Up the street from my house in Amman, Jordan, there is an empty lot. Central Amman is built on steep hills, with narrow valleys between them. This spot offers a view from our hill onto another. It’s a sudden dramatic opening that lets you see the sky, an undulating hill on which low-rise limestone buildings cling to their footholds, and the dense and irregular sweep of the beige city beyond. The view from the lot is best at sunset, when the whole panorama is bathed in pink light, or at night, when the windows of the small stone houses across the way are lit up. Groups of teenagers, couples and families with kids regularly come to sit on the edge of the sidewalk, settling in with cups of tea, shishas and sometimes even folding chairs to enjoy the view.
I’ve always been moved by the ways people seek out improvised, modest experiences of beauty. In Cairo, where I lived for many years, I loved how someone had lined up hundreds of succulents, in snipped plastic bottles, along the side of a sooty, run-down building. I loved the way people in the city’s poorer neighborhoods painted the balconies of their brick buildings with spectacular geometric patterns, homemade Pop Art murals. Cairo—at once beautiful and ugly, bedraggled and grand—taught me to take my beauty where I could find it.
I’ve carried this habit along to Amman—a city that hasn’t been devastated like other Arab capitals but that few would consider beautiful. It’s a city of over four million that is a little more than a hundred years old. It grew in spurts, fed by refugee influxes and petrodollars from neighboring countries. Its charming historic core has been submerged by a haphazard urban expanse that is segregated between rich and poor and has been planned entirely around the private automobile; it lacks parks and street crossings and sidewalks and is running out of water.
I find the search for beauty even more touching in places where it isn’t abundant, where it can’t be taken for granted, where it is in fact constantly endangered. These days I can’t help feeling that there is less beauty in the Arab cities I know than ever before, that it is being confiscated, willfully destroyed. People have been robbed of beauty by the ruthless devastation of 21st-century warfare, by extremist movements that find beauty (of the body, of arts, of historic sites that contradict their dogmatic histories) suspect, by market forces that sequester beauty into upper-class enclaves, and by autocratic regimes that refuse to see what is lovely about their lands and their people.
It may seem beside the point to talk about a lack of beauty when the citizens of most Arab countries face such urgent, terrible scarcities; when millions don’t have livelihoods, political rights, a bare minimum of safety and dignity and freedom. But beauty is a common good, a common right; everyone craves and deserves a little bit of it in their lives. Its dearth is the consequence of political processes, and to demand and defend it is a political fight. I’m thinking of quite a few things when I say beauty here: the beauty of the natural environment (green spaces, clean water); the beauty of one’s one body and the bodies of others, experienced without shame or fear (which entails those bodies being safe and healthy); the beauty that one can learn to create or enjoy through education and the arts. And perhaps most of all, combining as it does all these other forms of beauty, the beauty that people can build and experience together in the cities where they live: the everyday thrill of spaces that are welcoming, harmonious, open and stimulating.
I’ve lived in cities in this part of the world for the last twenty years. I arrived just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq was about to begin; I witnessed the Arab Spring, its failure and the repression that followed. Today most of the region is more impoverished, more unequal, more autocratic, more vulnerable and more stuck than ever. Not coincidentally, to take in most of the cities in the region is to survey a landscape of ruin, loss, neglect and at times scandalous ugliness. That’s not to say that there isn’t still much beauty here, but there should be so much more. This part of the world is home to some of its most ancient and splendid cities. Their degradation is the result, the visible expression, of failed governance—of violence, autocracy, inequality and corruption. What is being built around and over them, meanwhile, is largely tasteless, unimaginative, unequal, disrespectful of heritage and unthinking of the environment.
The first and foremost root of ugliness in the Middle East is the violence it has endured. Twenty years ago, as U.S. forces moved toward Baghdad, the country suffered an incredible loss with the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Since then, Iraqi cities have been devastated by conflict, and by the corruption of the regime that arose after the invasion. In Syria, faced with a popular uprising calling for an end to his regime, Bashar al-Assad and his foreign allies have pounded entire cities—including Aleppo, a jewel of medieval Arab architecture—into rubble. In Yemen, where a civil war has been raging since 2014, architectural heritage—including shrines, museums and the country’s unique mud-brick cities—has been destroyed by Saudi bombing campaigns and Islamic militants. The Israeli occupation is physically as well as morally repellent—disfiguring Jerusalem and the land of the West Bank with walls, watchtowers, checkpoints and barbed wire, and forcing Palestinians to live in intentionally ugly and inhuman slums and enclaves.
Beirut, which by rights should be one of the most beautiful cities of the Mediterranean, has been scarred by civil war, Israeli bombardments and real-estate speculation. In recent years its residents have fought to protect its last beach from being privatized; they have protested the corrupt garbage-collection companies that left trash piling on the streets. Today the city is staggering under a financial collapse that has driven the Lebanese lira from 1,500 to the dollar in 2019 to fifteen thousand today (and as much as one hundred thousand on the black market). On August 4, 2020, the city was hit by one of the largest nonnuclear accidental explosions in history, when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate—which had been stored, no one knows why or how, for six years in the Beirut port—exploded. The blast killed hundreds, maimed thousands, drove three hundred thousand people from their homes and damaged historic neighborhoods. The investigation into what happened has been stalled at every turn; the country’s corrupt, sectarian leaders, impervious to shame, have clung to power.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “The Emancipation of Sensibility” by Jesse McCarthy
and “Negative Space” by Rachel Wiseman.
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In Egypt, the residents of another once-beautiful Mediterranean city, Alexandria, have watched historic buildings being destroyed and public access to the seafront dwindle as the army has widened the road along the sea to a six-lane freeway and taken over the coastline for hotels and entertainment venues it will run. Meanwhile, in Cairo, the regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has embarked on a building spree—carried out by military-controlled construction companies—that has disfigured the capital. Huge freeways and flyovers cut through existing neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of trees have been uprooted. Estimates are that the historic suburb of Heliopolis lost nearly four hundred thousand square meters (about a hundred acres) of green space in just six months; as if more roads weren’t enough, part of a park there was flattened to erect a monument to the country’s road development. Poor communities have been violently displaced from prime real-estate areas to make way for new developments. Green spaces on the banks of the Nile have been cleared to build multistory garages and walkways that will be fronted by cafes and restaurants. Parts of the City of the Dead, a centuries-old cemetery and UNESCO heritage site, are being razed (people have had to scramble to disinter their dead relatives and bury them elsewhere). Last summer, the city’s old houseboats were towed away.
The destruction of historic neighborhoods, the privatization of public space and the dispossession of poorer communities is justified as “beautification.” All of it is being carried out without public consultation, competitive bidding or environmental studies. People wake up one day to find construction sites, bulldozers uprooting trees, announcements that they will have to move. Much of this activity is designed to turn public space into commercial space (from which regime-controlled companies profit), or to facilitate car traffic from the city’s wealthy gated exurbs and to the new capital that Sisi is building the desert. That city is planned to be the size of Singapore and to house six and a half million people (no one lives there yet). It will have the tallest skyscraper in Africa, a mosque that can hold one hundred thousand people, a landscaped park with an artificial river, museums, a stadium, an opera and a government district dominated by a huge presidential palace. The new city will reportedly cost $59 billion, in a deeply indebted country where 70 percent of the population lives on less than six dollars a day.
Sisi is copying an idea of manicured urban splendor from the Gulf countries that have supported his counterrevolutionary regime. The gleaming cities of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the model of beauty these days. Blessed with the resources to build virtually anything they could dream of, their rulers have spent their money on malls and skyscrapers, museums by famous architects, marinas and luxury hotels. These trophies serve to attract the world’s attention, to buy legitimacy, to court tourists. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has upped the ante with plans for Neom, a $500 billion futuristic megacity whose components include a ski resort and the world’s largest floating port. (Its construction will displace twenty thousand members of the area’s Huwaitat tribe.) Its signature linear city, The Line, is a vanity project so extreme that it is literally a giant mirror in the desert. The Line’s 170-kilometer-long, 500-meter-high reflective skyscrapers will supposedly enclose a narrow, dense, verdant city that will accommodate nine million people and have no carbon emissions. The promotional video—about the only thing we have to go on so far—sweeps the viewer along through a CGI model whose overall impression is smooth, dramatic, futuristic and vague (only a few details, like trees on floating pedestals, stand out). The rendition of The Line’s incredibly long mirrored façades shows them blending into and extending the dramatic surrounding landscape—desert and sea—in a trompe l’oeil effect of staggering proportion, designed to go viral. As with other projects, there are no details, no studies, no cost or environmental analysis.
In Riyadh, the Saudis are building New Murabba, a neighborhood whose main feature is the Mukaab, a giant cube that is four hundred meters on every side (big enough to hold twenty Empire State Buildings) and will feature restaurants, retail and hotels that will be surrounded by gigantic holographic projections. This “gateway to another world,” the “world’s first immersive experiential destination,” has been criticized as a not very subtle iteration of the Kaaba, the sacred structure in the center of Islam’s holiest site, toward which all Muslims pray. But that is hardly surprising given the degree to which the holy site itself has been developed beyond all recognition, dwarfed by a hotel that features seven skyscrapers and a clock tower six times higher than Big Ben.
It’s hard to see how countries without the Gulf’s oil wealth can replicate their grandiose, imported, energy- and capital-intensive ventures. But regimes and publics across the region are impressed with them. The dream city is spanking new, impressively engineered, technologically advanced, minutely ordered and above all very, very big—so huge as to dwarf the people that it is ostensibly built for, to awe and cow them. This is beauty as pure power projection.
These cities may well be the region’s future, although I hope not; not just because I find their aesthetics to be as aseptic and generic as those of giant hotel lobbies, but because there is so little for their future residents to contribute or to lay claim to. What is missing from these enclosed utopias is any willingness to create real public space, any disinterested vision of the common good. These cities aren’t made for engaged citizens; they’re for quiescent consumers, to whom they offer luxury, convenience, a lack of friction. Everyone who isn’t part of that category is just rabble at the gates.
The specter haunting these stunning public works is the Arab Spring, when people gathered, protested and laid claim to their cities, dared to dream of a more beautiful version of them. As Lina Mounzer has written about pro-democracy protests in Beirut a few years ago, “We had been close enough to see a different city, a different country shining through layer on layer of accumulated war.” When the state fails entirely, when its authority falters, people step up in spontaneous and surprising ways, assert the ownership that they have hopelessly or disgustedly or shortsightedly given up. I remember when people staged concerts and art shows in Tahrir Square, when they made a point of sweeping it and repainting it; I remember the months after the uprising when everyone had ideas for how to make the city better. In Beirut, people were out picking up debris the day after the explosion. Today the Lebanese capital’s beleaguered civil society is organizing a reconstruction even as the country sinks deeper into a financial and political morass (urban planners say they are working “in-disaster” rather than “post-disaster”). NGOs are replacing broken doors and windows, restoring damaged buildings and drafting recovery plans for the most damaged neighborhoods. In Mosul, which was once the capital of the Islamic State, the historian Omar Mohammed (who during ISIS’s rule of the city began tweeting anonymously as Mosul Eye) has created a foundation dedicated to the city’s history and recovery. People have been planting thousands of trees; UNESCO is funding a restoration of historic buildings. Across the region, urban planners, architects, NGOs and concerned citizens have developed endless proposals and ideas for improving the fabric of urban life. A few of them have come to fruition, against the odds. In Cairo, the architectural conservator Alaa el-Habashi and his engineer wife Ola Said have renovated a sprawling ancient house once slated for demolition and turned it into a rare-books library and cultural center. Here in Amman, a young architect has proposed turning the abandoned tracks of the Hejaz railway into a linear park that would run through the city’s poorer neighborhoods. It’s hard to imagine people being this attached to the planned megacities, this invested in protecting them.
In Egypt, residents have demonstrated, signed petitions and threatened legal action to try to protect their homes and neighborhoods. They have created Facebook groups entirely dedicated to documenting the latest outrages. I am outraged too, but it also isn’t lost on me that many of the residents of upper-class neighborhoods who are scandalized to see them defaced today had little to say against the military regime until it showed up with bulldozers at their doorstep, that they are more upset about losing a park now than they were about thousands of their fellow citizens being killed, tortured or imprisoned for the last decade. That’s the thing about beauty: we can want it in a blind and selfish way. Our concern for it can end at our home, our street, our neighborhood. Some of the same people who like to come to the lookout by my house litter it with cigarette butts, bottles and trash. As much as they enjoy it, I guess they feel that it doesn’t really belong to them; cleaning up is someone else’s responsibility. It takes trust and effort, generosity and conviction, to believe and insist on a city that is beautiful for everyone. It is a collective, accretive, never-ending process to build and maintain that kind of beauty, a political and ethical project. To care for what isn’t just yours, because it isn’t just yours; to care for what belongs to no one and everyone and the future—now that’s beautiful.
Art credit: Paolo Pellegrin, View of Amman, Jordan, 2008, ©Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos.