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How to Understand Urban Violence in the Middle East

A recent book contextualizes historic and modern brutality across the region.

A man reacts to a bombing in Aleppo, Syria. (Saad AboBrahim/Reuters)

The stories and images currently coming out of Aleppo, Syria, where forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are overpowering the last pockets of resistance in the eastern part of the city, are heartbreaking. Over the past several weeks, scores, if not hundreds, of civilians have perished from bombings and shootings, as well as a severe lack of food and medical care, before they could be evacuated. News from Mosul, where Iraqi forces are battling ISIS and civilians are being wounded and killed, is also dire.

Such are the accounts Westerners have become accustomed to hearing about the cities of the Middle East. By and large, media reports don’t provide the context necessary for readers to comprehend how such brutality came about, and how it fits into a broader picture of urban violence across both time and space.  

Nelida Fuccaro, an historian at the University of London, seeks to provide this context through a recent book, Violence in the City in the Modern Middle East, which surveys the diverse causes and effects of violence in the region, tracking how violence shaped and destroyed communities, governments, and daily life in specific urban centers during periods of recent history. Fuccaro, who edited the collection of essays, spoke with CityLab about the book.

A goal of the book is to debunk the myth that Middle Eastern metropolises are inherently violent places populated by inherently violent people. How does it address this?

The book approaches this misconception by “normalizing” violence: That is, by showing how violence has always been an integral part of city life and of urban architectures of power. Unfortunately, the authoritarian backlash after the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, the war in Syria, and ISIS have contributed to flawed representations of Middle Eastern people as intrinsically violent. At any time in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many urban societies in Europe, Asia, and Africa experienced levels of violence comparable to the Middle East. That cities like Mosul, Raqqa, and Aleppo are currently suffering from extraordinary levels of violence is not a Middle Eastern given, but the manifestation of the instability and profound disruption resulting from cataclysmic events such as the American invasion of Iraq and the sectarianization of regional politics.

It’s important to try to explain and make sense of the current “rule of violence” beyond the irrational and primordial—not to justify the actions or forget the many victims, but to come to terms with it as an historical and sociopolitical phenomenon that is common to all societies.

So, a main concern of the book is to situate Middle Eastern urban violence in its context and history.

Yes. Until recently, the study and discussion of past and present public violence in the Middle East was set somewhat apart from the specific places where it occurred. We in the West are used to hearing about the barbarous actions of violent and oppressive regimes, police forces, paramilitary units, dictators, and security apparatuses. Such abstractions ignore the fact that moments of violence do not take place in a vacuum, but are shaped by particular spaces and events that create experience, socioeconomic relations, symbols of power, and modes of individual and collective mobilization.

The cataclysmic events of the Arab uprisings were a pivotal moment in bringing cities back into the violence equation. It became increasingly difficult to dissociate the actions of the protesting crowds and those of the police forces that confronted them from urban locations such as Tahrir Square in Cairo. Yet zooming into the city does not mean seeing it in isolation from what lies beyond it. In fact, while Middle Eastern cities have been at the vanguard of violent politics, particularly in the twentieth century, some of the roots of these politics were national, regional, and international.

The book looks at both elite or state violence and more local forms of violence in Middle Eastern cities, including resistance such as civilian protests. Why is this essential?

Some chapters deal with colonial discipline, or the violent means used by occupying foreign powers to quell opposition and control cities as diverse as Cairo, Haifa, and Baghdad. Other case studies discuss the violent worlds of imperial and national state administrations by analyzing their urban intermediaries: military and religious leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, and even urban planners. Yet state-centered vistas on violence don’t tell us the whole story about its roots, manifestations, and reverberations. The essays question the somewhat-conventional wisdom that cities are mere appendixes of state power by presenting a variety of violent actors that don’t necessarily operate at the national or state level, and by exploring different aspects of resistance.

Resistance can trigger the mobilization of urban residents. This can be as much a defensive as an offensive tactic of survival and self-assertion. Contrary to romantic visions of the moral economy of crowds, some of the chapters highlight the brutality of grassroots action. Only by taking stock of violence’s multifaceted qualities are we able to start grasping its all-encompassing powers.

And violence doesn't have to mean the physical sort. For instance, it can take the form of transnational capital and its resultant social inequality.

Violence is indeed a very complex phenomenon. Some scholars have even argued that we should do away with the concept altogether as it is too difficult to pin down.

The starting point of many of the chapters is physical violence: brawls, warfare, interfactional clashes, curfews, riots, and strikes. Yet violent events of this sort often reveal other forms of systemic and structural violence that can function at different levels, from the local to the global. For instance, the volume addresses the disruptive effects of colonial and corporate capitalism on pre-1952 Cairo and on the oil towns of Kirkuk, Dhahran, and Abadan [in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, respectively] from the 1940s to the 1960s. Here, the penetration of foreign capital metamorphosed into spatial divisions and socioeconomic inequalities that in turn triggered the explosion of hooliganism, and of aggressive labor and ethnic protests.

The book also looks at how knowledge of a city is necessary to “guide the spatial tactics of the military, police, and protestors alike.” The city is complicated, but knowable. How does this idea play out in today’s cities?

Famously, knowledge is power, and knowledge of hidden corners, streets, and other public spaces helps both the powerful and powerless to pursue their political goals. In the Middle East, the West, and beyond, we live in high-surveillance cities that defy the classic image of cities as places of social emancipation and political liberation, as predicted by the theorists George Simmel and Henri Lefevbre at the turn of the twentieth century and in the 1960s, respectively.

In our contemporary era, cities’ surveillance and fear feed each other. Fear of terrorist attacks nurture public security measures, and the proliferation of cameras [and] surveillance systems instigate the continuous feeling of being watched. For some, it’s reassuring, but for others, it’s an abuse of civil liberties and personal space—indeed, a subtle form of structural violence.

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