Divercities Publication now online!

OIS 3 (2015) – Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran, edited by Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan

Rapid urbanization, demographic change, antagonistic political and economic interests and the diversity of cultural patterns have impacted and continue to impact the make-up of local neighbourhoods and the use of public space in urban centres. A wider range of actors lay claim to particular aspects of their cities, whether through preconceived agendas or spontaneous and often subconscious actions. Coming out of our multi-disciplinary three day event held in Beirut in December 2014 and jointly organized with the Goethe-Institut Lebanon, Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran explores some of the claims, agencies and urban practices that make up the everyday lived spaces in the three cities under study. Urban governance is analyzed through a range of case studies that highlight different narratives of space, including those expressed through urban activism; strolling and mobility; parks and prostitution; music in daily life; museum, heritage and memory; and territory and everyday practices. This third volume of the Orient-Institut Beirut’s open access online series Orient-Institut Studies is edited by OIB researchers Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan.

Divercities Report


Contested Space and Urban Identities in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran 

Beirut, Thursday 12 – Saturday 14 December 2013

DC yellow copyThis three-day multidisciplinary event was a joint project by the Orient-Institut Beirut and the Goethe Institut Lebanon. Divercities discussed contested spaces in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran from diverse perspectives and different methodological approaches.  Apart from fourteen academic presentations with participants from Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Europe and North America, the programme included a panel discussion with Beirut’s deputy mayor (Nadim Abu Rizk), a senior urban planner of Solidere (Amira Solh) and civil society activists (Omar Abi Azar from Zoukak Theatre Company and activist Vladimir Kurumilian). On an artistic level, Dictaphone Group (Petra Serhal, Tania Khoury, Abir Saksouk-Sasso) explored the use of public space through two performances, Bus Cemetery and This Sea is Mine, and a lecture introducing several of their projects. The improvisational theatre performance by the Lebanese group Laban – Live Lactic Culture unfortunately had to be cancelled. Divercities brought together academics, artists and activists in a multidisciplinary event.

The first day (12 December 2013), which took place in an old warehouse in the Karantina district on Beirut’s eastern periphery, revolved around actors and power dynamics in the context of planning and using space. After a short welcome on behalf of the organisers (Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan of the Orient-Institut Beirut, and Ulrich Nowak of the Goethe Institut Lebanon), the first panel kicked of with some reflections by the discussant, urban planner Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj. He talked about how in the wake of the Arab spring fragmented agencies have not yet been able to materialise into formal alternatives to the previous formal governance structures, and that it still remained to be seen where new actors and agencies would take us. He wondered whether change was taking place more on a symbolic level rather than effectively taking place, with politics high on the agenda but political organisation low. Roman Stadnicki (CEDEJ) in the first talk of the day gave us an overview of urban activism in Cairo since the 2011 revolution, presenting a typology of different actors as authors of change. This was followed by architect and urban activist Omar Nagati, who gave insights into some of the projects documented by CLUSTER, the platform for urban research and design initiatives that he co-founded in Cairo. These initiatives are summarised in a recent publication by CLUSTER, “Archiving the City in Flux”. Omar Nagati also presented some of his ongoing research on competing narratives on Cairo’s urban landscape following the “coup or new revolution” of 30 June 2013. Shifting the focus to Beirut, Hiba Bou Akar (Hampshire College) discussed Beirut’s geographies of what she terms “The War Yet to Come”, demonstrating how spatial practices of religious political organisations are transforming Beirut’s southern neighbourhoods.

The panel continued with a paper by Maryam Amiri, whose co-presenter Esmaeil Izadi from the University of Tehran unfortunately could not join us. Maryam Amiri introduced the audience to Tehran’s urban density sales law, endorsed by the city’s municipality in 1990 and henceforth making economic imperatives rather than planning drive urban development. Continuing with competing interests over land ownership, Nada Moumtaz (Ohio State University) examined practices of commoning in Beirut, looking at public utility and religious interests in the context of the waqfs of Beirut. Discussant Mona Fawaz of the American University of Beirut (AUB) drew attention to the notion of the commons and the role of property in the context of Downtown Beirut, wondering to what extent the community of Downtown Beirut could have a voice or be negotiating the future of Downtown had it not had property. She was also questioning the usefulness of Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” framework for talking about the development of Northern Tehran following the density sales law, while wondering whether some of the claims we could hear in Iran through the Green Movement was a claim of “Right to the City”, also linking Amiri’s presentation back to Nagati’s earlier talk.

During the breaks Dictaphone Group took participants on an imaginary bus tour through Beirut in the context of their project “Bus Cemetery”. Captain Pop (Petra Serhal) evoked memories of times gone by, critically engaging with issues of lack of public transport and public spaces through an audio performance that the audience experienced while sitting in one of Beirut’s old buses that had been brought from the “bus cemetery” in Mar Mikhail. The first day finished with a panel discussion on “What does Beirut’s Urban Future Look Like”, in which Beirut’s deputy mayor (Nadim Abu Rizk), a senior urban planner of Solidere (Amira Solh) and civil society activists (Omar Abi Azar and Vladimir Kurumilian) came together to discuss their respective visions of Beirut’s future, followed by a heated discussion.

The second day (13 December 2013) started with a second audio performance by Dictaphone Group, “This Sea is Mine”. While initially envisaged to take place on a fishing boat on the sea, starting from the Ain El Mreisse port, the tour had to take place on foot due to weather conditions caused by storm Alexa. Pre-registered participants were divided into two groups, who walked along the Corniche while listening to a sound piece taking them on a journey that explored land ownership of Beirut’s seafront. Dictaphone Group is working on making the sound recording available for download in the future so that people can take this journey independently.

The afternoon panel, entitled “Between Public and Private”, took place in Zico House, a cultural organization close to Hamra. It focused on gender issues and cultural production in Beirut and Tehran. Nazanin Shahrokni (Harvard University) looked at gender-segregated spaces in the Islamic Republic of Iran, taking public buses as a case study to theorize gender segregation as a state policy. Mathew Gagné (University of Toronto) presented mobile communication technologies in the context of expanding queer spaces in Beirut as contestations to heteronormative space. The next talk shifted the discussion to different interpretations of the public sphere by looking at the case of music in Tehran. Nahid Siamdoust (University of Oxford) argued that a fragmentation of state authority happens in a semi-public sphere, through everyday actions by individuals. Mazen Haidar (ALBA) and Akram Rayess (Arab Music Archiving and Research) talked about the project of setting up a Fairouz Museum in the childhood home of the singer in their presentation entitled “Public Sounds, Private Spaces”. Discussant Robert Saliba (AUB) drew parallels and raised questions about comparing the different experiences of Beirut and Tehran. At the end of the day, Dictaphone presented a number of their projects in a lecture entitled “Why the Sea is Mine”, in which they spoke about “Bit Téléférique”, “This Sea is Mine” and their latest project “Nothing to Declare”.

The third day (14 December 2013) was held at Mansion, a traditional Lebanese house used by artists and architects in the quarter of Zoukak el-Blat, close to the Orient-Institut. The panel looked at open air spaces of gathering, starting with more of a historical approach before turning to uses and definitions of public spaces. Historian Lucie Ryzova (University of Oxford) started the day with a presentation of the different functions, usages and meanings of Downtown Cairo through the twentieth century, analysing the practice of loitering or strolling in the city through both gender and class. Soraya Batmanghelichi (Brooklyn Institute for Social Research) investigated the spatial transformation of a pre-revolutionary red-light district in southern Tehran into a post-revolutionary family park, engaging in a discussion of the role of prostitution by looking at the rehabilitation of a public space. Discussant Anton Escher (University of Mainz) wondered whether Downtown Cairo can be considered a heterotopic space as defined by Foucault, and asked about the role of international tourism in the context of understanding Downtown Cairo. Artist and image researcher Rana ElNemr presented us with a different pace through her Olympic Garden image-based project.

The third day finished with the second part of norms and practices of open air spaces of gathering, and presented different interpretations and readings of the notion of public space. Maïa Sinno (Sorbonne University and CEDEJ) looked at the “Gulfisation” of Cairo’s Downtown Corniche, while Abir Saksouk-Sasso proposed we should learn from the public who appropriated open areas in the city as public spaces, such as Beirut’s Dalieh and Ard Jalloul. Konstantin Kastrissianakis (University of Cambridge) suggested to rethink public space in light of Isaac Joseph’s work on public space as the “world at hand”, Ibn Khaldun’s notion of asabiyya and Sloterdijk’s concept of “immunological spheres”. Discussant Mona Harb (AUB) shared her frustration of how so often public space was talked about as a “lost public space”, with people lamenting this loss without opening up research or activist agendas. She was happy this was not the case in this panel, which instead approached the subject by looking at public space as a spatial practice and through its usage, and of ways to rethink public space. Divercities was wrapped up with some concluding remarks by Anton Escher.

Despite icy temperatures (especially for Beirut standards) induced by Storm Alexa that coincided with Divercities, the event attracted an interested public who joined in the lively discussions. Have a look at our photo reportage to get an idea about the atmosphere!

Download report here: Divercities report (PDF)

Panel I: Claims and Agency – Videos now online

Thursday, 12 December 2013, 10.30-15.30 @ Warehouse

Watch videos of some of the presentations below!

This panel focuses on the legal, moral, economic, and political claims that conflicting urban actors in the three cities of Beirut, Cairo and Tehran advance to control ownership, access, and uses of urban spaces. Agency plays a central role, in particular in terms of the opportunities, resources and strategies used by different actors to realize or renegotiate these claims. The panel addresses questions related to factors fuelling antagonism between different claims over the use of urban space, such as needs and means, economic interests, cultural diversity. What are the power dynamics over contested spaces? What are the legal frameworks, political constraints, options and loyalties of different actors in governing contested spaces? What modes of symbolic appropriation of urban space do we observe?

Roman Stadnicki: The Emergence of Urban Activism in Cairo since the 2011 Revolution

Omar Nagati: A Coup or a New Revolution? Competing narratives inscribed on Cairo’s urban landscape

(No video available)

Hiba Bou Akar: Beirut’s Geographies of the ‘War Yet to Come’

(No video available)

Maryam Amiri/Esmaeil Izadi: Tehran Urban Space Under the Rationale of Sales Price (presented by Maryam Amiri)

Nada Moumtaz: Practices of Commoning: Public utility and religious interest in the waqfs of contemporary Beirut

(No video available)

Discussants: Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj and Mona Fawaz

Beirut, New Airport Road, 2010 © Konstantin Kastrissianakis
Beirut, New Airport Road, 2010
© Konstantin Kastrissianakis

Panel III Open Air Spaces of Gathering – Videos now online

Saturday, 14 December 2013, 10.00-16.30 @ Mansion

Watch videos of some of the presentations below!

Open air spaces, whether designed for leisure purposes or as busy city squares, often serve as public meeting places that can acquire a more specific significance for the assertion of citizen rights and contesting political power. The aim of this panel is to discuss to what extent the spaces are used the way they were designed, who determines their use and whether and how this use is culturally and politically contested. Questions revolve around the symbolic, normative and practical frameworks of collectively used open air spaces. How and under what circumstance do spontaneous popular practices create public open air space or alter its character? In how far is the use of open air space culturally and politically encoded and contested? What are the public order policies applied to such spaces and who is responsible for them? The panel also proposes alternative readings of public space.

Lucie Ryzova: Strolling in Enemy Territory: Contested spaces and spatial practices in Downtown Cairo, a historical analysis

Soraya Batmanghelichi: Red-lights in Parks: A social history of Park-e Razi

(No video available)

Rana ElNemr: Olympic Garden I & II + III / Lecture performance

(No video available)

Maïa Sinno: The ‘Gulfization’ of the Cairo Downtown ‘Corniche’

(No video available)

Abir Saksouk-Sasso: Contesting National Authority in the Construction of Public Space: the making of communal spaces in Beirut

Konstantin Kastrissianakis: Rethinking Public Space in Beirut since the Ta’if Agreement

Discussants: Mona Harb and Anton Escher

Three Colourful Days – a photo reportage

After months of anticipation, the day had come…
… the participants arrived and gathered at the OIB for a cozy get-together, eating hot food…
… before bracing the storm and making their way to Karantina…
… where divercities kicked off on 12 December 2013…
… with a rich programme.
Fortunately not only the speakers had found their way to the Philka building…
The first panel, “Claims and Agency”, started with an introduction by discussant Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj…
… before Roman Stadnicki took the floor…
… to talk about “The Emergence of Urban Activism in Cairo since the 2011 Revolution”.
Next speaker Omar Nagati introduced “competing narratives inscribed on Cairo’s urban landscape”, and presented some of CLUSTER’s findings that have recently been published in “Archiving the City in Flux”.
Hiba Bou Akar spoke about “Beirut’s Geographies of the ‘War Yet to Come'”.
The discussion was lively…
…people had questions…
… and comments…
…and questions and comments…
… while some were immersed in fascinating literature.
[no comment :-)]
The panel continued, this time moderated by Mona Fawaz. Maryam Amiri spoke about “Tehran Urban Space under the Rationale of Sales Price”
… and Nada Moumtaz about “Practices of Commoning: Public utility and religious interest in the waqfs of contemporary Beirut”.
The talks stimulated more questions and comments…
… and questions…
… and comments…
… and questions…
… and comments.
A deserved break led downstairs to a visitor from the Bus Cemetery who had been brought back to life.
Captain Pop was waiting to greet the passengers and take them on an imaginary bus ride through Beirut…
… protected by many.
The afternoon panel discussion revolved around Beirut’s urban future, with Nadim Abu Rizk, Amira Solh, Omar Abi Azar and Vladimir Kurumilian, moderated by Rami Khouri.
Despite the cold we hadn’t lost our audience.
A heated discussion…
… kept everybody warm…
… and focused.
The next day started with Dictaphone Group’s “This Sea is Mine”…
… although the fishing boats had to remain in the port due to Storm “Alexa”.
The talks continued in the afternoon at Zico House, starting with Nazanin Shahrokni’s “A Gender-Divided City? An inquiry into the spatial politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran”
… followed by Mathew Gagné’s “Expanding Queer Spaces in Beirut: Mobile communications technologies and contestations to heteronormative space”
… with the provocative discussant Robert Saliba.
After a short break the session continued with Nahid Siamdoust’s “Tehran’s Soundscape and the Public Sphere”
and Akram Rayess and Mazen Haidar’s “Pubic Sounds, Private Spaces: Towards a Fairouz Museum in Zoukak el-Blat”
before the floor was opened to questions..
and comments and questions…
and questions and comments…
… and comments and questions…
… and questions…
and comments.
Dictaphone Group presented some of their projects at the end of the day, with Tania El Khoury
Abir Saksouk-Sasso
and Petra Serhal.
After some more discussion…
and more…
and more…
… it was time for dinner!
Day 3 started with an introduction by Ghassan Maasri…
… Lord of the Mansion…
… the venue for the day.
Anton Escher moderated the first two talks of the last panel “Open Air Spaces of Gathering: Norms and Practices”…
with Lucie Ryzova talking about “Strolling in Enemy Territory: Contested spaces and spatial practices in Downtown Cairo, a historical analysis”…
and Soraya Batmanghelichi on “Red Lights in the Park”.
The critical audience…
… again participated widely…
with comments and questions…
and questions and comments…
and comments and questions.
Rana ElNemr presented her image-based “Olympic Garden” project…
…before a lavish lunch prepared with love by Food Heritage.
The final session was moderated by Mona Harb…
and despite the after-lunch hour we had a full house.
Maïa Sinno started the panel with “The ‘Gulfization’ of the Cairo Downtown ‘Corniche’ Behind Differentiating Social Practices”…
followed by Abir Saksouk-Sasso’s “Contesting National Authority in the Construction of Public Space: The making of communal spaces in Beirut”
and the last talk “Rethinking Public Space in Beirut since the Ta’if Agreement: From the reconstruction-reconciliation discourse to ‘sphere-building'”, by Konstantin Kastrissianakis.
There were more questions…
and questions…
as it got colder…
and colder…
and colder…
… in fact, freezing!
Anton Escher wrapped it all up.
“Is it really all done?!”
Goodbye and see you again!

Report and photos to follow soon…


© Florian Saalfeld
© Florian Saalfeld

Thank you to everyone who participated in divercities between 12 and 14 December 2013 – as speakers, discussants, audience, technical team, photographer, …

We will post a report and photos early in the new year, and will also upload videos of some of the presentations, so watch this space!

In the meantime season’s greetings from Beirut and happy 2014…

divercities trailer


Trailer: Rami Nihawi

Music from Khat Thaleth

Film material from:

  • Inverted Worlds: Congress on Cultural Motion in the Arab Region, OIB 2012
  • The children of the 10th district of Tehran by Mani Memarsadeghi (2012)
  • This Sea is Mine by Dictaphone Group

With thanks to Azam Khatam, Akram Rayess & Mazen Haidar, Rana ElNemr and Andrea Illig.

Dictaphone Group: Why the Sea is Mine?

Why the Sea is Mine © Dictaphone Group
Why the Sea is Mine
© Dictaphone Group

Friday, 13 December 2013, Lecture, 19.00-20.00 @ Zico House

Why the Sea is Mine? is a lecture by Dictaphone Group in which we share some of the findings from our research as well as our artistic work process from three projects that took place in Lebanon: ‘Bit Téléférique’, ‘Bus Cemetery’ and ‘This Sea Is Mine’.

Dictaphone Group creates live art performances based on findings and stories produced through multi-disciplinary research on space and oral history. It is a collaborative project initiated by live artist Tania El Khoury and architect/urbanist Abir Saksouk. Together with performer and producer Petra Serhal, they have been creating site specific performances informed by research in a variety of places such as cable car, a fisherman’s boat, and a discontinued bus. The aim of these projects is to question, as citizens, our relationship to the city, with a focus on public space, and the goal of its redefinition.

Dictaphone Group: This Sea is Mine

This Sea is Mine  © Houssam Mchaimech
This Sea is Mine
© Houssam Mchaimech

Friday, 13 December 2013, Performance, 10.00-14.00 @ Ain el-Mreisse port

This Sea Is Mine is a site-specific live performance that explores the concepts of access to the sea and public space in the city through Beirut’s seafront. The audience is invited to take part in a journey on a fishing boat. Going from the Ain el-Mreisse port to Ramlet el-Baida beach, the project explores land ownership of Beirut’s seafront, the laws that govern it, and the practices of its users. The performance has recently been turned into a sound piece that will be made available with fishermen to give to anyone who wants to embark on a similar trip. It will also be available online for anyone to download.

Writer and Performer: Tania El Khoury

Fisherman / Performer: Adnan Al Oud

Researcher / Booklet Writing: Abir Saksouk

Producer: Petra Serhal

This project was originally funded by AFAC 2012

Meeting point: Ain el-Mreisse port 15min before the show

Tour 1: 10am

Tour 2: 12noon

Limited audience capacity. Advanced reservation required on a first come first served basis at sek@orient-institut.org.