People inspect the aftermath of a deadly car bomb explosion that hit a popular fruit and vegetable market in a commercial street in Baghdad's northwestern neighborhood of Hurriyah, Iraq, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

People inspect the aftermath of a deadly car bomb explosion that hit a popular fruit and vegetable market in a commercial street in Baghdad's northwestern neighborhood of Hurriyah, Iraq, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. Karim Kadim/AP

Here's a Better Way to Understand Urban Violence in the Middle East

A new book plumbs the region's history to frame the events of today and tomorrow.

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. While 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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.