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Why Space Matters in the Arab Uprisings (and Beyond)

[1945 map of Beirut] [1945 map of Beirut]

Many non-scholarly and scholarly accounts on the societies, culture, and political economy of the Middle East post-“Arab Uprisings/Spring” still deal with cities and regions as mere repositories of social, cultural, political, and economic action—despite the spatial turn that has informed social sciences and humanities for more than three decades ago now. Indeed, they often overlook the shaping roles of the built and natural environments in the production of events unraveling in cities and regions of the Middle East. We thus read about cities and regions as backgrounds and contexts for processes and practices, rather than environments that have determining impacts on these.

Since its launch in September 2013, Jadaliyya’s Cities Page has been committed to produce such informed, empirical, and integrated knowledge, where the spatial engages and intersects with historical, political, economic, technological, legal, social, and cultural analysis. These are some of the questions we committed to address three years ago: “How and why does urban space contribute to public action and social movements? What is the relationship between power, space, and resistance? How do different groups utilize space to mobilize and facilitate collective action? Which forces that shape space (physical and technological, as well as social, historical, political, and economic) are combined to guide this action? More broadly, how do specific historical, national policies, and global forces shape cities? How are different inequalities constituted by urban life and how do they reconstitute the city? How do the ordinary practitioners of the city negotiate, navigate, appropriate, resist, and transform urban forms?” While most other electronic outlets have been scratching the surface of such questions, focusing on formal aspects and general descriptions of urbanism, we pride ourselves at Jadaliyya Cities in contributing to critical urban scholarship, which has been informing reflective practice and urban activism.    

Indeed, while readers rarely know why, for instance, East Aleppo remained the last section of the city under a variety of armed forces’ control, we feature urban geography and history studies that provides a plausible explanation to how this part of the city has been more durably mobilized in the conflict. And, while readers only hear about Baghdad as the theatre of bombings and explosions, we care for featuring its historically plural urban geography, which is still materialized, albeit weakly, in its parks along the river, bringing together young men and women, families, and elderly to enjoy magsuf and hookah under the summer breeze. Additionally, while others merely mention public squares as repositories of political action, we unravel how and why Tahrir square is a heterotopic space that has been embodying protests for decades. While we document and denounce Israeli settler-colonialism in Palestine, we also are keen on recalling Jerusalem’s plural model of urban governance in the 1900s, as well as Ramallah’s contemporary diverse urbanity. Moreover, we do not suffice with labeling urban dynamics and processes with generic statements condemning neoliberal urbanism. Instead, we publish in-depth interviews with leading urban theorists on the issue (e.g. David Harvey, Timothy Mitchell, Ananya Roy), as well as contributions that empirically examine how the circuits of capital are gentrifying and commodifying cities’ spaces and increasing socio-spatial inequalities and urban poverty in sites as varied as Cairo, Beirut, Mecca, Istanbul, or Morocco. In addition to debunking structures of the urban political economy, we insist on producing informed knowledge on the meso- and micro- scales of spatial production. These could be ranging from how an array of stakeholders (local governments, mukhtars, private developers, housing corporations, banks, trade unions, informal builders and merchants, informal and formal service providers, donors and NGOs) make city neighborhoods and urban landscapes, to how a diversity of urban dwellers navigate, practice and experience spaces and places (e.g., queers and ordinary dwellers in Beirut, joyriders in Riyadh, flâneurs in Doha, pious trendy young women and men in Tehran and Beirut).  The Page also unravels the complex socio-spatial dynamics through which refugee camps have been produced decades ago from Rashidiye and Ain el-Helwe (Lebanon), to al-Wihdat and Zaatari (Jordan), as we frame the discussion on “camps” theoretically, as “a site of political invention.” 

Thus, while other outlets mention uncritically projects and endeavors, such as Morocco’s solar plant, Cairo’s gated communities, Mecca’s redevelopment, or Ramallah’s Rawabi, we feature authors who expose how these projects are also about financialization of nature and land, at the expense of a shared, livable, and inclusive urbanity. And, while many outlets deplore an alleged depoliticized youth across the Middle East region, lament the end of the Arab Uprisings in swiping gestures, or invite us to cling to the hope of an evolutionary trajectory of change modeled along Eurocentric examples, we remain committed to identify, document, and feature instances of mobilization and collective action who contest and challenge such hegemonic political economic forces—even if such resistances are transient, short-lived, co-opted, or crushed, such as in Imider (Morocco), Beirut, Bahrain, or Djerba (Tunisia). 

While many other outlets produce stories that hold readers hostage to generic stereotypes where things happen because of Islam, ideology, culture, sectarianism, and/or neoliberalism, we work on making sure our readers get complex, intersectional, relational and multidisciplinary narratives that do not reduce realities to simplistic formulations. We curate a platform that produces critical knowledge on how and why economic geography determines places and regions, how urban politics and service provision territorialize and distinguish spaces, how legacies of land tenure systems inscribe hierarchies and power, and how cultural geography and gendered socio-spatial practices transforms city’s neighborhoods. With such knowledge, we hope to inform and contribute to reflective urban practice and activism, and to cultivate the right to the city towards a “possible urban world.”

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