Routledge Handbook on Middle East Cities

Routledge Handbook on Middle East Cities

Haim Yacobi and Mansour Nasasra (eds.), Routledge Handbook on Middle East Cities (Routledge, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Haim Yacobi (HY): When I was invited by Routledge to edit this book, I hesitated whether or not I could do it. There were several reasons: the first has to do with my own identity; as an Israeli scholar (at that time I was based in Israel), despite my extensive work on urban issues in Israel/Palestine, I was not so sure that, politically, it was the right thing to do. I was also not so sure how intellectually the idea of “Middle East Cities” should be approached; in other words, was there any particular argument we could develop in such a book, vis-à-vis the growing literature on Global South urbanism? Finally, I wondered what kind of overall statement this book should develop, as it would be based on fragments of research among different researchers in the Middle East and those working on the region in the Global North. All these obstacles also supported the decision to accept this task; being aware of my positionality and being critical towards the essentialist approach towards the region, while at the same time acknowledging its specific politics, histories, and cultures.

Mansour Nasasra (MN): Since the Arab spring in 2011, cities in the Middle East and the Arab world became the key sites of demonstrations and social movements’ bases. Such dynamics brought Middle Eastern cities to the main headlines across the region. The marginalization of small and influential cities in the Middle East motivated us to bring the Middle East city back as a key focus of our research.

By editing this book, I hoped to bring indigenous and critical perspectives about cities in the Middle East and the Arab world, tracing the recent development of this marginalized field. By bringing together local scholars from the Arab world and elsewhere in the region, we aimed to provide critical perspectives about cities in the Middle East and their influential role in shaping the future of the region.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HY & MN: The book aims to present Middle East cities as both particular and universal, sites of local process originating from specific history and politics, as well as parts of a global urban dynamics. Hence, all chapters are based on case studies, which are framed by different theoretical schools. As editors, we see the urban through an interdisciplinary prism. This is expressed in the variety of disciplines of the authors: geographers, architects, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and so on. The book thus addresses many topics, from urban policy and planning to political economy and memory studies. It refers to different urban communities in cities in the Middle East and it voices our concerns with, for example, the ongoing violence towards Palestinians, Kurds, women, and the LGBTQ community.

J: How do you see this book contributing to the field of studies of urban issues the Arab world and beyond? 

HY & MN: We see the contribution of the book in two levels; firstly, it offers an in-depth analysis of a variety of cities in the Middle East, including some under-researched cases. Secondly, we believe that producing such a wide scope of themes, and analytical and theoretical approaches produced by scholars from the Middle East and those who spend a significant time in the region, is an essential resource for students and academics interested in cities in the Middle East.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

HY: Most of my work in the last two decades focused on critical urban studies, especially in Israel/Palestine. My work on Jewish-Arab “mixed” cities, Jerusalem as a neo-apartheid city, memory and the built environment, or migration and urban justice, all equipped me in different ways with the theoretical understanding of urban process and, importantly, on the ways in which urban micro-processes are linked to macro-politics of the region.

MN: My recent work has focused on how the dynamics of power and state-building influence the ways minorities and indigenous peoples interact with the state. I examined Bedouin tribes and the modern state in the Middle East, focusing on the Negev/Naqab Bedouin, Transjordan and Sinai, and the frontiers of Empire. I also examined the impact of twenty-five years of the Oslo framework on Israelis and Palestinians, looking at what the agreements and negotiations, economic protocols, and international donors have achieved as well as what they have not. Recently, I have finished new research about the education system in East Jerusalem and the ongoing conflict around the old city of Jerusalem, including the involvement of Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians. I also completed a research project on cities in southern Palestine such as Beersheba, Gaza, Hebron, and al Madal/Asqalan. My recent focus on cities in southern Palestine/Israel motivated me to broaden my understanding of the contemporary and historical dynamics in the Middle East and the Arab World.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HY & MN: We hope that readers of this book will include students and researchers from different disciplines who are interested in urban processes in the Middle East. We also feel that many of the chapters are very accessible to people who are not academics, particularly those who are from the region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HY: My main current research project, supported by the Wellcome Trust, is “Gaza: The spatio-politics of health, death and life.” This research project is in collaboration with Professor Michelle Pace from Roskilde University, and it examines how power, violence, and health are entangled in conflicts zone in general, and in Gaza in particular. The project will document and critically analyze the effect of infrastructure demolition on health in Gaza, especially in relation to access to health services, nutrition, and water. It will also focus on nuanced humanitarian interventions and their effects on health in Gaza, examining emerging and alternative forms of resilience in relation to health among Gaza inhabitants.

MN: My current research project looks at the economic and social history of cities in southern Palestine during the Ottoman and British rule. Social and knowledge exchange relations were established by Bedouins among the cities of Bir al Saba’, Hebron, and Gaza, tracking their assembling and disassembling as they are buffeted by rapid political changes across the first half of the twentieth century. Based on oral history and archival research, I am currently working on colonial policing and the frontiers of Empire in Southern Palestine, Transjordan, Sinai, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Excerpt from the book

From the introduction

What is the meaning of a collection of chapters for a book dealing with cities in the Middle East? we asked ourselves few years ago, when invited to edit the Routledge Handbook for Cities in the Middle East. Can one characterise “Cities in the Middle East” as a distinct urban category without falling into an essentialist trap? Is there any justification for generalising the urban processes of various cities located in a region despite their diverse histories, politics and cultures? And finally, what is our role as researchers in de-constructing the modern geopolitical and urban map of the Middle East that has resulted from the post-war European imperialism which actually created the concept? As already noted by Davison in his canonic article “Where Is the Middle East?”:

 … the fact remains that no one knows where the Middle East is, although many claim to know. Scholars and governments have produced reasoned definitions that are in hopeless disagreement. There is no accepted formula, and serious efforts to define the area vary by as much as three to four thousand miles east and west. There is not even an accepted core for the Middle East.

“Where is the Middle East” is indeed a question that is echoed in the recent call by Jazeel for the return of researchers’ involvement in area studies, particularly in the global south, and to the study of the circulation of knowledge production in the various disciplines. Tariq Jazeel argues that not only is the circulation of knowledge production in the various disciplines geographical, but that one should also consider the ways in which knowledge production (and in our case knowledge of the urban) is transplanted into physical settings from where it rearticulates itself ––  a debate which is central for this collection.

Mainstream urban literature on the Middle East is dominated by an essentialist form of “orientalism” (Serageldin and El-Sadek, 1982), and with a few significant exceptions (Mitchell, 2003; Celik, 1997; AlSayyad, 1996), the cities of the region are usually considered as only marginally touched by globalisation, and as passive objects of these trends (Stetter, 2012). Therefore, the lacuna that forms sets the main objective of this handbook –– namely, to critically explore and conceptualize how, and what kind of urban spaces in different cities around the Middle East are produced, planned, and experienced, not just as geopolitical sites, but also as an epistemological source of knowledge.

Our objectives coincide with the growing critical literature on Middle East politics on the one hand, and the growing centrality of the urban landscapes in the region on the other , all of which are aimed at de-essentialising knowledge production concerning the region. A telling illustration of this critique is manifested in the image on the cover of this book; an art project of Ashekman (, a Lebanese graffiti and hip-hop duo who have painted the word salam –– “peace” in Arabic –– across dozens of rooftops in the northern city of Tripoli that is only visible from the sky. Interviewed by Alexandra Talty, the artists, Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, stated that the concept behind this project (named “Operation Salam”) was to show another side of the country beyond war and extremism:

In the media outlets talking about Lebanon, all you hear about is terrorism and extremism, all the negative aspects…  But there’s plenty of creativity, plenty of people trying to live their life… that’s why we used the word salam. I want to change people’s perception of us.

“Operation Salam” might sound like a naïve attempt to re-narrate urban life in the Middle East, yet we see it as a good demonstration of Maria Todorova’s seminal work, which significantly analysed the ways in which the Balkan region was politically constructed within Western culture. Todorova coined the term “Balkanism”, which is also useful for framing for this book, in the way it references a narrow understanding of the region’s politics. According to our reading, some of the key contributions to the literature on the urban Middle East are rooted in a similar “Middle Easternism” approach, by tending to focus on cities in the region as a unique category that is the reversed image of “ordinary” Western cities.

This book joins this critical view by moving beyond essentialist and reductive analyses of identity, urban politics, planning, and development in cities in the Middle East, and instead offering critical engagement with both historical and contemporary urban processes in the region. In other words, we take the “Middle Eastern City” as a dynamic site of investigation; rather than a given “neutral” category, we approach “Cities” as multi-dimensional sites, products of political processes, knowledge production and exchange, and local and global visions as well as spatial artefacts. Importantly, our attempt is not to idealise urban politics, planning, and everyday life in the Middle East –– which (as with many other cities elsewhere) are also situations of contestation and violence –– but rather to highlight how cities in the region, and especially those which are understudied, revolve around issues of housing, infrastructure, participation and identity, amongst other concerns.

We wish to frame the selected chapters in this book with the discussion advanced by Jennifer Robinson, who claims that viewing all cities as ordinary may gain substantial results, “with implications for the direction of urban policy and for our assessment of the potential futures of all sorts of different cities”. She attempts to develop a post-colonial urban theory that defines new ways of dealing with differences between cities, and her contribution to our discussion lies in questioning given categorizations of cities (e.g. “developed” versus “undeveloped”; “modern” versus “traditional”; “colonial” versus “postcolonial”), and their assumed hierarchies within a global order. Indeed, this book aims to advance a view of cities in the Middle East that goes beyond the current scope of contemporary research which is profoundly limited by certain long-standing assumptions embedded in urban theory; assumptions that propose the fundamental incommensurability of different kinds of cities.

Throughout this book urbanisation is seen as an economic, political, and socio-cultural complexity, and so is its interaction with urban landscape, urban dwellers, global politics and everyday life. Municipal and state decision-making further shape the nature of urban spaces, and socio-cultural transformations influence perceived notions of the lived space and, in turn, reshape the physical landscape itself. The growth of urban scholarship over the past two decades accentuated the importance of also looking at the complexity of cities in the global south, highlighting the necessity of questioning the liberal, often Western gaze over urban processes, and viewing urban planning from outside its origins in the global centres of power. While such vein of thought is a source of inspiration while dealing with cities in Africa or Asia, research on cities in the Middle East remains fairly limited in scope, with little cross-disciplinary “conversation” among scholars in differing fields that attempts to account for such complexity.

As a whole, this book is an attempt to acknowledge a more complex notion of urbanity in the Middle East, and rather than highlighting monolithic characteristics, trends and transformations associated with cities in the region, we suggest diversified approaches that avoid the often theoretical and disciplinary reductionisms while dealing with cities in the Middle East. Accordingly, this book is multi-disciplinary in its scope and guides the reader towards a comprehensive understanding of the main research strands in the field. The book aims to present critical and theoretical understanding of urbanism in the region, highlighting the great relevance of Middle East cities to the growing field of urban studies and Middle East studies and politics.

The book focuses both on the symbolic and tangible construction of place in cities. Through presenting different case studies from the Middle East, we wish to open up an interdisciplinary debate that includes the fields of architecture, geography, history, planning, anthropology, sociology, political science, urban studies and Middle East studies –– all areas that are represented by the backgrounds of the scholars who have contributed to this volume. The richness of the case studies and the theoretical debates reveal various insights concerning historical as well as current urban conditions in the Middle East, and the selected chapters analyse and theoretically discuss different cases, including San’a, Beirut, Istanbul, Tehran and Hebron to mention but few, in which cities are linked to global and local processes, how cities are planned and used, the effects that conflicts and violence have on cities, and the nature of the role of communities and their memory, in shaping urban life in the Middle East nowadays.

As the chapters reveal, an interdisciplinary engagement is greatly needed since, as AlSayyad and Castells have suggested, neither body of knowledge is complete or credible without the other. To put it differently, no discussion of the emergence of an “urban Middle East” and the management of social relations in the political climate that the Middle East experiences nowadays, can ignore the pivotal role of cities in both generating and challenging the national order, control and resistance. Likewise, no serious historical account of urbanization in the Middle East, or discussion of contemporary globalizing cities, can overlook the central role of the Middle East in the shaping of “planetary urbanism” today.

As the influential work of Abu-Lughod suggests, the literature on the so-called Islamic city offers an unconcealed paradigm of how a general theory on the city in the Middle East was transformed and developed through the study of few cases, mainly in North Africa, and the uncritical orientalist assumption of the role of “Islam” as an explanatory factor for urban development and form. Indeed, researchers who focused on urban history in the Middle East highlighted the colonial gaze over local populations.

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