1. Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient
  2. Research
  3. Overview of Main Research Programme
  4. Cities as Laboratories of Change
  5. The Ottoman and Post-Ottoman City as a Laboratory of Change: Urban Integration and Disintegration in the Margins of Aleppo, Cairo and Tunis

Cities as Laboratories of Change

PD Dr. Nora Lafi

This research programme is conceived as both a logical evolution of the previous programmes I was involved in at ZMO (from “Urban Violence” to “Phantom Grenzen”, and even from “Municipalités” to “Migration”) and the exploration of new theoretical hypothesizes and methodological postures in the framework of the new general programme on cities as laboratories of change. It draws on the idea that the margin, as a concept with a variety of potential declensions, might constitute an entry toward a better understanding of urban societies and the logics that articulate their evolution not only in an Ottoman context, but also in the context of the later evolution such cities were the theatre of, from colonial to independent.
My research activity in the framework of the previous programmes I was part of participated in a present trend in historiography which tries to reinterpret the very nature of Ottoman cities (as part of a discussion on the Islamic city too) under the light of the rejection of previously accepted broad ideas and of the promotion of new interpretative concepts like mediation, accommodation and mitigation. Disruptions in the urban social order now tend to be seen in the mirror of a new vision and definition of this very urban social order. The latest programmes I was part of (“violence” and “Phantomgrenzen”) were oriented toward the reading of urban spaces from the angle of the relationship between collective identities, the Ottoman imperial order and elements of disruption.  What I intend to do now is to adopt a slightly different angle of research and interpretation, considering urban margins as laboratories of change. Instead of exposing the characteristics of the systems and looking for the elements of trouble which provoked disruptions, I wish to start from the margins in order to understand the whole system from the very places where it was always under tension. In other words, instead of building my interpretations on the dichotomy between the Ottoman balance of local order and moments of crisis which challenged this system, I wish to draw my attention on the permanent interstices of the system. I also wish to follow such interstices beyond the mere Ottoman period, in order to try and connect my reflections on reflections on the present situation in the cities under study I came to develop due to recent events. Instead of a parallel between the 19th and the 21th centuries, I wish to embrace the whole historical picture, at least for the series of precise points under study.
The margin is conceived here under a variety of perspectives, ranging from urban morphology to social history. I was struck indeed to witness that recent events in the cities I study do often happen in neighbourhoods whose Ottoman past I am studying in the archives. Here again, instead of speculating on this non-coincidence, I wish to embrace the history of these often marginal neighbourhoods in order to understand their relationship to the city center, to the Empire and to power in general. I wish to explore the link between urban morphology, urban geography or sociology and the geography of riots. I also conceive the margin as social. But not only from the angle of the social history of marginal, seen as beggars, migrants and prostitutes. I would also like to include considerations on the marginality of minority factions: not necessarily communal, but all these organized social groups which were not part of the pact of urban governance with the Empire or with power in general and which under certain circumstances became the social basis of rebellious movements. 
The urban margin as I see it for this programme is indeed an entry towards the other side of the system of Ottoman urban governance I tried to analyze in previous studies.
The margin is also seen here as the result of a limit in the integrative capacity of the urban system: all these places, times or subjects which were left apart by the dominant deal in urban governance and in the governance of diversity. Minorities within the communal minorities, dominated factions, weakened clans, all entities subject to centrifuge clientele games in times of troubles or of international rivalries.
In the end, with this new research attitude, which I wish to develop through the analyze of a set of archives I began to list, from Tunis to Cairo, London to Aix and Geneva to Istanbul (unfortunately reason tells me not to include Aleppo in the list of possible trips, at least in the near future), will take me to a tentative discussion of the very concept of Islamic city, in the wake of the work conducted at ZMO since the time of my habilitation thesis. Here again, what I expect is a change in the angle of interpretation, which will help defy from culturalist constructions.