Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East
Edited by Nelida Fuccaro



Urban Life and Questions of Violence

Nelida Fuccaro

To see like a city is to focus on what happens between people, what enables urban life, what questions arise within it, what solutions are developed, what conduct develops, and to what effect. To see the political in these terms is to refer back to these practices rather than to the ones by which the people are ostensibly “ruled.”
—Warren Magnusson, Seeing like a City1

Since 2011, Middle Eastern and North African cities have been at the center of political unrest and popular uprisings leading to the fall of dictators, protracted civil wars, and in some cases authoritarian revival. The Arab Spring and its aftermath have pushed the predicament of the city to the forefront of Middle Eastern politics. Yet, until recently, media coverage and academic analysis have often overlooked the urban nature of these uprisings. While it was recognized that violent disorder was performed in cities, popular mobilization was presented as part of national and transnational spheres of public contention. Media analysts and academics tended to treat the cities of the Arab Spring as stage sets—parade grounds for popular anger and state repression—depicting mass protests as a new twist in the ongoing struggle between governments and people. The result was that spaces and places of conflict, the stakes associated with them, and the specifically urban dynamics of crowd mobilization were often taken for granted, not analyzed as constitutive of social and political struggles.

Although recent studies of the Arab Spring have started to fill this “urban” gap,2 the general lack of attention to cities as localities able to shape patterns, ideas, institutions, and practices of social and political life (including conflict) is symptomatic of a broader trend affecting our understanding of past and present landscapes of violence in the Middle East: the tendency to simply consider violence as located in cities (often through the prism of states) rather than being of cities.3 It is in this spirit that we should take up Warren Magnusson’s invitation to “see like a city,” which, in his understanding, refers to a new reading of contemporary politics not as the exclusive domain of sovereign authority but as the result of the cumulative practices of urban life. Seeking solutions to current urban problems at a global scale, Magnusson also reminds us that latent urban tension and unrest are not confined to the Middle East or to the Arab Spring but are a worldwide phenomenon that demands urgent attention, precipitated by sprawling urbanization and the relentless expansion of transnational capital and social inequality.

Writing, Debating, and Normalizing Violence

While Magnusson singles out the city as an identifiable field of action and organization, violence is a slippery concept and a category of academic knowledge with a contested ethical profile. There is still no consensus among historians and social scientists on how to define and theorize violence, what counts as violence, or how (and why) it should be conceptualized. Adding further controversy, recent interdisciplinary debates have even questioned the usefulness of taxonomies of violence, advocating the adoption of more flexible concepts that can accommodate its protean nature.4 At a basic level, the great variations in the manifestations, actors, intensity, and visibility of violence add to the predicament. Violence can burst out episodically as conflict, be chronic or intermittent, unfold unnoticed as a pattern of inequality, and be performed as a symbolic threat. Individual or collective, organized or spontaneous, physical and/or structural,5 violent acts are not only a preserve of power holders but are also deployed as a strategy of resistance. While there is some consensus on the instrumental nature of violence—on how it ultimately serves particular ends—the reasons why violence occurs and the correct way to interpret it are matters of extensive debate.6

How, then, as historians, should we write the violence of Middle Eastern cities? The multiple angles from which we can read the city and urban life, and the path set by literature in other parts of the world, suggest that traversing disciplinary and regional boundaries is essential in order to tackle this complex and value-laden subject. Writing about violence requires engagement with literature that varies in scope and theoretical orientation—from historical sociology, anthropology, and political geography to urban and post-colonial studies. This scholarship has made great strides in broadening the methodological and conceptual horizons of the historiography of violence. Historians, usually concerned with events, have been particularly concerned with easing the tension between “eventful” histories of violence and long-term political change.7 Anthropologists have brought to bear on violence an attention to meaning, symbolism, and ritual and a consideration for discursive and cultural representations as subjective and collective conditions of violence. Political scientists have looked at violent lives as forms of politics and elaborated on the crucial distinction between violence and force in the actions of states—a theme also cherished by historical sociologists, from Max Weber to Charles Tilly. Urban specialists have explored acts of violence in relation to urban spaces and experience as particular moments in the material and cognitive production of the city as a space of social and political engagement.8

The prolific literature on South Asian communalism in the colonial and post-colonial periods illustrates the interdisciplinary breadth that has characterized the study of collective violence, prompting Middle Eastern specialists to use a comparative approach to think “outside the box” and to use violence as a tool to study different aspects of political and social life. The interpretations of civilian and religious riots that have emerged from this literature are diverse—depicting communal violence as anything from the creation of state discourses to a reflection of either forms of institutionalized grassroots politics central to the preservation of the state or ritualized moments of subaltern action structured by particular symbols, temporal and spatial settings, or affective ties.9

The elusiveness of violence clearly has a flip side, which makes it a flexible and effective analytical concept, particularly in combination with categories such as power, space/place, language, and modernity.10 The violence-power nexus, in particular, introduces an important ethical dimension to the study of social life. This nexus has served as a tool to explore the limits of—and interstices between—acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral. Critical studies of the violent profile of the liberal state, for instance, have served to denounce its illegitimate nature and that of colonial domination exercised by European regimes overseas and to underscore how state collusion with violence has tarnished the civilizational project of modernity.11 Writing about violence has also acted as a means to denounce oppression, inequality, and murder; to disclose the communicative and symbolic worlds of human interaction; and to add nuance to strategies of coercion and resistance. Since the 1960s, struggles against domination, dispossession, and poverty have informed a strand of critical thinking about violence as resistance to oppression: from Hannah Arendt’s impassioned advocacy for the powerless and Frantz Fanon’s liberating violence of the “wretched of the earth,” to the concerns with the socially deprived and with the powerlessness of individuals articulated by Ted Gurr and James C. Scott, respectively.12

In the Middle East and North Africa, academic debates about violence have started to create new spheres of civic and public engagement. Recent studies on the memorializing and mnemonic function of monuments, cemeteries, and commemorative spaces have shed light on urban narratives of war in order to foster dialogue and reconciliation. Samir Khalaf’s discussion of Sahat al-Burj (Tower Square) in downtown Beirut, for instance, has emphasized its role as an open museum of tolerance, evocative of both the horrors of the Lebanese civil war and of the more recent assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.13 In retelling public histories of war, revolutions, massacres, and uprisings, the central squares of Middle Eastern capital cities stand as the simulacra of nations. Tahrir Square in Cairo, Marjeh Square in Damascus, Place de Martyrs in Algiers, and Azadi Square in Tehran evoke to viewers the violent making of citizens as modern subjects and embody a nineteenth- and twentieth-century legacy of colonial and imperialist oppression, economic exploitation, and revolutionary heroism.14 Studies that revisit key violent episodes in the history of the French colonial empire in Algeria have prompted broader reflections on society and politics in contemporary France. In Algeria, where national history has inscribed violence “not as strategy but as structure,” memories of colonial and post-colonial brutality have engendered rich and varied public debate.15

Exposure of the violence of authoritarian regimes has raised ethical issues about representations of suffering and of the many forms of violence produced in the Middle East. As Kanan Makiya (a.k.a. Samir al-Khalil), faced with the daunting prospect of the futility of unveiling the horrors of the Ba‘thist regime in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, puts it, “Description is the first and fundamental act of resolution: ruthless, relentless, unforgiving description. Even when their condition seems to utterly disintegrate . . . human beings are able to exercise a degree of control through the power of description. Telling horror stories is the first step towards dealing with the rule of violence.”16

Makiya’s use of description as a cathartic device to make sense of violence brings into sharp focus the ethical imperative of normalizing violence, particularly when dealing with its seemingly “senseless” and intense manifestations, such as war, torture, and mass murder. Labeling violence as “senseless” is what the anthropologist Anton Blok has called “avoidance behavior”—a refusal to engage meaningfully with the concept.17 Some historians of violence have recently pointed out the shortcomings of this behavior on the grounds that it disguises agency and individual responsibility. Mark Mazower has highlighted the apologetic stance and essentialist nature of studies of mass violence in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Proposing a similar line of argument, the African historian Jonathon Glassman has recently questioned interpretations of South Asian riots as premeditated and engineered by politicians or agitators. Adopting a subaltern perspective in reverse, he contends that this reading fails to account for the hideous acts committed by the crowds. Revisiting some of the prevailing assumptions on terrorism as a self-sacrificial form of violence, Hamit Bozarslan has noted how in the Middle Eastern context it has been used as a normative concept that obscures “the aims, motives, and minds of the people who have embraced violence.”18

Far from being separate from social life, violence creates intimate, albeit uncomfortable, bonds that elude the simplistic logics of victim versus perpetrator, ruler versus ruled. As a form of association that defines everyday encounters in the city, violence can be read as a building block of community. This is one of the main arguments transpiring from studies on South Asian communalism and from the seminal work on medieval Spain by David Nirenberg, who has shown how convivencia (the living together of Christians, Muslims, and Jews) was predicated on intolerance, hostility, competition, and bloodshed.19 Treating violence as ordinary, however, does not justify the presence of cultures of violence in societies with a high incidence of bloodshed. Gerard Martin’s insightful discussion of twentieth-century Colombia proposes that violence be thought of as a “tradition” expressed in a variety of ways but situated in specific historical contexts and taxonomies of social order. A similar argument emerges from Ussama Makdisi’s discussion of sectarian violence in nineteenth-century Mount Lebanon as a grassroots and multifaceted expression of modernization rather than the by-product of innate sectarian hatred.20 Writing about violence with an awareness of its embeddedness in a specific historical time and place purges it of the primordialist and primitive aura that has surrounded it—an aura that has long tarnished our understanding of the Middle East.

Violence and the City

As a distinctive type of human, political, and spatial association, the city is an excellent vantage point from which to observe and make sense of violence. The distinctiveness of cities has long been recognized in the academic literature: from the medieval European commune and Mamluk cities studied by Max Weber and Ira Lapidus, respectively, to the modern nineteenth-century metropolis dissected by Georg Simmel and imagined by Walter Benjamin. In the fast-developing world of cities of the 1970s, Henri Lefebvre viewed urbanism as the motive force for historical change, with the city holding the key to future liberation from repression and exploitation.21 Arguably, the days of Lefebvre’s redemptive and optimistic vision of the city as the exclusive site of freedom are over—particularly when one thinks of the “cities of fear” created worldwide by the imposition of increasingly sophisticated systems of control and surveillance.22 The fact remains, however, that cities have never functioned as mere appendixes to empires, states, and nations; rather, they have, to varying degrees, shaped their histories, as sites of government, economic centers, and dense conglomerations of people characterized by proximity, mixing, and intense affects and relationships.

The historiography on the Middle East has recognized the individuality of cities and their intimate relationship with violent processes of empire and state building, from the early Islamic period up to the present.23 Particularly in studies on the modern era, however, regional historians have traditionally treated violence as the elephant in the room, in contrast with their counterparts working on South Asia, Africa, and Europe. Many histories of rebellion, protests, and revolutions in imperial, colonial, and post-colonial cities and towns have dealt with violence in a disguised way. So have accounts of elites, militaries, and crowds and reflections on subaltern and social movements.24 For instance, the rich literature on urban notables in Ottoman and Arab cities from the eighteenth to the middle of the twentieth century has provided a comprehensive and fascinating view of the political organization of urban society from local, imperial, and national perspectives but has offered only occasional glimpses of the violent social worlds of local leaders and their followers.25 This lack of interest in violence may have been accidental but is arguably the outcome of particular trends that, until recently, have dominated historical scholarship on cities within the field of area studies.

While building on a rich thematic repertoire, this scholarship was seldom comparative: even urban historians of the Arab and Ottoman world, Turkey, and Iran have tended to work in isolation from one another. Moreover, there has been a general reluctance to open up the historical study of urban public life to new interdisciplinary approaches, as attested by the enduring importance of research paradigms such as that focusing on the politics of notables and the network analysis pioneered by Ira Lapidus in the 1960s.26 Only recently has the question of urban violence begun to be tackled in depth, in a number of studies that have taken a comparative approach and drawn on insights from classical historiography on contentious politics, European crowds, and Indian communalism and made use of reflections on colonial discipline and urban space.27

As a violent actor, the state has cast a long shadow over the history of modern Middle Eastern cities. The organization and fragmentation of state authority are central to any discussion of the interplay between order and disorder, the political infrastructure of cities, and the use of violence as a strategy of rule and resistance. For much of the twentieth century, the profile of many urban entrepreneurs of violence has been delineated by the ebbs and flows of central government. In the colonial period, French and British officials held sway, as they were often able to use counterinsurgency tools such as militarization, planning, and health provisions to great effect in taming the seemingly fractured, conflict-ridden, and chaotic “Oriental” urban societies of Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.28 Similarly, the mukhabarat personnel who, from the 1960s, epitomized the culture of fear and repression of Ba‘thist Syria and Iraq speak volumes about the brutal face of authoritarian rule and its ability to penetrate the dense texture of urban life through military and civilian organizations, party membership, and informers.29

Yet, while colonial and authoritarian regimes were undoubtedly efficient ruling machines, plenty of evidence suggests that political crises, civil wars, collapsing regimes, and alternative forms of colonial occupation slowed and limited the power of the violent hand of public authority. In conflict and post-conflict cities such as Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Jerusalem during the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Baghdad after the 2003 US invasion, local leaders and paramilitary forces have often taken on the mantle of enforcers of order while fighting bitter turf wars that had very traumatic effects on residents.30 After 1967, Israeli rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was advanced “by design,” in collusion with architects, capitalist corporations, and even Palestinian militants who participated in the unregulated destruction and reconstruction of natural landscapes and built environments.31

State-centered accounts of violence gloss over, or at best reveal only partially, the forms of activism and resistance produced by the city as an organic “social order of parts” with a complex and multiform associational life that in itself constitutes a potential arena of violent conflict.32 In this respect, urban societies have always been implicated in the definition of forms, expressions, and meanings of violence, partly as a result of the deeply entrenched urban roots of competition over territory, resources, and security. Residents have often taken matters into their own hands. Since the 1940s, spontaneous and unregulated suburbanization on the margins of expanding urban centers has often led to the reemergence of traditional forms of community protection in shantytowns: armed patrols by residents, strongmen, and youth gangs. The advance of the security state in late twentieth-century Cairo and Tehran forced the urban poor and the informal communities living at the fringes of these two Middle Eastern megalopolises to adopt nonviolent forms of activism as tactics of “quiet encroachment.”33

The grounding of acts of violence and violent events in the city—making them of the city—entails a shift in emphasis from the macrolevel of the institutional setting of the state to the microlevel of its spaces of encounter with residents: streets and neighborhoods, workplace and home, urban peripheries and public buildings. Spatially grounded analyses of collective violence reveal the urban face of everyday practices of government while also zooming in on the substance of ordinary lives, in spite of the often seemingly exceptional nature of violent events.34 Premodern and early modern neighborhoods (mahallas/haras), and religious and legal institutions such as mosques, Shia houses of mourning (husayniyyahs), and courthouses were the centers of what Ira Lapidus has called “lumpenproletariat violence” and Edmund Burke has dubbed the “Islamic moral economy”: the former ignited by intra-quarter factionalism, military leaders (zu’ar), and strongmen (qabadayis, ‘ayyarun, futuwwa, lutis); the latter defined by Islamic symbols of justice that provided the vocabulary for violent urban protest.35

Using place, proximity, and activism to “see like a city” entails recognizing the power of urban locations to form and reproduce social and political relations and experience.36 Close encounters in these locations have been the catalysts of violent social and political transformations that have reverberated beyond the city—from the revolutionary bazaars of Tehran, teeming with clerics, students, and protesters, to the squares of colonial Cairo crowded with demonstrators and soldiers; from the schools, mosques, and industrial sites that propelled the insurrectional waves of post-colonial Baghdad, to the barracks of late Ottoman Istanbul and Salonika, where the Young Turk Revolution was planned and executed. The ability to control, visualize, and manipulate urban spaces also contributed to their transformation into places of material and symbolic value. An understanding of the geographies of risk faced by urban and state administrations was an important tool of government. The collection of topographical and cartographical data made streets, alleys, squares, and neighborhoods visible and accessible to police and military forces.37 Intimate knowledge of the built environment was not only the prerogative of surveyors, bureaucrats, and police but also a tool in the hands of rioters, protesters, and urban gangs.

In short, treating violence as contingent on place and the rhythms of urban life can reveal how the physical, material, and immaterial qualities of the city become enmeshed with various forms of state and social power. At a basic level, it problematizes simplistic binary understandings of the relations between state and society, between rulers and ruled, and between citizens and the government. More specifically, given the centrality of the city in shaping the Middle East as we know it today, reading sovereign authority through the prism of the city helps fine-tune the violent contours of the states that ruled urban society. This reading exposes the interface between urban activism and state repression; between street violence and security regimes; between urban norms and institution building; and between civic identity, nationality, and citizenship.38 The nexus between city and state also poses the question of the analytical and physical boundaries of modern Middle Eastern cities, reminding us that their social and political histories can be read at different scales as simultaneously separating, connective, and disruptive.39

Famously, twentieth-century Iranian cities served as the economic and political linchpins of late Qajar and Pahlavi rule, the nodes that joined together royal power, dynastic authority, and European encroachment in Iranian life into a network of forces. At the same time, they were the powerhouses of the Constitutional and Islamic Revolutions—the violent popular movements that obliterated these regimes. While it is evident that towns and cities of the Middle East have constituted distinctive historical formations, it is nonetheless clear that the frontiers of urban life have been open-ended. What constitutes the “urban” and where it stops are questions that continue to be debated. Interdependency has provided a popular conceptual framework in exploring urban-rural relations in the Middle East, in order to explain the variation and frequency of popular protest, food riots, and elite factionalism inside early modern and modern urban centers. Contemporary urbanism is predicated upon the idea of the networked or global city—a city that is losing its boundaries, whose materiality is submerged by global flows.40 “Seeing like a city” thus becomes a process of zooming in and out, with an awareness of the often invisible and fluid boundaries between city and state.

Sketching Urban Geographies and Experiences of Violence

Violence in the Middle East and North Africa, as elsewhere, has been both a structural feature and an outcome of the often traumatic historical processes that, from the nineteenth century, have contributed to the transformation of modern cities-in-the-making into experiential and physical spaces that have come increasingly to share the “global urban culture” of the modern world.41 The incessant redrawing of spatial and sociopolitical boundaries through urbanization, imperial modernization, colonial intervention, capitalism, nation building, and industrialization has engendered stimuli that have contributed to both the fragmentation and unification of collective experiences of urban living. Shaken by aftershocks of the penetration of European, Western, and global capital, urbanization, colonialism, and decolonization, many of the cities and provincial towns of the region have functioned as amplifiers of economic and political power, social and class inequalities, and political turmoil.

Coupled with new strategies of state control, the increasingly intimate, swift, and diverse interactions between people have shaped what Georg Simmel at the turn of the twentieth century called the “mental life” of the modern metropolis—a life that conceived the city as a place both of liberation from the constrains of traditional communities and of social alienation and resistance.42 Yet the impact of these processes differed considerably throughout the region, reflecting its long and varied history of city life, political fragmentation, and geographical diversity. The main urban centers of French North Africa and British Egypt bore the full brunt of the acute phase of the global expansion of European capitalism and colonialism in the late nineteenth century. The spatial politics of discrimination that characterized colonial urbanism worldwide materialized in the creation of European and native towns and in the empty land of the cordon sanitaire that divided many Algerian and Moroccan settlements.43 After the 1870s, in particular, the development of Cairo and Algiers as dual cities conjures up disturbing images of abuse associated with the European cities of the Industrial Revolution—economic exploitation, environmental degradation, surging crowds of angry humanity.

Like the “negro village” in Africa and the “native town” in India, the Arab “casbah” of Algiers and the beledi (popular) quarters of Cairo were perceived by French and British administrations as disorderly and dangerous. While using military force to discipline indigenous populations, colonial governments construed the threat of violence as an irrational force that represented a transgression of urban civic order. The lower-class residents of Cairo’s beledi quarters were despised by the British administration as riff-raff, and their actions dismissed as illogical and senseless, particularly when they threatened the pristine bourgeois space of the European colonial city.44 The threat of violence was often used to justify the existence of segregation and to stigmatize, criminalize, and brutalize the city’s residents. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), which terminated the country’s harsh and long-lasting colonial experience, the medina of Algiers became the paradigmatic breeding ground of colonial brutality and violent anti-colonial insurgency—a combat zone brilliantly captured by Gillo Pontecorvo in his 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

Some of the structural inequalities and harsh experiences of colonial cities were reproduced in the oil towns of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the other Persian Gulf states, which developed in the first half of the twentieth century under the shadow of oil capitalism. British-owned oil companies designed Abadan in Iran and Ahmadi in Kuwait following the model of colonial New Delhi, enforcing the principle of strict segregation between their native employees and Europeans and Americans. Until the 1960s, the life of the workers who populated the shantytowns that mushroomed around modern company towns was not dissimilar from that of their counterparts in the Arab medina or African village. Poor living conditions, harsh regimes of surveillance and industrial discipline enforced by the oil companies, and policies of divide and rule led to occasional violent protests.45 Similar landscapes of urban segregation emerged from the colonization of Palestine’s rural frontier by the Israeli authorities after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. After the creation of Israel, the construction of settlement towns such as Karmiel, Kyriat Gat, Dimona, and Sderot marked a forced separation between Arabs and Jews and the demise of the relatively peaceful coexistence that had characterized urban life in Ottoman and colonial Palestine.46

The slower pace of modernization and capital penetration in the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran before World War I partly explains the less troubled urban existence of imperial subjects. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the increasing influence of Europe, Ottoman, and Qajar reform, together with the emergence of nationalism, created new ideological, economic, and political fissures in urban societies. These fault lines became manifest in new forms of violent mobilization driven by political and ideological motives. For instance, the 1860 massacres of Christians in Damascus and the actions of Armenian revolutionary groups in Istanbul in the 1890s signaled the emergence of new sectarian conflicts and “terrorist” strategies. Colonial Egypt also witnessed the politicization of urban riots between the 1870s and 1880s—a phenomenon closely connected to British imperial and capitalist expansion in the Middle East and South Asia.47 The penetration of foreign capital also affected the port cities of the coastal areas of the Eastern Mediterranean. Imperial policies and French capital, for instance, created new spaces of struggle in late Ottoman Beirut, whose fast-developing port became an arena of labor conflict.48

By the end of the nineteenth century, a global culture of urban reform inspired by the liberal ideas of Europe had also started to transform the face of Ottoman cities, bringing in new norms and forms of social containment. As in Boston, imperial Tokyo, and colonial Algiers, Cairo, and Bombay, the establishment of municipal administrations recognized the principle of representative local government. Yet it also underpinned the creation of modern police forces and gendarmeries as new instruments for taming social unrest. As elsewhere in the colonial world, the institution of modern policing in late imperial Istanbul popularized new definitions of criminality and public order and marked the beginning of a new era of state control over public security and legislation.49

But it was in the context of the post-imperial nation-states that emerged after World War I that urban experiences of modernization took a more violent turn, nurtured by a shared public consciousness of state oppression and resistance and anchored in specific places of dissent. As sites of nationalist politics, streets and public spaces incrementally redefined the “mental lives” of Middle Eastern cities by connecting protesters, revolutionaries, and activists to their counterparts across the region. The path was set by Cairo immediately before and after the British occupation. Violent contestation in and over streets was the hallmark of both the ‘Urabi Revolt of 1880–81 and the 1919 Revolution. By the 1930s, conflicts for the control of streets, squares, and public buildings involving nationalist and paramilitary activists, students, workers, and police forces posed exacting challenges to the security regime imposed by colonial administrations. In Mandatory Damascus, for instance, street violence challenged the spatial, legal, and political restrictions imposed by the French regime, triggering a series of gender conflicts between female protesters and paramilitary groups.

As in the townships of Africa, public spaces were also appropriated by new forms of youth violence and gang cultures in which class, ethnic, and anti-colonial solidarities often intermingled.50 While male physical strength and aggressive masculinity became the urban symbols of anti-colonial resistance in Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad, they also expressed shifting communal and class loyalties, often nurtured by Arab nationalism and an ideology of “total” violence inspired by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The activism of youth gangs was also underpinned by more traditional notions of honor and masculinity, as in Tehran during the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mosaddeq, when young followers of quarter leaders became directly involved in the overthrow of the government.51

During mass protests, nationalist upheavals, and more localized conflicts, knowledge of the city and its hidden corners guided the spatial tactics of the military, police, and protesters alike. The violent behavior of rioters also showed familiarity with the commodities and services that came to exemplify modern ways of life and instruments of oppression. In 1919, protesters set ablaze and destroyed public buildings throughout central Cairo in a dramatic rehearsal of the Great Fire that engulfed the city soon before the 1952 Revolution. In 1919 the protesters vandalized the tramcars built and run by French and Belgian companies—the hated symbol of foreign capital. As during the 1952 Revolution, they also used the classroom as a new battleground through the mobilization of young students from the modern state schools.52

As the oil industry came to represent a powerful nationalist symbol of foreign exploitation in the 1950s, antigovernment protesters in Tehran, Baghdad, Manama, and Dhahran attacked the private residences of foreigners, British and American official buildings, and cars and gas stations—those ubiquitous symbols of modern urban life and oil capitalism.53 The relentless advance of urbanization after the 1950s transformed the growing peripheries of capital cities and provincial centers into the new front lines of urban radical movements. The making of these front lines that joined together industrial areas, prisons, clubs, and political organizations reflected growing class, economic, and religious conflict, increasingly efficient security systems often modeled on colonial precedents, the beginning of state-led industrial development in Egypt and Turkey, and the growth of the oil industry. The new agglomerations of humanity living in shantytowns across the region added a suburban dimension to street violence, as a result of the participation of rural migrants, industrial workers, and squatters in new political and social struggles. Revolutionary Tehran offers a paradigmatic example of the correlation between unregulated urbanization and political violence. By 1978–79, Iran’s capital was a city divided between north and south, separating the wealthy and Westernized middle and upper classes from the urban poor.54

Global processes such as colonialism and capital penetration produced discernible patterns of violent unrest in Middle Eastern cities, but less is known about the influence of local dynamics and of the differential rhythms of indigenous modernization since the mid-nineteenth century. We are so far able to dwell only on the broad contours of changing experiences and geographies of violence, mostly in relation to nationalist struggles, state coercion, large urban centers, and episodes of mass mobilization. Particularly for the twentieth century, many local histories of violence and of less flamboyant episodes of bloodshed have yet to be written. In spite of these limitations, it is clear that violence has become manifest as an urban phenomenon in response to the reshuffling of orders of difference: those defining architectures of state and social power, urban geographies of communities and interest groups, and the spatial boundaries of the city.

The latent violent condition and the state of suppressed violence characterizing colonial Cairo and Algiers, as well as twentieth-century oil towns before the nationalization of the industry, can be readily explained by the sociopolitical, economic, and spatial segregation enforced and maintained by foreign powers, often through legal and military means. Similarly, the ethnic, religious, and nationalist conflict that beset late Ottoman cities can be read as reflecting a counterbalancing impulse against new socioeconomic and legal divisions enforced by the penetration of European capital and imperial reform. The more uniform character of collective violence, including shared norms of action and mobilization, that developed after World War I emerged organically from recognizable old colonial ingredients transplanted to the cities of new Mandatory, post-colonial, and authoritarian states: structural inequalities, state discipline, and urbanization. Violent tactics of control and resistance, such as the use of secret police and increasingly sophisticated weaponry, industrial unrest, youth and gang violence, and popular revolution, increasingly took the shape of turf wars that centered on the physical, material, and symbolic control of the city. These wars showcase the intimate connection between urban environments, political and social claims, and the urban experience of violence, and they are a reminder of the increasingly urban bias gradually assumed by Middle Eastern unrest in the twentieth century.


This chapter has benefited from the comments and bibliographical suggestions of Oliver Dinius, Rasmus Christian Elling, Ulrike Freitag, Claudia Ghrawi, Dina Khoury, Franck Mermier, and Shabnum Tejani.

1. Warren Magnusson, Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City (London: Routledge, 2011), 34–35.

2. For a historical reflection on the Arab Spring as urban violence, see Claudia Ghrawi, Fatemeh Masjedi, Nelida Fuccaro, and Ulrike Freitag, “Introduction,” in Ulrike Freitag, Nelida Fuccaro, Claudia Ghrawi and Nora Lafi, eds., Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation State (Oxford: Berghahn, 2015), 3–7; Marco Allegra, Irene Bono, Jonathan Rokem, Anna Casaglia, Roberta Marzorati, and Haim Yacobi, “Rethinking Cities in Contentious Times: The Mobilisation of Urban Dissent in the ‘Arab Spring,’Urban Studies 50, no. 9 (2013): 1675–88; Salwa Ismail, “Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 4 (2013): 865–94.

3. The state still absorbs theoretical discussions on the violent condition of the Middle East. See, for instance, contributions by Laleh Khalili, Daniel Neep, and James McDougall in the roundtable “Theorizing Violence,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2013): 791–97, 810–12.

4. For debates on the slippery nature of violence from different disciplinary and methodological standpoints, see ibid., 791–812; Julie Skurski and Fernando Coronil, “Introduction: States of Violence and the Violence of States,” in Fernando Coronil and Julie Skurski, eds., States of Violence and the Violence of States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1–9; Rasmus Christian Elling, unpublished report on the workshop “The Category of Violence,” held at the University of Aberdeen, 23–24 June 2011.

5. There is in fact no inherent contradiction between physical and structural violence, as suggested by Paul Farmer’s work on the destruction of the human body caused by Haiti’s health-care crisis. Paul Farmer, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” Current Anthropology 45, no. 3(2004): 305–25.

6. Jon Abbink, “Preface: Violation and Violence as Cultural Phenomena,” and Göran Aijmer, “Introduction: The Idiom of Violence in Imagery and Discourse,” in Göran Aijmer and Jon Abbink, eds., Meanings of Violence: A Cross-cultural Perspective (New York: Berg, 2000), xi–xvii, 1–21.

7. An earlier, very instructive discussion of this tension is presented in Sidney Tarrow, “The People’s Two Rhythms: Charles Tilly and the Study of Contentious Politics,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 38, no. 3 (1996): 596–99.

8. For a discussion of the possibilities of studying violence as a military state practice in the context of the Middle East, see Daniel Neep, “War, State Formation and Culture,” in roundtable “Theorizing Violence,” 795–97. On violent actions as “revisioning moments” that serve to normalize urban experiences of violence, see Tali Hatuka, Violent Acts and Urban Space in Contemporary Tel Aviv (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), esp. 3–4.

9. Seminal studies on communalism include Gyanedra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990); Paul R. Brass, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Veena Das, ed., Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990); Stanley J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

10. For a very constructive debate on the achievements and limits of theories and definitions of violence, see Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, “Introduction: Theorising Violence in the Twenty-First Century,” in Lawrence and Karim, eds., On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 1–15.

11. Coronil and Skurski, States of Violence, 10, 26. This is in contrast to traditional Western theories, which viewed the exercise of force by a sovereign authority as a historical necessity and precondition for the stable development of both states and cities. See Catherine Besteman, ed., Violence: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 3–4; and extracts from Max Weber and Charles Tilly in the same volume (13–18, 35–60).

12. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, 1970); Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965); Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

13. Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj (London: Saqi, 2006); Amy Mills, Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); Lucia Volk, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Sune Haugbolle and Anders Hastrup, eds., The Politics of Violence, Truth and Reconciliation in the Arab Middle East (London: Routledge, 2009); Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), esp. 161–93.

14. See Orit Bashkin’s chapter in this volume on the memorialization of Baghdad during the Wathba insurrection. See also “Introduction,” in Ussama Makdisi and Paul A. Silverstein, eds., Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), esp. 2–18.

15. Joshua Cole, “Massacres and Their Historians: Recent Histories of State Violence in France and Algeria in the Twentieth Century,” French Politics, Culture and Society 28, no. 1 (2010): 106–26. Quote from James McDougall, “Martyrdom and Destiny: The Inscription and Imagination of Algerian History,” in Makdisi and Silverstein, Memory and Violence, 66.

16. Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), xxvi.

17. Coronil and Skurski, States of Violence, 1–3; Anton Blok, “The Enigma of Senseless Violence,” in Aijmer and Abbink, Meanings of Violence, 23. The undesirability of interpreting violence as the demonization of the “other” has also been underscored in the context of South Asian studies on communalism. Faisal Devji, “Communities of Violence,” in roundtable “Theorizing Violence,” 801–2.

18. Mark Mazower, “Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century,” American Historical Review 107, no. 4 (2002): 1158–78; Jonathon Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 230–33; Hamit Bozarslan, Violence in the Middle East: From Political Struggle to Self-Sacrifice (Princeton, NJ: Wiener, 2004), 4.

19. David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). For a discussion of the relational nature of violence, see also Benjamin Brower, A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844–1902 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 4–9.

20. Gerard Martin, “The Tradition of Violence in Colombia: Material and Symbolic Aspects,” in Aijmer and Abbink, Meanings of Violence, 164–69; Ussama S. Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

21. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

22. John Friedmann, “City of Fear or Open City?,” Journal of the American Planning Association 68, no. 3 (2002): 237–43.

23. For a recent thematic survey of the social history of Middle Eastern cities, see Peter Sluglett, ed., The Urban Social History of the Middle East, 1750–1950 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008).

24. The literature on urban unrest is vast. As representative examples, see Jane Hathaway, ed., Mutiny and Rebellion in the Ottoman Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002); Ervand Abrahamian, “The Crowd in the Persian Revolution,” Iranian Studies 2, no. 4 (1969): 128–50; Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Zeinab Abul-Magd, Imagined Empires: A History of Revolt in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Stephanie Cronin, ed., Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa (London: Routledge, 2008): Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel, eds., Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Guilain Denoeux, Urban Unrest in the Middle East: A Comparative Study of Informal Networks in Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

25. See James Baldwin’s chapter in this volume on Cairo’s military elites. The violent worlds of urban notables have featured in social science literature dealing with more recent periods. See Michael Gilsenan, Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995); Michael Johnson, All Honourable Men: The Social Origins of War in Lebanon (London: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 2001), and “Political Bosses and Their Gangs: Zu’ama and Qabadayat in the Sunni Muslim Quarters of Beirut,” in Ernst Gellner and John Waterbury, eds., Patrons and Clients in Mediterranean Societies (London: Center for Mediterranean Studies of the American Universities Field Staff, 1977), 207–24.

26. Ira Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967).

27. See in particular Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East. This is the first edited volume arising from the project that has inspired this book. It takes the evolution from empire to nation-state as a point of departure, building on sociological and urban studies literature by Charles Tilly, William Sewell, and Henri Lefebvre. See also James Grehan, “Street Violence and Social Imagination in Late-Mamluk and Ottoman Damascus (ca. 1500–1800),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no. 2 (2003): 215–36; Dina R. Khoury, “Violence and Spatial Politics between the Local and the Imperial: Baghdad, 1778–1810,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics and Everyday Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 181–213; Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 151–90; Daniel Neep, Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

28. For a recent discussion of Syria, see Neep, Occupying Syria, esp. 131–64. On the effects of British urban planning on conflict and the confessionalization of communal identities in Mandatory Jerusalem, see Roberto Mazza, “Transforming the Holy City: From Communal Clashes to Urban Violence, the Nebi Musa Riots in 1920,” in Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East, 179–94.

29. Al-Khalil, Republic of Fear; Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

30. For example, the erection of walls and the transfer of residents in order to enforce sectarian segregation in Baghdad. See Mona Damluji, “‘Securing Democracy in Iraq’: Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003–2007,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (2010): 71–87. On the various architectures of security in contemporary Beirut, see Hiba Bou Akar, “Contesting Beirut’s Frontiers,” and Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb, and Ahmad Gharbieh, “Living Beirut’s Security Zones: An Investigation of the Modalities and Practice of Urban Security,” City and Society 24, no. 2 (2012): 150–72, 173–95, respectively.

31. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007).

32. Richard Sennet, quoted in Magnusson, Seeing like a City, 85. For case studies of the role played by imperial and post-imperial states in the definition of public disorder and social deviancy, see Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East, part 1.

33. Asef Bayat, “Middle Eastern Megacities: Social Exclusion, Popular Movements and the Quiet Encroachment of the Urban Poor,” in Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, eds., Megacities: The Politics of Urban Exclusion and Violence in the Global South (London: Zed, 2009), 97–100; Salwa Ismail, Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 129–60.

34. Ismail, Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters, esp. xxxi–xxxv.

35. Lapidus, Muslim Cities, 143–84; Edmund Burke, “Towards a History of Urban Collective Action in the Middle East: Continuities and Change 1750–1980,” in Kenneth Brown, Bernard Hourcade, Michèle Jolé, Claude Liauzu, Peter Sluglett, and Sami Zubalda, eds., État, ville et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb et au Moyen-Orient / Urban Crises and Social Movements in the Middle East (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1989), 45–48. For the role played by mosques, passion plays (ta‘ziyya), and buildings in the mobilization of women in Qajar cities, see Vanessa Martin, “Women and Popular Protest: Women’s Demonstrations in Nineteenth-Century Iran,” in Cronin, Subalterns and Social Protest, 55, 58–61. For links between the protesting crowd and the courthouse in early modern Damascus and Baghdad, see Grehan, “Street Violence”; and Khoury, “Violence and Spatial Politics.”

36. Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2007), 64–68. On the relationship between space and place from the perspective of social geography, see James A. Tyner, Space, Place and Violence: Violence and the Embodied Geographies of Race, Sex and Gender (New York: Routledge, 2012), 14–18. For an experiential reading of place, see Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (London: Edward Arnold, 1977). On place studies on the Middle East, see Amy Mills, “Critical Place Studies and Middle East Histories: Power, Politics and Social Change,” History Compass 10, no. 10 (2012): 778–88.

37. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Stephen Legg in his study of colonial Delhi in Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007). See also Nelida Fuccaro’s chapter in this volume on British aerial control in colonial Kirkuk.

38. See Lauren Banko’s chapter in this volume on urban violence and the language of citizenship rights in Mandatory Palestine.

39. Sallie A. Marston, “The Social Construction of Scale,” Progress in Human Geography 24, no. 2 (2000): 219–42; David Delaney and Helga Leitner, “The Political Construction of Scale,” Political Geography 16, no. 2 (1997): 93–97.

40. Sarah D. Shields, “Interdependent Spaces: Relations between the City and the Countryside in the Nineteenth Century,” in Sluglett, Urban Social History of the Middle East, 43–66; Saksia Sassen, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 11, no. 2 (2005): 27–43.

41. Quote from Christopher A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 194.

42. Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Kurt H. Wolff, ed. and trans., The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1964), 409–24. On the production of space and everyday modern urban life, see Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) 31–39, 385–86.

43. For a discussion of the cordon sanitaire in the context of colonial urbanism in Syria, inspired by French experience in North Africa, see Neep, Occupying Syria, 153–54. On dual cities, see Bernard Hourcade, “The Demography of Cities,” in Sluglett, Urban Social History of the Middle East, 175–79. On Cairo, see the classic by Janet Abu-Lughod, “Tale of Two Cities: The Origins of Modern Cairo,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 7, no. 4 (1965): 429–57. On Algiers, see Zeynep Celik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), esp. 1–57. For a reinterpretation of Cairo as a dual city, see Yasser Elsheshtawy’s chapter in this volume.

44. William J. Berridge, “Object Lessons in Violence: The Rationalities and Irrationalities of Urban Struggle during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 12, no. 3 (2011), doi:10.1353/cch.2011.0025.

45. On oil urbanism, see Nelida Fuccaro, “Introduction,” in “Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East,” special issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33, no. 1 (2013): 1–6. See Rasmus Christian Elling, “On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City,” Nelida Fuccaro, “Reading Oil as Urban Violence: Kirkuk and its Oil Conurbation, 1927–58,” and Claudia Ghrawi, “Structural and Physical Violence in Saudi Arabia Oil Towns, 1953–56,” in Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East, 197–264; and Rasmus Christian Elling and Claudia Ghrawi’s chapters in this volume on labor and spatial upheaval in Abadan and Dhahran, respectively.

46. Joel Beinin, “Mixing, Separation, and Violence in Urban Spaces and the Rural Frontier in Palestine,” Arab Studies Journal 21, no. 1 (2013): 22–26.

47. Florian Riedler, “The City as a Stage for a Violent Spectacle: The Massacres of Armenians in Istanbul in 1895–96,” in Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East, 164–78; Juan R. I. Cole, “Of Crowds and Empires: Afro-Asian Riots and European Expansion, 1857–1882,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 1 (1989): 134–61. See also Nora Lafi’s chapter in this volume on anti-Jewish riots in Tunis.

48. Jens Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 84–112.

49. For a concise discussion of police reforms and policing before World War I, see Laleh Khalili and Jillian Schwedler, eds., Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (London: Hurst, 2010), 10–13. On colonial policing, see Martin Thomas, Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). And on Istanbul, see Noémi Lévy-Aksu, “A Capital Challenge: Managing Violence and Disorders in Late Ottoman Istanbul,” in Freitag et al., Urban Violence in the Middle East, 52–69.

50. Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 175–96. On urban violence and youth culture in Africa, see Gary Kynoch, “Urban Violence in Colonial Africa: A Case for South African Exceptionalism,” Journal of Southern African Studies 34, no. 3 (2008): 629–45; and Terence Ranger, “The Meaning of Urban Violence in Africa: Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, 1890–1960,” Cultural and Social History 3, no. 2 (2006): 193–228.

51. Haggai Erlich, “Youth and Arab Politics: The Generation of 1935–36,” in Roel Meijer, ed., Alienation or Integration of Arab Youth: Between Family, State and Street (Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000), 47–70; Keith D. Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 255–78; Olmo Göltz, “Henchmen or Honourable Men? Violent Non-state Actors in the 1953 Coup in Iran,” paper presented at conference “Urban Violence in the Middle East: Histories of Place and Event,” London, SOAS, February 2013.

52. Berridge, “Object Lessons in Violence”; see also Yasser Elsheshtawy’s chapter in this volume.

53. Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf, 182–86; see also Claudia Ghrawi’s chapter in this volume.

54. Farhad Kazemi and Lisa Reynolds Wolfe, “Urbanisation, Migration, and the Politics of Protest in Iran,” in Michael E. Bonine, ed., Population, Poverty and Politics in Middle Eastern Cities (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), 260–62.