Arab world

CoverScales of Revolt: Within and Beyond the Arab Spring was an exploratory essay that I wrote for the volume FREE: Architecture on the Loose edited by E. Sean Bailey and Erandi de Silva. The essay I wrote attempted to link the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring, I prefer uprisings) to contemporary academic debates on geographical scale.

The essay focuses on the self-immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi that sparked the Arab uprisings and – given that the Arab uprisings influence on movements such as Occupy Wall Street – global revolt and how this event can be framed as a productive entry point to think about issues of geographical scale. Specifically, the idea that there is a nested hierarchy of scale that goes from the body, to the nation and the finally to the global (like a Russian doll) is problematic when confronted by an event like Bouazizi’s protest suicide. Simply, how could a self-immolation that occurred at the scale of the body produce such a scale of revolt? But this question led to a more complicated one of how the body is not an isolated unit and it is what happens between bodies that can be most important. Can scale cope with the in-betweeness of social life? I don’t think it is a question I fully answered, and this may be my own limits, but it could also be due to the limits of geographical scale. Can we really foreground conclusions over what is big and what is small?

Scale is a critical concept in the architectural profession and one that some have started to think about seriously. Rem Koolhaas of course published S,M,L, XL and has an intelligent approach to questions of scale.

In addition to my essay, FREE contains a great collection of essays and interviews, here is the blurb:

Introducing ‘FREE’

There is implicit conflict in the word ‘free’. While culturally we celebrate the infinite opportunities afforded by the ‘freedom to’, the term also alludes to emancipation, a break from a captive state, or a ‘freedom from’. ‘Free’ is, at its core, an architectural concept. Architecture is a discipline directly engaged with shaping enclosure, of erecting and toppling barriers or—more explicitly—of extending and limiting ‘freedoms’.

Spatial interventions have reorganized much of the material and immaterial world. These actions are evident in the revolutionary public protests of the Arab Spring, the rehabilitation and adoption of land in Detroit and the invention and immanence of digital space. These types of reconfigurations offer a means of breaking with the past to establish new paradigms of operation and actualization. On the other hand, a lack of intervention can also prove to be equally liberating by allowing existing conditions to flourish, whether in nature or an alternate wilderness.

The book has recently received a great review by Domus:

“Free? What do you mean I’m free? I don’t feel free; if anything I feel the opposite.” This condition, what we could call the ‘abyss of freedom’ [1] is responded to in a variety of ways. Authors such as Bernd Upmeyer, Deen Sharp and Corbin Keech individually approach this as a task of making order out of chaos, largely by way of diagnosis and prescription of a well-reasoned theoretical framework.


Ici-et-ailleurs (here and elsewhere) is the title of the new exhibition at the New Museum in New York on art from and about the Arab world that I have been to see twice now. The title of the exhibition is taken from the fascinating French documentary of the same title (see video above) by Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Melville.


Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The documentary made in 1976 is about Palestinian revolutionaries and focuses on the problematic between the image and politics. An issue of course more relevant than ever at the moment and what better place for it than here, New York. There is a lot a material in this exhibition and I am going to focus on one small part, of one small part, of the exhibition, specifically the use of mirrors in Qalandia 2087.

I was really interested in the use of “architectural” models as art pieces in the exhibition (I am thinking a lot about the socio-spatial uses of such models at the moment) and specifically Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani, the third part of a series called the Future Cities (see images of the artwork here).

Hourani has produced an architectural model of a utopian vision of Qalandia one hundred years after the first intifada. Online (here) I found an interesting timeline of Qalandia 2087 by Hourani that I did not see at the exhibition and that seems important to understand the piece. In 1948, following the Nakba, Qalandia became home to thousands of refugees. The name Qalandia comes from a nearby airport of the same name. The Qalandia refugee camp that formed became a pivotal space, located between north Jerusalem and south Ramallah. According to Hourani’s timeline, the year 2087 is when the Mirror Party sign a historic agreement with the new Israeli government and the Palestinians are given the right of return and the 1967 lands back.

Mirrors are important to the piece, and from the information on Hourani’s timeline, have been placed on the Israeli Wall by the Mirror Party “to create the illusion of more space, and seeing their reflection everywhere, begin to wonder how they got in there” and (of course) the mirror has made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mirror in the world. In 2087 when the historic agreement is signed the Wall is not taken down but the cement is taken down and a mirror is fixed to the other side.


Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The insertion of mirrors and use of mirrors in this piece reminds me of two pieces and provides interesting connectors to Hourani’s piece and speak to two possible understandings of how this future city ended up with two of the largest mirrors in the world facing opposite each other.

The first is Mumford’s Technics and Civilization where Mumford highlights the introduction of the mirror (glass coated with a silver amalgam) in the sixteenth century and the transformative impact this had on society: “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror conversation developed with the new object itself: this preoccupation with one’s image comes at the threshold of the mature personality when young Narcissus gazes long and deep into the face of the pool – and the sense of the separate personality, a perception of the objective attributes of one’s identity, grows out of this communion.” This passage resonates with Hourani’s model that is a vision that provides a critique of Palestinian social life, as much as, the Israeli occupation. Later Mumford delivers this: “Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror: it is in the period of psychic disintegration that the individual personality turns to the lonely image to see what is in fact is there and what he can hold on to; and it was in the period of cultural disintegration that men began to hold the mirror up to outer nature.”

The other piece of writing that this use of mirrors reminded me of is Eyal Weizman’s chapter in Hollow Land on Checkpoints: The Split Sovereign and the One-Way Mirror. And surprise suprise the chapter features… Qalandia checkpoint! “The upgrade of the Qalandia terminal crossing, which connects (or rather disconnects) Jerusalem from Ramallah, was completed, according to the principles of the Spiegel plan, at the end of 2005. The new system includes a labyrinth of iron fences that channels passengers en route to Jerusalem via a series of turnstiles… The inspection booths are encased in bulletproof glass. The glass is so thick that it tends to reflect the outside light rather than letting it through, thereby obscuring the security personnel inside, and effectively functioning as a one-way mirror”.

Entering the first month of the year and already two major disasters have hit very close to home. Although I  do not know anyone that has died in either Haiti or the Ethiopian airline crash it appears many of my friends did. When disaster strikes nearby it always of course makes it more real. I just cannot image what living in Baghdad is like as yet another bomb explodes and kills 18 people. Disaster continues day in and day out. When will it stop?

Foreign policy by Britain and the US is still mired in confusion, bias and prejudice. It is plain to see that the policy towards the Middle East is fundamentally flawed yet it continues unchanged year after year, disaster after disaster. No it’s not just America’s fault but Administrations come and go; US and British foreign policy in the region stays the same. Who would support US and Britain’s foreign policy in the region at the moment, except for expansionist Zionists and the evangelical right? If you are out there please step forward, would love to hear from you. No really. I want to “get it”.

My previous pessimism regarding Obama and the Middle East strategy is only confirmed by people like Stephan Walt calling for Obama’s Mid East envoy Mitchell to resign:

If Mideast special envoy George Mitchell wants to end his career with his reputation intact, it is time for him to resign.

Walt is very clear and insightful (as usual) as to where it has all gone wrong:

Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected? And if Obama now realizes how badly they screwed up, why do the people who recommended this approach still have their jobs?

The objective was admirably clear from the start — “two states for two peoples” what was missing was a clear strategy for getting there and the political will to push it through.

Clear thinking…if only. Who has a clue what Obama or Brown’s foreign policy strategy is. I can only see policies that are unplanned, reactionary and weak. That will in the end lead to a tide of unplanned decisions creating a whirlpool of disaster.

In Britain at the moment the argument continues as to wether the Iraq war was legal or not. Security council resolution 1441 that passed unanimously by the security council is at the centre of the debate. Did it allow a pre-emptive strike or not? I am not a lawyer but I wonder how much does it matter if it was legal or not. What really matters is why such an obviously disasters occupation was allowed to go ahead regardless of the legal implications. Why is there not a foreign policy enquiry being carried out that analysis why Britain, and the US as well, has continually screwed up and misunderstood this region. The reason of course is that they don’t want to upset the people they support in the region that keep the oil flowing. But there is another way.

I do believe the West can have oil without creating the kind of misguided policies that are in existence today. I don’t believe in a utopia where everyone will be getting along fine after decades of conflict. But the support of the kind of brutal regimes and equally brutal capitalistic models that we would never accept in our own societies does not have to occur. Why are we not looking seriously at ways to create more sensible foreign policies towards Saudi, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and of course Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine?

Instead the Chilcot inquiry is chugging along, deepening everyones pessimism about the democratic system and foreign policy. There are few sane Kantians left now.

There are some great websites that are painstakingly following the events of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq invasion. And there are even people out there supporting Tony Blair who is due to give his testament soon. This blog that is passionatley for Blair and his invasion makes your stomach turn, here are some wonderful quotes from the blog to get your blood boiling:


The last one makes me want to hit my head on my desk several times. Instead I think of Ghandi and breath:

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Bin Laden is back with a new tape. Surprised?

So are commentators calling for an invasion of Iran, worryingly by people who should know better. Surprised?

Everyone is predicting a Hezbollah-Israeli war, which will be the war to end all wars. Surprised?

If there was a firm US policy that matches action with words and is more responsive to the justifiable grievances of the region, I personally believe that Bin Laden would be reduced, Hezbollah-Israel tension would be reduced and those calling for war would be marginalised. Instead all three remain on the front line.

When George Mitchell was appointed Middle East envoy by Obama there was a lot of rice and flower throwing by those who felt finally the US has a envoy that can shift the deadlock between Israelis-Palestinians. Mitchell it was said did wonders in Northern Ireland, he is the best of the best, he can really get the Israelis to stop settlement building and create a Palestinian state. It definitely did have  those on the Israeli side worried claiming that a “fair” diplomat like Mitchell was not what the Israelis expect of a US Mid East envoy.

When Mitchell/Obama got going they looked like they were really going to do something about Israeli settlements and their “natural growth”. The ending was not however, something out of Walt Disney…it was instead closer to the grimy reality that goes on in making many of these enduring spectacles.

Since the bump of the US and Israel over the settlement it looks like Clinton and Dennis Ross are calling the shots on Middle East policy that is slowly returning back to the status quo. Clinton and Ross are taking over policy so much so that there are rumours, that should be treated with more than a health inspectors recommendation of salt, that Mitchell may resign.

However, even if he did who would notice now? I mean where has the man gone….where have the loft days of hope that was created by Obama’s Cairo speech? The heady days of change in 09 seem far away now and Mitchell is certainly not attracting the attention (adulation/nervousness) he once did.

But now there are the rumblings that Mitchell is trying to re-start peace negotiations. Mitchell went to France and is again starting to talk tough to Israel saying that the US could withdraw loan guarantees. But now there is not even a hint of seriousness in the Israeli response. The Israeli Finance Minister responded with a big….shrug:

“We don’t need to use these guarantees…We are doing just fine. But several months ago we agreed with the American treasury on guarantees for 2010 and 2011, and there were no conditions.”

Something tells me the Old George will soon go Missing In Action again….as will any serious change in Middle East policy by the US and stagnation will be the flavour of the year. The Israelis have won there battle against any change in the direction of US policy…but they did’nt really even have to fight.

There are lots of exciting things going on in the Middle East architecturally and not just in the attention magnet of Dubai. Sustainable architecture is spreading throughout the region and interesting projects are being developed. Not enough I admit and the uptake is painfully slow. But on a more positive note along with the the flatscreen TVs and other electronics the store opposite my place now has a advert for solar panels for water heating. It is a mystery to me why Lebanon, like in Greece, have not caught on to the fact that solar panels for heating water is very cost effective…but anyway it looks as if it is slowly starting to catch on! I have written a review of a few of these sustainable designs in the region for Real Magazine:

Before getting into the details there were some hilarious aspects to this report. As Long Slumber points out the titles were particularly funny. I particularly liked, “The State and its insecure people,” after all this soul searching I can finally understand why the region likes plastic surgery, layers of make up and fattening food so much!!

The Arab Human Development report makes for some depressing reading. The Human Development Index Trends illustrates the stagnation of the region that has seen little improvement from 1995 to 2005. The fantastic numbers at the back of the report go on to illustrate the depressing state of affairs.

How has the Arab world got into such a rut? Is it all the external interference, with the continual occupations in Palestine, invasions in Iraq and Somalia, threats of war with Israel and Iran, global warming and economic globalization? Or rather is it the internal, the regions unfortunate bunch of dictators squashing the insides of the region from Egypt to the Saudi to name almost every Arab state, the civil wars raging in Sudan and Somalia, the population growth in Egypt, Syria….?  The Arab Human Development Report neatly blames internal and external problems especially focusing on the aspects of war and oppression, despite allegations to the contrary that I cannot understand, in the region by taking the approach of Human Security.

The important aspect of a human security approach is that it shifts the focus from the security of states to the security of individuals. The report defines human security as the liberation of human beings from those intense, extensive, prolonged and comprehensive threats to which their lives and freedom are vulnerable. Oh yes, the Western focus of individualism is creeping in again….So immediately there is a problem with ownership of this whole report as it is obvious from the start that the very concept of human security comes from the outside. Fisk, on my second reading I fully understood what he was getting at, does brilliantly in addressing this issue of the lack of ownership that Arabs feel towards their countries.

Despite, this I agree that Human security seems a perfect perspective to view the region from. It gives a right had swing to the West and a blow with the elbow on the way back to the internal dictator.If the human security situation in the Arab region was addressed there would be no more dictators, no more foreign invasion/direct interference is the argument and state sovereignty would be stronger as people whose human security is respected are likely to have more of a vested interest in the state. Importantly as well for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if two states were formed then the Israelis could not wipe their hands of the situation if Palestinian sovereignty was ever achieved. From the Human Security approach the Israelis would also have to guarantee that Palestinians human security was granted as well as sovereignty.

The issue of ownership I think though over weighs the benefits of using a human security approach as it articulates the central issue of the death of ideas in the region or not to overgeneralize the death of big ideas. There is really not much ‘new’ in this report, it is really a lay of the land report. Human Security, even as an outside concept, is a great way of looking at the region but gives no real understanding of why things are going so wrong in the region but rather confirmation that things are going wrong.

Rami Khoury though brilliantly tries to assert what he thinks is going wrong and states in the report (Box 9.1) the essential problem in the region of either just accepting without question or rejecting without question in the region that which comes from the outside. “We remain deeply mired in a colonial-era mentality in many respects. The massive attention paid to awaiting the new Middle East policies of the Obama administration in the United States is the most dramatic manifestation of this trend. On the other hand, the single most important change in the Arab world has been the attempt to break away from this “vassals-of-the-west mentality”, and to assert their own idenity and interests.” By this Khoury means the large number of Islamist movements and he adds that these, “Islamists remain primarily defensive and reactionary movements. ”

There was no risk taking in this report in creating new ideas of how to address what is going on.   Interestingly, Khoury in a Daily Star opinion piece while highly praising the report also calls for the next report to be, “an analysis of how change can and does happen in parts of the Arab world, so that we can make the developmental leap forward, transcending the diagnosis of our ailments and constraints to move into a phase of overcoming them.”

The Arab Human Development Report has been released to much controversy, I will blog about this soon.

Lebanon has decided on the shape of the cabinet being a 15 to the government 10 to opposition and 5 to the President. Meaning that the President will continue to be and even more so now the vital power broker between the two coalitions of March 14 and March 8. As the blocking third is now in his hands. Aoun appears not to be happy with this which is no surprise given that he wants to undermine the President not give him more power! The Daily Star headline below articluates the cracks that Aoun’s frustration are creating within the opposition:

Nasrallah: New cabinet will be one of true partnership
Aoun says nobody consulted him on government formula

Aoun will get over it though and will have to learn to deal with Slieman being the Christian strong man for the moment.

The National have published a in depth article on the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared that is a great guide to understanding the basic situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon and the status of the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared. The Tayyar website true to form have disgustingly added next to the title of the article Marginal Errors there own political views: (is Tawtin coming). Tawtin means naturalization (of the Palestinians in Lebanon) and Aoun has been central in efforts to stoke Lebanese (especially Christian) fears over this issue.