the next year. Walter Gropius – who, unlike Wright, was affixed to cubic modernism of the International style – was selected by the new government to build the new University of Baghdad in a suburb outside the city centre. Le Corbusier worked on a sports complex until his death in 1965. Sixteen years later, a version of his gymnasium finally opened, named after Saddam Hussein.

One of the themes of City of Mirages is that these plans and buildings, so many of them unrealized, represent the city’s and state’s bygone cosmopolitanism. Sometimes that word elicits groans, if the nostalgia is misplaced, like the Alexandria imagined and memorialized by Lawrence Durrell. But the show doesn’t long for the days of monarchy, even if Wright’s plans, along with Gropius’s and Corbusier’s, were commissioned by the king on the eve of his brutal, bloody overthrow. The models and plans are their own kind of artifacts — even if the models were reconstructed by architectural students in Spain — of a city whose recent  urban history is about destruction, and not development.

Artifacts ran through the late, great Anthony Shadid’s fantastic essay in Granta last year on Baghdad College, a prep school for Iraqi boys founded by American Jesuits in 1932. The school was shut down by the Baathist government in the late 1960s. Shadid’s essay excavates the history of American missionaries in Baghdad in decades when America had a decidedly different role and presence in the Middle East. The title, appropriately, was “The American Age, Iraq.” “A moment has been lost, and that’s what I was trying to write about: an intersection that we did once see between America and Iraq and an idealized vision both had of the other,” Shadid said in an interview about the piece. Here here is talking about it on NPR.

I had this passage in mind as I looked over drawings and models of an unrealized modernist dream for Iraq’s capital.

Unlike Beirut or, closer to home, Fallujah, Baghdad was never destroyed by its war. The city here feels more like an eclipsed imperial capital, abandoned, neglected and dominated by the ageing fortifications of its futile defence against the forces that had overwhelmed it. Think of medieval Rome. An acquaintance once described all this refuse of war as athar, Arabic for artefacts, and I thought of the word as I drove down the road to Baghdad College, past piles of charred trash, to see a teacher there.

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Walter Gropius, TAC (The Architects’ Collaborative) and Hisham A. Munir, University of Baghdad Campus, 1957-, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

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José Luis Sert, The U.S. Embassy, Baghdad, 1955-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

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Frank Lloyd Wright, Plan for a Greater Baghdad, 1957-1959, Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Col·legi d´Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC)

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Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, Project for the Competition for a National Mosque of Baghdad, 1982, Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Revising the history of Egypt’s regime

I have a review in The National on Hazem Kandil’s new revisionist history of Egypt’s post-1952 regime, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. The book explains Egypt’s evolution from a military to a police state from Nasser through Mubarak, and the internal rivalries over decades between the military, the various branches of police and security services, and the political apparatus. Kandil argues that this history explains the military’s quick support for the millions of Egyptians in the streets calling for Mubarak’s end and the fall of the regime (hardly realized yet). Here’s the opening:

In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war – to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in – rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. “Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home,” Egypt’s president shouted. “Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician.”

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council “a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator.”

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt’s military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil’s bold, revisionist history, which disputes the “misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character.” To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but “an amalgam of institutions” – the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership – “each with its own power-maximising agendas”.

Read the rest here.

Eyal Weizman and Books of Destruction

Eyal Weizman in the LRB on Israel’s strategies of spatial control over Gaza — and Israel’s cynical, shocking legal acrobatics to consider a Palestinian civilian in Gaza as a “voluntary ‘human shield.'”

We will learn more about the way Pillar of Defence was conducted when, over the coming weeks, it becomes possible to start reading the rubble. Some of what we know about the 2008-9 assault comes from an archive – the Book of Destruction – compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The archive contains thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that was completely or partly destroyed, recording everything from cracked walls in houses that still stand, to complete ruins. The ministry will no doubt put together a new archive following the latest attack. Its list will be a close parallel to the one contained in a document owned by the Israeli military. This is the Book of Targets in Gaza, a thick blue folder that the outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who presided over Operation Cast Lead, passed to his successor in a televised ceremony at the beginning of 2011: ‘I want to hand over something I carry with me all the time,’ he announced.

Now that the bombing is over, evidence will be accumulated (and allegations made and contested), not only by speaking to survivors and witnesses but by using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings and data gathered in on-site investigations. But investigation is difficult: in Gaza ruins are piled on ruins, and it isn’t easy to tell them apart. The wars of 1947-49, the military incursions of the 1950s, the 1956 war, the 1967 war, the 1972 counterinsurgency in the refugee camps, the first intifada of 1987-91, the waves of destruction during the second intifada of the 2000s, and now the two attacks of 2008-9 and 2012, have each piled new layers of rubble on top of those produced by their predecessors.

The Book of Destruction is also a haunting publication by the excellent photojournalist Kai Wiedenhöfer, published after the last war on Gaza in 2008-09. Get it. Both photos in this post are from Wiedenhöfer’s book.

Gentrify

The bible of gentrification was a book that would come to be assigned in every urban history course in the country: Jane Jacobs’s brilliant TheDeath and Life of American Cities. But in the new urban context, it seemed lost on everyone that Jacobs was writing about the lingeringly industrial, racially mixed (if not exactly integrated) city of 1961, before the crisis. She had not imagined white collars replacing blue ones, and white people driving out black neighbors. But over the next generations, as liberal policy abandoned poverty reduction and the poor were pressed to the frayed edges of city centers, Jacobs’s vision of self-regulating communities and small neighborhoods gave ideological cover to a version of city life she had explicitly rejected: white-collar, service-economy cities oriented almost entirely toward consumption. In place of Jacobs’s supersubtle network of human contacts, we would get demographically homogenized cities that celebrated absolute simplicity as hominess. (Witness the proliferation of restaurants with single, “folksy” names: Egg, Can, The Farm, Home, Spoon, and—of course—Simple.)

I’m back in Brooklyn, coincidentally, and came across this passage in an old issue of N+1.  Trivia: ‘The “landed gentry” alluded to in “gentrification” emerged as a new class in England in the late eighteenth century—a group of petit bourgeois possessed of country estates, but lacking the economic clout of the true aristocracy.’

On Samar Yazbek’s Syria diaries

In late April 2011, as news of heavy gunfire and rooftop snipers leaked out of the southern town of Daraa, besieged by the Syrian army and security services, Samar Yazbek received a text message from a childhood friend. “Dear traitor,” it read, “even God’s with the president and you’re still lost.” Yazbek’s diary entry for that day, April 29, records 62 peaceful demonstrators killed, mostly in Daraa, where the government blocked flour shipments as part of its siege. “Why are they doing this?” she asks. “After the electricity and the water and the medicine, they’ll even cut off the bread?”

The entry is one of more than 40 written between March 25 and July 9, 2011 that together form A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, a personal document and definitive account of the first 100 days of a once-peaceful uprising that is now a civil war. The diaries catalogue the bravery, confusion, torment and mounting brutality as the violence took over Syria, from the perspective of a prominent novelist (she was one of the three Syrian authors whose work was featured in 2010’s Beirut39 anthology), screenwriter and journalist whom the Al Assad regime tried to silence.

From a notable Alawite family in Jableh, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Yazbek was compelled by kin and community to back the government. Her early, outspoken criticism of Bashar Al Assad’s suppression of peaceful protests that began in Daraa 18 months ago – when children were detained and tortured for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on their school – instead brought public denunciation and personal threats.

Three times in those first 100 days of Syria’s uprising, Yazbek was brought to a security office in Damascus, where she was beaten, berated, condemned as a traitor and pawn of Salafi militants, and dragged through an underground prison below the office where tortured demonstrators hung in chains and in heaps on the floor to be stomped on (the calm, sinister officer told her it’s “just a short trip, so you’ll write better”.)

Read the rest of my review at The National.