The Other Side of Paradise, or “Islamic” Architectures of Containment and Erasure

The Other Side of Paradise, or “Islamic” Architectures of Containment and Erasure

Can history be narrated in the present tense? What role does architecture have to play in teaching the past in a way that doesn’t sanitize or obscure the present? These are not abstract ruminations, but questions I encounter every time I teach my survey on Islamic architecture. The mandate is to cover the Islamic world from the seventh century to the present, and to include architecture from across Asia, North Africa, and parts of Europe. That is, three continents and almost two millennia are covered in twenty-six lectures. The region where Islam was founded and spread across in the seventh and eighth centuries, now known as the Middle East, has become synonymous with war and conflict. It was once viewed as the center of civilizations, knowledge, and culture, until European interventions changed its political economy and geography. 

The survey books don’t even acknowledge the last two hundred years, ending Islamic architectural history in the eighteenth century. Articles and book chapters help supplement the rest and, given the imperative to cover thirteen hundred years in fourteen weeks, I am forced to put off difficult questions of colonialism and the nation-state until the end of the term. Even fewer resources are available to explain the contemporary built environment, suffering as it is from climate change, war, and racial and religious segregation. In such a context, the chasm between an aesthetically alluring past and the unwieldy present seems wide and almost unsurmountable. I question whether this is the responsible way to teach, whether a more dynamic interaction between historical and political realities can be merged to tell a story that is in the process of being written. 

The chasm between an aesthetically alluring past and the unwieldy present seems wide and almost unsurmountable.

The architecture of Islam is located around the world, from Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula, to China and Africa. Exquisite mosques, shrines, and palaces represent powerful dynasties of the medieval and early modern world. In the more recent era, modern cities like Ankara and Islamabad have demonstrated the relationship between nation-building and town planning. The world’s tallest building is in Dubai and a few miles away is the first zero-carbon urban experiment, known as Masdar City. These monumental projects, from the past to the present, represent the complexity and historical breadth of Islamic architecture, even as they render invisible the lives of those residing in their shadows today. 

There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people world-wide and, of those, 25.5 million are refugees. The burden of hosting them is shouldered by several nations, starting with Turkey, which is the largest host country, with 3.5 million migrants living on its soil, followed by Pakistan and Uganda. Fifty-seven percent of the world’s refugees come from South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria; the latter is the largest number of displaced people, with 6.3 million refugees world-wide (Figure 1). In China’s western province of Xinjiang, two million square meters have been dedicated to the construction of detention or reeducation centers, where millions of ethnic Muslims are incarcerated.

Figure 1. Za'atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013. The view is from a helicopter carrying U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Courtesy U.S. State Department.

An unfortunate effacement happens when the scholarship on Islamic architecture focuses primarily on the aesthetic and formal qualities of elite monuments, without equal treatment given to, for example, the massive labor and refugee camps that dot the landscapes of the contemporary Middle East, Africa, and Asia, or the detention centers in Europe, America, and China. What all these structures have in common is denying people their humanity. And an architecture that is anonymous and generic becomes powerfully complicit, both as a method of containment and a means of subjugation, correction and, ultimately, erasure.  

The list of challenging monuments to teach (and it grows everyday) begins with the holiest site of Islamic architecture, the Ka‘aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The cubic structure, “dressed” every year in velvet drapery embroidered with Qur’anic verse, is believed to have been built by the prophet, Abraham, and his son, Isma‘il, and is a sacred precinct towards which Muslims the world over direct their prayers. Yet the Ka‘aba is overshadowed by tall skyscrapers, including a massive hotel in the form of London’s Big Ben clock tower (Figure 2).  The oil wealth and consumerism that these government-sponsored real estate developments signify are in stark contrast to the simplicity and modest scale of the ancient Ka‘ba. A few miles outside of the city are wretched labor camps, housing migrant workers who are employed to build the massive towers, and yet who may never step foot in them.  

Figure 2. The Ka‘ba with Abraj al Bait Towers in the background, May 5, 2012. Copyright Kishwar Rizvi.

The Dome of the Rock, considered the first imperial Islamic monument, tells a different story of disjuncture. When the Umayyad armies seized Jerusalem at the end of the seventh century, the site of the Temple of Solomon was an empty space, upon which the ruler, Abd al-Malik, would construct this most fascinating structure. The architectural inspirations of the Dome of the Rock were Byzantine and Roman martyria and tombs. The epigraphy is comprised of Praises of God, His Oneness, His mercy. On the interior, the texts address the “people of the book,” namely the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, in this most public form of conciliation and inclusion.

Today the Dome of the Rock it is under heavy security, and only a select few can have access to its interior spaces. Can one talk about the monument without discussing its role in contemporary Jewish, Christian, and Muslim political mythologies? Less than fifty miles away from Jerusalem, in Gaza, there are 1.5 million Palestinian refugees made stateless and homeless with the Israeli occupation of their homeland (Figure 3). Once again, the past and the present collide against each other, revealing deep antagonisms and yet also highlighting a coexistence that was, until very recently, the norm.

Figure 3. Al-Shati refugee camp, Gaza, March 7, 2019. Courtesy Getty Images.

Two sites prove to be the most difficult to teach: Syria and China. The difficulty isn’t the result of a lack of historical monuments, although some are certainly at risk of destruction. Damascus and Kashgar are home to two of the most iconic “great” mosques, of 706 and 1442, respectively. Yet the cities in which they are located are no longer associated with architectural marvels but rather with human suffering. The Syrian Civil War has displaced approximately seven million people internally, with more than five million refugees outside the country. The monuments of Damascus—mosques, shrines, villas—are no longer inhabited by the thousands of residents that have evacuated the city. Today, temporary shelters and tents serve as their homes, in dangerous and unhealthy locations, far away.

Xinjian province, in western China, is believed to have had Muslim populations since the earliest years of Islam, yet that identity has proven to be an existential liability. In Kashgar alone, there are at least eight “reeducation” centers where Muslims, primarily of the Uighur ethnicity, are held against their will. These are, effectively, concentration camps (Figure 4). The buildings, in contrast to the beautiful mosque nearby, are austere and ominous and in the form of prisons, with high walls and cold interiors meant to incarcerate and brainwash.

Figure 4. Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region, November 4, 2017. Courtesy Ng Han Guan/AP Images.

The contrast between pristine—now almost imaginary—historical spaces, clad in colorful tiles and inscribed with beautiful calligraphy, and the drab and menacing architecture of containment is jarring. Labor and refugee camps, detention and “reeducation” centers, all dehumanize people and reduce them to faceless statistics. These buildings, which exemplify so much of the built environment in today’s world, are marginalized in scholarly discourse, as though they have no history or geographical specificity. In fact, they are not invisible, but in the news every day, as sites of violence and state-sanctioned repression (Figure 5).

Figure 5. A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region, December 3, 2018. Courtesy Ng Han Guan/AP Images.

The labor camps, refugee settlements, and government internment centers are spaces where millions of contemporary Muslims subsist, yet they are seldom attended to in the scholarship on and representations of Islamic architecture. It is as though the beautiful monuments displayed on glossy pages and meant to represent the field are equally timeless, unreal assemblages of stone and mortar, whose precarious location is secondary to their universal value as historical sites.

How can one teach the history of a place or an architectural monument that is juxtaposed against the here and now? Is it possible to engage the field in a way that is academically rigorous and also self-reflective? This is particularly important in the twenty-first century, when there appears a deep chasm between the glorious achievements of the Islamic world—relegated to bygone centuries—and the present day, when autocracy, war, and terror typify the sites from which that glory emanated. At a time in which medieval conflicts are mobilized for racial and ethnic violence and in which religions are perverted in order to fuel threats against communities of belief, new pedagogical methods need to be considered. 

I don’t mean to suggest teaching essentialist or ahistorical truths about the Middle East or the Islamic world. The past should not be studied simply through the lens of the present, but rather on its own terms. However, in order to responsibly teach architectural history, one cannot compartmentalize either the past or the present, but must engage fully with issues that shape the discipline, from environmentalism to racial and social justice. Can a class on the Great Mosque of Damascus help us understand the current Syrian civil war or provide solutions for housing the millions of refugees scattered across the globe? Probably not. But in expanding the study of architectural history to include discussions of territory and political agency, we may teach our students the value of critical thinking, historical conservation, social activism, and—most importantly—the value of understanding architecture as an ethical field of study.

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