Mahalle Adaptions

Yiannis Pappas

The question begins with what ‘urban transformation’ means. Throughout the workshop ‘Cairo Urban Transformation’ we had the opportunity to research two different urban areas in two very different urban cultures on two different continents.

The first part of the workshop took place in Hamburg where I tried to approach the mentality of the Wilhelmsburg neighbourhood on the Veddel. The limited time available for research was spent interviewing and observing in an effort to try to understand the relationships between and everyday practices of the different cultures, as ‘islands on an island’. The Veddel is an island and used to be a place for ‘Gastarbeiter’ after the Second World War. As such it was popular with foreign workers and their families who made up 70% of the island’s population. For ‘outsiders’, this number could be sufficient to characterise the island as a ‘ghetto’, but this classification is definitely not accepted by any of the ‘island migrants’. The survey of social groups whom we investigated included teenagers, working men, mothers, shopkeepers, retired elder inhabitants and unemployed people. Generally, Veddelers are aware that outsiders refer to the Veddel as a ghetto. Some groups, especially young men, playfully integrate this label into their identity. The high number of Muslims makes the neighbourhood resemble a Middle Eastern country where public space is clearly appropriated by the masculine gender. The cultural borders are crossed, however, and mostly so by children, whereas some of the German community feel frustrated as a minority and treat immigrants as invaders. Some non-German Veddelers, on the other hand, feel that there are Germans who do not want to integrate into today’s Veddel. Nowadays, finding a house on the Veddel as a migrant is almost impossible, as rents are rising and students have started to move to the Veddel in larger numbers. A main inner dispute within the neighbourhood is about jingoism. Although we didn’t interview nationalist groups, graffiti pieces by Veddelers present obviously jingoist statements, slogans and outrage.

The second part of the workshop took place in Cairo. On the basis of the derive and the observations we have undertaken in Al Darb Al Ahmar as well as some short interviews, I realised that a common topic between the two different neighbourhoods in Germany and in Egypt could be characterised by the term ‘neighbourhood pressure’ (mahalle baskisi). The term was used by Professor Serif Mardin, sociologist and political scientist. He claims that neighbourhood pressure is a mechanism that society uses to ‘create’ its members. Through neighbourhood pressure, society constructs norms. Some claim that neighbourhood pressure includes both the secular segments and religious segments of society. Neighbourhood pressure or societal pressure according to Mardin literally means a ‘skeptical eye towards individualism or differentiation’.

Mahalle (محلة maḥallä) is an Arabic word, adopted into Turkish and variously translated as district, quarter, ward or neighbourhood. The mahalle is generally considered to play an important role in identity formation in many Middle Eastern countries with local mosques and local coffee houses as the main social institutions. Mahalle lies at the intersection between private family life and the public sphere. Important community-level management functions are performed through mahalle solidarity, such as religious ceremonies, life-cycle rituals, resource management, conflict resolution, etc. Al Darb Al Ahmar used to have a bad reputation because of the high rates of crimes and drug-dealing, hence from a western perception easily read as an ‘oriental ghetto’.

Nowadays, Al Darb Al Ahmar is attracting attention by urban planners, and so does the Veddel island. The Al-Azhar Park (an ex dump and main drug-dealing space) brought the neighbourhood behind the freshly conserved ancient wall closer to certain strategies for urban transformation. Authorities are in the process of persuading the locals to exchange or sell their properties in order to displace them from this fast developing area so that they can exploit the public space and turn it into a tourist attraction. New high-rises stand next to low, old and small houses around the Islamic monuments, reflecting a new outfit of Al Darb Al Ahmar ‘mahalle’: here the neighbourhood dispute is clearly about class. Consequently, what follows the terms ‘mahalle / neighbourhood’ and ‘ghetto’ are questions: how do people and society perceive them and treat them? What are the strategies of the continuously newly emerging capitalist priorities of initiatives and community-driven transformations of urban space employed by investors and the burgeoning tourist industry and how are they understood by those targeted by ‘urban transformation’?

Al Darb Al Ahmar’s anarchist, self-made neighbourhood construction seems to an interesting subject and topic of urban transformation, given the subventions spent on heritage reconstruction. Veddel’s already well planned infrastructure – part of it from the fifties – also suggests that the island could be prone to exploitation due to its geographical position so close to the centre of Hamburg.
The term ‘neighbourhood pressure’ in both cases and in the two areas studied during the workshop le me to a wider understanding of the external pressures applied to these neighbourhoods in the form of ‘today-makeshift’ practices in the name of twenty first century urban development.

»I wanted to attend a workshop that actually included fieldwork in certain areas, especially in Cairo and in Germany, so that it’s not like we (architects) work without having direct contact with the neighbourhood. For me it is very new to work with ethnographic methods. We as architects don’t go to study the neighbourhood as much as we did in this workshop. Here, I learned more from a completely new perspec- tive. « – Hebatullah Hendawy