The Orderly Pleasures (and Displeasures) of Oil Urbanism

figure-1-radios_web  Advertising for British and American radios in Bahrain’s monthly Sawt Al Bahrayn, 1950 – 51, 1, no. 3, 32.

A recent issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East includes 88 pages of essential reading about urban history in the Gulf (which in this format includes Iraq and Iran). Nelida Fuccaro, a historian at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has guest-edited this issue, and her commitment to responsible and pioneering writing about the Gulf is represented in each piece. Fuccaro, one of the most significant scholars on urbanization in the Gulf, might not call herself an urbanist, but her approach to history in Bahrain has handled the island’s urban centers as the interactive backdrops for her historical research. The result is some of the richest and most specific urban histories of the Gulf.1 Fuccaro continues to deepen our understanding of the region’s urbanism in this academic publication. Along with her own article on consumer culture in Bahrain, Fuccaro has assembled a group of young scholars who might be grateful for the path that Fuccaro’s work has set. Writing on urbanism in the Gulf is generally misinformed at worst and unconvincing at best. I think it is fair to say that these writers represent a much-needed graduation in the field. While indeed there are other arduous scholars on these topics, it is a pleasure to see this group resist knee-jerk endorsements of general theories and employ resolve and curiosity to write histories that have been deprived of proper attention. I can only hope that each of these endeavors is representative of more expansive work to come.

Fuccaro points out that most writing on the effects of oil focuses on statecraft, not citycraft, a word I venture to propose. She emphasizes this negligence of the city in her introduction to the collection by identifying an unfortunate contradiction: “urban change [in the Gulf] has been the most tangible (and visible) outcome of oil wealth,” but the region’s cities have been approached in most research and writing as unalloyed paving-overs by those in control, thereby denying any search “for alternative patterns of city formation.” Fuccaro is not challenging the reading of petroleum as the generator of urbanism in the region; in fact, she reaffirms this generalization. But by reaffirming it, she is pushing us to consider oil (and today natural gas) as an agency with “almost supernatural properties.” Not stopping short of referring to “petro-magic,” Fuccaro’s point seems to be that the search for petroleum unleashed a landscape of conditions impossible to be controlled or fully fathomed by any single body of influence.

At first glance, it would seem that writing Gulf histories is easy – that a compact modern history can be easily collected, recorded, and analyzed. The truth is that the process has been elusive. Fuccaro has warned us before that the abundance of British, and American, sources – whether governmental documents, news articles, or personal memoirs – have to be approached as particular perspectives of multifaceted stories. Writing on cities in the Gulf must ride a thin line between avoiding claims of exceptionalism and the tendency to characterize these cities as helpless ships in the rough seas of global markets. These scholars prove adept at managing these difficulties. The articles refer to the usual sources: British government archives, petroleum company archives, and expatriate memoirs. In the spirit of Fuccaro’s warning, however, this issue’s four other writers are at their best when delving into other untapped sources.

ralissa_aerial_1a_web  Aerial view of Kuwait’s new town Ahmadi, 1956, KOC Archive.

It might later be said that these five articles are but the result of a more current academic fashion: a leaning-in on media representation and its relationship to modernization (though this is not a new approach). At this stage in writing Gulf urban histories, this is a welcome and necessary step. The work focuses on media representation, like magazines, film reels, newspapers, and, as one writer suggests, the architecture itself. While one might suggest that modernization always had a media department (it has always had to be sold), there is certainly something exceptional in terms of how cities in the Gulf have been represented and sold. In part, one might say that these cities were well ahead of their times in terms of conveying marketing strategies through mass media at home and abroad. There is a running agreement among the articles that representations in various forms of media have to be approached as more than “text” or windows for viewing how things were; they also need to be analyzed as “sets of practices”; that is, they are as much, if not more, about formative intentions as they are about representative acts. This is particularly easy to identify in media materials from the 1950s, in which ideological messages are almost humorously transparent to a present-day audience. One does not need to look too hard, for instance, to find the social engineering plan programmed into a propaganda film. There is no doubt that the formats these writers discuss were out to be shapers of society. The challenge, then, is to identify, dare I say measure, the amount of influence, both intended and otherwise, each effort had. Where these articles touch upon answers is where they are often at their strongest.

Perhaps as an aside, one question I would raise with each writer is their interaction with their collected representational resources. While these articles focus mostly on the media representations as “sets of practices,” one cannot forget they do include the evidence of bygone realities; they are the “texts” that we have. Such sources are part of a system wherein representation is inextricable from desires for control and design, but one also has to admit the very need, or at least temptation, to delve into these sources for the images and shapes of places that no longer exist. One writer describes how the shops of a commercial street flicker by from the car window in a film; but this also represents how one saw and experienced these places. We rely as much on these sources to inform us of their physical materiality, too. It seems there is a paradoxical necessity to mine and undermine these sources. If there is a fault line running through these articles, it might be that there is not enough admission of the mining.

What follows are thoughts on each of the articles.

[Read the rest of the review, which includes discussions of articles by Mona Damluji, Reem Alissa, Arbella Bet-Shlimon, Farah Al-Nakib, and Nelida Fuccaro at Portal 9 (click here).]

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