Frankenstein in Baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad

frankenstein-in-baghdad-coverI’m speaking about Frankenstein in Baghdad, a novel by Ahmed Saadawi, an Iraqi novelist who was born in Baghdad in 1973. This novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction earlier this year.

As its title suggests, the novel was inspired by Frankenstein, although it has a very different storyline and, of course, a regional twist. The Frankenstein-character in the novel is, appropriately enough, an antiques dealer, named Hadi al-Attag. When his assistant dies in a car bombing in Baghdad, Hadi goes to retrieve the body from the morgue. But he can’t find the complete corpse; none of the corpses there are whole. A morgue employee tells him casually, “Just pick any body parts you want and make your own corpse.” So . . . that’s what he does.

He picks some body parts, goes back to his house, and assembles them. A nose is missing. He goes out and looks for another nose, from another car bombing site, and he sews it to the face. But he’s not sure what to do with the body he has reconstructed. He wants to give his friend a decent burial, so he waits for an opportunity to bury that body that he has just put together.

Meanwhile, he goes out to buy his lunch and is wounded in yet another car bombing. By the time he gets back to his house from the hospital, the corpse, which he refers to as Ashisma (the “What’s-its-name”), has disappeared. What has happened is that the corpse has become inhabited by the soul of the guard at the hotel where the most recent explosion took place, and it has gone off.

Where has it gone in this neighborhood of old decrepit houses? Next door, to another old, dilapidated house, in which an old Christian lady is living. She has failing eyesight, and her two daughters have emigrated from Iraq, one to the United States, the other to Australia. Her only son had died, a fact that she cannot bring herself to accept. So when Ashisma wanders into the house, she believes that that’s her son who has come back. She takes care of him. She feeds him. She puts him to sleep in her son’s old room.

And now Ashisma is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on everybody that killed a person whose body parts have now been incorporated into him. It starts out as a sort of mission to see that justice is done, but something strange begins to happen: every time Ashisma kills somebody who murdered a part of him, that part falls off and begins to rot. So for example, he after one revenge killing, his left hand falls off, and he needs to replace that left hand in order to be able to continue with his mission. He has to find a left hand from a guilty person, another terrorist or murderer. As he goes on killing, he loses other parts: a right eye or left eye or a leg.

You can see where this is going: eventually, he runs out of criminals to supply him with the fresh body parts that he needs in order to go on. So then he begins to target innocent people on the street.

Ashisma thus becomes a metaphor for a cycle of revenge that keeps perpetuating itself without any end in sight. What begins with a righteous desire to win justice for victims in the lawlessness of post-2003 Iraq soon degenerates into criminality as innocence and guilt become indistinguishable from one another, like patched and continuously repatched body of Ashisma, who goes on spreading terror in the city. In Saadawi’s novel, the Frankenstein myth is transformed into a powerful indictment of a cycle of violence that has taken a life of its own.

Click here to read a profile of Saadawi in The National.

[Image source:]

Form, Deformity, and Frankenstein‘s Predecessors

Form, Deformity, and Frankenstein‘s Predecessors

My brief talk today comes out of some of the thinking that I’ve been doing about monsters — and bodies described as monstrous — in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Some of the most intriguing material from this period takes the form of broadsides or pamphlets that are printed with stories of what the texts call “monstrous births.” These accounts are often accompanied by woodcuts, printed images that represent the features of the “strange” body the text describes.

For example, in the 1617 pamphlet, A Wonder Woorth the Reading, the narrator describes “a Female child, with a halfe forehead,” whose mouth and eyes are “miraculously placed in the sayd halfe forhead neere vpon the breast,” the eyes “being very bigg staring and very firy red.” The result, the narrator explains, is that the sight of this “monstrous” body “greatly terrifyed the midwife and all that were present” and everyone was repelled by the “hideous and fearefull forme” (sig. A3v).


Other texts similarly describe a deformed body and the fear it inspires in spectators as they discuss how to interpret the features of this body—as you can see in this image from a broadside printed in 1568, entitled “The forme and shape of a Monstrous Child.”



This image, from a pamphlet entitled Strange Newes out of Kent published in 1609, appears on both the title page and within the body of the text. The subtitle proclaims that this “Newes” is “of a Monstrous and misshapen Child,” and along with details of the date and place of birth, the title page proclaims: “the like (for strangeness) hath never beene seene.”

These texts describe a deformed and monstrous body as a singularity, a rare event that, in the Renaissance, compels wonder and interpretation as a divine portent. Later, in the 18th century, and into the 19th century (and, perhaps, persisting today), will follow ideas of bodily anomalies as physical differences that can be classified and even “corrected.”

The idea of deformity — that the body departs from the form of a normal human body — depends upon perception. If something (a body, an object, a painting) is described as deformed, it is different from the form that you expect, even if you couldn’t specify in advance exactly what you expected to encounter.

At its most conceptual level, the critic Henry Turner writes, “‘Form’ marks a point of convergence between three distinct moments, the act of recognizing the mere being of a thing, as defined by its form, the act of judging the significance of a thing, as again defined by its form; and the act of coming to some kind of knowledge about that same thing—because one can only know what one can recognize and endow with significance” (582-3).

This judgment furthers the logic of perception: the monster is simultaneously seen, judged, and presumably known by departure from a human form. (Recall, for example, about that language from the pamphlet in which the body is described as “that hideous and fearful form.”) The woodcut, a visual representation, is a way of extending the spectatorship of deformity to a wider group of readers. A reader may not have seen this monster for herself at the moment of birth, but the printed version means she gets to encounter the body on her own terms.

What might these early modern examples of “strange” forms and visual representation suggest about Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, written about two hundred years later, described as a “detested form” (67)? Or, as the creature himself puts it to his creator, Victor Frankenstein: “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring after his own image. But my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance” (88). This deformed creature is not born but made, and the creature’s deformity is a problem of comparison: resemblance to his creator’s humanity only increases the ugliness of his appearance.

The act of judging that deformity implies is why it matters, I think, in Shelley’s novel, that the creature can speak. His repeated cries, “but hear me,” “listen to me,” and “hear my tale” (67), are his attempts to impose another interpretation upon his form, so that he can ask for a “companion” who is “of the same species,” with the “same defects” (97). The novel’s insistence on the monster’s speech thus refuses the fantasy of the spectator’s gaze as safely one-sided, suggesting briefly that looking at the monster means the monster might be looking back at you.

Yet we get the monster’s story only after he temporarily blinkers Victor with his enormous hands. The only other conversation the creature can carry on at length is with De Lacy, who is blind and encounters him outside of a visual frame. When Walton, the novel’s narrator, sees the creature hovering over Frankenstein’s corpse, he looks at the monster and then can’t look directly at it again because “there was something so scaring and unearthly in its ugliness” (153).

The body identified as monstrous, therefore, pushes at the novel’s limit: the limit of sight. The novel foregrounds the tussle between horrified seeing and appalled refusing-to-see in the form of the narrative itself. Let us recall that Victor corrects Walton’s account, especially “giving the life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy,” so that the novel is not a “mutilated one” (146), a deformed story.

I would like to conclude by suggesting that when the novel insists on the importance of visual perception to judge the creature’s form—even when characters repeatedly look away from the monstrous shape that Victor Frankenstein animates—the narrative prompts and gestures to the range of representations beyond the literary, from films to theatrical productions. These representations, in the centuries that follow Shelley’s novel, continue to confront the questions: What does the creature look like? What do you see when you are seeing the monster, and what do you want to see?

Citations / Further Reading

Crawford, Julie. Marvelous Protestantism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Cohen, Jeffrey J., ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Daston,Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1818), ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Turner, Henry S. “Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (and Vice Versa): Reflections on ‘Form'” ISIS (2010) 101: 578-589.


Katherine Schaap Williams is Assistant Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein

Monstrosity and Feminism in Frankenstein

I teach Frankenstein in a course that’s called Our Monsters, Ourselves and one of the perspectives that informs my teaching is feminism, which for some students is surprising – a student once said to me, “You’re a feminist? But you’re so calm,” as if somehow, those two things are mutually exclusive.

Over the years I’ve noticed that when talk about feminist politics or gender roles in literature classes, students often assume that discussions of gender are always only about women. It’s as if by default “gender” must refer only to women because it’s only for women that “gender” is a problem.

When I want to talk about a text from a feminist perspectives, however, frequently students will say that this or that text can’t be feminist, because they’re looking at the text for role models. For example, they’re looking for the female characters in a novel to be strong and noble and good and successful and so forth. But “role models” don’t necessarily make a text feminist, and that’s one of the ways that I use Frankenstein in class: to show that the absence of something can nonetheless be something.


NPG 1235; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
by Richard Rothwell
oil on canvas, exhibited 1840
29 in. x 24 in. (737 mm x 610 mm)
Bequeathed by the sitter’s daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899
Primary Collection, 
NPG 1235. Used by permission.

My teaching of Frankenstein is indebted to the work of the literary scholar Anne Mellor, who argues that Frankenstein is, in fact, a feminist novel. Students, however, often seem to be perplexed by this idea. They say: “But there are no major women characters. Elizabeth, the fiancée of Victor Frankenstein is a marginal character. She’s not very important. So how can it be feminist? Because there are no women in the novel, really.” The students are correct: women are, in some ways, peripheral to the novel’s main plot lines. And yet at the same time, of course, women are central to the text precisely because they’re not there.

As an example of this absence/presence idea, we look at the passage when Frankenstein, in response to the creature’s request, has begun to make the creature a female companion. The creature, you’ll remember, has come to Victor and said, “You need to make me a companion in my image– like me. And then we’ll go off to South America and live in the wilderness and eat nuts and berries. And we’ll be happy forever,” which is an interesting picture of a marriage. (But that’s not my point here today.)

As Frankenstein begins the process of creating the female monster, he imagines what will happen when this female comes into being:

She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might h he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.

What Victor fears is that the female monster, were she to be created, would have autonomy, that she would decide, “I don’t want to be part of this bargain. I don’t like this other creature I’m supposed to be a companion with. I hate him.” In other words, he’s afraid that she might have her own way of thinking. Female autonomy, in Victor’s eyes, becomes a terrible threat.

The second thing he’s afraid of, of course, is that “one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” So the second problem with the female monster is that the female monster and the male monster might breed and create more monsters.

And, of course, Frankenstein has been interested in creating things all by himself, with no women involved whatsoever. So it’s either that the woman monster will reject the creature’s plan for her and think on her own or that she will decide to breed. Both of those prospects are terrifying. And so he destroys this almost-finished female creature, much to the dismay of the original creature, who vows vengeance on Victor because Victor has doomed him to a life of loneliness and despair.

The absence of the female monster, and the chain of events triggered by her absence, helps me to talk with my students about how that absence matters. And then we talk about the function of this absence –and the absence of the other women in the novel (for instance, the mothers in this novel are all dead; Elizabeth, Victor’s long-suffering fiancée has very little influence on Victor, or on the plot). What happens as a result of trying to sidestep the female part of creation or propagation? What happens when you marginalize women, when you attempt to keep women on the sidelines?

When we think about it that way, the novel helps students to start to think about the fact that to be “feminist,” doesn’t necessarily have to be about the creation of . . . say, Wonder Woman. Feminist politics can exist in the absence of any kind of “role model.” The feminist politics of Shelley’s novel exists in the critique of Frankenstein’s decisions to create a masculine mode of reproduction: he creates the male creature, he creates and then uncreates the female creature. It’s that absence that creates the monstrosity that ultimately undoes Frankenstein.

Thinking about the absence of women in this fashion helps us to see that the novel is not necessarily about finding answers but is about asking different sorts of questions: about the nature of society, about the nature of creation, about the power of the environment to shape character, about the relationships between men and women, individuals and society.

[Quotations in the text refer to the 1818 version of the novel. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.]

Deborah Williams is Clinical Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Liberal Studies faculty at NYU in New York.

Frankenstein and Technophobia

Frankenstein and Technophobia


Let’s begin with a word that isn’t in either the 1818 or the 1831 texts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: robot. In fact, the word robot wasn’t coined until 1921, when it first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek. The word was actually coined by Čapek’s brother, Josef., and it comes from the Czech word robota, which means “servitude” or “forced labor.” R.U.R. is an allegorical play that depicts a company whose founder is named Rossum, from the Czech, rosum, which means “reason.” He’s discovered how to make artificial persons. His nephew realizes, afterwards, that by simplifying his uncle’s process and stripping the artificial persons of feelings and other unnecessary attributes, he can create the perfect worker, the robot.

Rossum’s robots are much in demand, but eventually, predictably, they are used as mercenaries with devastating results. When the wife of the company’s director secretly has one of its scientists enable the robots to transcend some of their limitations and to develop emotions, because she feels sorry for them, disaster ensues. The robots revolt.

At the conclusion of the play, all the human beings but one, a worker, are killed. The play ends when two robots, one male and one female, develop fully-fledged emotions. And it’s they who will repopulate the Earth with a new race of super beings.

The term robot is thus linked, from its very inception, to the idea that technology will destroy its creators if it isn’t used properly and responsibly. The play was a big success in Prague in 1921, and it opened opened the following year in London, where it sparked debates and commentary from prominent intellectuals including George Bernard Shaw.

Critics quickly recognized that one of Čapek’s key sources was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which has the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” recognizing that the Prometheus myth is all about technological progress. Prometheus, we might remember, essentially creates human civilization by bringing technology from heaven to earth. That technology is called fire.

Shelley made a connection between the Prometheus myth and her era’s increasing faith in scientific and technological progress. Her novel is actually very steeped in some of the latest debates about what constitutes life. It’s fascinated by the new science of animism and by experiments with electricity. Her modern Prometheus is deluded by his mastery of technology into thinking he’s a god.

I must confess that it wasn’t Shelley’s image of the monster that I grew up with. I grew up with this one:


It’s the monster created by Boris Karloff and make-up artist Jack Pierce in the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein directed by James Whale. It’s this image of Frankenstein’s monster — with the flattop head and the prominent forehead scar — that has become an icon of global popular culture, rather than the creature that Shelley describes.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it was exactly Karloff’s monster that I grew up with, but rather this one:


That’s right: Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne, in the 1960s sitcom about American suburban life called The Munsters. By the time the show premiered on television in 1964, Karloff’s Frankenstein was firmly established in American popular culture.

What makes Karloff’s monster so horrifying, I believe, isn’t the flat head, or the scar, or the monstrous stature, but rather the implantation of metal bolts into his neck as a result of the creation process. It’s the bolts that make him seem inhuman. Karloff’s monster is an early version of that ubiquitous what science fiction character, the cyborg.

Let’s step back and remember how Mary Shelley describes the scientific breakthrough that her scientist, Victor Frankenstein, makes:

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. … What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp.

What you won’t find in Shelley’s novel is a description of how the animation of lifeless matter is actually achieved. Victor Frankenstein tells the novel’s narrator, Walton, who is also a seeker after forbidden knowledge:

I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery.

In short, Victor tells Walton and us, he doesn’t want anybody else to make the same mistakes that he’s made. So he deliberately won’t tell us how he’s done it. In fact, the description of the creation of the monster is simply this:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

The 1931 film adaptation isn’t so reticent about the process of bringing the monster to life. It takes some words that constitute a metaphor in Shelley’s novel — the “spark of being” — spark, and makes it literal. The dramatization of what occurs in Frankenstein’s laboratory retains not only the “spark” but the rain from Shelley’s description, but it calls attention to the role that’s played by machines, Tesla coils, lightning, and electricity.


The film makes it quite clear that it’s science and technology that enables this Victor Frankenstein to become God. So if R.U.R. was influenced by Shelley’s novel, I think this film was, in turn, influenced by R.U.R. In fact, in the sequel to this film, which was called The Bride of Frankenstein, we have Victor Frankenstein saying, “I created a man. And who knows? In time, I could’ve trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race.” In other words, that Victor becomes interested in precisely the things that interest the scientists in R.U.R.

Kids who pretend to be Frankenstein’s monster during Halloween tend to walk stiff-legged, with arms held out. It wasn’t Boris Karloff who gave the monster this robotic gait, however: somewhat ironically, it was Bela Lugosi. After originating the role of Dracula in Universal’s 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Lugosi had assumed that he would have the starring role in the studio’s next horror picture, but he ultimately decided that the role of the monster in Whale’s film adaptation was too limited to make sufficient use of his talents. Twelve years later, he would finally play the role in the fourth Frankenstein sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Blinded by a botched brain transfusion in the previous film, Lugosi’s monster walks with arms outstretched, with the same kind of stiffness seen in early film and television representations of robots (see for example Robby the Robot in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet).

Universal made lots of movies about monsters: in addition to Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the studio gave us the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Phantom of the Opera. But that one that really took hold in American popular culture and then global popular culture was the monster with the bolts in his neck, the technological monstrosity. This image of the monster links Mary Shelley’s novel to a post-industrial-age fear of technology, to the fear of what happens when the tools that we create get out of our control.

All of this leads me to a final question. If Frankenstein has been popular because of its dramatization of technophobia, why have we all recently become so obsessed with vampires and zombies? What are we afraid of now?


Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and Associate Professor of English at NYU.

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.


Abu Dhabi Reads – The Finalists

Abu Dhabi Reads – The Finalists

And then there were three.

Thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions to us for the “Abu Dhabi Reads” program, which will take place at 5:00 p.m. on November 1 at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus. The event will be an open-ended discussion of one of the following three books: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; and The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen.

We invite you to help us choose the book that we’ll read and discuss together by by clicking on this link and voting for one of these three finalists. The form will take mere seconds to fill out and your response will be completely anonymous. You’ll have the opportunity to suggest a book for our spring program, though that isn’t required. Voting ends at 11:00 p.m. GST on September 23, so don’t delay!

Feel free to vote even if you can’t join us in Abu Dhabi on November 1. We’ll be hosting online discussions before and after the live event here on Electra Street.

To help you make your decision, we’ve included brief descriptions of each book. Clicking on a title will bring you to the page for the book, which contains additional information. All three books are available in Kindle format (though you’ll need to sign into your account to locate them).

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 and now an American classic, tells the story of fireman Guy Montag, who is living in a nightmarish future.

Montag’s job is not to protect houses from flames, but to locate and burn books and their owners, with the help of a fiendish Mechanical Hound. It is a time when people do not walk the streets or talk to each other, but instead spend their leisure hours lulled into unthinking stupors by four walls of television screens and constant music in their ears. World wars are ongoing, and suicide rates are high.

When Montag realizes how terribly unhappy he, his wife, and everyone around them are, he turns to a secret stash of books and an old friend, putting both of their lives at risk. Bradbury’s novel vividly evokes a world just similar enough to our own to force us to consider the risks of fast-paced mass media and censorship while reflecting on the true value not only of literature and knowledge but of friendship.

— Jennifer Acker


Life of Pi by Yann Martell

Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, is a story, as its narrator says, “to make you believe in God.” Questions of faith and belief—as well as truth, narrative, and the proper way to tame a tiger—are at the core of this novel, in which Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi, for short) finds himself shipwrecked and adrift, floating in a lifeboat with no one but a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.

When Pi Patel, with his family and the animals from the zoo the family managed in Pondicherry, India, set sail from India to Canada, Pi has no idea how dramatically his life will shift, just as readers have no idea, when they start the novel, what surprises await them in the novel’s second half. By the end of the novel, we have to re-examine our ideas about truth and fiction, about faith and belief … and about tigers.

This acclaimed novel has been made into a film, directed by Ang Lee, which will premiere later this month at the New York Film Festival, with a US release on 21 November and a worldwide release in late December.

— Deborah Lindsay Williams


The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Why do people stay married? Or rather, how do people stay married? What series of compromises and alliances, conflicts and peace-makings, goes into a marriage that lasts for decades? Is there a point at which, even after ten, twenty, thirty years, one or the other partner decides that enough is enough?

These questions are at the center of Kejia Parssinen’s debut novel, The Ruins of Us. The novel is set in Saudi Arabia and focuses on the marriage of Saudi-born American, Rosalie March, and her handsome, powerful Saudi husband, Abdullah al-Baylani.  After decades of making her peace with the tenets of Islam that govern Saudi society, Rosalie confronts a cultural difference that explodes her complacency. Her progressive, educated husband has taken a second wife—and kept the marriage a secret for two years, even though the woman lives just down the road from Rosalie, in a house that Abdi bought for her.  The crisis in the al-Baylani marriage precipitates a crisis for the entire family, which, in turn, illustrates the fissures that run through contemporary Saudi culture.  The al-Baylanis have two children, Faisal and Mariam, whose attitudes reflect the complexities of modern life, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, particularly in terms of whether or not we can ever hope to understand people from cultures other than our own.  The novel offers unexpected and thought-provoking answers to this question.

Deborah Lindsay Williams

You can also use this link to vote! Remember: voting ends at 11:00 p.m. GST on September 23.

This program is co-sponsored by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute.