Urban history is often told through great structures or their ruins. If history is the story of the victors, then urban history defaults to the story of the built. The towers, bridges, and kilometers of tarmac do not go the way of faded memories and yellowing archives. But it is these memories and archives that may reveal why we are left with the buildings and infrastructure we obligingly inhabit.
In my ongoing work with the architecture and urbanism of cities in the Gulf, I am constantly struck by how history is slipping through our metaphorical fingers. I put hope in meeting Abdulrahman Makhlouf, an Egyptian planner and long-time resident of Abu Dhabi. Our first encounter was in 2010, after I had seen that he was associated with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium, one of the most beautiful buildings in the UAE. Our conversation generated a list of topics that multiplied the longer we talked. He studied under professors including Georg Werner at Technische Hochschule Munich1 in Germany in the years after the Second World War. He worked as an architect and urban planner in Cairo as the city tried to handle a population boom. There, he crossed paths with well-known Egyptian architects like Hassan Fathy and Sayed Karim. In the late 1950s, the United Nations appointed him to formulate the first master plans for Saudi Arabia’s cities. And then he moved to Abu Dhabi as chief town planner at the moment the city was catching up with modern expectations. Over the course of these experiences, Dr. Makhlouf participated in and witnessed a terrific age of urban history in Egypt and the Gulf region. He negotiated the meeting of so-called “Western modernism” with local and regional expectations.
Decades of practice by this one man could help inform a larger region’s urban history largely unrecorded by a generation that is leaving us. Raised by a grand mufti and trained in European planning principles, Dr. Makhlouf seemed well positioned to give us some perspective on urbanism in the Arab world. Nearing his eighty-ninth birthday, he is genial, but his eyes are still those of the calculating man in the many photographs with sheikhs and dignitaries. In these pictures he wears perfectly tailored suits and oils his curly hair back. He played the part of the agile, shrewd, ambitious architect.
Dr. Makhlouf says that he constantly reminds himself that God punished Qaroun for his arrogance by having the earth swallow him up. The Quran story serves as a reminder that God gives and God takes. Memory is part of this equation. To his great frustration, memory often fails Dr. Makhlouf, a fact he does not easily admit. He doesn’t want to forget as much as he doesn’t want to be forgotten. Therefore, he does not shy away from claiming credit for his work. He knows it is unlikely anyone will do so on his behalf. The roads he drew and the residential blocks he designed have all been razed and replaced by wider, taller, and sometimes better structures. For the planner, the next building boom is the equivalent of Qaroun’s swallowing earth.
Dr. Makhlouf invested a great deal of effort into our meeting. He converted his conference room into an exhibition of informational boards he has made over the years. The boards’ combination of text and images presented his biography: his grandfather and father, the teachers at Al Azhar, his time as a student in Germany, and his presentations of master plans on palace floors in Abu Dhabi. These panels surrounded us as we talked. In addition, the conference table was covered with a grid of stacked documents, the organization of which he rigorously maintained. All this effort made it seem as if urban history were within reach. However, the piles amounted to a mere fraction, at an oblique angle, of the story. The boards and documents functioned more as crutches of postponement than easy access to history.
Urban history is once again escaping us. We look at Jedda, Mecca, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, and by reacting to, say, a constructed clock tower, a mega-highway, or a ski-slope, we think we can interpret what happened. But we have lost the chance to know the personalities and the transcultural interactions that laid the complicated path to such urban testimonies. We have lost the stories not only of the places but also of major chapters in the saga of modernity.
Read the extended interview at Portal 9 (click here).