Home >> Volume 11 (Spring 2011) >> 2011 General Section >> Lisa Gulesserian on "Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia"

Lisa Gulesserian on "Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia"

Cover of "Comparing Cities": Wall with Arabic advertisement

Kamran Asdar Ali & Martina Rieker, Eds.

Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia

Oxford University Press, 2009
372 pages

Reviewed by Lisa Gulesserian

Recent scholarship on cities has focused on the rapidly changing face of metropolitan spaces in the ‘global south,’ those ‘non-Western’ regions of the world, such as Africa, South America, and Asia, that are currently in the process of ‘developing.’ Although many urban theorists such as Mike Davis and AbdouMaliq Simone have written about cities from these regions, there have not been many comparative analyses of developing urban spaces. In 2008, Kamran Asdar Ali and Martina Rieker set the course for a critical comparison between metropoles of the global south with their collection of essays, Gendering Urban Space in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. With their most recent edited volume, Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia, Ali and Rieker continue the task of bringing scholars of new urbanisms into conversation with one another. The book unites twelve scholars of diverse South Asian and Middle Eastern cities—such as Beirut, Kolkata, Delhi, Diyarbakir, Karachi, and Jerusalem—with the ultimate goal of moving beyond the assumption that cities of the global south are “failed cities, cities always in need of something more.” Divided into five parts, “Citing Cities,” “Narrating Urban Pasts/Presents,” “The Actualities of Everyday Life,” “Urban Governmentalities,” and “Postscript,” Ali and Rieker’s book succeeds in crossing boundaries and breaking assumptions about gender, class, governance, and historical time.

Many of the contributions to Comparing Cities grapple with issues of gender and the transformation of gendered actions and spaces in the city. Ali’s essay documents the changes in gender roles and interactions in the Pakistani city through anthropological field observations, poetry, and popular fiction. Vivid descriptions of domestic life and everyday occurrences show that “Present day harsh socio-economic realities...destabilize gender relations and undermine the harmony within the family structure, leading to, at times, violent effects within the domestic and public realms.” Ali writes of women who disrupt traditional gender boundaries by joining the workforce while leaving their husbands at home to stew in their newfound obsolescence, forcing us to “question the fixity of identities” and see how these shifting identities might lead to “co-existence and sharing in domestic and public realms.” In another essay, historian Janaki Nair uses the protests against the “Western incursion” of the 1996 Miss World pageant held in Bangalore to argue that the “increased visibility of women is richly ambiguous” because it causes “new powers for as well as new constraints upon women in urban settings.” Along with other essays in the collection, Ali and Nair show their readers how gender roles are being renegotiated in urban spaces of the global south.

Other contributions to Ali and Rieker’s book discuss how urban residents in the Middle East and South Asia cross class boundaries. In the volume’s opening essay, artist and writer Paromita Vohra describes her experience living as a single woman in Mumbai’s low cost housing blocks. Instead of providing her readers with a stereotypical narrative of squalor, Vohra’s pictures surprise by showing many smiling entrepreneurs, like the local phone baron Prakash bhai, while her accompanying words explain that her landlords are actually slum- dwelling, “Project Affected Persons” who choose to live in a slum and collect rent on their government-provided housing. Besides Vohra’s photo essay, Awadhendra Sharan’s work reevaluates classed spaces and activities while describing Delhi’s environmental policy. Sharan astutely argues that the “drive against polluting industries and the drive against the poor of the city have become synonymous.” At the same time, Sharan is quick to highlight the “labour of the millions who have helped build this city of refugees and migrants,” showing the importance of a class frequently disparaged, when not completely overlooked.

On another note, urban planner Mona Fawaz’s contribution disrupts the binary distinctions of public/ private and legal/illegal modes of governance. Through her field work and sleuthing in Beirut’s city code, Fawaz discovered that “a number of public agents participated in the production of illegality” by privately selling illegal building permits to poor Beirut residents in Hayy el Sellom, the largest informal settlement in the city. The distinction between legal and illegal, private and public is less rigid in Mary Hancock’s Chennai as well. In “Signs of Sovereignty (Chennai),” Hancock describes another public/private partnership that disrupts ideas about governance using the example of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and its decision to save a heritage building in Chennai, the DGP Building. She explains that “INTACH constitutes its exteriority vis-à-vis the state and, at the same time, seeks to craft an institutional space within the state apparatus, as a regular participant in both rule-making and policy implementation.” In both Chennai and Beirut, the line between public and private, as well as legal and illegal, is blurred.

Blurry, too, are the lines between different historical periods in the various cities described by the contributors of Ali and Rieker’s book. After Lebanon’s bloody civil war, Beirut’s downtown area was left mostly destroyed. Yazmeen Arif’s essay tracks the rebuilding of Beirut’s city center and reaches the conclusion that “Under ‘normal’ circumstances, genealogies could lie dormant— but in an agenda of recovery, the force of perpetuation they carry enriches them. These genealogies must carry the potential of legitimate identities into a destiny in the future.” In this sense, the past is carried into the present because of its potential to create a peaceful, economically viable future. The teleology of past, present, and future is disrupted and shown to be much more malleable, especially in a recovering urban landscape. A different reconstruction than that of Beirut’s center, this time of the old city walls of Diyarbakir, is critically examined by Zeynep Gambetti to show that the reconstruction “served to unearth the local pride that was under cover for decades, but also to reconstruct it.” Again, the past is exploded out of “the continuum of history,” in a Benjaminian turn, to allow for a more appealing future. City residents, urban planners, and politicians in the Middle East and South Asia collapse the boundaries between time periods for various reasons, but both Gambetti and Arif observe these boundary crossings with simultaneous hope and trepidation.

Although only one of the twelve essays in Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia makes an explicit connection between the Middle East and South Asia, the book is nevertheless an important contribution to urban studies of the global south because it does not make hasty generalizations, choosing instead to show that cities are “open, embedded, and relational” (per geographer Kevin Ward). For this reason, Ali and Rieker’s collection merits attention from various other scholars of the global south. As mentioned above, those interested in gender, class, governance, and usages of historical time will find the essays in Comparing Cities indispensable. Those concerned with rights and changing urban forms might flip to Partha Chatterjee’s “A Postscript from Kolkata: An Equal Right to the City” and Salim Tamari’s “City of Riffraff: Crowds, Public Space, and New Urban Sensibilities in War-Time Jerusalem, 1917- 1921.” Others more interested in media studies and rearticulations of Michel de Certeau’s concept of the “tactics of everyday life” will appreciate the readings of various cultural productions in Iftikhar Dadi’s “Ghostly Sufis and Ornamental Shadows: Spectral Visualities in Karachi’s Public Sphere” and Ravi Sundaram’s “Re- visiting ‘Everyday Life’: The Experience of Delhi’s Media Urbanism.” Like the urban poor described in this collection who “find ways to expand their own circuits of movement across the city,” Ali and Rieker’s book traverses topics of study about the varied urban spaces of the increasingly important global south and allows scholars of the Middle East and South Asia to continue to engage in dialogue with one another.