Open Cities 34 Openness and Identity – the broad view
Cities undergoing violence before transformation
It is impossible to ignore that the current events in the Arab world are played out in cities. Cities are the stage of continuous change, of gain and loss and stalemate. Struggles take place openly throughout the city on open and redrawn frontlines. Who is fighting and for what purpose?
Can there be a universal right to the city?
All factions are claiming the right to the city, each with its own goals. On the world stage those who establish the rules of engagement are attributing roles, often in black and white: the failed state, the rebels. Yet who is the state, who are the rebels? What is a fight for liberation for the ones is an act of terrorism for the others. Moreover, moral values are attached to the opposing parties, they are good or they are bad, nothing in between, but the good ones may suddenly become the bad ones. Those who are manifesting their differences in cities are heterogeneous, not confined to the ones who fight from their homes which they cannot leave for fear of getting killed, or the others in their tanks determined to re-conquer what they see rightfully theirs.
Destruction and death is the price for all who refuse to open the city, who are unwilling to share the city between them. They will finally have to accept that claim to place means self-determination of how to use space, with whom, for what purpose and that requires continuous negotiation, mediation and openness.
The fight for the right to the city is neither a zero sum game, nor a chess party ending with a winner and a loser or in check mate. Allegiances are done and undone, against a common ‘enemy’ one moment, between conflicting goals the next. Sides are changed, different groupings formed, new identities forged.
Symbolic places of change
These changes are taking place in the city, not just anywhere, but in specific, symbolic places, used to justify claims, confirm acquired rights, demand a fairer share, pin hopes and lose lives.
In the cities where the current conflicts are being acted out, these spaces are not from yesterday. They have a long history of power games and display the marks of previous winners and losers. Often these marks have changed meaning over time. Later generations are perceiving them differently from those who fought over them. Nevertheless, clear choices determine where demonstrations are staged, where real spaces are occupied, with which those people identify who want a better future in their city. There many cleavages between diverse expectations overlap, reinforce or contradict each other and create explosive conditions. Conversely, this dynamic constitutes the potential for a less divided city, socially, culturally, economically and spatially.
Will these many factions in these spatially unjust cities be able to open up their fiefdoms - physically as well as mentally – and transcend long established barriers, often through coercion and force, or prejudice and opportunism? More critically, will the remote masterminds keep their promises and refrain from imposing their views of the just city on those who need to reach peace and reconciliation among themselves after such violent territorial struggles?
Divides and shifting allegiances do not only exist within these beleaguered cities. They are just as prominent at the geopolitical level and depend on to what extent those who rule it are inclined to mastermind the future of these societies in revolutionary transition. Let us not be naïve. Geo-political spatial injustice is also apparent in the arbitrary selectiveness of interventions, with motivations far from open and transparent.
Hiding behind international law and the vagueness left to interpretation is not the way forward to genuine liberation and self-determination of peoples with a long history of colonialism who are demanding spatial and social justice. Opening up cities and the minds of the diverse peoples who populate them and who had been living in conflict with each other over a long time is one objective. Equally important are changes at the geo-political level among those who have a political, economic and technological hold over them. How close is that world to renouncing arms sales, or agreeing to fairer terms of trade for access to their resources? These are equally important conditions for more open cities and to enable people to determine their own identities.