Rethinking Public Violence in modern Middle Eastern Cities

Nelida Fuccaro, Nora Lafi, Ulrike Freitag

International Workshop, ZMO Berlin, December 9-10, 2011

As part of the research programme “Urban Violence in the Middle East: between Empire and Nation-State” (ZMO Berlin / SOAS London), an international workshop will take place at ZMO Berlin, December 9-10, 2011. This workshop is intended as a collective exploration of a set of questions such as changes and continuities in the nature of urban violence between the 19th and the 20th centuries, the interaction between the local, regional and international contexts in defining patterns of localised conflict in cities and the relationship between individual or collective identities on the one hand, and urban space on the other..

The object of this workshop which will include papers on different cities and situations, is also to reflect on methodological and interpretative issues in order, for example, to contribute to debates about the nature of violence in the societies of the Ottoman Empire, Iran and the Arab world and in the new geopolitical panorama that emerged after the fall of Middle Eastern imperial systems from Tunisia to Arabia. Building on these debates, this workshop seeks to initiate a comparative discussion of the history of urban violence in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries as the manifestation of power relations and struggles which on the one hand are embedded in the social, political and spatial orders of cities and on the other are linked to wider processes of state society/relations, urban governance, urbanisation, modernisation and deep transformation of the geopolitical panorama.

By analysing a variety of episodes, actors and recipients of violence in a set of cities the workshop is expected to focus on key contexts of violent public engagement and on their interrelationships. The case studies are expected to explore the meaning, relevance and impact of violence on urban polities and societies as the expression of plural political consciousness; as a language of political and social communication; as a form of collective ‘representation’ of and resistance to coercion and as a mirror image of how states, urban elites and administrations view their relationship with subjects, citizens and urban residents at particular historical junctures. On a more immediately urban level the workshop also investigates how specific episodes and forms of public violence relate to wider processes of urbanisation, industrialization and geopolitical changes at the regional and global scales. More specifically it asks how violent activities are linked to the transformation of the physical, political and/or demographic landscape of the city. In this connection a relevant issue to be explored is how urban space became a site of contestation in its own right as a contribution to the ongoing debate on the role played by new and old neighbourhoods, mosques and spaces of public use in the evolution of an urban sphere of public engagement.

The main questions which we would hope that papers address are:

What is the spatial dimension of urban violence, emanating both from the state and from popular action. In other words, – which places served as scenes for violent events and how did contesting parties make use of space? In this connection one significant issue is the spatial dimension of spontaneous popular organization versus the governmental pursuit of centralization and power.

How did the symbolic connotation of certain spaces (buildings, squares, trading places, etc.) interact with their use for violent action? (This must be considered as a two-way process in which, on one hand, violent action derives a certain “meaning” from the “chosen” scene and, on the other hand, certain places are invested with symbolic power from repeated integration into acts of violent contention.) More widely speaking, how did the changing relation between people/citizens and empire/nation-state alter the urban setting?


How did space help to shape actors’ identities (particularly with reference to the materialization of power relations, for instance, the organization of quarters and neighborhoods, borders between social groups and religious communities etc.)?
How did actors act upon the symbolic power of space (through conquest, violation, reinterpretation …)?


How did local, national/imperial and international constellations influence the developments of violent dissent in cities? For instance, how did Ottoman reform and the end of colonial rule affect urban rioting? How did changes in the global economy, such as those engendered by the discovery of oil, influence the traditional framework of urban rivalries? The relationship between “central” security forces and urban violent elements
Entangled scales of violence: family, clan, tribe, gang, neighbourhood, city, province, nation, Empire

Photos of the Workshop