Monday, January 9, 2017

The Nature Of Urban Violence In The Middle East

Aleppo Syria before and after
Hello Everyone:

Lost amid all the noise about Russian hacking into the American elections and who wore what to an award show is the ongoing tragedy of Aleppo, Syria.  The endless images and reports of the Syrian Civil depict the heartbreaking loss of human life, severe lack of food and medicine.  The images and stories from Mosul, Iraq, where the Iraqi military and ISIS are battling for control of the city are equally dire.  Hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured before evacuations in both cities could take place.  We, in the West, have become so accustomed to hearing about random death and destruction in cities in the Middle East that we have become oblivious to it.  Cities like Aleppo, Jerusalem, Beirut, and Istanbul are just distant places.  The media, on their part, provides little if any context to the readers to understand how and why the continuous cycle of violence fits into the urban scheme of things.

Mimi Kirk's recent CityLab article, "How to Understand Urban Violence in the Middle East," interviewed Nelida Fuccaro Ph.D, an historian the University of London, about her book Violence in the City in the Modern Middle East.  This book is a looks at "the diverse causes and effects of violence in the region, tracking how violence shaped and destroyed communities, governments, and daily life in specific urban centers during periods of recent history.  Professor Fuccaro edited the collection of essays that make up the book and offered her views on Middle Eastern cities.

Mosul, Iraq before and after
 CL: A goal of the book is to debunk the myth that Middle Eastern metropolises are inherently violent places populated by inherently violent people.  How does it address this?

NF: The book approaches this misconception by "normalizing" violence.  That is, by showing how violence has always been an integral part of city life and of urban architectures of power.    Unfortunately, the authoritarian backlash after the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, the war in Syria, and ISIS have contributed to flawed representations of Middle Eastern people as intrinsically violent...Mosul, Raqqa, and Aleppo are currently suffering from extraordinary levels of violence is a Middle Eastern given, but a manifestation of the instability and profound disruption resulting from cataclysmic events such as the American invasion of Iraq and the sectarianization of regional politics.

It's important to try to explain and make sense of the current "rule of violence" beyond the irrational and primordial-...-come to terms with it as an historical and sociopolitical phenomenon that is common to all societies.

Raqqa, Syria before and after
CL: So, a main concern of the book is to situate Middle Eastern urban violence in its context and history.

NF: ...Until recently, the study and discussion of the past and present public violence in the Middle East was set somewhat apart from the specific places where it occurred.  We in the West are used to hearing about the barbarous actions of violent and oppressive regimes...Such abstractions ignore the facts that moments of violence do not take places in a vacuum, but are shaped by particular spaces and events that create experience, socioeconomic relations, symbols of power, and modes of individual and collective mobilization.

The cataclysmic events of the Arab uprisings were a pivotal moment in bringing cities back into the violence equation.  It became increasingly difficult to dissociate the actions of the protesting crowds and those of the police forces that confronted them from urban locations as Tahir Square in Cairo...In fact, while Middle Eastern cities have been at the vanguard of violent politics, particularly in the twentieth century, some of the roots of these politics were national, regional, and international.

Tahir Square protests
Cairo, Egypt

CL: The book looks at both elite or state violence and more local forms of violence in Middle Eastern cities, including resistance such as civilian protests.  Why is this essential?

NF: Some chapters deal with colonial discipline, or the violent means used by occupying foreign power to quell opposition and control cities as diverse as Cairo, Haifa, and Baghdad.  Other case studies discuss the violent worlds of imperial and national state administrations by analyzing their urban intermediaries: military and religious leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, and even urban planners...The essays question the somewhat-conventiola wisdom that cities are mere appendixes of state power by presenting a variety of violent actors that don't necessarily operate at the national or states level, and by exploring the different aspects of resistance.

Resistance can trigger the mobilization of urban residents...Contrary to romantic visions of the moral economy of crowds, some of the chapters highlight the brutality of grassroots action.  Only by taking stock of violence's multifaceted qualities are we able to start grasping its all-encompassing powers.

Anglo-Iranian Oil Company
Abadan, Iran (date unknown)
CL: And violence doesn't have to mean the physical sort.  For instance, it can take the form of transnational capital and its resultant social inequality.

NF: Violence is indeed a very complex phenomenon...

The starting point of many of the chapters is physical violence...Yet violent event of this sort often reveal other forms of systemic and structural violence that can function at different levels,  form local to global.  For instance, the volume address the disruptive effects of colonial and corporate capitalism on pre-1952 Cairo and the oil towns of Kirkuk, Dhahran, and Abadan [in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, respectively] from the 1940s to the 1960s.  Here the penetrations of foreign capital metamorphosed into spatial division and socioeconomic inequalities that in turn triggered the explosion of hooliganism and of aggressive labor and ethnic protests.

Rally to demand political reform
Amman, Jordan
CL: The book also looks at how knowledge of the city is necessary to guide the spatial tactics of the military, police, and protestors alike.  The city is complicated, but knowable.  How does this idea play out in today's cities?

NF:  Famously, knowledge is power and knowledge of hidden corners, streets, and other public spaces helps both the powerful ad powerless pursue their political goals.  In the Middle East...we live in high-surveillance cities that defy the classic image of cities as places of emancipation and political liberation, as predicted by the theorists George Simmel and Henri Lefevbre...

In our contemporary era, cities' surveillance and fear feed each other.  Fear of terrorist attacks nurture public security measures, and the proliferation of cameras [and] surveillance systems instigate the continuous feeling of being watched.  For some, it's reassuring, but for others, it's an abuse of civil liberties and personal space-indeed, a subtle form of structural violence.

No comments:

Post a Comment