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Politics of Built Space and the Environment

Session II-16, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • While public spaces within the historic urban fabric of Yazd, Iran, have for centuries functioned as a venue for the Muharram mourning rituals, modern urban spaces in the newer parts of the city have in the past few decades hosted an unprecedented form of collective gathering—one that unlike mourning ceremonies are festive, spontaneous, amorphous, and lack organization. These events, that for example include gatherings in celebration of the sport achievements, can be categorized as what Asef Bayat refers to as nonmovements—a form of everyday resistance without recognizable leadership, organization, or ideology. Building upon an earlier quantitative study that I conducted on the participation of the resident of Yazd in such gathering, I shall articulate the result of the survey and ethnographic findings to suggest that urban settings can become a site for the ordinary actors of nonmovement to find their collective agency and channel the energies of resistance into an organized/politicized force for change. By deifying the sociopolitical order of the state, the urban subaltern creates a space in which 1) political authority of the state is withdrawn, 2) its moral authority is suspended, 3) and differences in class, gender, race in momentarily withdrawn. Such events thus qualify as a Bakhtinian Carnivals where the "official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to […] change” loses its symbolic authority. Looking back at the interviews with participants in carnival nonmovement occurring at the Shahid Karimi street of Yazd, which I conducted more than a decade ago, I conclude by showing how the public quality of streets allows the civic society to reclaim its right to the city through incremental but pervasive acts of carnival resistance. This carnival experience eventually enables the urban grassroots to mobilize by linking their non-collective struggles to broader social demands. The process in which carnival defiance from authoritative order allows nonmovements to build collective political capital can help understand political demonstrations such as the Green Movement of 2009, which as some argue, was the predecessor to the Arab Spring. It also repositions the political on the urban map by emphasizing the power of public space in building and maintaining a healthy civic society. A rereading of the “right to the city,” as articulated by Henri Lefebvre, brings urban spaces to the forefront of everyday struggles of the urban subaltern. Urban space is thus not a neutral backdrop to socioeconomic resistance, but an actor with power and agency.
  • The Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC) and its marketing and distribution branch, the British Petroleum (BP), participated in the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, 1924, by exhibiting their products and managerial skills through a stand called the “‘Khan’ of the Anglo Persian Oil Company.” Teeming with Islamic architectural iconography and complex semantic and formal syntheses, this comparatively small commercial pavilion represents an architectural entity that reckons with the role of Persia (Iran, since 1935) in shaping and constituting the new political and economic order of the British Empire. The “Khan,” purportedly modeled after Persian caravanserais—in tandem with promotional materials and advertisements published and distributed in various media before, during, and after the British Empire Exhibition—provides an image, an identity, and a brand for the APOC. Assuming the Company’s vital agency for securing power for the British Empire, this paper investigates the implications and ramifications of APOC’s decision to opt for the “Khan” to represent the British Empire. This leads to questions regarding what agency the pavilion might be read to have within both the Exhibition, and the BP’s and the APOC’s history of extraction, exploitation, production, and distribution of oil. In a more general sense, by surpassing orientalists’ interpretations and challenging modernization theories, this paper investigates the “Khan” to ask questions such as: Where was empire figured? What form did it take in architecture? And more importantly, how can architecture manifest how an empire thinks? A genealogical study, coupled with a philological analysis, of the Khan’s architecture reveals that the pavilion’s architectural typology is derived from the Islamic mausoleums’ prototype. This paper concludes that APOC adopted and (mis)represented this prototype, which has historically evolved out of the Indo-Saracenic architecture—influenced heavily by Persian architectural traditions and religious icons—to celebrate an empire of oil. Tightening its grip over the vital flow of power (oil) during the first decades of the twentieth century, the APOC uses architecture (as a part of its propaganda machine) to imagine itself and instill this symbolic image in its customers and clients, simultaneously as the Khan and the Imam—the political, military, and religious leader. This dominance over a vast territory of the Persianate world, spanning from north-east India to southwest Iraq, is enjoined not by military force, rather by re-inscribing technologies of exploitation into the age-old positions of traditional leadership, governance, trade, and symbolism.
  • This paper examines the emerging politics of environmental hazards in Oman in order to better illuminate how Omani citizens and authorities attempt to influence each other. I argue that, contrary to Oman’s typical classification as a rentier state, the government has never been autonomous from popular pressure by virtue of its capacity to purchase loyalty with its oil wealth. Since the founding of the modern Omani state in the early 1970s, authorities and dissidents alike have enacted a much broader vision of interdependence, one that purported to unlock a synergy between an administrative state and a “modern” citizenry. Indeed, the practice of rent distribution itself was established in Oman as a strategy that advertised to everyday people the benefits of this new social contract, branded as the Omani “renaissance” (al nahda). Recognizing this history of statecraft and popular pressure helps us move beyond the economic-exchange metaphors of the rentier framework to better understand political grievances and their mobilization in Oman today, as I demonstrate in the case of floods, cyclones, and industrial pollution. The first section of this paper draws from British and Omani archives to demonstrate the imperial origins of this new social contract. These archives document a shift in the mode of rule by British imperial officers in the 1960s and 1970s, largely in response to pressure from mid-twentieth century anti-imperialist movements. The second section documents how British officers carried out this new project, waging a “hearts and minds” campaign by showing off modern roads, schools, hospitals, and the like. The new Oman was to be a modern nation wherein the health, safety, and prosperity of the Omani people became the goals of statecraft. The third section of this paper draws from interviews, Omani media, and archival research to demonstrate how this new social contract helped to politicize environmental hazards in Oman. Focusing on recent attempts to mobilize grievances in the aftermath of floods, cyclones, and industrial pollution, I show how dissidents are using the spectacles that these problems create as opportunities to pressure for government reform. They are doing so by drawing upon the values ennobled by the renaissance to publicly frame such destruction as a failure of government authority.
  • Mr. Ali Murat Ozkaratas
    As a result of the implementation of neoliberal policies in Turkey since the 1980s, urban spaces have undergone an increasing socio-spatial polarization. Starting in the early 2000s, the process of neoliberal transformation has also affected Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast (North Kurdistan). Here it coincided with a shift from the Turkish state policy of economic de-development to economic incorporation as a strategy of controlling Turkey’s Kurdish population and subduing its demands for autonomy. In this context, urban development was pursued in the southeast both as a means of capital accumulation and a strategy of economic co-optation of the newly emerging Kurdish middle class and entrepreneurial class of Kurdish urban redevelopers. As a result, the largest city of the region, Diyarbakir, has experienced a construction boom based on a tourism-centered growth model, residential differentiation, and urban segregation. This paper examines the socio-spatial differentiation brought about by neoliberal policies, by focusing on the relationship between urban redevelopment--especially the construction of gated communities--and the emergence of a Kurdish middle class. Zooming in on one of the neighborhoods in a brand new district of the city, Kayapinar, this paper interrogates primarily (1) how the residents of gated communities perceive the emerging socio-economic divide within their city and their place in it vis-a-vis the poorer districts and (2) how they relate to their neighbors within the gated communities. I conclude that while some of the findings in the core literature on gated communities apply to the case of Kayapinar--namely the presence of discourse of urban fear, intra-class socialization, and a consumption culture--this case also differs in important aspects due to the centrality of the ethnic identity in residents’ lives. My interviewees had a positive view of the poorer neighborhoods outside Kayapinar, expressed concern about the increasing socio-economic differentiation within the city, and revealed tensions within gated communities along ethnic and political lines. Based on these findings, I argue that ethnic identity constitutes the central factor that affects how residents perceive different socio-economic sectors of Diyarbakir’s population and whom they see as “the other” in their pursuit of exclusivity and security within gated communities. The study is based on field research conducted in 2019. I carried out 20 semi-structured interviews with residents, using snowball sampling, as well as formal and informal interviews with those involved in the urban development policy making.
  • For Proposed Panel: The Legacy of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Middle East and North Africa. The proposed paper examines how farmers and food sovereignty activists in Lahore are saving their intangible heritage in the face of the tangible public-private redevelopment proposed along the Ravi River. It outlines four tendencies that are shifting geo-political and economic priorities while challenging the principles embedded in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage discourse: 1) demands of reconciliation through reparation; 2) recognition during the COVID-19 pandemic of the correlation between climate change and “social inequality”; 3) movements across the globe calling for public oversight of governance; 4) rethinking of our (human) relationship with land, territories, sites, and cultural resources from the “custodianship” lens of indigenous people. Embodying the transdisciplinary lenses of decolonization, secularism, nationalism, this paper posits that developing baseline values is becoming more important than preserving “cultural heritage” as a resource. UNESCO needs to redefine the role of cultural heritage conservation in addressing socioecological problems and include community food sovereignty as shared heritage value.
  • A major distinction of the Syrian revolution lies in the disparate trajectories of protesting in each of its cities. The Capital, for instance, did not witness the spectacular momentum of protests in Hama and Homs during the non-violent phase of 2011. Interestingly enough, this was the same impression that emerged during the earlier upheaval of the 1980s: Hama and Aleppo spearheaded the popular confrontation against the regime and bore the brunt of its violence and destruction. The latter, however, came under the regime control earlier and could not maintain the momentum that the former did. Why did the Hamwis and Aleppines mobilize differently in the first episode of revolutionary confrontation, and what urban traces remained? In pursuit of an answer, this paper seeks to explore the nuanced role of urban planning in the trajectory of mobilization and urban conflict. It acknowledges the critical role of networks and the regime’s institutional arrangement, yet casts the light on how the channels of resistance were informed by the physical reality in each locality. Specifically, the modernist legacy of urbanization in Aleppo, along with broader socio-spatial control, permitted the full occupation of the city, including its Old City and surrounding popular districts. Once compared to the persisting resistance in Hama around the same period, 1980–1982, this observation reveals the fundamental combination of dense networks and urban layout. That is, both Aleppo and Hama harbored dense and conservative communities that challenged the regime, yet differed in their built environment: the Aleppines were torn apart by boulevards that reached to their most rebellious districts, while Hamwis, having maintained their sway over the popular quarters at the center, held their grounds longer. Their endurance culminated in the vicious military onslaught and the 1982 massacre. Challenging mainstream accounts on the period, the analysis will also demonstrate how the spatial history of the earlier round is relevant to the understanding of why the more recent one (2011) did not come to fruition in Aleppo. Relying on a set of urban studies, interviews, and the political memoirs of prominent figures of the opposition, it advances the argument that understanding the regime upgrading of its “terror and enticement” mechanisms by itself does not suffice to explain the political track of these two urban centers and that the socio-spatial and organizational reality of the revolutionaries was germane to their eventual course of action.