Qasr al Hosn Festival 2015

Qasr al Hosn Festival 2015


Lights shimmered under the clear night sky as people strolled around Qasr Al Hosn, the fort that built a nation. Music traveled with the masses of people, who sang along or chatted with each other as they visited booths that offered cultural merchandise. I realized I made the wrong choice of shoes when I stepped on the sand and saw that right in the middle of the festival area, a boat rested in a man-made oasis. Small waves swayed as the speakers produced the familiar sound of the sea that nurtured Abu Dhabi as it grew. The fort watched over the crowd, who came to celebrate the past.

Having been immersed in Arab culture for my entire life, I did not think that a visit to the Qasr Al Hosn Festival would teach me anything new. I was wrong. I walked from one booth to another, taking a look at the variety of abayas and kanduras displayed there, mixed in with the bright colors of Indian saris, accessories, and lanterns. Local women were selling herbs, drinks, and foods, and explained that their grandparents used these products for medical purposes long before they became available in pharmacies. I was embarrassed when one of my friends asked me about the meaning of an Arabic word on one of the products and I couldn’t answer, but my confusion showed me how language changes as it travels distances — or, more accurately — cultures.


At the “shore,” I saw how the locals made their living before the discovery of oil. An aged man, with a forehead lined with wisdom, sat on Persian rugs as he knitted fishing nets. His hands made each perfect knot mechanically; it seemed so effortless but the sight of his thin, scarred fingers showed the opposite. Sailors and fishermen sat in the boat, and showed us how they used the fishnets to capture the fish, which they sold at the fish market. In another tent, we learned about pearl hunting. Divers used to explore the depths of the sea to capture oysters in the hopes of finding valuable pearls inside. While it brought wealth for many people and enhanced the country’s economy, this life-risking occupation marked a lot of people’s lives with tragedy. It wasn’t the life of risk compensation or workers’ rights; you had to summon the courage to dive in or watch your children starve. The accounts of history we learned in these tents challenged the common idea that this country started from the discovery of oil. Staring at the miserable face of a pearl diver in old photographs made people forget the stereotype of the Arab who is born with a gold spoon in his mouth.


My next stop was the “Lest We Forget” exhibit, the name of which comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional,” written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The phrase has been linked to memory ever since, as a plea to remember the sacrifices of the past. The “Lest We Forget” initiative follows the path of its name as it was born out of a vision of preserving and sharing the Emirati heritage.

The exhibit, which was originally created for the Venice Biennale, started with a hallway of black drawers topped by a timeline of pictures. Viewers see the pre-oil era, and learn when the important landmarks of the UAE were built. The guide pointed our attention to a creative addition to the timeline: each landmark on the timeline in the UAE was drawn in white, while landmarks built in other parts of the world in the same year were drawn in grey. This feature allowed visitors to see how the UAE was developing in comparison with the rest of the world. It also reveals the jump this country made from its founding in 1971 to the present. I opened drawer after drawer and looked through a collection of memories that showed the birth of a country, from the yellowing pages of an old notebook used by pearl merchants to determine prices to the bottle that held the very first drops of oil that transformed the desert to a city.

NYUAD students took part in the festival by having their own exhibition of the work they did with Professor Pascal Menoret in a course called “Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi.” The students displayed an outline of Hamdan Street, one of the most important streets in Abu Dhabi, and showed off the street’s most important landmarks.

My evening ended with a little food-tasting tour with my friends. The volunteers offered us a taste of the yogurt their ancestors used to make while another woman showed us the process of turning the milk into butter and yogurt by wrapping it tightly with a cloth and leaving it hanging from a stick for a while. Families sat on tables surrounding the little café, shaped like a cottage, which offered several Emirati beverages and snacks. At the far end of the festival, we waited in line to have a taste of the delicious luqaimat, everyone’s favorite Emirati dessert, from a food truck. The food truck presented a nice combination of the food of the past in the structure of the present.

The Qasr Al Hosn festival offered everyone a distinct experience. Locals got a chance to remember and appreciate the history of their country, while expats got a glimpse of a culture and a past they rarely get to see. Just as the fort stands with all its antique glory between skyscrapers, so is the Qasr Al Hosn festival an image of a living history that guides us in our present.


[Photo Credits: Cyrus R. K. Patell (top); Dana Abu Ali (all others)]

The Crochet Coral Reef Project Comes to Abu Dhabi

The Crochet Coral Reef Project Comes to Abu Dhabi

Turning the woolly marine creations around in her hands, Margaret Wertheim, one of the founders of the Crochet Coral Reef Project and co-director of the Institute for Figuring, spoke to a small, but diverse collection of people from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) community. Students, faculty members, Global Academic Fellows, administrative staff, and members of the Abu Dhabi community were in attendance for the workshop, each person closely listening—with a ball of yarn in one hand and a crochet hook in the other.

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The Crochet Coral Reef Project was co-created in 2005 by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, inspired by their mutual concern for the devastating effects the rising of temperature and pollution have had on the coral reefs. Ms. Wertheim and her sister, Christine, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by the warming of the water. “[The project] has exceeded our expectations in any possible way,” said Ms. Wertheim, while starting to crochet a simple green coral reef structure. “When my sister and I started this project in 2005, we honestly thought that maybe 20 or 30 people would be interested in doing this project with us, and now there are well over 7000 people who have made models for the exhibitions themselves, and 3 million people have seen the exhibitions- we never imagined it would become a world-wide phenomenon.”

Ms. Wertheim showed the participants the different hyperbolic structures that could be made with a simple knowledge of crochet techniques, from a tight, dense hyperbolic pane made with red yarn, to a more elaborate kelp-like structure made from a special material called Jelly Yarn. The coral reef can be crocheted with any material, even with strips of disposed plastic bags, a bold statement in itself that protests against the immeasurable amount garbage present in the ocean today.

The most significant achievement of the Crochet Coral Reef Project is that in bringing the various levels of community together, the end result reflects the overarching culture of the region in which the project is executed. Together, participants create a rich composition of textures that represent the various customs, attitudes, and lifestyle of their community. Each city that has participated in creating a Satellite Reef has exhibited a different theme—and message—to its viewers. I suspect that the NYUAD Satellite Reef will be a veritable conglomeration of shapes, sizes, and colours, owing to the spectacular diversity of backgrounds present in the community body. “Abu Dhabi is a very unique place to be doing this project for various reasons,” said Ms. Wertheim, continuing on to expound on the logistical challenges the location has already presented – “This is the first time that we have done [the Reef project] in the Middle East, which is exciting in its own right, but [New York University Abu Dhabi] is very eager to involve people from all sectors of society as much as possible, which presents many logistical challenges because there is a [severe] separation of communities here…[one must] do outreach to individual communities…there is the student community, the Emirati community, the guest workers who work at NYU, the academic staff, and each of these populations have to be targeted in a different way.”  Although NYUAD students fully embrace the cosmopolitan nature of the university, they have also experienced much difficulty in connecting with the different populations that exist within the university. Communal projects like the Crochet Coral Reef Project are important because they present great opportunities for collaboration across the community that might otherwise have difficulty establishing connections.

An important aspect of the project is its connection to feminism. Crochet as a handicraft has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, and remains to this day a female-dominated activity. It is not surprising, then, that the participants in the Crochet Coral Reef Project are almost all female. In fact, the project has met with disapproval from some women, who consider the project to be propagating the stereotype that women must take care of domestic responsibilities, and engage in feminine activity in their free time. The tradition of a mother teaching her daughter “hand work” has suffered over the past half-century, in part due to the idea that these skills are “old-fashioned,” or limiting. The word ‘feminist’ has developed negative connotations precisely because of those who call themselves active feminists and challenge the traditional separation of roles and hobbies to advocate sexual prejudices, mistaking cultural gender differences to indicate sexual discrimination; in this way of taking issue with everything, people have ceased to take their concerns seriously because the resolution of such matters does not advance the agenda for equality. It is altogether too easy to forget that feminism is the advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men- the abolition of a traditional handicraft will never achieve this feat, and will more compromise the rich history and significance of female history.

Lamenting that gender feminism has overwhelmed what was coined as equity feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism, Ms. Wentheim declared that crochet is a distinctly feminine activity that empowers women and men alike, a technical skill of artistry that must be mastered like any other skill or craft. The Crochet Coral Reef Project is a feminist project that unites women and men from all walks of life, allowing them to collaborate on making stunning models of marine structures through the beautiful feminine tradition of crochet. Personally, I felt joy in learning how to crochet again, because my mother had been increasingly reluctant to teach me the technique as I grew older.

The opening statement on the Crochet Coral Reef website is the perfect distillation of the project: “The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The people who attended the workshop held at NYUAD had varying levels of experience with crochet, but all were present because they had taken advantage of the communal space and time that the project created for the community. Bringing the Crochet Coral Reef Project to NYUAD is the beginning of a powerful series of conversations across the many layers of community extant in the university, one that will gain momentum as the project progresses.

For more information about the NYUAD Crochet Coral Reef project, please email:


Going Beyond the Superlative Mindset

Going Beyond the Superlative Mindset

“When built in 1890, the Palacio Barolo was the tallest building in South America,” says Diego, his upturned finger inviting my eyes skywards. As the tour continues its leisurely pace through the streets of Buenos Aires, I hang behind for a moment, sheltering my eyes from the sunlight that shines back from the windows. Now where have I seen this before?

Of course: only a few months had passed since I stood with my mouth gaping open at the base of the Burj Khalifa, craning my neck as far back as it could go to catch a full view of the tower. That time as well, gleaming surfaces had stunned me into silence. “The world’s tallest building, sure, but I hear they’re building a taller one in Saudi Arabia,” my friend had muttered. “The fountain show here is spectacular though; can you believe that we’re surrounded by sand-dunes?”

I had indeed forgotten about the desert; in a city like Dubai, it is all-too-easy to forget where you were. Our tour group (made up of Indian, Japanese and Chinese tourists among others) stands out like a sore thumb; in Dubai, on the other hand, where foreigners are the overwhelming majority, every local I saw wearing the traditional abaya or khandora stood flanked by three tourists with straw hats perched atop their heads. Buenos Aires, as Dubai, beats down a prickly heat that makes my shirt stick to my back, but the pronounced development of the desert landscape in Dubai relegates the summer to an expendable commodity; one can, in the same afternoon, venture on a desert safari in sweltering temperatures and then enjoy an indulgent shopping experience in the air-conditioned interiors of Dubai Mall.

In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, cities engrossed in the attempt to “rebrand” themselves as leading tourist destinations, these dueling images crop up everywhere you go: a shawarma stall huddled next to Starbucks, a tiny barbershop at the base of a towering skyscraper. These contrasts make me wonder: how does a newly developing city differentiate itself to carve a unique identity? What is a city’s identity? In Buenos Aires of 1890, a combination of freedom from colonial rule and a prime trading location put them in the same category where Abu Dhabi and Dubai now find themselves: governments with ambitious development plans and no dearth of resources to fulfill them. In these plans, however, why was possessing the superlative of the “tallest” building so important to Buenos Aires? Where would Dubai feature on the global map if a taller building really is built in Saudi Arabia?

view-from-burj-khalifaView from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

In sociological circles, the use of money in an overt manner is called “conspicuous consumption.” Thorstein Veblen developed this notion to explain the tendency of consumers, regardless of social class, to signal their consumption habits to their peers in a way that emphasizes their monetary strength.

While the Veblen model is essentially microcosmic and has become known, colloquially, as the “Keeping up with the Kardash…Joneses” mentality, I wonder if the same concept could apply to urban development; don’t governments, just like people, harbor dreams of upward mobility and increased prestige? In attempting to differentiate one city from another and create a unique identity, developers – quite understandably – focus on drawing tourism through the rare and the novel.

At the most basic level, the superlative mentality is showboating – there are no two ways about it. The motivations, however, may derive from nothing more than a quirk of economic practice and the exhibitionist impulse at the core of human nature. Conspicuous consumption cannot be singularly achieved: creating a unique identity compels at least a basic awareness of the achievements of one’s peers, or the limits of what has come before..

As Buenos Aires once prized the tallest building in South America and Dubai now proudly hosts the tallest building in the world, these buildings are important because, quite simply, they are (or were) taller than the rest – the identity of the city emerges through comparison. Some superlatives are more ludicrous than others: no record books are being rewritten to include the world’s first hydromagnetic-powered tornado in the world (in Yas Waterworld) or the most expensively ornamented Christmas tree (in Emirates Palace, the most expensive hotel in the world).

YeBack Camerat, is the identity of a city so one-dimensional as to be reduced solely to her tourist attractions? In the framework of urban development where identity is conceived in relativistic and competitive terms, how does culture and tradition figure into the global perception – and identity – of a city or country? Going back to a household model: if I wanted to decorate my home over the holidays, I’d be lying (or overly competitive) if I said that I always acted with my peers in mind. The ornaments on the Christmas tree may create an identity for the household based on the superior allure – “have you seen the solid gold star on Martin’s tree?” – but then again, another family may place the same ornament atop the tree as it has for the past few decades purely out of reverence for the household tradition.

A government, perhaps, is no different: both Buenos Aires and Dubai attempted to position themselves on the global map through elaborate development strategies, and the identity of the city came to be associated with those attempts. Buenos Aires, as an example of a much older city, was once identified with the tallest building in South America but no longer holds that title, which suggests that urban identity is transient and, perhaps, even fragile. When the dust from a construction site settles and a taller building comes forth in another country, does the city lose its only identity?

If we look beyond the framework of the superlative mentality, then the answer is a reassuring no. Tourists continue to visit Buenos Aires, if not for the “tallest building” or a mélange of cultures then for the pulsating experience of tango lessons. The newer governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have, to their credit, recognized the importance of upholding cultural heritage: what results is a loving but sometimes fraught embrace between the superlative mentality and cultural tradition. No expense is spared, it seems, in creating large-scale theme parks or innumerable foreign chains but cultural norms remain paramount. Prada stores and prayer rooms stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same stretch of mall space, and locals flit between the two. None of the burger chains in the city serve pork, but camel meat, the desperate (but life-saving) measure of Bedouins, “back in the day,” quite literally provides you a taste of local culture.

In many respects, cultural traditions are like the rolling sand dunes that surround these developing cities. In a country where foreign influences constantly vie for attention, where hotels jostle for space with labor camps, I have – like many new residents – struggled to reconcile myself to the opulent displays of wealth, and spent many an hour in the search for the identity of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But sometimes, all it takes is to remember that, like the sand-dunes, the culture is living and breathing around us, coming alive in little but noticeable ways. That a shawarma stall and a skyscraper – or a foreign boutique and a mosque – can coexist in the same space certainly counts for more than the height of the skyscraper, or the expense of importing the marble of the mosque. And so, whether Saudi Arabia builds a taller building than the Burj Khalifa or not, life in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will continue. The superlative mentality is incidental, and not instrumental, to identity.

[Photo credit: Cyrus R. K. Patell]

The “Cast” of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al Hosn

The “Cast” of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al Hosn


The Qasr al Hosn Festival was a ten-day community exhibition organized by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and held at the site of fort Qasr al Hosn, the city’s oldest building. Celebrating the history of the fort—which was built in 1761 and later became the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family—and the heritage  of the Emirates following from this iconic structure, the festival boasts many pieces of material culture: traditional objects, structures, foods, and animals.

Perhaps the most prevalent, and the most puzzling, however, were the scores of people who have been appointed to work as the festival’s “cast.” While groups of festivalgoers wandered the old-timey souks, traced circles in the sand atop well-groomed horses and camels, and queued up for theatrical presentations, the cast of Qasr al Hosn performed. Some seemed in another world, focused solely on their handicrafts—among others, two men build a large dhow ship with resinous nails while a third carves palm wood into pieces for a smaller fishing boat; women in leather burkhas wove baskets and carpets with their skillful, henna-blackened fingers; and a group of fisherman sat in a circle, singing old Arabic sea shanties around a pile of wicker fishing nets. Not far away was a full bridal house, complete with a traditional Emirati “bride” and a gaggle of young bridesmaids, dancers with colorful dresses and hair that reached to the center of their backs. Young Emirati men, decked out in old policemen’s uniforms with heavy fake rifles and dusty brown keffiyeh, strolled the festival grounds. These cast members were consciously assembled, like objects in a museum, to both create and communicate a sense of Abu Dhabi’s material cultural heritage, grown from the white washed walls of the old stone fort.

Qasr-al-Hosn-Fest-QR-CodesPart of this distinction between person and object—even human “objects”—has to do with the other roles that people fulfill at the festival. Not everyone became an object. Each participant wore an identification tag with one of three distinctions—“Volunteer,” “Event Staff,” or “Cast.” While the cast was responsible for representing traditions of Emirati culture through certain kinds of performance (weaving, singing, crafting, storytelling, simply looking traditional), it was the staff and volunteers who interacted with the festival’s ticketholders. As I entered the festival, I was soon greeted by a young Emirati teen with a red and green armband from Takatof, a volunteer organization in the UAE. This young man, and later a group of knowledgeable high school–age Emirati girls, showed me around the various stalls, booths, and craft areas, explaining each tableau we approached—who the people inside were, what they were doing or making, and how the objects around them functioned.

Contributing to the need for mediation was the language barrier; if I spoke Arabic, I would have been able to understand the stories of the old marine storyteller. But as festival photographers snapped shots of men playing the rababa or building a dhow ship, it was easy to see that these performers were aware of their role as a spectacle of national tradition. Emphasizing this fact were the QR codes placed next to each “scene,” giving smart phone users easy access to these explanations without human contact—in most cases, one was not even required to step inside a building, much less speak to the people inside the tableaux. It was as if observers were expected to treat the cast merely as pieces in a museum, and each exhibit was carefully crafted to put us in the position of passive observers.

Some cast members were hired because of the skills they have—skills that were once an integral part of Emirati life and are now regarded as “artifacts.” The elderly fishermen, for example, weaving fishnets and drying fish in the marine area of the festival, once fed the Emirati community, and now they are “objects” used to demonstrate a historic method of subsistence. As we passed through the souk area, I saw plastic packets of dried fish at one booth, sold by a fresh-faced young Emirati man in national dress. The dried fish was once a staple of the Emirati diet, the souk vendor told me, explaining the various types of fish and their prices. As such, the fishermen would have been active participants in the economy of everyday food production. Now these men only represent daily life; they illustrate elements of Emirati culture that the Emirati girls who showed me around have never experienced. At another booth, vendors sold brightly colored woven cell phone covers. These, I saw later, were also created at the festival, this time by women weaving on a traditional loom. The fishermen and weavers were carefully chosen aspects of the past that my Emirati guides don’t actually remember—their daily lives are presumably not “traditional” enough to be displayed at the festival. So these products, the dried fish and iPhone accouterments, are tools used to remember the past while also repackaging it—literally—to serve the interests of the present.

The traditional Emirati policeman was another kind of human object. Unlike most of the other cast members, these men were mobile, found not only near the model of the police station, but also wandering the festival areas, fake rifles slung across their khaki-clad shoulders. Their minty green and dark maroon Land Rovers were interspersed throughout the heritage site in every area but the marine section, reminding us that the Qasr al Hosn was initially a watchtower and a fortress. The old-style policemen were not too far removed from today’s policemen, and while I don’t think these actors were cast to actually police the festival, they function as crowd control simply by playing the part. By patrolling the festival like policemen would have done, and by placing their trucks in the midst of the crowds, these “police” became objects that both represented order and created order. Just the presence of these men as objects was enough to create a sense of culture that not only represents what is historical, but reinforces present structures.


Using these people—the cast—as objects of material culture helps to serve the interests of the present but may also distort the image of a not so distant past. Actors in other historical reenactments—like Fort Ticonderoga, Jamestown, or Gettysburg, in the United States—are employed to make history come alive for a population that has no first-hand memory or experience of it. Visitors are led among historic rooms containing historic chairs upholstered with historic fabrics, encouraged to try their hand at historic techniques like churning butter, and entertained by performances of historic practices or events. It’s fun to plunge into the past, drawing parallels and comparisons between your life and the ones enacted by the cast with the knowledge that, unlike the American settlers, you can drive home in an air-conditioned car. In contrast, objects at the Qasr al Hosn festival were presented as “historic,” but the history in this case is so recent that it has living subjects—some of the festival’s fishermen are actually fishermen, rababa players actually play the rababa, and traditional coffee is still drunk from traditional coffee pots. This presentation of history, still remembered by some, is different than a 2013 reenactment of the American Revolution because here in Abu Dhabi, we are not looking at the past from a vantage point 250 years in the future. The people and practices showcased at the festival are part of the Emirati heritage, and part of a culture that can not and should not yet be relegated to a dusty box in the attic, or the quaint observations of the historically minded tourist. The Qasr festival put people on display to offer snapshots of a not-too-distant history and remind us of the need to remember the roots of a culture. In doing so, however, it raises the question: do these human “heritage objects” bring the past closer to us, or push it further away?

Boom Cities Conference

Boom Cities Conference

Analyzing the Urban Environment of the Arabian Peninsula

Cities Conference_BENCHETRIT_heritage site

The Arabian Peninsula is home to a number of “boom cities,” urban environments where state initiative, oil money, and globalization have led to rapid development. “Cities in the Arabian Peninsula are at the intersection of global energy markets, local and regional politics, international investment, religious networks, and labor migrations,” write the organizers of the Boom Cities conference, hosted at NYU Abu Dhabi on December 3 and 4, 2012. The urbanization of the Arabian Peninsula has led to cultural and economic regeneration and opportunities for modernization and renewal, but also to urban marginalization, shifts in urban social structure, environmental degradation, and increasingly creative forms of public protest. Papers given at the conference by international specialists of urban studies covered these topics in the context of Doha (Qatar), Ras al-Khaimah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi (UAE), Sana‘a (Yemen), al-Madina, Jeddah, ‘Unayzah, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Kuwait City, and Manama (Bahrain).

Organizers Claire Beaugrand (Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Beirut), Amélie Le Renard (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France), Pascal Menoret (NYU Abu Dhabi), and Roman Stadnicki (Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales, Cairo) were commended by panelist Ulrike Freitag for their “courage” in convening a conference encompassing such a wide range of disciplinary approaches. Presenters came from a multitude of different backgrounds, including anthropology, history, literature, political science, and biology. The multidisciplinarity of the sessions was productive rather than dissonant, and the papers were complementary, not disjunctive or incompatible. Andrew Gardner’s paper on urban spaces in Doha, for example, which was the first presented, provided a basis for many subsequent presentations, as many found his references to the “interstitial spaces” in the “enclaved” city useful terms with which to articulate their own research.

The conference spanned two days and included an exhibition by photographer Manuel Benchetrit, a public lecture by Yasser Elsheshtawy (UAE University), and four panels covering urban development, urban renewal, spatial politics, and urban margins. Papers given at the conference will be published in full in the Fall 2013 volume of Arabian Humanities, an international journal of Archaeology and Social Sciences in the Arabian Peninsula published by The French Centre in Sana’a for Archaeology and Social Sciences (CEFAS). In anticipation of this volume, Electra Street has gathered abstracts and short excerpts from many of the presentations for those who were unable to attend.

— Sachi Leith

Cities Conference_BENCHETRIT_Pool and slum

[Photos above courtesy of Manuel Benchetrit; used by permission. Top: “Heritage Site”; bottom: “Pool and Slum”]


Andrew M. Gardner (University of Puget Sound), “The Amalgamated City: Petroleum Wealth and Urban Space in Doha, Qatar”

This paper is built upon an ethnographic foundation, largely a result of two years (2008-2010) spent in Doha, Qatar. In this paper, I attempt to explain and explore how Doha, as an urban built environment, serves and functions in the political/economic context of the Qatari state, I attempt to explain why the city (and, to some degree, other cities in the region) grow so rapidly and constantly, and I posit a fundamental (and often overlooked) urban spatial discourse that, in my estimation, is essential to understanding the pattern of contemporary urban development in the Arabian Gulf.

I begin this paper with a description of a prototypical experience of Doha and the lived spaces of the city. This experience focuses attention on the contrast between the “modernity” embraced and fetishized in managed or planned spaces and the chaotic and disheveled interstitial spaces in between those planned spaces. I also suggest that passing over this threshold is a recurring experience in the Gulf City, and one that I return to and reflect upon throughout the paper.

CitiesConference_Gardner_interstitial space

“Interstitial” Space

The first analytic section of this paper, tentatively titled “The City as a Trophy Case,” seeks to engage and explore the role that monumental architecture and “prestigious projects” — those vast-in-scale supermodern components of Doha’s built environment — play in codifying nationalism. I recognize that cities dialectically function to reinforce nationalisms in the region while simultaneously registering in a cosmopolitan symbolic index of modernity and development.

CitiesConference_Gardner_trophy planning

“Trophy Planning”

In the second analytic section of the paper, I seek to explore and explain why the pace of urban development is so accelerated in Doha. I argue that while there has been sufficient attention to the public sector’s role in transferring state-controlled petroleum wealth to citizens, real estate and urban development represent a second and unexplored conduit for these transfers. Part of my argument rests on the fact that for every monumental construction built in Doha, there is a less visible sea of construction involving compounds, labor camps, and service industry. I contend that the act of urban growth has become an integral component of the implicit contract between state and citizen.

Together, the two processes described above have yielded a city (and, around the Gulf, cities) patterned in a particular spatial discourse. I draw on Aihwa Ong’s notions of “zoning technologies” and “graduated sovereignty” here, and therefore note the many “exceptional zones” that have arisen in Doha and elsewhere in the GCC. In my analysis, this spatialization is about more than the political and economic functions that are the focus of Ong’s work. In Doha, this spatialization, or “enclaving,” appears to be more about the compartmentalization of “foreign matter” (Dresch 2006): amidst unparalleled flows of global capital, culture, and people, the “zoning technologies” used in the compartmentalization of “foreign matter” can be grasped as an essential component of the regulation and governance of these global flows, and more directly, as an ongoing assertion of Qatari cultural identity and belonging to place amidst the proliferation of exceptionalism.


Brigitte Dumortier (Université Paris Sorbonne), “Concurrence and/or Complementarity between Coastal Cities in the United Arab Emirates

Ras el Khaimah refers to both one of the seven emirates forming the United Arab Emirates and to the capital city of this emirate. The present article shows to which extent the city belongs to the model of boom cities along the Gulf and which are its specificities. Ras el Khaimah benefits from a natural environment less arid than the neighbouring emirates and presents a particular identity associated to its history. Today, the authorities show an ambition to recover a lost rank among the Gulf coastal cities. On the master plans the border between virtual and reality is unclear, as is often the case on documents and websites devoted to urban development in the Gulf.  Some proposals seem oversized or unrealistic and make an impression or give an illusion that Ras el Khaimah will become a miniaturized Dubai.

Ras el Khaimah is the heir of a history dating back to the highest Antiquity. In the Middle Age and the Early Modern Period, it was known as Julfar, one of the major ports in the region. Later, it became headquarter of the Qawassim, a maritime power that presented a firm resistance to British imperial ambition in the vicinity of Hormuz. Like the neighbouring cities, it remained a prosperous port thanks to pearling, before it began to decline in the late 1920’s.

Ras el Khaimah is a hydrocarbon-poor emirate and yet it enjoys oil revenues through the federal budget. Remarkable because of its mountainous and immediate hinterland, Ras el Khaimah develops its geological resources with an active building materials industry, taking advantage of the regional boom in the building and public works industry. Companies like RAK Ceramics, a local enterprise that has grown into a global company, or Julphar, a leading pharmaceutical firm in the Arab world, illustrate the early industrial development of the city and show the strong linkage between public and private stakeholders as well as between local and foreign ones.

Ras el Khaimah didn’t experiment the same tremendous growth as the biggest cities on the Arab shore of the Gulf. Nevertheless, the population increased from 40, 000 inhabitants in 1980 to 110, 000 in 2005. Like most of the Gulf cities, one can observe faster demographic growth from the middle of the 2000s. Free zones, new property laws, international hotels and resorts, and real estate programs could make Ras el Khaimah appear as a future little Dubai. This hypothesis suffers serious reservations because differences in scale and chronology induce differences in the origin of investors and visitors. Although one can imagine that Ras el Khaimah will compete with other coastal Gulf cities, it is more likely to reflect an economic specialization and territorial ranking as an effect of globalization on an emerging megalopolis with Abu Dhabi as its centre.

[Source: Ph. Cadène, B. Dumortier, Atlas of the Gulf Countries, Brill, under press.]


John Burt (NYUAD), “The Environmental Costs of Coastal Urbanization in the Gulf”

Most major cities in the Gulf are located along coastlines. The rapid growth of populations and associated coastal urban development may be the greatest threat to marine ecosystems in the region. Some Gulf countries have already developed over 40% of their coastlines, and the pressure is particularly acute in small coastal countries like Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, where over 85% of the population lives within 100 km of the coast. Rapid development has led to the loss and degradation of important and diverse coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds, while environmental policy and regulation have generally lagged behind the pace of development. Improved economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, expanded technical capacity of Gulf nationals, enhanced environmental and social impact assessments, and Gulf-wide policy frameworks need to be developed to stem the decline of the unique and important coastal environments in the Gulf.

Cities Conference_Burt_Palm Island

Coastline modification: Dubai

Cities Conference_Burt_graph

The Changing Coastal Environment of the Gulf

Atef Alshehri (University of Oxford), “Resetting the Urban Clock: Reconfiguring the Sacred City of al-Madina”

The city of al‐Madīna represents the archetypal Islamic city as it witnessed the formative years of Islam. As a pre‐modern city, it maintained a continuous and gradual growth since its foundation in the seventh century. This paper focuses on tracing the urban growth process of the city of al‐Madīna in order to reveal how it was historically enshrined in its significant spiritual position. Its major urban elements and institutions all revolved around the sacral significance of the city as a resting place and witness to the life (sīra) of the Prophet Moḥammad, and as the foundation of Islamic civilization.

The city has endured major events and urban evolution processes that, throughout its history, have shaped its urban and architectural character. This paper, therefore, follows two strands:

First, the perpetual iconic image of al‐Madīna, as a sacred site, has always been signified by the combined effect of its constituent urban elements such as, the Prophet’s mosque, the historic marketplace, the city wall and other various urban and social institutions and practices. However, the overall contemporary renewal process of the city for the past several decades has had an adverse effect on the cohesion of its urban fabric, social structure and the overall urban character.

Second, since the mid‐1950s, al‐Madīna embarked on an urban expansion process that reversed the continuous historical urban growth of the whole city, and restaged the entire urban scene into a new picture that can represent nothing but a dangerously widening rupture with the heritage and legacy of the place. The core of the city, which has been its beating heart and treasury of its memory for centuries, went back to a state of “tabula rasa.”

This is neither a comparison between old and new, nor an argument for or against preserving urban heritage. Rather, it is an analysis of the integrity of an urban system that evolved for centuries, as compared to an imported urban scheme that maintained very few links, if any, with the genesis of the city’s form in its totality, with all its functional, formal, and social constituents.

The attempt to explain how the process of regeneration has failed might prove to be a formidable task, but some possible areas of failure will be briefly discussed, including urban policymaking processes versus public engagement. Although al‐Madīna has its own specificity as a holy city, it is still inevitably subject to the socioeconomic conditions of its wider national and regional contexts. Thus, a brief look into the relevant current and future urban renewal trends will be discussed.


Patrizia Zanelli (LUSPIO University, Rome), “Rapid Urbanization in some Yemeni Short Stories by Muḥammad al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān”

This paper deals with Sana’a, focusing on the negative effects of rapid urbanization described by the famous Yemeni writer Muḥammad al-Ġarbī  ‘Amrān (1958) in his 2001 short story collection ðarīm A’azzakum Allāh (Women, Excuse the Term!).  The analysis of the contents of these tales requires a consideration of Yemen’s low rank of human development, high rates of poverty and of population growth, and large gender disparities.

In his stories, al-Ġarbī  ‘Amrān conveys a wide-ranging rejection of tradition and, implicitly, a strong demand for modernization. On the other hand, he also denounces negative aspects of modernity, such as environmental pollution, disturbing landscape alteration and, above all, social fragmentation and individual isolation in urban and suburban contexts—themes obviously linked to rapid urbanization. Yemenis still chiefly live in rural areas, but they are urbanizing at a much higher pace than any other Arab population.  In 1998, 28% of urban residents were living in Sana’a, where construction and infrastructure development has accelerated since the 1990s. Thus, new buildings, towers, roads, tunnels and bridges have consumed the rural and mountain landscapes surrounding the Yemeni capital.

Internal rural-urban migration is the key theme al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān tackles in the tales that this paper examines. In one story, the author tries to highlight the contrast between the city and the rural areas, expressing a positive opinion on the traditional life style in Yemeni villages where solid communal bonds offer protection to the people, and where even animals are perceived as full members of the community. In the tales considered in this paper, al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān does not ever describe Sana’a’s famous ancient walled centre, which is now encircled by a huge ring road, mentioning only modern parts of the city or some of its suburbs. The author tries above all to show how social fragmentation caused by rapid urbanization added to old problems such as gender segregation, racial discrimination, and a general refusal of diversity, forcing many young Yemenis in Sana’a to live in solitude. In fact, the protagonists of his stories are lonely bachelors who had moved from their native villages to the capital.

Other tales presented in this paper explore themes of poverty, beggary and violence against women.


Laure Assaf (Paris West University), “The Corniche of Abu Dhabi: Public Space and Outdoor Intimacy”

The Corniche, which runs along the seafront in downtown Abu Dhabi, is one of city’s main centers of outdoor activity, and a diversity of populations comes there for familial or friendly outings. In this paper I question the uses and modes of appropriation of the Corniche by its visitors, and analyze the ways in which urban space is shared between Abu Dhabi’s different groups.

The Corniche can first be considered as a showcase for the city. Designed and developed by the emirate’s rulers, the Corniche takes part in Abu Dhabi’s efforts to stand out as the capital of the UAE, and as the center of the Emirati nation. Its skyline has become a symbol for the city and every main event finds a translation on the Corniche. The Corniche also serves as a gathering place for very heterogeneous groups—exceptional in a city where socio-ethnic hierarchies rule over daily interactions, usually defining urban spaces with differential accessibilities and uses according to one’s social status, gender and ethnicity.

From the early morning joggers to the evening crowds, including the Asian workers sleeping on the benches during the day or the groups of women picnicking on the grass while watching their children play in the afternoons, the range of practices on the Corniche varies widely according to the time of day, the type of activity, or with whom one comes. With its open access, diversity of populations, and plurality of uses, the Corniche thus appears to fit in with definitions of public space by urban anthropologists.

But different categories of the population develop unequal uses of the place in terms of activities or of time spent on the Corniche: those who have access to more private spaces of leisure (Emiratis or Western expatriates for instance) tend to come less often to the Corniche.  Moreover, the way space is negotiated between groups is not necessarily deprived of conflicts, as shown by the complaints that led to the creation of the “Family Beach,” an area that excludes single men – i.e. mostly poor Southeast-Asian migrant workers, who are considered a threat to women.

I then move on to describe two of the most widespread and visible practices on the Corniche: family picnics and the practice of sports. Both could be considered forms of familial or individual intimacy – being understood as a certain mode of appropriating public space and coping with heterogeneous populations.

Picnics on the Corniche are mainly associated with the ahl as-shâm (families coming from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) and can be regarded as an extension of the home into public space. They contribute to the constitution of a homogeneous social group, along the lines of a shared regional origin and kind of practice.

The practice of sports is probably one of the major activities on the Corniche, whether it is jogging, “fast-walking”, or cycling. The individual nature of these sports allows one to practice alongside others while forbidding different kinds of interactions. This is especially important for young Muslim women, to whom cycling on the Corniche, for instance, provides a good way to put up with social norms without renouncing outdoor sports.

Uses of the Corniche then make visible an urban community which is larger than the national community – since most of these Arab expatriate families have been in Abu Dhabi for more than twenty years but have no chance of becoming citizens.

We’re left with the question of the possibility, for an ever-transforming space like the Corniche, to become a place of urban memory for the groups that appropriate it.


Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

The map of Saint Andrew’s Church shows the nationalities of the groups that use space within the compound every Friday. The primary day of worship is Friday, rather than Sunday, to fit with the city’s Friday-Saturday weekend schedule. At Saint Andrew’s, several religious Christian groups (over 40 different congregations, from several different countries and sects) coexist in one limited space, and one can hear the adhan from the mosque next door as people file out of midday Church service, speaking many languages and mingling in the courtyard. The map tries to convey not only the volume and diversity of people who use this space, but also the way that this Christian compound skillfully blends into the urban fabric of its predominantly Islamic host country.

All of the maps that we have presented in this series attempt to capture a fleeting, individual experience, and in doing so make an argument about some aspect of Abu Dhabi not necessarily considered in “official” maps. If you were to map the city, what would you include? What would you leave blank? Let us know in the comment section below.

[Maps of St. Andrew’s Church by Sanyu Kisaka, Sachi Leith, and Meike Radler. Click on any picture to enlarge. Use left and right arrows on keyboard to go forwards and backwards.]