By Mimi Kirk
Architect and scholar Ying Zhou presented two in-depth lectures at MEI in April on “contemporary urban manifestations” in the Arab world, specifically regarding the cities of Damascus and Cairo.
In her first lecture, Ms. Ying addressed four stages of Damascus: the city’s formation, the French mandate period, the era of Arab socialism, and the contemporary period. Damascus is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, and Ms. Ying took the audience through its early history by mapping such periods as Roman and Islamic rule. During the post-WWI French mandate period, architects aimed to beautify the metropolis through public parks, boulevards, trees, and monuments, but left much of old Damascus, with its warren of narrow roads, intact. During the decades of Arab socialism in the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet style housing blocks were constructed, with some public spaces transformed into private spaces, such as private parking garages. Today, luxury housing and malls funded by Gulf oil money and supported by the neoliberal economic reforms of President Bashar al-Asad are cropping up outside the city—though many Syrians cannot afford such spaces. Ms. Ying noted that in terms of Syria’s current uprising, the public spaces constructed by the French have been used both for pro-government demonstrations and by anti-regime protestors.
In her lecture on Cairo, Ms. Ying discussed four “vignettes” in regard to the city: Tahrir Square, the Pyramids, Madinat Nasr, and New Cairo. She noted that Tahrir Square was commissioned by Ismail Pasha in the late nineteenth century to “modernize” Cairo, using Parisian architectural and urban planning styles. Thus, in comparison to the French areas of Damascus, the square was not a colonial project per se. The romantic notion of the Pyramids as set off in the desert is not accurate, Ms. Ying noted, explaining that the city is built almost to the plateau upon which they sit. Informal and unplanned housing can be found near the Pyramids, but new plans for the area involving malls, museums, and exclusive communities (in order to “sell the view”) would disrupt this housing. In Madinat Nasr, the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser built agencies and other official buildings that it saw as key to a modern Egypt. Perhaps ironically, Madinat Nasr today contains the biggest shopping centers in the city. Finally, New Cairo features luxury gated communities built in the desert. Similar to the neoliberal projects of Damascus, these rarefied, outside-the-city spaces are available (and marketed to) a wealthy and often Westernized population.