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This piece starts from the premise that matter matters in experiencing, knowing, and narrating cities in general and cities of the Middle East in particular. Research on materiality in urban space, however, is not typically addressed directly in relation to MENA even if it permeates a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship: from geography to architecture, anthropology, art, geology, politics, and urban studies to say the least. Indeed, perhaps the most exciting (as well as frustrating) aspects of researching materiality are precisely the multiple affordance it can carry and the multiple disciplines it features in. Theoretically, interest in looking at materiality spans several trajectories: from new materialism, science and technology studies, and assemblage theory to indigenous cosmologies, elemental geographies, political geology, and ecology [to see an overview of how these traditions come together around specific tensions and debates see: Coloniality, Ontology, and the Question of the Posthuman edited by Mark Jackson (New York: Routledge, 2018)]. In Middle East studies, one of the entry points for materiality in the research of space and cities is in Timothy Mitchell’s work, beginning with problematizing representation in Colonising Egypt (University of California Press, 1991), to his explicit attention to the material representation divide in his postscript in The Arab City: Architecture and Representation edited by Amale Andraos, Nora Akawi, & Caitlin Blanchfield (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016). Beside this specific entryway, tracing the materiality of space spans such a wide range of traditions, practices, and political and ethical commitments that it becomes counterproductive to lock research in materiality in a disciplinary tradition. Instead, I structure this piece through various materials which make (and sometime break) our cities. I use these materials as entryways to discuss related literature. In doing so, I mirror what research with matter could look like: following it and let its own questions surface. I broadly group the questions that emerge to be associated with materiality under three connected themes: materiality and the making of cities, materiality and temporality, and matter and the unmaking of cities. By identifying these themes, I hope this essential readings list gives a taste of how research, writing, and creative practice use materiality to think about imagination, resistance, violence, rhythms, affect, and attachments to the city.
Matter Makes Cities
CEMENT AND CONCRETE:
Nasser Abourahme, “Assembling and Spilling‐Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39, no. 2 (2015), 200-217.
Inspired by Timothy Mitchell’s dichotomy of the material order and a realm of meaning, Abourahme traces cement as part of the “stuff” that make up the space of the camp in material ways (such as zinc sheets and tubes). These materials often spill over to the realm of meaning, creating unintended paradoxes. Abourahme’s article demonstrates how attending to the materiality of cement folds together often contradictory elements in a particular space, such as the affordance of concrete as quick and durable matter and the tensions between this durability and temporary Palestinian refugeehood. To follow the workings of cement in the Middle East, this article would be best paired with Kali Rubaii’s work on cement illustrated in Jadaliyya’s podcast here, which offers insights on the toxic afterlives of cement in Iraq. Rubaii joins Abourahme in her focus on the anthropology of cement in the contexts of Palestine and Iraq. Similar to Abourahme, her attention to the material traits of cement (such as its enablement of expedited building) open up questions specific to settlements, namely the dual use of concrete, where Israeli concrete is permanent and durable and Palestinian concrete is toxic, but with affordance to rebuild demolished homes. In addition to research on Palestine, attending to the material characteristics of concrete is also making its way to investigate politics of commemoration  and war and conflict.
Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt (Random House Incorporated, 1987).
We cannot escape oil in most of the literature on the Middle East. While for so long, oil has been central to claims about the nature of political economy in the region (such as the rentier state), we find growing research that follows the relations and traces that oil leaves in ways that are less certain and perhaps more imaginative. It is difficult to find an academic work that surpasses Munif’s Cities of Salt in bringing together the worlds created, and disrupted, by oil. I include the five-part novel here because it gestures to a particular imagination that stays with poetics, aesthetics, and storytelling of material and ecological transformations. Here oil is not deterministic, and indeed is not foregrounded as such in the quintet novel, rather it undergirds the worlds of urbanism, economy, orientalism, and labour relations. The novel sets a discipline of petrocultures  and launches a meticulous critique of empire and capitalism. It complements Laleh Kahlili’s work, “A World Built on Sand and Oil” and Adam Haniyeh’s “Petrochemical Empire: the Geo-politics of Fossil Fuelled Production” New Left Review, no. 130 (2021).
The Architectural Review’s February 2020 issue on Soil.
A recent issue published by the Architectural Review includes two paradigmatic examples when we think about soil and architecture that emerge from the Middle East. One features a profile of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy who has exerted an enduring influence on the profession through his call for mud architecture. The other features some of the region’s oldest architectural experiments with building with mud: the mud cities of Hadramut in Yemen. While the literal earth of the Middle East can be easily and problematically romanticized (and orientalized), attending to the different material composition of what makes the ground beneath our feat is increasingly being critically used to think about geology, compositions, material archives, and even the remains of what (and who) we bury in our cities. An interesting example that adopts this geological approach to the city is historian Shehab Ismail’s piece on “The Historical Junkyards of Cairo,” TRAFO: A Blog for Transregional Research (2021). This is a relatively recent short piece in which Ismail proposes a project of tracing urban archaeology and urban metabolism in Cairo’s sedimented trash mounds. The piece capitalizes on an increasing interest a geological reading of the city, one that does not take the ground beneath our feet for granted. Cities are built on matter that combines a complex archive of traces: rubble, waste, human remains, pipes and infrastructure, and sedimented layers that create the ground and inspire architectural fascination with building with earth.
Materiality and Temporality
THE CITY AS AN ARCHIVE:
Rosie Bsheer, Archive Wars: The Politics of History in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Yair Wallach, Y, A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Related to the previous proposition of a material archive of the city is the argument that the materiality of the city itself is the city’s own archive. Two volumes that came out in 2020 articulate this approach in two divergent ways. Rosie Bsheer’s book, Archive Wars, is focused on the power relations and violence that are central in making a national archive. Archive Wars follows the assembling and constructing of history through the material making and unmaking of heritage, built environment, urban developments, and the city’s topography in Saudi Arabia. Looking at cities such as Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh, the materiality of urban space becomes the battlefront through which an idea of national history is fought over. Yair Wallach’s book, A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem, is a history of modern Jerusalem written through the material remains of writings on the wall, what he calls “textual debris.” The book’s introduction is a succinct argument about reading the city as a text, while following this urban textuality through material remains such as stone, walls, and money (among others), and therefore, it is an important intervention in that textual-material tension. I tend to read these two books together as an example of tackling the city’s materiality as an archive, albeit, as evident in Bsheer’s book, one that is always violently assembled.
ARTIFACTS, PORCELAIN, AND THE FUTURE:
Larissa Sansour’s Trilogy: A Space Exodus (2009), Nation Estate (2012) and In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2016).
Sansour’s work has carved its own place in any discussion about futurity and speculative work in relation to MENA. Sansour’s trilogy playfully employs materiality to weave a complex critique of the role of icons and objects in thinking about past, present, and future. Specifically in Nation Estate and In the Future, porcelain becomes a charged object. Porcelain starts as a play on iconography in Nation Estate (where the patterned plates appear toward the end of the film) and moves to a critique on the role of archaeology in imagining a(n) (im)possible future. In In the Future, Sansour, with Søren Lind, create the porcelain and work on burying them in different parts of Palestine. The intervention comments on the political role of archaeology in occupied Palestine. The films are best watched alongside reading the classic Nadia Abu El Haj’s Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2008), and perhaps Gil Z. Hochberg’s Becoming Palestine: Toward an Archival Imagination of the Future (Duke University Press, 2021), which looks at Sansour and similar Palestinian artists who trouble the notion of the past as a redemptive place (such as Kamal al-Jafari’s films).
Matter and the Unmaking of Cities
Yael Navaro, The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity (Duke University Press, 2012).
Concomitant with research on material making of the city are continuous processes of unmaking, undoing, and ruination. Ruination is not to be mistaken as the pensive rumination and romanticisation of ruins as an orientalist trope, rather as a critical questioning of structures of damage and violence. How do we script ourselves in our cities precisely in the moments and sites of their unmaking? Yael Navaro proposes a “negative methodology,” one that sits with gaps, voids, and holes which we encounter in the aftermath of violence, and against a positive outlook that privileges presences over absences  [see also A Places More Void, edited by Paul Kingsbury & Anna Secor (University of Nebraska Press, 2021)]. In The Make-Believe Space, Navaro sits with the affective energy of objects, materiality, and ruins especially in the aftermath of war in Northern Cyprus. The spatial and affective role of post-war ruins also features centrally in Hiba Bou Akar’s For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Stanford University Press, 2018), where ruins play a double role, one about the past conflict in Beirut and the other is an ongoing and future-oriented role: materializing demographic anxieties in an anticipation of a conflict just around the corner.
Aya Nassar, “Where the Dust Settles: Fieldwork, Subjectivity and Materiality in Cairo,” Contemporary Social Science 13, no. 3-4 (2018), 412-28.
I have been interested in following dust, materially and metaphorically, to think about the entanglement of the space of the city, our organic remains, the sense that cities are getting fragmented through violent sudden destruction or slow erosions and neglect, and our senses of self. Dust (as I propose in this article and in another piece) is heterogenous, it is what remains after the unmaking of spaces. It is also perfect evidence of the past never going away as Carolyn Steedman has written in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 2002) as it is the material residue of fragmentation, it is the condition of the archives of the city, its aesthetics, and what is seen as abject or marginal in its story. Because it never goes away, it circulates to haunt the spaces of cities. In Egypt and elsewhere, dust storms slow the rhythm and temporality of urban living, often invoking senses of dread and inability to breath. As dust settles though, it might promise material evidence of past matter’s journey through time and space. A work of fiction that is a good accompaniment for these themes is Sinan Antoon’s Fihris (Beirut: Manshurat al-Jamal, 2016) (translated in 2019 as The Book of Collateral Damage), and a good film that is also concerned with these questions is In the Last Days of the City, directed by Tamer El Said (2016) which uses dust aesthetically throughout.
From concrete to dust then, this piece has the usual obvious caveats about scope. For instance, there is a lot of work that interrogates the city materially through waste, water, and infrastructure which I do not cover here as they are covered in other essential readings guides. Other materials such as air and atmospheres are growing in saliency as they get creatively interrogated and increasing in urgency due to climate change and ecological stress. In 2022, a seminar series covered air, earth, water, and fire, and explored multiple interventions around infrastructure and elements. Perhaps as a concluding note, I can gesture toward that seminar series a complimentary resource for this list of reading even if it is not specifically urban-focused.
- Kali Rubaii, “Concrete and Liveability in Occupied Palestine,” Engagement Blog (2016).
- Aya Nassar, “Staging the State: Commemoration, Urban Space and the National Symbolic Order in 1970s Cairo,” Middle East Critique 28, no. 3, (2019) 321-39.
- Deen Sharp, “Concretising Conflict,” The Journal of Architecture (2022) 1-7; Kali Rubaii, “’Concrete Soldiers’: T-walls and Coercive Landscaping in Iraq,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 54, no. 2 (2022) 357-62.
- Imre Szeman, “Conjectures on World Energy Literature: Or, What is Petroculture?” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 53, no. 3 (2017) 277-88.
- Stephan Graham, “City Ground,” Places Journal (2016); Seth Denizen, “Three Holes: In the Geological Present,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep time, Science and Philosophy, edited by Etienne Turpin (Open Humanities Press, 2013): 29-46.
- Yair Wallach, A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem (Stanford University Press, 2020), 3.
- Yael Navaro, “The Aftermath of Mass Violence: a Negative Methodology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 49, 161-73.