The impossible city

Tariq Ali's latest novel in German is Der Sultan von Palermo, published by Diederichs.

A reflection on forbidden cities

The Arab city of the 8th century was always tightly constructed. It featured many ornamental spatialities to help experience immaterial reality, but there were only two ways to enter the centre: from the front and from behind. Four centuries later, the Crusaders pretended to lay siege to the front, but actually slipped in from behind. Richard the Lionarse (as he was known to Arab chroniclers in my fictional Book of Saladin) was an adept at this, and it explains some of his early triumphs and later disasters. Lionarse's move from summit to street and then summit again involved a transubstantiation of space and time as well as an extremely troubling re-inscription of a theory/practice opposition sometimes projected, a trifle semantically, as "high versus low" or "control versus creativity", which denied the citizens, surprised from behind, any possibility of being able to walk away. Try reading the previous sentence again, and if you do it aloud, it helps reduce the pain.

Many centuries later, Globalisierung (a German word that has a much better ring to it than the cruder "globalization") changed all this. Now the Arab cities, just like their sisters in Europe, could be entered from virtually anywhere. Not that this change affected the thinking in Blair's bunker in No. 10 Bonkers Street. When the British ambassador to the US was told by a minion at Bonkers Street that his new instructions were to "get into the arse of the White House and stay there", he was heard to mutter high and low and then inquired politely: "Do you think, Jonathan, that your notion of spatiality as the product of intersecting social relations is consistent with gravity? Or are you trying to delineate a new trajectory borrowed from post-colonial theorists; in which case your insistence that my new posting is in the arse of the White House fails to connect space and place with gender?" There was no reply. Jonathan Powell had left the room.

How does this thinking affect the way we view cities today? They are all part of the essentially open and hybrid market that is the great leveller. It levels the poor to dust, but this is inevitable in the period of Metropolen des Weltmarktes and should not concern us too much as we try to make history poverty. Our main task today is of a different spatial order. We have to make sure that the conceptualization of the problematic of space/place and similar language survives the 21st century. Globalisierung is wiping out languages in an attempt to aid diversity. The new city centres in Europe and China and Arabia and North America have given us one world without diversity. True, the bazaar in Damascus or Cairo or Tripoli is still defying the "geographical" through its spatial and multilinear extensions in sharp contrast to the modernity of the ski slopes of Dubai or the new fun palaces in Qatar and Bahrain.

The grid of binary oppositions can be schauspielhaused best in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Here, the triune forces of Politburo, Globalisierung and Wild North America Swans have united to combat the critical realist paradigm of neo-Maoists and Bhaskarites (a philosophical sect currently in power in Hunan). The latter want the wonderful statues erected in the Forbidden City to honour Hayek and Lakatos to be torn down immediately and replaced with a monument to honour Rom Harre, whose alternative ontology helped father critical realism in geography and became a bridge too far... (continues interminably)



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