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Reviewed by Eamonn Gearon, Managing director, The Siwa Group; adjunct professor, Johns Hopkins (SAIS); author, Turning Points in Middle Eastern History (Great Courses)
Stanford University Press, 2016. 312 pages. $27.95, paperback
However badly misnamed are the popular protests, uprisings, revolutions and civil wars that started spreading across the Middle East in the winter of 2010-11, it is abundantly clear that in most cases they did not result in peaceful transitions to inclusive democratic politics. Yet the tremors, while producing cracks in existing structures, did not result in their tumbling to the ground. In much of the Middle East, it is a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or worse, though it is far too soon to be talking about long-term results.
Some of the most visually striking moments were the images of tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in major urban centers across the region. Not for the first time in history, cities were the loci of protest; and yet, as Nelida Fuccaro says in her preface to this volume, "Despite the centrality of cities in the modern history and contemporary politics of the Middle East, urban violence has received little academic attention in Europe and North America." This volume is a brilliant and timely corrective of a glaring oversight.
In 12 chapters, Fuccaro explores public violence in the cities of the modern Middle East, approaching the phenomenon, as she says, "[from] an individual and collective experience, a historical event, and an urban process." The book's geographical scope is ambitious, as is its time frame. Covering the Middle East, including Iran and North Africa, individual chapters typically focus on a particular time and place, ranging from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries.
The opening two essays — "Urban Life and the Question of Violence" and "The Semantics of Violence and Space" — ought to be required reading for students and scholars alike, who wish to understand the current state of research on urban violence, with particular reference to the Middle East. These opening chapters will also satisfy the need for newcomers to the subject to get up to speed on the central themes and debates that currently inform the field.
The terrain is well established in Chapter One, when Fuccaro notes that against the backdrop of recent protests in the region, "Media analysts and academics tended to treat the cities of the Arab Spring as stage sets — parade grounds for popular anger and state repression — depicting mass protests as a new twist in the ongoing struggle between governments and people ... [coupled with a] tendency to simply consider violence as located in cities ... rather than of cities."
If we approach cities in this way, we will be much better placed to see "contemporary politics not as the exclusive domain of sovereign authority," and better understand the global, rather than a more narrowly regional, Middle Eastern focus on the challenges that arise from tension and unrest in urban settings today. Indeed, it seems that attention on this issue has already had its champions in other parts of the world, including Europe, Africa and South Asia, but not, until now, the Middle East.
Every chapter displays a wealth of painstaking original research. In highlighting a few examples, I intend to demonstrate the breadth of the studies undertaken, rather than to disparage any contributions. In contrast to many edited volumes, there are no weak links in this collection.
It is also worth noting that, having violence at the heart of this book might lead some to imagine a certain monotony. This could not be further from the truth. What these scholars make clear, intentionally or not and without consulting each other, is that there is infinite variety in the causes, manifestations and outcomes of violence at the state and sub-state level. What this does is to overturn the region-wide social, political and religious stereotypes that burden many unqualified or wilfully ignorant observers and commentators on the region today.
Yasser Elsheshtawy's contribution, "Urban Rupture: A Fire, Two Hotels, and the Transformation of Cairo," brilliantly compares the destruction by fire in January 1952 of the Shepheard's Hotel, social epicentre for the British in Egypt, with the construction of the (then) ultra-modern Nile Hilton, in 1958-59. It has been observed by everyone who knew Egypt before the July 23 Revolution, and by many who have only known the country since, that the site chosen for the Nile Hilton on the western, Nile-side of Midan Tahrir, replacing a British military barracks, was not accidental. The determination of Egypt's military leadership to demonstrate a break with the colonial past is both understandable and, under certain conditions, even laudable. Alas for Egypt, as a symbol of the regime's stated move towards a modern and more progressive society, it was purely symbolic.
Without any intention of favoring the chapters on Cairo, quick mention must be made of James E. Baldwin's superb contribution, "Elite Conflict and the Urban Environment: Eighteenth Century Cairo." Aside from the fact that it captures much of the charged atmosphere that existed between political rivals in Ottoman Cairo, the author's observations on the violence perpetrated in and around harems and mosques were an eye-opener, and deserving of further research.
There are three excellent essays here on Iraq, all of which shed new light on a country that was long neglected by serious scholars, with some notable exceptions, such as Hanna Batatu and Charles Tripp. Orit Bashkin's "A Patriotic Uprising: Baghdadi Jews and the Wathba," Dina Rizk Khoury's "Making and Unmaking Spaces of Security: Basra as Battlefront, Basra Insurgent, 1980-1991," and editor Fuccaro's "Dissecting Moments of Unrest: Twentieth-Century Kirkuk" are excellent additions to a growing body of scholarly work. Although tackling events over the span of a century, the connections among these three great Iraqi cities present us with very different experiences, taking place in relatively close geographical proximity. Does this matter? It does if one wants a nuanced view of pre-2003 Iraqi history.
There are also chapters on periodic outbreaks of violence at festival gatherings in Jeddah (1880s-1960s); "Citizenship Rights and Semantics of Colonial Power and Resistance: Haifa, Jaffa, and Nablus, 1931-1933"; inter-communal, anti-Ottoman clashes in Tunis in 1857; a really brilliant piece on violence in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the "oil conurbation," in 1967; and a chapter involving another oil-rich area, the Abadan oil strike of 1946.
In sum, the book is a rich store of material that covers more ground on this issue than any other volume I am aware of. Even counterintuitively, the book makes crystal clear the universal nature of violence in contemporary urban settings. Thus, just as the so-called Arab Spring finally laid to rest any serious arguments supporting the myth of "Arab exceptionalism," Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East overturns the popular fiction that portrays the region as uniquely and inherently violent.