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A Tale of Arab Cities

A new AUC Press series explores rising urbanization in the Middle East

By Yasmin El-Beih

Photos courtesy of AUC Press

Al-Azhar Park, photo courtesy of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Aga Khan Cultural Services Egypt. From Cairo since 1900: An Architectural Guide by Mohamed Elshahed

“From Syria and Yemen to Libya and Iraq, the devastation of urban centers is becoming a region-wide phenomenon,” said Deen Sharp, a fellow in human geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-editor of the new AUC Press book series, Middle East Urban Studies (MEUS).

The series tackles rapid and increasing urbanization across the region from economic, political and social perspectives, including large-scale infrastructure projects and the construction and destruction of new cities and urban regions. It utilizes an array of disciplines and methodologies — including geography, anthropology, political economy, sociology and urban political ecology — delving into new research on the wide-ranging implications of urban transformation in the Middle East. 

“What we’re trying to do with this series is bring together scholars from the Middle East, a region that has been quite underrepresented in urban studies literature,” said Noura Wahby (MA ’13), assistant professor in AUC’s Department of Public Policy and Administration and co-editor of the series. “There has been a rise in scholarship on infrastructure and ways of living in cities, and this series presents innovative analytical approaches and nonlinear narratives to examine Middle East urbanization challenges for the region’s residents, policymakers, planners and academics.” 

The series aims to reach broader audiences beyond academic circles, speaking to the everyday experiences that urban citizens have in the region, explained Wahby, who was inspired to take on a career in urban development several years ago by reading “seminal books” on the topic, such as Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East and Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster?

Both books, in addition to other AUC Press releases, such as Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity; Egypt’s Housing Crisis: The Shaping of Urban Space; Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control; as well as Cairo since 1900: An Architectural Guide — which won Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture’s 2021 State Incentive Award in the Architectural and Urban Publishing category — were instrumental in the AUC Press decision to launch the Middle East Urban Studies series. The first book to be published as part of the series was Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, to be followed by Cairo Securitized, the third-volume sequel to Cairo Contested and Cairo Cosmopolitan.

“What we’re trying to do with this series is bring together scholars from the Middle East, a region that has been quite underrepresented in urban studies literature.”

Urban studies is increasingly overlapping with climate issues, under the umbrella theme of climate urbanism, which is particularly timely in light of Egypt’s hosting of COP 27 later this year, Wahby explained. “Our goal is not only impacting the new wave of urban scholars but also practice and policy across the region,” she said, adding that this can help envision more pluralistic, diverse and sustainable cities rather than car-dependent urban realities that have been deepening inequality across the region in recent decades. 

The series takes “a generous definition of the Arab region,” as Sharp puts it. Sharp and Wahby are working closely with AUC Press senior acquisitions editor, Nadia Naqib, to broaden the regional scope of the series to encompass scholars from numerous countries across the Arab world. Thus far, titles in the series pipeline are authored by scholars not only from Egypt but also the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria.

Although there are numerous publications on urban studies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, “critical Arab studies have long been largely marginal,” said Sharp. “This series is very much part of the shift in Arab urban studies, and we’re trying to make sure that we capture the next generation of scholars who are building the foundation for this field. We are open to hearing about people’s projects and soliciting manuscripts, particularly as the subregional discipline of Arab urban studies continues to grow.”

As a critical series, MEUS is platforming alternatives to mainstream policy discussions as well as novel types of experiences that might not be typically published in academic circles, including bottom-up and grassroots initiatives and on-ground perspectives. Sharp and Wahby, who are also co-editors of the Arab Urbanism platform, a collective network of Arab-focused critical urbanists, believe deeply in the promise that the subdiscipline holds, particularly amidst the shifts shaping urban trends in the region. “In terms of scholarship, it’s an exciting time for this burgeoning field,” said Wahby. 

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