Direkt zum Inhalt | Direkt zur Navigation

N. v. Maltzahn, M. Bellan, Introduction

Orient-Institut Studies 3 (2015)

Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan (eds.)



Rapid urbanization, demographic change, antagonistic political and economic interests and the diversity of cultural patterns have impacted and continue to impact the make-up of local neighbourhoods and the use of public space in urban centres. Situated at the nexus of social and political fractures, these contested spaces reveal insights into the dynamics of diverse societies and urban identities. The intensity of fragmentation leading to these fissures depends on the general political situation and stability. Beirut, Cairo and Tehran have all experienced considerable political and social disruptions during recent decades, including civil war and its after-effects, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Post-conflict tensions are still tangible and have structured or at least left their imprint on daily life. Identity is therefore strongly connected to specific sites, thereby creating claims and – eventually – contested spaces. The urban spaces in these cities play a significant role in the assertion of citizen rights and the contestation of political power. The conflict over Istanbul’s Gezi Park that erupted in the summer of 2013 illustrates the mobilizing force of contestations surrounding the uses and abuses of public space. The summer of 2015 saw a surge in urban activism in Lebanon, triggered by the country’s garbage crisis and handling of public space; “We have taken control of our public space, and now we demand legitimate representation in the state”, one activist wrote [http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/22706/you-have-we-have].


A wide range of actors lay claim to particular aspects of their cities, whether through preconceived agendas or spontaneous and often subconscious actions. Divercities explores some of the claims, agencies and urban practices that make up the everyday “lived spaces” in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran, the modes in which these are expressed and their socio-political contexts. As Lefebvre observes, “when compared with the abstract space of the experts (architects, urbanists, planners), the space of the everyday activities of users is a concrete one, which is to say, subjective.”1 Divercities is not about utopian abstract space set in a void, but about subjective urban spaces that acquire their materiality and significance through human practices. It is about diverse forms of appropriating the city, and reflects the power dynamics in play over urban spaces. This diversity is expressed through competing narratives. Space is, of course, political – not in the sense of a political agenda, but in how the communal space is defined, shaped and reshaped. Therefore the ability to discuss, negotiate and find compromises – or the blockages to this – is at the centre of the political as such.


Each of the three cities of Beirut, Cairo and Tehran highlights a different type of fragmentation. In Beirut, multiple social layers coexisting in close proximity to one another, in combination with competing economic interests over the already densely populated space, have created a city that is host to many areas of contestation. The lack of inclusive public spaces is often lamented, and questions of memory and heritage are frequently debated in relation to this. Cairo has probably been hardest hit by demographic change, and has to deal constantly with the daunting challenges of rapid urban expansion, in addition to social struggles that have been reinvigorated since 2011. In Tehran, urban life is riven by cultural fragmentations, that is, by norms, values and practices, by what is considered right and wrong by different sections of society and by the multi-layered ruling establishment. Where public space exists and is accessible, but controlled by the morality police who often hold – and uphold – different values from those of the wider society (and if it suits them, close their eyes), citizens take refuge in the private sphere, thereby redefining the boundary between public and private.


The organization of urban space and the contestations over it in the Middle East have received renewed interest since the beginning of the uprisings in 2011 and the conflicted Iranian presidential elections in 2009; academic conferences, research projects and publications on the subject have surged.2 In 2013, the independent online magazine Jadaliyya launched a “Cities Page” [http://cities.jadaliyya.com/], to provide a platform to promote “critical understandings and investigations of urban life and space, beyond the dominant formal and physical narration on cities”. Artists and activists have engaged critically with the theme of the right to the city and public space, as is evident in some of our contributions.


This volume brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines, including geography, anthropology, Middle East studies, ethnomusicology, history and architecture. While the focus is on the present, several authors add a historical dimension to demonstrate the evolution of some practices. Urban governance as practiced by different lobby groups and social agents is analysed through a range of case studies that highlight different narratives of space, including those expressed through urban activism; strolling and mobility; parks and prostitution; music in daily life; museum, heritage and memory; and territory and everyday practices.

Figure 1: Panel discussion on “What does Beirut’s Urban Future Look Like” with Omar Abi Azar (Zokak Theatre Company), Vladimir Kurumilian (activist), Rami G. Khouri (American University of Beirut), Nadim Abu Rizk (Beirut Municipality) and Amira Solh (Solidere), Beirut, 12 December 2013, © Orient-Institut Beirut.


The volume is the outcome of a multidisciplinary three-day event held in Beirut in December 2013, jointly organized by the Orient-Institut Beirut and the Goethe-Institut Lebanon. Entitled Divercities: Contested Space and Urban identities in Beirut, Cairo, and Tehran [https://divercities.hypotheses.org/], it provided a platform for academics, artists, activists and urban planners to discuss contested spaces in these three cities from diverse perspectives and with different methodological approaches. Dictaphone Group [http://www.dictaphonegroup.com/], for instance, a research and performance collective founded by live artist Tania El Khoury and urbanist Abir Saksouk-Sasso, has been creating site-specific performances together with partners such as Petra Serhal in order to question our relationship to the city and to redefine its public space. In the context of “Divercities”, they explored the use of public space through two of their performances, “Bus Cemetery” [http://www.dictaphonegroup.com/work/bus-cemetery/] and “This Sea is Mine” [http://www.dictaphonegroup.com/work/the-sea-is-mine/].

Figure 2: Petra Serhal as Captain Pop during the performance of “Bus Cemetery”, 12 December 2013, © Orient-Institut Beirut.

Figure 3: Dictaphone Group’s “This Sea is Mine” booklet on a public bench on Beirut’s Corniche, © Orient-Institut Beirut.


In “Bus Cemetery” (Figure 2), the actors took participants on an imaginary bus tour through Beirut. Captain Pop (Petra Serhal) evoked memories of times gone by, critically engaging with the issues of lack of public transport and public spaces through an audio performance that was experienced by the audience while sitting in one of Beirut’s old buses that had been brought from the “bus cemetery” in Mar Mikhail (currently a trendy quarter of Beirut). “This Sea is Mine” (Figure 3), a site-specific live performance exploring concepts of access to the sea and public space in the city through Beirut’s seafront, took participants on an audio tour along Beirut’s seafront, narrating the story of the gradual privatization of the coastal strip. It gained new significance in the wake of the public campaign to save Dalieh, “The Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche” [http://dalieh.org/index.html], in which committed individuals advocated the preservation of Dalieh, a rocky open area extending into the sea behind Beirut’s pigeon rocks, as a natural space and aiming to prevent the planned development and commercial exploitation of it.3


Themes addressed in this volume include the legal, moral, economic and political claims advanced by conflicting urban actors in the three cities of Beirut, Cairo and Tehran with the intention of controlling the ownership, access and use of urban spaces. Agency plays a central role, particularly in terms of the opportunities, resources and strategies used by different actors to realize or renegotiate these claims. This volume also addresses the extent to which spaces are used in the way they were designed, who determines their use, and whether and how this use is culturally and politically contested. How and under what circumstances do spontaneous popular practices create public space or alter its character? How far is the use of public space culturally and politically encoded and contested?


In “Urban Activism in Egypt: Emergence and Trajectories after the 2011 Revolution”, Roman Stadnicki examines conditions for the rise of urban activism in Cairo at the political, social and territorial levels. These conditions include the extended scope of activism, the diversification and “pluralization” of civil society and the urban roots of the revolutionary moment. Stadnicki proposes a typology according to interests pursued by the stakeholders in Cairo’s urban scene, and shows that Egyptian urban activists have initiated changes that can already be discerned. One of the early aspirations of urban activists, he writes, was to provide “a genuine public space for citizens who for too long had been victims of an authoritarian and neoliberal urbanism that had reduced the space open and accessible to all”, a quest in which they were supported by artists.


Lucie Ryzova explains the consequences of the neoliberal reframing of Egypt’s modern history in her study of Downtown Cairo, public nostalgia for which, she argues, should be understood within the broader framework of neoliberalism. In “Strolling in Enemy Territory: Downtown Cairo, its Publics, and Urban Heterotopias”, she presents Downtown Cairo as a heterogeneous space predicated on attracting audiences from all over the city; a zone of contingent autonomy where the boundaries of both class and gender are porous and elastic. In addition, Ryzova explores the concepts of liminality and heterotopia in Downtown Cairo, arguing that it is a liminal or heterotopic space par excellence, “a space where everyone is a stranger de passage”. She lays out how such space has been produced and reproduced by the spatial practices of diverse publics at varying times.


Soraya Batmanghelichi in her essay “Red Lights in Parks: A Social History of Park-e Razi“ also employs Foucault’s concept of heterotopia as “a space of illusion”, and as consisting of “relational spaces [that are] housing, containing and dealing with ‘otherness’”. She investigates the spatial transformations of a red-light district in southern Tehran, formerly a societal landmark known as the citadel of Shahr-e No, into an Islamic family-themed park. She shows how this transformation was not so much a moment of rupture but one of transition, as prostitution continues in the park’s premises. Reading brothels as heterotopic spaces, “they function as physical sites of exclusion”, reserved for those considered weak by society, regardless of whether or not they were outwardly acknowledged as such during the Pahlavi period, or whether they continue their function despite the outward remodelling of the space. Batmanghelichi engages in a multivalent debate over the role of prostitution and the expectations of female sexuality in the Islamic Republic of Iran, as seen through the ideal rehabilitation of public space, by tracing the social realities of this space throughout the twentieth century. In the blurring of the lines between what constitutes public and private, and the fluidity of what is moral in the Islamic Republic, she shows how practices defy norms.


This softening of the public-private binary in contemporary Iran is directly addressed by Nahid Siamdoust in “Tehran’s Soundscape as Contested Public Sphere: Blurring the Lines between Public and Private”. She argues that a new alternative public sphere has developed in Iran since the mid-2000s, thanks to new media technology, which can almost be considered a “big national ‘private’ sphere”, in which music has an important role to play “both due to its intrinsic qualities and its history and social use in Iran”. Siamdoust demonstrates how the terms public and private need to be constantly questioned in the Iranian context, and have no meaning as normative terms but gain their significance from how they are appropriated by different agents. Music is shown to be a useful medium through which to study the formation of a parallel public sphere in Iran.


The link between memory, heritage and lived experience is the subject of Mazen Haidar and Akram Rayess’s contribution, “Public Sounds, Private Spaces: Towards a Fairouz Museum in Zokak el-Blat”. Haidar and Rayess explore the idea of setting up a museum dedicated to the Lebanese singer and national icon Fairouz in her childhood home through three readings. One focuses on the site, one on the person, and one on the site and the person combined, reflecting the authors’ backgrounds in architecture and ethnomusicology. Their paper aims to contribute to the preservation of a physical space associated with Fairouz as a person, rather than Fairouz the legend, with which other spaces such as the venues where she repeatedly performed are associated. It can also be situated in the general efforts taking place in Beirut to save historical buildings from destruction.4


Konstantin Kastrissianakis, in his article “Rethinking Public Space in Beirut since the Ta’if Agreement: From the Reconstruction-Reconciliation Discourse to “Sphere-building”, proposes a new reading of public space that takes into account Ibn Khaldun’s notion of asabiyya and Peter Sloterdijk’s “immunological spheres”. He reviews the debates about public space in Beirut that have been animated by the controversial rehabilitation of the city centre and the area of the Demarcation Line that divided the city. Kastrissianakis argues that the notion of public space that informed the reconstruction-reconciliation debate created misplaced expectations. Instead, he puts forward a relational approach to public space that acknowledges Beirut’s fragmented urban structure, shifting spatial practices and territorial delineations.


The papers in this volume thus address claims and agency, heterotopia, norms and practices, memory and lived experiences, and show how competing narratives about urban spaces are at times defied, and at times supported by urban practices. The notion of time in relation to the use of space has also featured in several contributions. The temporality of space can play an important role in how a space is defined. Spaces change function in relation to rituals, ceremonies and time of day. A place may be private at some part of the day, week or year, and public at others. The temporality of space is discussed by Ryzova, who analyses the changing significance of space and people’s relationship with it according to time of day (especially night) as well as to the times of the religious ‘Eid festivals or during revolutionary battles. Space also varies according to time in the case of Park-e Razi, where prostitution continues at particular times of day. The importance of the relation between time and space becomes equally clear in Siamdoust’s contribution, where the playing of music at a particular time in a particular space takes on a particular meaning that it would not have at another time and space, to give but one example. How the use of space changes during particular times of day is also highlighted by the work of the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research (CLUSTER), as becomes clear just by watching the opening video on CLUSTER’s website [http://www.clustercairo.org/], which portrays one strip of a Cairo street during 24 hours compressed into 30 seconds.5


Finally, we would like to thank all the participants of Divercities: Contested Space and Urban Identities in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran for enriching the discussions during the three days in December 2013, and also our cooperation partner, the Goethe-Institut in Lebanon, represented by its director Ulrich Nowak. Virginia Myers has been a great help in copy-editing the volume. Last but not least, we thank the authors for their diverse and stimulating contributions. The debate continues.

About the Editors:

Nadia von Maltzahn, Orient-Institut Beirut
Nadia von Maltzahn is Research Associate at the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB), a German academic research institute supporting historical and contemporary research on the Middle East. Nadia is the author of The Syria-Iran Axis. Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East (I.B.Tauris, 2013, 2015), and holds a DPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her research interests revolve around cultural policies and cultural diplomacy, urban governance and state-society relations in the Middle East. Her current research project deals with cultural policies in Lebanon, looking in particular at cultural institutions and their role in the public sphere.
Monique Bellan, Orient-Institut Beirut
Monique Bellan is a researcher in modern and contemporary art and theatre with a focus on Lebanon and Egypt at the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB). She received her PhD in Oriental Studies from Free University Berlin in 2012. Her thesis was published in 2013 under the title dismember remember: The anatomic theatre of Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué (Reichert Verlag Wiesbaden). She has previously worked at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and the Collaborative Research Center “Aesthetic experience and the dissolution of artistic limits” in Berlin.

1 Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (Oxford, 1991), 362.

2 See for instance From Tehran to Tahrir: Public Space Redefined [http://www.global.asc.upenn.edu/from-tehran-to-tahrir-public-space-redefined-workshop/]; Urban Change in Iran [http://www.urban-change-in-iran.org/]; Gulf Cities: Space, Society, Culture [http://www.auk.edu.kw/cgs/Gulf_Studies_Symposium_CFP.pdf]; The Participatory Urban Regeneration Project [http://www.pur.tu-berlin.de/sites/h1.html], to name but a few of the conferences and projects. To learn more about some of the projects that have emerged in Cairo, see Stadnicki’s contribution in this volume.

3 Another contested space is the Horsh Beirut Park in the Tayyouneh area of Beirut, which has been closed to most of the public for the last two decades. Civil rights organizations have been campaigning for its reopening for several years and only recently has their objective been partly achieved: the Horsh Beirut Park now opens on weekends [http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Sep-07/314208-horsh-beirut-opens-doors-to-the-public.ashx].

4 See for instance the work of Save Beirut Heritage (http://savebeirutheritage.org/) or the Association pour la protection des sites et anciennes demeures au Liban, APSAD (http://apsad.net/).

5 CLUSTER co-founder Omar Nagati participated in the Divercities conference in 2013, where he presented some of the Lab’s work (see for instance Archiving the City in Flux [http://issuu.com/clustercairo/docs/archiving_the_city_in_flux] and Learning from Cairo [http://issuu.com/clustercairo/docs/learning_from_cairo]).

Lizenzhinweis: Dieser Beitrag unterliegt der Creative-Commons-Lizenz Namensnennung-Keine kommerzielle Nutzung-Keine Bearbeitung (CC-BY-NC-ND), darf also unter diesen Bedingungen elektronisch benutzt, übermittelt, ausgedruckt und zum Download bereitgestellt werden. Den Text der Lizenz erreichen Sie hier: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/de

PSJ Metadata
Nadia von Maltzahn, Monique Bellan
ohne zeitliche Zuordnung
PDF document bellan-maltzahn_introduction.doc.pdf — PDF document, 853 KB
N. v. Maltzahn, M. Bellan, Introduction
In: Proceedings of the Conference "Divercities. Contested Space and Urban Identities in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran", Beirut, December 12–14 2013, Hg. Nadia von Maltzahn, Monique Bellan (Orient Institute Studies, 3).
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/orient-institut-studies/3-2015/bellan-maltzahn_introduction
Veröffentlicht am: 09.12.2015 11:54
Zugriff vom: 20.10.2020 22:23
abgelegt unter: