We can observe the cities in the Middle East at a crucial moment in time. Rich in architectural and urbanistic heritage and finding themselves at a turning point of political transformation and undergoing extensive (re-) construction, these cities grapple with questions of identity, globalization and a reconsideration of the notions of the public and the private. Beirut and Damascus have over the millennia of their existence experienced a long sequence of different empires and powers, each having had a physical and cultural impact on the fabric of the city.
Dating back to neolithic times, both cities were sites where cultures ranging from the Canaanites, the Phoenecians, Romans, Mamluks to the Ottoman and French have been implementing their own ideas of how a city should be shaped and what kind of urban culture is expressed. Also throughout the twentieth century immigration of various refugee groups, such as the Armenians, Palestinians or Iraqis have produced new parts of the cities, based on distinct urban models. Most recently one can identify the influence from Gulf countries, bringing in new concepts of urbanity. The project aims at identifying and charting these different ‘conceptions of the city’ and how they have built up Damascus and Beirut over time and continue to shape them. In Beirut and Damascus the schism between the visible and the invisible, between the public and the private, and the differentiation of areas of influence through urban markers is strong. Cities are never completely open, nor fully closed.
Cities like Beirut, Tehran or Damascus are portrayed in ways heavily influenced by media, political interests and key events of the past. Whereas Beirut conjures up images of urban warfare, traumatic events like massacres or assassinations, but also the heydays of the ‘Paris of the East’ during the sixties, Tehran and Damascus are seen by the West to be caught behind a new iron curtain, representations of the ‘Axis of Evil’ or the ‘hideouts of terrorists’. All those mediated images are simplistic, highly clichéd and do not correspond with the conditions on the ground. The realities of everyday life, as well as the millennia-long history of urban settlement overshadow those ideological contemporary imaginations and require a different approach. Can we see cities like Beirut or Damascus as ordinary cities? This does not mean a negation of difference or a disregard of the political. On the contrary, an approach modeled upon how we study other cities worldwide, brings these differences to light in sharper ways.