Friday, April 20, 2007

Col. W Pat Lang: The US is "re-medievalizing Baghdad"

Everything Old is New Again
"U.S. soldiers are building a three-mile wall to protect a Sunni Arab enclave surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods in a Baghdad area ... When the wall is finished, the minority Sunni community of Azamiyah, ... will be gated, and traffic control points manned by Iraqi soldiers ... "Shiites are coming in and hitting Sunnis, and Sunnis are retaliating across the street," ... It said the concrete wall, including barriers as tall as 12 feet, "is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence" in Baghdad. " -- Yahoo News
To this, Col. Lang offered the following comment:
"Mahalle," "Mukhtar," "Muhtasib." These are terms in Arabic that one should become familiar with:"Mahalle" signifies a "quarter" of a pre-modern Islamicate city, functioning as a sub-jurisdiction underneath a city government. (It is one of several Arabic words for that.) They were often walled and had an inner social and business life as well. Such subdivisions of European cities were also common before the renaissance. Within a "mahalle" lived the self-segregated members of ethnic, guild, sectarian and tribal groups. People grouped themselves in that way because they did not trust others outside their own groups. Typically the streets on the outer edges of the "mahalle" were open at first and then were gradually encroached on by building until it was easy to put up a gate and install watchmen. Yes, I know, we have gated communities in the
"Mukhtar" denotes the "selectman" of a "mahalle." He is the community leader.
A "muhtasib" was an official of a "mahalle" who supervised the economic activity and markets of a "mahalle."
This kind of organization of Islamicate cities gradually disappeared in most places in the late 19th and 20th Centuries C.E. It disappeared as the colonial
powers sought to impose the kind of town planning that they were familiar with
and as early independent governments sought to foster a civic life centered on
inter-communal loyalty and "national" identity.
Baghdad was a lot like that before 2003. There were still places in the city that were inhabited by all one thing or another but the trend was towards integration in housing and in marriage.
We are successfuly re-medievalizing Baghdad, so it would be a good idea to become familiar with the old terms. They are lurking in the back of the collective mind of the city and will be back.

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