‘Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of their faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.’1
The Mosaic Rooms present Disappearing Cities of the Arab World, an ambitious cultural programme of exhibitions, talks and screenings, focused on the destruction of Arab urban life in the post-colonial age.
The city is the space where civic life becomes possible; where the tribal, ethnic or confessional divisions of the peoples who settle in it can potentially dissolve and mutate into unfamiliar forms of social order governed by new rules and customs. The city is also a centre of resistance to the invader and of rebellion against injustice. In it also lovers will meet anonymously, discovering new spaces in the imagination that would have been unthinkable in the countryside or desert, and developing new kinds of relationships. The city transforms our perceptions of childhood; our experiences of light and sound, of space and perspective, and of the past, present and future.
But cities are also great betrayers of their own inhabitants, repositories of vermin and dirt and pollution, as well as theatres of chaos, civil war and massacre. In the contemporary Arab world, cities have often been profoundly deceitful—promising lawfulness, peace, equality and freedom only to turn into prisons and traps for the unsuspecting citizen, who is often chased out from them or persecuted for the language he speaks or the God she worships (or indeed the one she repudiates).
Jaffa, Beirut, Lydd, Baghdad, Cairo, Aleppo, Homs, Tripoli (Libya and Lebanon), Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Mogadishu—these cities have, to varying degrees of course, undergone terrible destruction and violence in the post-colonial age, bearing witness to what can only be described as a failure of the civic project. Other cities are tragically promised similar fates…
Our programme explores the histories and consequences of this failure through art, architecture, literature, music and cinema. Far from a merely academic or nostalgic reflection on the processes that have led to this failure, we examine how the inhabitants of modern-day Arab cities have continued to resist the breakdown or destruction of their environments through civic projects or artistic expression—or simply through an improbable love affair!
The Programme opened in Spring 2013 with Dor Guez’s show 40 DAYS, focussed on the remaining Palestinian minority in the previously Palestinian city of Lydd, almost completely depopulated in the 1948 war by the invading Israeli forces. Earlier in 2014, we featured two exhibitions on Baghdad, including a homage to its cultural hub at Al-Mutanabbi Street, which was devastated by a bomb in 2007. Spring 2014 hosted Mogadishu-Lost Moderns an exhibition looking at the past, present, and potential future of the Somali capital city. Other talks, lectures and readings within this programme will attempt to throw light on the continuing tragedies tearing apart the region’s societies where they are most intensely gathered: in the urban space.
1 Calvino, I. (1972), Invisible Cities, pp30–31