Building a New Urban Identity of Kuwait City

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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.

Building a New Urban Identity: Revitalizing Kuwait City

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.

Colonialism in Urban Development

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.

The Sour Legacy of Urban Planning

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.

(Credit: Mariam AlSaad)

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.

Repurposed empty plot lands (Credit: Mariam AlSaad)
A City for the Next Generation

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.

Urban spaces that are not pedestrian friendly or welcoming (Credit: Mariam AlSaad)
Preservation and Sustainable Planning

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.

Most buildings were designed for an earlier climate

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Most buildings were designed for an earlier climate – here’s what will happen as global warming accelerates

By Ran Boydell, Heriot-Watt University

Climate change will affect every aspect of our lives – including the buildings we live and work in. Most people in the US, for example, spend about 90% of their time indoors. Climate change is fundamentally altering the environmental conditions in which these buildings are designed to function.

Architects and engineers design buildings and other structures, like bridges, to operate within the parameters of the local climate. They’re built using materials and following design standards that can withstand the range of temperatures, rainfall, snow and wind that are expected, plus any geological issues such as earthquakes, subsidence and ground water levels.

When any of those parameters are exceeded, chances are some aspect of the building will fail. If there are high winds, some roof tiles may be ripped off. If, after days of heavy rain, the water table rises, the basement might flood. This is normal, and these problems cannot be designed out entirely. After the event has passed, the damage can be repaired and additional measures can reduce the risk of it happening again.

But climate change will breed conditions where these parameters are exceeded more often and to a far greater degree. Some changes, like higher average air temperatures and humidity, will become permanent. What were previously considered once in a century floods may become a regular occurrence.

Some of these impacts are fairly obvious. Houses will be more prone to overheating, putting the lives of residents at risk, which is what has happened during the recent “heat dome” over North America. Flooding will happen more often and inundate greater areas, to the point that some places might have to be abandoned. The village of Fairbourne in Wales has already been identified as a likely candidate. Failure to act on both of these threats in the UK was highlighted in a recent report by the Climate Change Committee.

To some extent, these impacts will be localised and containable, with fairly simple remedies. For example, overheating can be reduced by shading windows with awnings or blinds, good insulation, and ample ventilation. Perhaps more worrying are the insidious effects of climate change which gradually undermine the core functions of a building in less obvious ways.

Termites and melting asphalt

More intense wind and rain will cause external cladding to deteriorate more rapidly and leak more often. Higher temperatures will expand the regions where some insects can live. That includes timber-eating termites that can cause major structural damage, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes which living spaces must be redesigned to protect us from.

Termite damage on a wooden window frame. Attapon Thana/Shutterstock

Materials expand as they get hotter, especially metals, which can cause them to buckle once their designed tolerance is exceeded. For one skyscraper in Shenzhen, China, high temperatures were partially blamed for causing the structure to shake, forcing its evacuation, as the steel frame stretched in the heat. Extreme temperatures can even cause materials to melt, resulting in roads “bleeding” as the surface layer of bitumen softens.

Subsidence – when the ground below a structure gives way, causing it to crack or collapse – is also expected to happen more often in a warmer world. Buildings with foundations in clay soils are particularly vulnerable, as the soils swell when they absorb water, then harden and shrink as they dry out. Changing rainfall patterns will exacerbate this. Over the next 50 years, for example, more than 10% of properties in Britain will be affected by subsidence.

Concrete cancer

Perhaps the biggest concern is how climate change will affect reinforced concrete, one of the most widely used materials on Earth. Used in everything from skyscrapers and bridges to the lintels above windows in homes, reinforced concrete is made by placing steel rods within a mould and pouring wet concrete in. Once dry, this produces incredibly strong structures.

But a warmer wetter climate will play havoc with the durability of this material. When the steel inside the concrete gets wet it rusts and expands, cracking the concrete and weakening the structure in a process sometimes referred to as “concrete cancer”.

Once rust sets in, reinforced concrete can disintegrate. Arayan Rattanaphan/Shutterstock

Buildings in coastal areas are especially susceptible as the chloride in salt water accelerates rusting. Rising sea levels will raise the water table and make it saltier, affecting building foundations, while salt-spray will spread further on stronger winds.

At the same time, the concrete is affected by carbonation, a process where carbon dioxide from the air reacts with the cement to form a different chemical element, calcium carbonate. This lowers the pH of the concrete, making the steel even more prone to corrosion. Since the 1950s, global CO₂ levels have increased from about 300 parts per million in the atmosphere to well over 400. More CO₂ means more carbonation.

The tragic recent collapse of an apartment building in Miami in the US may be an early warning of this process gaining speed. While the exact cause of the collapse is still being investigated, some are suggesting it might be linked to climate change.

The local mayor, Charles Burkett, summed up the bewilderment many felt:

It just doesn’t happen. You don’t see buildings falling down in America.

Whether or not the link to climate change proves to be true, it is nevertheless a wake up call to the fragility of our buildings. It should also be seen as a clear demonstration of a critical point: wealth does not protect against the effects of climate change. Rich nations have the financial clout to adapt more rapidly and to mitigate these impacts, but they can’t stop them at the border. Climate change is indiscriminate. Buildings are vulnerable to these impacts no matter where in the world they are, and if anything, the modern buildings of developed countries have more things in them that can go wrong than simpler traditional structures.

The only option is to begin adapting buildings to meet the changing parameters in which they are operating. The sooner we begin retrofitting existing buildings and constructing new ones that can withstand climate change, the better.

Ran Boydell, Visiting Lecturer in Sustainable Development, Heriot-Watt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul

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This is a story of a city that as per Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi’s description – Mosul the austere, Mosul the convivial, Mosul the contradictory, Mosul the wounded, bleeding to death. So here is Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul, with little aid from government per Samya Kullab.

Mounds of rubble, remnants of the battle to retake the city three years ago from the Islamic State group, remain in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Local officials say Baghdad’s cash-strapped government, struggling with a dire economic crisis fueled by low oil prices and the coronavirus, doesn’t have the funds to launch serious reconstruction efforts. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)
A damaged house remains un-repaired three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
A commercial center re-opened recently with some government assistance to restore. electricity and water services, enabling merchants to return, three years after Iraqi forces defeated Islamic State militants, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Musicians play love songs as a small crowd sings along and claps, inside what was an old hostel for traders centuries ago and is now a refurbished commercial center, in Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. Under the IS scenes like these were forbidden. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Anan Yasoun, one of the few residents to return to the heavily damaged Old City, stands outside her rebuilt home, in Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. From afar, Yasoun’s yellow-slab home is an island surrounded by rubble in the historic old part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, for many still a symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror and the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)
Damaged buildings are surrounded by mounds of rubble three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group there, Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Mounds of rubble still line the streets and buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the IS group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Ammar Mouwfaq, 70, stands inside his soap shop in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Mouwfaq inherited the business in 1955 and for decades his family have imported olive soap from Aleppo, Syria, a trade that has dated back hundreds of years. That came to a stop when the Islamic State took control of the area in 2014. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Anan Yasoun rebuilt her home with yellow cement slabs amid the rubble of Mosul, a brightly colored manifestation of resilience in a city that for many remains synonymous with the Islamic State group’s reign of terror.

In the three years since Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, liberated Mosul from the militants, Yasoun painstakingly saved money that her husband earned from carting vegetables in the city. They had just enough to restore the walls of their destroyed home; money for the floors was a gift from her dying father, the roof a loan that is still outstanding.

Yasoun didn’t even mind the bright yellow exterior — paint donated by a relative. “I just wanted a house,” said the 40-year-old mother of two.

The mounds of debris around her bear witness to the violence Iraq’s second-largest city has endured. From Mosul, IS had proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. Three years later, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition liberated the city in a grueling battle that killed thousands and left Mosul in ruins.

Such resilience is apparent elsewhere in the city, at a time when Baghdad’s cash-strapped government fails to fund reconstruction efforts and IS is becoming more active across the disputed territories of northern Iraq.

Life is slowly coming back to Mosul these days: merchants are busy in their shops, local musicians again serenade small, enthralled crowds. At night, the city lights gleam as restaurant patrons spill out onto the streets.

The U.N. has estimated that over 8,000 Mosul homes were destroyed in intense airstrikes to root out IS. The nine-month operation left at least 9,000 dead, according to an AP investigation.

Memories of the group’s brutality still haunt locals, who remember a time when the city squares were used for the public beheading of those who dared violate the militants’ rules.

The Old City on the west bank of the Tigris River, once the jewel of Mosul, remains in ruins even as newer parts of the city have seen a cautious recovery. The revival, the residents say, is mostly their own doing.

“I didn’t see a single dollar from the government,” said Ahmed Sarhan, who runs a family coffee business.

Antique coffee pots, called dallahs, line the entrance to his shop, which has been trading coffee for 120 years. An aging mortar and pestle, used by Sarhan’s forefathers to grind beans, sits in his office as evidence of his family’s storied past.

“After the liberation, it was complete chaos. No one had any money. The economy was zero,” he said. His business raked in a measly 50,000 Iraqi dinars a day, or around $40. Now, he makes closer to about $2,500.

But even as Sarhan and other merchants are starting to see profits — despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — ordinary laborers are struggling. Sarhan employs 28 workers, each getting about $8 a day.

“It is nothing … they will never be able to rebuild their homes,” he says.

Since the ouster of IS in 2017, the task of rebuilding Mosul has been painfully slow. Delays have been caused by lack of coherent governance at the provincial level; the governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, has been replaced three times since liberation.

With no central authority to coordinate, a tangled web of entities overseeing reconstruction work — from the local, provincial and federal government to international organizations and aid groups — has added to the chaos.

The government has made progress on larger infrastructure projects and restored basic services to the city, but much remains unfinished.

Funds earmarked for reconstruction by the World Bank were diverted to help the federal government fight the coronavirus as state coffers dwindled with plunging oil prices. Meanwhile, at least 16,000 Mosul residents appealed for government cash assistance to rebuild their homes.

Only 2,000 received financial assistance, said Zuhair al-Araji, the mayor of Mosul district.

“There’s no money,” he said. “They have to rebuild on their own.”

Mosul residents eye government policies with suspicion and suspect local officials are too corrupt to help them.

“Whatever funds are provided, they will steal it,” said Ammar Mouwfaq, who spent all his savings to re-open his soap shop in the city last year.

A photo of his father hangs inside the shop, which he took over in the 1970s. Neat stacks of the region’s famous olive oil soap, imported from the Syrian city of Aleppo, tower above him.

“What you see now, I did alone,” he added.

On one thoroughfare the ruins of cinemas bombed by IS — the militant group’s strict interpretation of Islam banned such forms of entertainment — are a stark contrast to the shops and restaurants abuzz with customers.

The Old City, with its labyrinth of narrow streets dating back to the Middle Ages, now serves as an eerie museum of IS horrors. Misshapen iron rods jut out of what’s left of houses they were designed to fortify. Smashed pieces of alabaster stone and masonry, once extolled by historians for architectural significance, lie among the debris. Signs of a former life — a pair of women’s shoes, a notebook covered in hearts, shells from exploded ammunition — are untouched.

“Demolition is forbidden” reads a graffiti written on a slab of wall surrounded by rubble, a testament to Mosul’s unwavering dark humor.

The Mosul Museum, where IS militants filmed themselves smashing priceless antiquities to dust, partially re-opened in January. But apart from occasional contemporary art exhibits such as that of Iraqi sculptor Omer Qais last month, there is nothing to see.

On the other side of town, Sarhan, the coffee trader, invites anyone who cares to see his collection of antique swords, plates and bowls he painstakingly hunted down. In the 12th century, Mosul was an important hub for trade; a century later, its intricate metalwork rose to prominence.

“This is our history,” said Sarhan, holding up a rusting bronze plate, engraved with 1202, the year it was made.

“If I don’t protect it, who will?”

What if We Treat the Construction Industry like Soccer

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What if We Treat the Construction Industry like Soccer as suggested by Itunuoluwa Abdulhameed, Construction Quality and Safety Professional, a researcher and ecostoryteller, is as paradoxical as all the other analogies formulated by frustrated contributors/participants to the construction industry worldwide.

Malcolm Gladwell explained the weak link theory while discussing the lessons we can learn from the Covid19 Pandemic. The same could be related to construction as the industry is a weak link system -where the success or failure of a team or project depends, not on a single player but, on every player.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses how soccer is a weak link and basketball is a strong link sport. Studies show that if people want to win a game of soccer, they should upgrade the worst players on the team. In the game of soccer Gladwell says, “You will never see one person dribble the soccer ball from one end of the field to another.” A lot of players have to touch the ball to make a goal. If one does not upgrade the weakest links on the team, they will drag the rest of the team down. In soccer, the worst players on a team are the most important. On the other hand, Gladwell also states that basketball is a strong link sport. A strong link is like professional basketball because studies show that if people want to win basketball games, you should upgrade the top one to two players on the team. Basketball is a star playing game. For example, Lebron James does not need anyone else to touch the ball if he wants to win. A basketball team doesn’t get that much better if upgrading the weak links, it’s more of a one-person sport. Although some sports relate to strong links and weak links, it’s also relatable in the real world.

HTTPS://MEDIUM.COM/@JASMINTORRES_58228/STRONG-LINK-VS-WEAK-LINK-CDD71D1DB772
MUBAARAK ABDULHAMEED’S PHOTO ON LINKEDIN

A construction project is teamwork. Every player, regardless of their level of participation, has a share in the outcome of the project. As we all know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the simplified weak link theory states that in a project that involves a team where the outcome depends on everyone, the effect of improving the least skilled player(s) on the entire project far outweighs the effect of improving the most skilled player(s). This means that it is more effective to improve the most basic factors of production.

It, therefore, becomes pertinent to improve on the skills craftsmen and technicians involved in construction projects in order to thereby improve the quality of constructions throughout the country. I place a special focus on the craftsmen and technicians because they have the greatest number and influence (not on decisions but greatly) on outcomes of the project. However, they get neglected in professional discussions entirely owing to their low or no educational background.

I will talk about the options for improvement soon. Till then, let me know what you think about this and let us discuss the possible solutions to this problem.

Published by Itunuoluwa Abdulhameed aimolatunde@gmail.com

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Replastering of the Great Mosque of Djenné

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The evening before the crépissage, the annual replastering of the Great Mosque of Djenné, Balphady Yaro is throwing a party for his friends and neighbors in the town’s Konofia neighborhood.


06/2020 Escape


As militant attacks get closer, Katarina Höije tells the story of a Malian town defiantly continuing its annual tradition of replastering a mosque. Here is :

An Ancient Mud Mosque Annually Restored

Rickety plastic chairs and tables line the winding streets around Djenné’s main square, where the mosque looms over the town’s low mud-brick houses. There are plates of riz au grastasty rice with meat and vegetables—and chilled soft drinks. Ivorian Coupé-Décalé music reverberates on soft mud walls. Djenné, a town of about 35,000 in the central region of Mali, is famous for its traditional mud-brick architecture and its UNESCO-protected mosque. Fifty-two feet (16 meters) high and built on a 300-foot-long (90-meter) platform to protect it from flooding, the mosque is the world’s largest mud-brick building.

Young men and boys run down the front steps of the mosque after dropping off baskets of mud. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)

Touching up its walls each year—crépissage, the French word for ‘plastering’—is a proud and exuberant ritual that involves the whole town. “The crépissage is the most important event of the year, even bigger than Eid al-Fitr, Tabaski (the Malian equivalent of Christmas), and marking the end of Ramadan,” says Yaro, a 30-year-old lawyer and host of the celebration known as ‘la nuit de veille.’ Sitting under a tarpaulin strung between two neem trees, Yaro watches as the crowds sway through the street.

The partygoers won’t sleep until after the event. The revelry will strengthen them ahead of tomorrow’s big task, Yaro claims, sipping a soft drink. “Tonight we party, and tomorrow we will celebrate our mosque and Djenné’s cultural heritage.” The residents of Djenné come together to put a new layer of clay on their mosque every April, just before the rainy season. The crépissage is both a necessary maintenance task to prevent the mosque’s walls from crumbling and an elaborate festival that celebrates Djenné’s heritage, faith, and community. It’s also an act of defiance.

The increasing instability in Mali’s central region—fueled by inter-tribal conflicts and growing numbers of militant and jihadist groups exploiting the absence of state security forces—now threatens Djenné and its sacred annual ritual. Local militants—some linked to the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), formed by the 2017 merger of several extremist groups operating in Mali—have invaded towns, destroyed markets, and spread their influence in central Mali.

A group of women carrying water needed for the mud mixture. Men and boys are responsible for bringing the mud to the mosque, while and women and girls are tasked with bringing water from the river. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)

So far, Djenné and its mosque have been spared, but the security situation in the region continues to deteriorate, and more frequent attacks are being carried out in Djenné’s orbit. “We knew that the militants were getting closer to Djenné,” says town chief Sidi Yéya Maiga at his home the day before the crépissage. This year the town council even took the extraordinary step of debating whether or not to cancel their cherished tradition.

In an act of collective resistance, they decided the show must go on. On the day before the crépissage, Nouhoum Touré, the master among Djenné’s 250 masons, heads down to the riverbank to check on the mud that has been left to soak for 20 days.

The crépissage is the most important event in Mali. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional

It’s the height of the dry season, and the river has shrunk to shallow puddles and inlets. The round pools that store clay until it’s time for the crépissage look like pockmarks on the riverbed. The mud comes from further down the river and is transported here by trucks and donkey carts. Younger masons then break the blocks into smaller chunks and mix them with water. In the final stages, rice husks are added to the mud, turning it into a soft and sticky paste. The rice works like a glue, holding the mud together and keeping it from cracking as it dries. The young masons then carry the mixture, in wicker baskets, to pits in front of the mosque in preparation for the event.

Early in the morning on the long-awaited day of the crépissage, Djenné’s residents gather by the mosque and wait for Touré to smear the first blob of mud on the wall. This is the starting gun.

There is a roar from the crowd as dozens of young men—some masons, some apprentices—run to the mosque. Smaller groups of boys raise wooden ladders against the mosque wall. Carrying wicker baskets full of dripping-wet clay from the pits next to the mosque, the young men begin scrambling up the façade, using ladders to reach the wooden poles protruding from the walls. Perching perilously on the wooden scaffolding, they pick up large blobs of clay and smear them on the walls.

The Djenné mosque the day before the crépissage. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional

Nientao, the mosque’s guardian, weaves through the crowd, his pockets filled with sweets for the workers. Thousands of muddy feet trample the paths around the mosque. As the sun begins to rise over Djenné, turning shapeless shadows into dark silhouettes, a group of boys and masons tackle the minarets from the roof of the mosque.

Four hours later, the morning sun shines on the newly plastered mosque. Dark, wet clay patches on the dried mud give it a sickly look. Touré is covered in mud all the way from his plastic sandals, which have miraculously stayed on his feet, to the top of his turban. “I think we did very well,” he says, sitting in the shade of the mosque. “Normally, we re-mud the mosque over two days. This time we managed to get it done in only one day.”

Residents carrying mud, from pits to the mosque ahead of the crépissage. (Photo: Annie Risemberg, The New Traditional)  

A little later, there is a crack as the loudspeakers come on, then the sound of Djenné’s mayor, Balfine Yaro, clearing his throat. Everyone looks on in silence as he makes his way to the front of the crowd. He declares Djenneka Raws the winning team. Djelika Kantao and Yoboucaïna have prevailed. For the winners, there is pride, honor, and a cash prize of 50,000 West African francs, or about $90 (€80). “With the money,” says Kantao, beaming with pride, “I will buy new solar panels for the neighborhood, so we no longer have to live in darkness.”


Delve into a world of traditions being kept alive unique individuals through The New Traditional. This story and images are featured in the book.