In Search of a Tahrir Square
Place du Palais Bourbon
Bones Square
Cola: A Station for Transportation and Seasons of Violence
Martyrs Square in Algiers
Culture versus Kitsch: The Battle for Belgrade’s Streets
Sanaa’s Walls and the Myth of Security
Times Cycles in Place
Public Diversions
Critical Writing
Backwaters, Edges, Center: Tahrir Shaped
Spectacles of Power: Locating Resistance in Ben Ali’s Tunisia
Casablanca Chasms: The Bidonville in Muhammad Zafzaf’s Muhawalat Aysh
Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf
New Art Organizations Occupy Lebanon’s Endangered Buildings
Times Haven't Really Changed
Accommodating Egypt’s Emerging Art Scene
Hassan Khan: Half a Life in Art Reviewed
Survey of “Competence” in the Built Environment
Gateway to the Perilous Future: Hiroshima Peace Park
The Square
The Arabic language links the square – the site, area, and space surrounded by the built environment – with flowing liquid and with movement across the face of the earth. The etymology of one term for “square,” sahat, stems from the concept of running water over a level terrain; and from this, as described by the thirteenth-century encyclopedic Arabic dictionary Lissan Al Arab, comes the idea of traveling by land for worship and spirituality. Water pouring forth, streaming across a surface, resembles how masses of people once roved the earth and its topography.

The roots of midan, the other widely used Arabic term for “square,” emanates from two separate notions: first, the swaying motion of an object; second, an act that combines generosity and utility. To undulate and to give, to oscillate and to tilt back and forth – these meanings also merge in the Arabic heteronym midan, a word that explains how the earth trembles in disorder to a stampede of horses. This permutation, with the vowels slightly tightened, historically denoted the wide, open space for racing, riding, and trading horses, which ultimately became the public stage we know today.

The location of the midan, at the heart of the built environment, particularly in the archetypal “Arab” and “Islamic” city – an urban paradigm as multifaceted as the present-day world of Islam – was determined by where the ruling nobility and military aristocracy lived. During the Mamlouk era in Egypt and Syria, for instance, the empire granted the political elite residences with adjoining pastures and mayadeen (plural of midan) for their equestrian pursuits. These sites neighbored and linked up with the city’s central religious edifices and adjacent flat areas as well as the plazas next to the overlord’s post of central command.

These meanings – spanning from linguistics to urbanism and sociopolitical realities – range from the flow of water and travel to liquid pouring forth and worship. They extend from movement and midan to disorder and the performance of power. All of these ideas intersect in implicit and explicit ways with what has occurred in the squares of the cities and towns across the Arab region since December 2010. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain, and to Syria and other countries, people stepped outside their homes and workplaces and headed toward the squares.

Their rhythms, brisk and unrelenting, varied in cycles of days, weeks, or months. Their numbers ranged from a few dozen to hundreds of thousands. The sizes of the squares differed, depending on the size of the city, town, or village. People expressed their criticisms, loud and clear, in various ways. They were protesting the political order, its future, and their status as supposed citizens of nations in crisis. At stake were issues that ran the gamut from the basic rights of survival – food, shelter, health care – to civil and national rights, which form the pillars upon which a state relies.

Moreover, people have been trying to affirm their deep-rooted ties to the square and their fundamental claim to it. In many cases, they have furnished the site and set up tents, or vandalized its statues, tumors of the ruling regime. When the names of the squares were linked to these regimes, they have renamed them. In many other cases, they have cleaned the squares after their gatherings and improvised residencies, trying to reclaim the area’s intrinsic role as a collective, democratic, and symbolic space. Above all, they have risen up against the regimes that confined power to a group of individuals who seized authority and passed it down through kinship and tight circles of dominance. Sometimes, the crowds attempted to utilize sites such as roundabouts, for instance, as if they were squares, indicating the necessity for such a space in the built environment.

Without a doubt, these moving scenes raise a number of questions that will continue to emerge as long as the events in the square unfold. What is certain, at least for our purposes today and since the end of 2010, is that the diverse movements unsettled a long period of stagnation. The crowds of activists, like water over the earth, gravitated toward the squares and open spaces and breathed new life into the original meanings of sahat and midan. By salvaging the purpose of the square, they found it to be the natural and only location to head toward in order to dispel a languishing status quo, stiff as stone, and replace it with an alternative way of life.

We find ourselves before a physical place that encompasses these layers of interpretations and history. Thus, the public space has long represented a fusion of meanings entangled in metaphors – of open landscapes, of discipline and its complexities – which all converge at the peak of public power. As these factors coalesce in one site, the square evokes dynamism and a sense of collective will.

This intertwining of meanings bespeaks the history of imagined Arab communities, or that is to say of the people who rallied behind what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” They were scattered across countries each with a similar political structure – one long-standing regime. These factors and meanings spurred the unprecedented movement toward the squares, or the sites that came to be like squares, since December 2010. Before, the people filled the squares only for funerals of rulers, for welcoming visiting heads of state, for swearing allegiance to demagogues, or for gatherings that fired up nationalistic rivalries. Thus, for centuries Arab communities have endured the contradiction between their natural dynamism and the rigidity of the political order. Now people march to the public squares and open spaces in an effort to address this schizophrenia head on and demand change.

Before Arab communities determined once and for all to march to the squares, telecommunications and, of course, the internet enabled them to get a taste of gathering en masse in public and of the transformative possibilities of such encounters. The people parlayed their experiences from these explorations and their newly honed communicative skills into the mass movements calling for change. More than two years after these movements began, how will this redefinition affect other sites of the city? Further, how does this process of redefinition imply the resurgence of the square as a public place, a physical reality, for effective communication, shared expression, and political reconfiguration? Do these movements affirm the traditional function of the city square, long defunct, or have they changed its function? Does the way in which the movements re-purposed other spaces as sites of congregation indicate the urgent need for city squares and their revival?

Other questions about time and history are also pressing: How and why now? What new factors have influenced the timing of these movements? What is the logic and historical context of these factors? What do we make of the violence and high likelihood that squares transform into arenas of bloodshed?

In our second issue, which revolves around “The Square,” Portal 9 sheds light on the trajectories of these open spaces, pregnant with meaning, images, and possibilities. Perhaps, from this critical examination of various squares in cities and towns across the Middle East and the rest of the world, we can extract a sense of what these places signify and have become today. Through the nuances of stories, research, and culture, we illuminate the worlds of “The Square.”


Translated by Eyad Houssami

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