Temporary Cities
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Temporary Cities

Resisting Transience in Arabia

Yasser Elsheshtawy

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Temporary Cities

Resisting Transience in Arabia

Yasser Elsheshtawy

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About This Book

Are Arab Gulf cities, the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha, on their way to extinction? Is their fate obsolescence? Or, are they the model for our urban future? Can a city whose very existence is predicated on an imported labour force who build and operate these gleaming urban centres remain a viable urban entity? Could the transient nature of this urban model, its temporariness and precariousness, also be its doom? In this wide-ranging book Yasser Elsheshtawy takes on these tough, but necessary, questions aiming to examine the very nature of the Arab Gulf city and whether it can sustain its existence throughout the twenty-first century. Having lived in the region for more than two decades he researched its marginalized and forgotten urban settings, trying to understand how a temporary people can live in a place that inherently refuses to give them the possibility of becoming citizens. By being embedded in these spaces and reconciling their presence with his own personal encounters with transience, he discovered a resilience and defiance against the forces of the hegemonic city. Using subtle acts of resistance, these temporary inhabitants have found a way to sustain and create a home, to set down roots in the midst of a fast changing and transient urbanity. Their stories, recounted in this book through case studies and in-depth analysis, give hope to cities everywhere. Transience is not a fait accompli: rather the actions of citizens, residents and migrants – even in the highly restrictive spaces of the Gulf – show us that the future metropolis may very well not turn out to be a 'utopia of the few and a dystopia of the many'. This could be an illusion, but it is a necessary illusion because the alternative is irrelevance.

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Introduction: Transience in Arabia

Temporary. People.
Illegal. People.
Ephemeral. People.
Gone. People.
Deported. Left.
More. Arriving.
Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People (2017)
Cities by definition evoke permanence. In many cases they have evolved over centuries and millennia accruing layers of history through buildings, roads and bridges. They are also sites of memories, nurtured and sustained over many years; but permanence does not have to be solely physical. It can also be looked at from a social perspective. For instance, in cities migrants find a home and refuge. They are (although not always) welcoming, provide shelter, and suggest hope for a better future. Residents of cities create homes, make friends, and set up long-lasting roots. In cities a sense of longevity and stability is thus nurtured and sustained. For most of us, these are the only cities we know. There is another class of cities, however, which represents the opposite. They are transient, the antonym for permanence. In such cities people are welcomed with caveats. They stay for a limited time and live in momentary spaces. It is understood that at some point they have to leave. There is no opportunity to form any kind of long-term relationship that can survive generations. People have no voice in such cities – they are powerless and disenfranchised. The built environment is configured in such a way that it does not allow for the formation of any sort of bond or long-term connections. Spaces are pristine and shiny. They perpetuate an illusion of timelessness that cannot be spoiled by the intervention of restless citizens wishing to put down roots. If such a premise is viable, where do we find such cities?
Immediately the gleaming urban configurations in the Arabian Peninsula come to mind: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and others. Their soaring towers, spotless shopping malls, immaculate transport systems and ultramodern airports are suggestive of an urbanity that does not tolerate any kind of informal intervention. A detached populace moves through these sites, consuming a visual landscape that is predicated on the spectacular. It must remain clean, sanitized, free from any traces of human interaction. People are behaving as if they are on a stage set, playing a predetermined role and following a carefully written script. But this is not just restricted to Arabia. Indeed, all over the world cities are being reconfigured to follow the dictates of a neo-liberal urbanity (Davis and Monk, 2007; Harvey, 2006). Here city spaces are viewed as a commodity, a tool to generate profit. They are planned primarily for a nomadic population constantly on the move. An immediate outcome is a placeless urbanity that has no real ties to its surrounding context; based on an urban imaginary, circulating throughout the globe, such spaces can belong anywhere and nowhere (figure 1.1). They are produced by transnational design firms – Place based consultancies – who draw on a fixed set of ‘urban templates’. Starchitects are also complicit, scrupulously attaching themselves to powerful clients, seeking more fame and fortune. The lack of contextual restraints in the Arabian Peninsula fits perfectly with such an urbanity as it, seemingly, operates within a tabula rasa like environment. The kind of uncanny familiarity thus produced is a virtue that needs to be propagated in order to attract investment. History and memory come into play as marketing devices cynically exploiting the desire for some form of distinction. A supermodernity takes hold, making city spaces indistinguishable from airports, hotel lobbies and supermarkets. It reaffirms the predictions of postmodern critics of the contemporary metropolis who were decrying the sameness they saw descending on their beloved cities (e.g. Augé, 2008).
In such a world the population is powerless; the people are mere cogs in a system Moving sites not interfere or challenge the existing order. All are observed and monitored. Any form of deviation is noted and challenged. Changes to the built environment, outside carefully established rules, are not permitted. Individualism is frowned upon. Having spaces that appear to be lived-in is not a desirable quality. Accordingly, the view from a distance, from above, suggests a complete surrender to the power of capital. Yet, within and in the midst of soaring towers, is a toiling populace bravely defying prevailing norms. Through subtle and sometimes explicit acts of resistance they express a dissatisfaction with their surrounding environment. They are ‘the ordinary practitioners of the city’ who ‘live “down below”, below the threshold at which visibility begins’ (De Certeau, 1984, p. 98). By looking closer, to the level where actual interactions take place, we encounter a different city, not the dystopian landscape peddled by critics. Chief among those is David Harvey whose work highlights the power of capital and its influence in urban life. Yet there have been some who argued against such a deterministic approach. For example Michael Peter Smith notes that according to this view people are not historical agents but passive objects, seen as being pushed, squeezed and conditioned by capital accumulation and manufactured desire; moreover he points out that in ‘Harvey’s spaces’ people are either ‘nostalgic romantics’ or ‘cultural dupes’ (Smith, 2001, 2002). Rather than taking the view of a citizenry which has completely capitulated to the power of capital, it is more realistic to consider that they do have a sense of agency, contributing to the making of their own spaces irrespective of restrictions or constraints. Established norms and orders are circumvented if they conflict or stand in opposition to their needs and desires. People are never passive, but in many cases assume an active role in shaping their surroundings.
Figure 1.1 Porta Nuova, a new business district in Milan.
Examples for such forms of resistance exist but are increasingly fading. However, a cursory look at the literature will see it littered with alternative forms of urbanity described as everyday, quotidian, informal, insurgent, loose, tactical, guerrilla, spontaneous, temporal, and messy. All are indications that residents are taking charge and assume ownership of the spaces they inhabit (Chalana and Hou, 2016; Crawford, 2005; Elsheshtawy, 2011b; Franck and Stevens, 2007; Hou, 2010; Stevens, 2007). But what about the highly controlled spaces of the Gulf? How do people in such societies deal with the restrictions imposed on them? What kind of strategies do they employ in overcoming limitations preventing attachment? What is the physical character of such cities? And significantly what does the mere presence of such places offer in terms of lessons for cities elsewhere in the world?

Cities in the Arabian Peninsula

In the urban centres of the Arabian Peninsula there is a migrant city that slips through the cracks of the formal city. Some scholars have argued that this is one of their fundamental characteristics (e.g. Khalaf, 2006). These migrant neighbourhoods differ from their counterparts elsewhere because of the contrast with the formal city, and the fact that they are meant to be primarily transitory and purely functional. Significantly, and this marks them as unique, such places are established as a matter of formal urban policy which lays out zoning regulations differentiating between neighbourhoods for expatriates, workers and residents.1 They are planned so that there would be no clear sense of community, ability to individualize one’s surroundings or establish a presence of some sort. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, one can find in migrant neighbourhoods, as well as older parts of the city, a vibrant urbanity that stands in defiance of the sterile spaces of the spectacular city. Consider Karama in Dubai, a low- to middle-class neighbourhood located in the city’s centre. It is comprised of a series of identical and anonymous housing blocks, as well as a number of public housing projects, which are all arranged on a regular grid street system. Such an arrangement facilitates efficiency of movement. However, the configuration of the built environment is such that it aims at discouraging the formation of spontaneous street encounters. There are no public plazas which would encourage congregation. Streets are dominated by commercial establishments, parking and entryways to apartment blocks. Aside from parks which are strictly regulated in terms of permissible behaviour and activities, there are no other formal outdoor spaces (figure 1.2). Yet walking through its streets and spaces a different picture emerges. One can observe people chatting on street corners, children playing cricket in an abandoned construction site or in a parking lot, an informal market specializing in counterfeit goods, informal ads mounted on lampposts and walls, ethnic eateries, people sitting in front of building entrances – in short a scene that is not so different from any other ordinary neighbourhood in the world (figure 1.3). Yet also quite unique given the surrounding context. And this can be found elsewhere: Hor Al Anz and Satwa in Dubai; the Central District and Tourist Club area in Abu Dhabi. Throughout the Gulf such districts and scenes exist too: in the old city of Doha near the ultramodern Musheireb development; the alleyways of Muharraq in Bahrain; Jeleeb Al Shuyoukh in Kuwait or Batha in Riyadh. Each and every one of these places is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of severe adversity and restrictions. A place is created that is temporary and fleeting yet it offers a sense of comfort and provides a home of sorts for the short time in which migrants reside in the urban conglomerations of their hosts.
Figure 1.2 The transient city of the Arab Gulf, expressed through an anonymous architecture in the shadow of the spectacular city. Karama, Dubai.
Figure 1.3 (a), (b), (c). Informal encounters, migrant traces. (a) Gathering at a bus stop in front of a now demolished public housing project; (b) A group of migrants in Karama Souq; (c) Informal advertisement of bed space placed on a lamp post, Karama, Dubai.
Such defiance runs counter to the official narrative of the city as a site of spectacle and consumption. But because of the residents’ precarious existence another reality emerges: one of impermanence predicated on their removal/departure at a moment’s notice. They are uprooted and in a way their lives destroyed. This is not a fantasy but happens on a regular basis. Any form of attachment is temporary and transient. Precariousness influences their sense of belonging and ultimately informs their views about the society they live in. The Khaliji city is not built for permanence. Memories are constantly erased, removed and replaced. A steady flow of people enters and exits. Neighbourhoods become placeless entities. Yet for a fleeting moment some permanence takes hold. A resident places a Diwali light in her home’s balcony; a street corner transforms into a gathering site for Bangladeshi migrants; a tea shop attracts a regular clientele; the shade under a tree turns into a sitting space for a group of elderly residents; a graffiti sign defiantly proclaims at a site slated for demolition that ‘we won’t leave!’; a small garden is lovingly nurtured in a hidden alleyway. The city’s ‘placelessness’ and temporariness is defied in many ways through small acts of resistance. Yet such interventions are ultimately similar to their inhabitants – temporary. This book looks at these phenomena while attempting to answer the following: Can transience be inscribed into the built environment, and what tactics are employed by residents to overcome this?

Researching the Arab Gulf City

This book’s subject is the Arab Gulf (or Khaliji) City. My background is in architecture and urban planning and as such my focus is on the built environment, always linking urban processes to physical structures, city morphology and the like. Within that overall framework I am specifically interested in informality, i.e. the degree to which the built environment is appropriated and reconstituted to allow for certain behaviours and activities to take place. The literature on informal urbanism with a focus on transience, emphasizes intervention and staging of events – pop-ups, food trucks, and artistic performances. This for example has been the focus of Bishop and Williams’ book titled The Temporary City (2012). My intention however is different in the sense that I am looking at transience as a state of mind, a particular way of ‘being’ in the city alluding to alienation, restlessness and displacement. A notion that looks at the impact of city life on inhabitants which goes as far back as the early twentieth century exemplified in the work of Simmel in his seminal The Metropolis and Mental Life (Simmel, 1903). There has been renewed interest in the subject over the years. For instance architectural theorist Anthony Vidler examined uncanniness as a modern condition for being in the city (Vidler, 1992). Such views are key to my understanding of urbanism as I will explain in Part 1 of this book.
Regarding the Arab Gulf City most of what has been published recently came from the social sciences. Anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists have found the region has an abundance of topics that are of relevance for their respective disciplines. In addition, they build on an academic tradition that values written outputs. However, the situation in architecture and urban planning is quite different. Largely geared towards a professional model, academic books are scarce. Publications are either pictorial representations to highlight ‘architectural wonders’, historical accounts or technical guidebooks. There have been a few scholarly contributions but they do not, generally, pass muster in terms of contributing to a critical discourse. Indeed, a review of authored books on the subject shows that since 2000, only sixteen books have been published with direct relevance to cities in the Arabian Peninsula. Of those, five were written by architects and urban planners; nine by social scientists and two by journalists. Under the architecture category two were largely descriptive and as such do not offer any useful insights (Al-Asad, 2012; Salama and Wiedmann, 2016), although in the case of Al-Asad the intention was from the outset to provide a kind of general overview of architectural developments and is thus quite valuable in that regard. Salama and Wiedman, however, deliver a cliché-ridden account, which is mostly descriptive without any critical viewpoint.2 There are exceptions. Two books, written by Western scholars, are particularly valuable. They discuss developments in Dubai and Bahrain, using a critical framework in their assessment (Doherty, 2017; Ramos, 2016). Ramos examines infrastructure whereas Doherty employs an ecological approach. There are two notable upcoming books (at the time of writing). The first is by anthropologist Gökçe Günel titled Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Günel, 2019). This is a critical look at the utopian endeavour of creating a sustainable city, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar, in the middle of the desert. The second is by Emirati scholar and urban planner Alamira Reem Bani Hashim, Planning Abu Dhabi: An Urban History, a comprehensive account of Abu Dhabi’s planning history as well as the process underlying its planning paradigm (Bani Hashim, 2019). I have written one book about Dubai exploring both its spectacular and less spectacular aspects in the process going beyond prevailing clichés (Elsheshtawy, 2010a). The present book, Temporary Cities, extends the analysis further, looking at sites and places that I have researched following my earlier work. Significantly it is not meant as a historical narrative or an introductory study for cities in the region; rather the intent is, ultimately, to link urban processes to a larger global discussion about urbanism in the twenty-first century.
The situation in the social science category is a bit better with nine authored books. Some have a historical inflection, examining past urban processes which extend to the present day in some cases (Al-Nakib, 2016; Fuccaro, 2009). Farah Al-Nakib, a Kuwaiti historian, provides a sweeping overview of Kuwait’s urban development in the twentieth century although given her background it is tinged with nostalgia and the longing for some sort of ‘primordial urban quality’ (p. 197). Many focus on the migrant, expatriate and local experience (Gardner, 2010; Kanna, 2011; Kathiravelu, 2016; Menoret, 2014a; Vora, 2013), Andrew Gardner’s depiction of Manama, dubbed ‘City of Strangers’ is particularly insightful; he exposes the intrinsic ‘structural violence’ embedded in Gulf societies and the inherent injustice of the Kafala system, a labour framework tying expatriates to local actors. Also of note is Pascal Menoret’s book about Riyadh where he interweaves urban planning, history and the activities of youths in its streets. This enables him to evoke a real place, straying away from cartoonish and essentialist depictions of life in an Arab Gulf City. Others discuss the city through a political perspective or a socio-cultural analysis (Cooke, 2014; Davidson, 2008). There are two more books written by journalists which are...

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