Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
From Morocco to Oman, apart from the obvious official language and religion, there is history. In effect, it is the movement of people from the outer edges of the MENA that was always throughout millennia a common carrier upon which carriages would transport migrants away from danger and bad life. So, what is the link if any between the countries of the MENA region?
Recent examples of mass movements of Syrians into Jordan, Turkey, and the European Union would be the most edifying sample. More recently, Yemen despite its status as a poorer country compared to other Gulf ones went nevertheless through conflict with its neighbours and its populations had to flee away to its immediate adjacent countries. Before that, there was the Libyan case where a large desert country with a small population did produce as it were some migrants mostly to Europe for the well offs and the neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt for the masses.
After more than half a century of migratory movements between the two shores of the Mediterranean, the North African migration system was definitively “formatted” as it still stands today: organically linked to France first, and then to Western Europe.
The Levant conflict and civil wars, and finally the crises and successive wars here and there since the 80s, have consequently forced the exodus of millions. North African countries have in turn been affected, directly or indirectly, by these Middle Eastern crises.
But geopolitical issues are also not the only differentiator of these countries and apart from armed conflicts and/or civil unrest, oil and conflict are felt like the main drivers of migration to and from or within the MENA.
Climate change and its subsequent life deregulations are affecting its inhabitants. Would this, despite all the goodwill of all the COPs and SDGs, affect the numbers and the flows?
Would all countries be subject to this culturally well-established custom since the Exodus from Egypt, to run away to search for better climes?
The above-featured image is of Wilson Center.
The above-featured image is that of Damascus by France 24.
The Syrian architect and writer on the idea of home in Branagh’s Belfast, smart Arab horses in Homs and the joy of lentils in Damascus
Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
I watched this at home recently – there are no cinemas in Homs. It’s a film about war and love and friendship, about difficult decisions in a time of crisis. I liked the story and how real the actors made it, but also the way it handled the theme of home, which I very much related to – how the family was torn between staying and leaving. The whole dilemma of what to do, and how different people deal with similar questions and end up with different answers, was explored so well. It’s a great movie.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a story set in a fictional version of England many centuries ago. It’s about grudges, and Ishiguro writes about this without naming the feeling, creating a fictional creature – the buried giant – for it as a reference. It’s also about a family’s journey to discover this feeling, and to find a way towards forgiveness. What I loved about this story is the indirect and imaginative way it has of dealing with hidden feelings that we bury deep down in our psyche, and how to access them.
I don’t go out much to busy places, and because of the war we don’t have many places to go. But I do go and ride every day at the equestrian club in Homs. My horse is called Salah al-Din. He’s a very strong horse from a special breed – Syrian Arab horses are among the best in the world for strength, endurance and performance. They are really smart animals and very independent and spirited, which is a humbling experience on a daily basis. The social aspect of the club is disastrous; it’s all about the horses.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)
Samuel L Jackson gives a phenomenal performance in this TV series. He plays an old man suffering from dementia who takes an experimental medicine that gains him a few days of lucidity. He uses those precious moments to access his memories and explain to himself the nightmares he had, which are related to racism. The show deals with different questions with great sensitivity, and in the end it’s about true friendship and genuine feelings. For me, it’s the story of the human mind and how precious this gift is.
Georges Wassouf is from a rural area near Homs, but his career took off from Beirut. I just love his music – he has a poignant way of speaking about love and a fantastic way of bending the lyrics to express the music. It’s also lovely how his artistic character is so closely related to his real-life character. He’s a very accessible figure who lives among his people, and he didn’t change his lifestyle in a way that would separate him from his own small village. Ahla Ayam El Omr, which translates as Life’s Most Beautiful Days, is one of my favourite of his songs.
Homs restaurants are rubbish, but there are plenty of good ones in Damascus. The one that I really like is Naranj, in the old part of the city where the Muslim and the Christian quarters merge. The food is great and the menu is very much based on what’s in season. The breads come right out of the oven, hot and delicious, and I would recommend the lentil dish harrak isbao, which means “the one that burns your fingers” because it’s so delicious that you will dive straight in.
Today, 8 March and the same day every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world, to commemorate those advances towards a gender-equal world – “free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination and one that is diverse, equitable, inclusive while differences are valued and celebrated.” How the same is celebrated in the MENA region is reviewed by Farah Daibes. It is about how women in the Global South reclaim their understanding of feminism in every corner of the region.
In an apparent win for feminists from the Global South, the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action set a roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls globally. At the time, ‘empowerment’ was not the buzzword it is today, but a new concept brought forth by Indian feminist Gita Sen and a group of other feminist activists and scholars.
Sen and her colleagues stressed the importance of empowerment through a bottom-up approach that centres the voices of women from the Global South. When they advocated for the adoption of their definition of empowerment by the UN – and later on through the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing –, however, they were unaware that the definition would be remodelled and blurred over time: it was transformed from its original political understanding based on collective action, solidarity, agency, and decolonial development models into an individualised, depoliticised, and westernised concept.
The region (MENA) still suffers an 87.4 per cent gender gap in the political empowerment index and a 60 per cent gender gap in the economic empowerment index.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, this shift in understanding – which was championed by neoliberal aid and development programmes – had serious impacts on the shaping of women’s rights agendas and on the pace of advancement towards gender justice. But in recent years, more and more women across the MENA region are defying the mainstream empowerment narratives and are reclaiming the original understanding of what it means to be empowered.
White-centred feminism has greatly influenced the development agendas of the international donor community, resulting in a context-blind and depoliticised approach to the empowerment of women and girls – one that conveniently ignores the role of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and racism in shaping the lives of black, brown, and Asian women across the Global South. This approach was supported by states in the MENA region that also aimed to build an understanding of empowerment that does not question current power relations, an empowerment that aligns with states’ interest in fostering politically passive populations who are driven by capitalist fantasies.
An ‘empowerment-lite’ was thus imposed in the MENA region under two distinct and docile categories. The first, ‘political empowerment’, was mostly limited to increasing the numbers of female voters and women in parliaments, with a disregard for many of the actual challenges that hinder women parliamentarians or voters’ meaningful engagement in the political process. The second, ‘economic empowerment’, was mostly related to increasing women’s formal participation in the labour market without truly addressing any structural barriers facing women when entering or staying in the market. For instance, this approach supported providing micro-funding for women to start their own businesses – placing risks on the shoulders of women rather than markets or states; and attaining gender parity within the (capitalist) workplace where many men already experience exploitative working conditions.
After decades of programmes and initiatives, even these inadequate empowerment goals are far from being achieved. The region still suffers an 87.4 per cent gender gap in the political empowerment index and a 60 per cent gender gap in the economic empowerment index according to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2021.
A decade of political and socio-economic instability has pushed women and feminists across the region to re-centre the redistribution of power within the empowerment conversation. Through reclaiming the feminist understanding of empowerment, they are actively and collectively fighting against the systems that have reduced their role in public life to the mere support of capitalist and authoritarian projects. These are the same systems that have allowed for the quality of education, health, social protection, and public services – which are essential components for truly empowering women and girls – to be diminished.
Woman from various backgrounds have been, and still are, on the frontlines of protests demanding gender and social justice in many countries in the region. In the past few months alone, Sudanese women have fiercely stood up against militarisation and sexual violence, holding tightly to the political gains they have so difficultly achieved alongside their fellow Sudanese citizens. In a smaller, but equally empowered, example, young Lebanese students in Tripoli defied the patriarchal system that silenced their attempts to call out a harassing teacher. They held protests and promised to press charges against him.
The white-centred, depoliticised, and capitalist image of an empowered woman is not accepted anymore as the only version of an unoppressed woman.
Tokenism in both the economic and political spheres is no longer enough to maintain the illusion that there is serious political will to empower women. When the first female prime minister in the region was appointed in September 2021 in Tunisia for instance, feminist activists and groups were hesitant to celebrate. They criticised the Tunisian President for using ‘the women’s card’ to advance his own agenda and to gain positive publicity and support from the West in a politically questionable situation.
The white-centred, depoliticised, and capitalist image of an empowered woman – one who is westernised, high-paid, fashionable, and independent – is not accepted anymore as the only version of an unoppressed woman. Women in the region are celebrating their uniqueness, differences, their cultural roots, and their sense of community and passion.
Feminist activists in particular are defying the white-centred feminism that have dominated the global feminist scene. They are changing the funding ecosystem that has limited their scope of work and are showcasing how feminists from the region are in fact equal partners in the quest for gender justice globally. This might be best illustrated through feminist author and activist Mona Eltahawy’s enraged refusal of the labelling of Egyptian feminist pioneer Nawal El Saadawi upon her death as ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world’ by western media.
Power over our futures, our lives, and our bodies. This is the empowerment that women in the MENA region are striving for. They are demanding the serious support needed to truly empower all women and girls. But they are also finding their own forms of resistance and roads to empowerment with or without that support.
Farah Daibes is a Senior Programme Manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Feminism programme in the MENA region.
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As sea levels rise due to climate change, heritage sites on the African coast will come under increasing risk of severe flooding and erosion. According to recent research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, 56 sites are already at risk, including Tipasa (pictured), in present-day Algeria, which due to its proximity to the sea was an important trading post during Phoenician times. Adobe Stock(CNN) —
By Neil Lewis, CNN
On the shores of North Africa, ancient cities have stood for millennia. The columns of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, are a reminder of the once bustling Phoenician and Roman port, and along the coast in what’s now Libya, lie the majestic ruins of Sabratha’s Roman amphitheater close — perhaps too close — to the sea.
Africa’s iconic natural sites date back even further, such as the ancient coral reef of the Seychelles’ Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, thought to be around 125,000 years old.
But extreme weather events and rising sea levels mean that all three — and around 190 other spectacular heritage sites that line Africa’s coasts — will be at risk of severe flooding and erosion in the next 30 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Sea levels have been rising at a faster rate over the past three decades compared to the 20th century, the research says, and climate change hazards such as floods, heatwaves and wildfires are becoming more common.
The ancient Roman theater of Sabratha, in modern-day Libya, is one of the sites expected to be in danger by 2050.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
It found that 56 sites are currently in danger if a “once in a century” flood struck, and that by 2050 — if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory — this number could more than triple to 198 sites.
“There is a local value, an international value, an economic value … and an intrinsic value (to these heritage sites),” Nicholas Simpson, an author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, tells CNN. “There are some monuments and sites and spaces that we don’t want lost for the next generation.”
Simpson believes the findings serve as an important wake-up call to increase climate adaptation measures and funding across the continent. “There’s an important message of loss and damage from climate change to heritage, which we hope will mobilize greater intent (and) action,” he says.
This is particularly pertinent in Africa, where the links between climate risk and heritage have been mostly ignored, says Simpson. Past scientific research has identified cultural sites endangered by climate change in the Mediterranean, Europe and North America, but this is the first continent-wide assessment of Africa.
“(The link between) climate change and heritage in Africa is gravely under-researched, and compared to other continents, we know very little,” he says, adding that a 2021 study found that between 1990 and 2019, research on Africa received just 3.8% of climate-related global research funding.
In this latest study, Simpson and his colleagues mapped out a total of 284 heritage sites that are recognized or under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, in the 39 countries that comprise the African coast.
They overlaid this geographic data with a highly intricate model projecting sea level rise and global warming levels under both a moderate and high emission scenario. The moderate scenario assumes global greenhouse gas emissions will stabilize before the end of the century, while in the high emission scenario — sometimes referred to as “business as usual” — they continue to rise, consistent with the current global pace, until 2100.
From there, the researchers calculated the likely percentage area of the site exposed to a “once-in-a-century” extreme coastal flooding event.
Simpson explains that such an event is an important indicator in understanding future climate risk, because it is these extreme events that are likely to cause severe damage, and climate change is increasing their likelihood and frequency.
“In the 1970s, what used to be a once-in-a-100-year event happened once in 100 years,” he says, “but what we are seeing when climate hazards are amplified … is that a one-in-a-100-year event might be happening once in 10 years going forward.”
According to the research, North Africa has the largest number of threatened sites — from the ancient ruins of North Sinai that stretch between the Suez canal and Gaza and were once well-traveled by Egyptian pharaohs on their way to Canaan, to Tipasa, an ancient Phoenician trading post in present-day Algeria that was conquered by Rome and turned into a strategic base by Emperor Claudius during the conquest of Mauritania.
Many of North Africa’s ancient cities lie dangerously close to the sea, such as Tipasa in modern-day Algeria.
HOCINE ZAOURAR/AFP via Getty Images
Simpson caveats this, noting that while North Africa has a high number of globally recognized world heritage sites, other parts of Africa may have key sites that are not listed by UNESCO or the Ramsar convention. But he hopes that identifying these world-famous sites might “raise alarm bells for climate risk for heritage in Africa.”
The study notes that its findings will help to prioritize at-risk sites and highlight the need for immediate protective action. This could include engineering solutions, such as sea walls and breakwaters, but Simpson warns that flood mitigation measures like these are “incredibly expensive” and there’s no guarantee they can withstand future sea levels.
A much better solution, he says, is to restore, plant and manage ecological infrastructure, such as salt marshes, seagrass meadows and mangroves, which provide natural protection and act as carbon sinks, sucking up carbon dioxide from the air.
He adds that in Africa especially, it is crucial to improve local and indigenous governance around the sites and to recognize that the lives of indigenous peoples “are part of the landscape and intimately intertwined with the seasons.”
“Raising awareness about climate risk to heritage speaks to the broader need for greater urgency about [tackling] climate risk to societies,” says Simpson.
There is a disconnect between Kuwait City’s history and the current spatial reality, but moving forward, the city can reshape itself to better mirror the identity of its people. Here is the story as per the AGSIW of 22 February 2022.
By Mariam AlSaad,
Kuwait City was ahead of other cities in the region in its urban modernization and the growth of its built environment. However, it is now not only racing to catch up with more rapidly modernizing cities, such as Dubai and Riyadh, but is at risk of being left behind.
The city has much potential still unfulfilled, with a plethora of obsolete buildings, unmaintained and decaying structures, and unwelcoming urban spaces. The city’s current state has been shaped by socioeconomic and political factors under the influence of what historians of urban development refer to as post-colonial urbanism. This influence has caused a confusion in the city’s architectural and urban identity. This confusion in identity, in turn, has impacted the city’s development and spatial reality, which has implications for the modern urban experience and longer-term sustainability.
Kuwait was never a colony, though it was a British protectorate from 1899-1961. The British exercised outsized influence and some colonialist accents seeped into Kuwait’s urban development. Kuwait City, in its modern phase, was established after the discovery of oil in the country in 1938, when Kuwaiti officials wanted the urban landscape to reflect the country’s new economic status. The British, along with local merchants and officials, strongly advocated for the demolition of Kuwait’s Old Town in favor of a new Kuwait City.
The native architectural and urban identity of Kuwait’s Old Town was shaped by then-dominant cultural, economic, and environmental conditions. This legacy landscape was then completely repurposed, and a new spatial reality was created, permanently altering the way of life of the Kuwaiti community. The spaces that once served as residential neighborhoods, communal gathering spots, vibrant marketplaces, and political diwaniyas turned into construction sites and were repurposed to fit the new narrative: the modern Arab city.
This globalization and disruption of the spatial heterogeneousness of the Old Town catapulted a small port town into a business metropolis irrespective of its previously diverse and rich cultural identity, all in the name of the Western concept of modernization and progress.
The new city was built rapidly and densely to showcase itself as bold and independent, a version of the “Pearl of the Gulf” emerging, though it never did truly emerge in the eyes of some experts, such as Saba Shiber, an urban planner who worked at the Ministry of Public Works during the process. In reaction to what he viewed as flawed but damaging aspirations, he warned against rapid urban development, fearing it would end up sacrificing the charm of the Old Town and create urban anarchy in its place. He stated that, “Never in the history of mankind has a more costly, more anti-organic urban complex been created with such speed. We try to escape the blazing fires of engineering and architecture, but they are so many and so possessed with momentum, they keep rearing their ugly heads everywhere.” By June 1960, Shiber felt things had gotten so bad that, in his view, “certain urban suicide was at least incipient in the old city.”
When examining Kuwait City now, there is a disconnect between its history and the current spatial reality. There is little to no cultural or historical significance associated with the city’s urban spaces and buildings, having been designed for the most part by foreign architects and urban planners who had little understanding of the local sociocultural context. While this may not be an issue in terms of functionality, it is an issue in terms of identity – urban morphology, the study of urban form, has identified a complicated but powerful relationship between cultural identity and the built environment. For these experts, a city that is designed by those who view it from the outside in, experiencing it while being detached from it, will end up privileging mono-functional urban spaces that are devoid of the true spirit of a city: its people. Asseel Al-Ragam, an associate professor at the College of Architecture at Kuwait University, explained that this disconnect was because, to these foreign designers, Kuwait City was a testing grounds, an experiment in architecture and urban planning, and an opportunity to create a new urban experience.
Kuwaitis who were born in the 1990s or early 2000s have no collective memories associated with Kuwait City’s commercial buildings. Many have little sentimental attachment to the city. Young Kuwaitis who live in outlying areas tend not to visit it often due to a lack of accessible and efficient public transportation. There is also little incentive to visit the city, because there are limited tourist attractions and leisure activities. The activities that are available are not equally accessible and affordable for all members of society.
Previous generations of Kuwaitis share some fond memories of popular recreational destinations of the 1980s and ‘90s, such as the shopping center Al-Muthanna Complex. Many of these buildings have become obsolete or abandoned, like Al-Muthanna Complex, and some demolished like Al-Sawaber Complex. Regardless of the hold such memories exert, it is unsustainable to rely on nostalgia alone to provide purpose and meaning to architecture and urban space.
Regarding deficiencies, the city lacks spaces that offer scenic views, provoke a deep sense of community, or connect people to their heritage and each other. Instead, a common sight in Kuwait City is empty land plots – some have been repurposed as parking lots and others have become unsightly pits for waste and debris. Another element the city lacks is green spaces and vegetation; this affects both the aesthetic appeal of the city and its sustainability. The city’s barren brown landscape and impermeable infrastructure make it inhospitable and very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
There are some exceptions, such Souq Al-Mubarakiya, one of the oldest souqs in Kuwait, which was left undisturbed by development plans. Also, a project that sparks hope is Al-Shaheed Park, which was built in 2015. It is the largest urban park in Kuwait, and it provides a green space for people to exercise, connect with nature, and learn about historical events. It serves as a good example of an urban space that aims to honor the past (the park name is an ode to the martyrs of Kuwait) and provide a biodiverse and walkable space for new generations. Another positive phenomenon is the refurbishment of spaces in Kuwait City by small businesses, such as cafes, restaurants, and co-working spaces, owned by young Kuwaitis. This improves urban vibrancy and social connectivity and gives the local population a chance to reclaim the city.
Ragam has argued that, “The historical layers of a city should co-exist together, to be read by different generations.” However, when there is little to read into, there is little that binds residents together. Experts question whether Kuwait City’s current trajectory, on a path without a sense of history, is sustainable, in social, economic, and environmental terms. It also prompts the question of how the city – in terms of a shared sense of heritage – is going to be “passed on” to the next generation.
The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book “The Right to the City” observed that it is often the very people who live and labor in the city who are excluded from shaping it. In the case of Kuwait City, there is an argument to be made that, in Lefebvre’s terms, that “right” to the city was taken from the people of the Old Town and handed over to foreign designers and architects. Bader Bosakher, a senior architect in the Ministry of Public Works’ Department of Architecture, explained that most buildings in Kuwait commissioned by the Ministry of Public Works have been passed on to local design firms. These firms are staffed primarily by foreign designers and the buildings are designed with the aim of pleasing the end user or stakeholder; consideration of local architectural identity is not generally prioritized. Therefore, the architecture and design of urban spaces in Kuwait City continue to neglect local social, environmental, and cultural needs.
For people to be able to connect with Kuwait City, and find meaning where architecture and urban space has failed to provide it, a new context and meaning need to be created, through repurposing and sustainable planning. Preservation rather than demolition of the current architecture is a more viable option both economically and environmentally. Repurposing Kuwait City’s neglected buildings and retrofitting them could help revitalize the city. It could also incentivize investment and reduce demolition and the carbon emissions that result from new construction.
Kuwait, with its complex sociopolitical landscape, has a young population that embraces change, while it is also eager for tradition, in the form of a resurgence of the “Pearl of the Gulf.” The expertise of young Kuwaiti architects and urban planners can be enlisted to ensure that the city is continuously being developed and reshaped to accommodate the everchanging sociocultural landscape. One way to encourage this process is for government agencies that play a role in municipal development or architecture in Kuwait City to incorporate smart and sustainable urban planning, prioritizing people and considering social and environmental conditions. Moving forward, Kuwait City has the opportunity to reshape itself to better mirror the identity of its people, to prove that, as the architect and academic Roberto Fabbri put it, the “original sin” of demolishing the Old Town never needed to be committed. It isn’t necessary to erase the past to make room for the future – a sustainable future is built through preserving the present and improving upon it.