Delving into landscapes in Cairo and Beirut, writing students from AUC and landscape design students from the American University of Beirut (AUB) embarked on a joint course that examines issues related to public space in the two countries, analyzing the impact of user groups on a given space, and when possible, coming up with plausible interventions. Findings from the course at AUC, titled Perceptions of Space in Cairo, will eventually be collected into a book titled Problematics in Cultural Landscapes in Egypt and Lebanon.
The course evolved out of a community-based learning (CBL) workshop
in the Mount Lebanon village of Ramlieh last fall, when AUB Professor
Rabih Shibli and AUC Instructor Brooke Comer met. Both had edited
student-written narratives published by their respective universities,
and despite the fact that they came from different disciplines, they
decided to work together. “The course aims to discuss the significance
of landscapes to society and to the people who occupy them,” explained
Comer, whose previous CBL courses focused solely on African asylum
seekers in Egypt. “This course opens up the problems that marginalized
people, including Egyptians and African refugees, face in Cairo. Instead
of working purely in the theoretical, students work within the borders
of the spaces that these people occupy to understand how the space
impacts them and how they impact the space.”
Students chose landscapes that contained a controversial, or problematic, aspect and were required to immerse themselves in their chosen site, exploring and photographing the area, and interviewing people who occupy it or live nearby. In order to extract meaning from this immersion process, students constructed questions related to the relationship between the space in question and its immediate neighborhood, to analyze the different user groups and determine how a given landscape is empowering or oppressive. “The exercise was meant to help students examine the area in question and understand the reason for the controversy it generates,” said Comer. “This information might eventually be used to advance further research in the area.”
Shibli emphasized the value of the course in empowering youth and translating the political transition in the Arab world into social and economic development. “If you are not able to equip the young generation with all the tools needed to put the revolution into realization, you will never get anywhere,” he said.
As part of the course, 22 students from AUB teamed up with 27 students from AUC. AUB students were all senior students from the Department of Landscape Design and Eco-management, and AUC students were mostly sophomores and juniors from different disciplines. “The age difference was not a problem and, in fact, worked to the advantage of my students, who were able to benefit from the more experienced AUB students,” Comer explained.
Students from both universities were divided into groups according to their project topics, sharing resources and information where relevant. AUC students visited Beirut to attend project presentations and visit the student sites that extended from downtown Beirut to Sour in the South and from the Litani River in the Beqqa Valley to Tripoli in the north. AUB students came to Cairo to visit sites that ranged from informal settlements to the City of the Dead and Al Azhar Park. “Cairo is an interesting, complex city, and it is exciting to visit it and know more about it,” said AUB student Layal Bitar. “The project overall was very useful because we studied the contexts of different sites, and through analysis, created narratives and tried to find solutions.”
Bitar added that the solutions they presented involved both beautification and economic feasibility. “We promote change, not only beauty,” she said.
Maher Ashraf, a music technology junior from AUC, focused his project on Al Azhar Park, a 30-hectare land founded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in the midst of Islamic Cairo. “My presentation was about the contradiction between the park and its modest surroundings, and how it reflects the gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt,” he said, adding that the project encouraged him to research the landscape of the surrounding area. “This definitely enhanced my awareness of the place and the people on many levels.”
Focusing on how public space can be used as a tool for empowerment, AUC student Meray Azziz studied Mustapha Mahmoud Park, where 30 Sudanese refugees were killed in 2005 after staging a three-month protest against their living conditions. “The focus of my project is how the park gave power to the Sudanese refugees who protested there in 2005,” she said. “The park as a public space enabled refugees to make their voices heard.”
For AUC student Kareem Kaldas, who studied Korba Square in Heliopolis, his research questions revolved around the place losing its cultural and traditional identity to commercialization. “The cultural landscape of El Korba has been infected with commericalization and globalization, and there are no boundaries now or any limitations to what could be the future of the landscape,” said Kaldas. “The duel identity is overshadowing what El Korba used to be –– an important cultural treasure that was the inner voice of Heliopolis.”
Similarly, AUB students tackled culturally rich areas in Lebanon and examined ways to revive their authenticity. Through her research on Al Hamra district, a center for commercial and leisure activities, Rita Abu Samra noted how the area near AUB has turned over the past decades from an intellectual hub into a commercial center. “In the 1970s, Al Hamra was both an intellectual and commercial center that hosted restaurants and cafes side by side with theatres, cinemas and publishing houses,” she said. “After the war, all cultural establishments were closed.” Abu Samra’s solution involves using all potential spaces, including urban pockets, to find a place for cultural activities in the area.
Focusing on a village in south Lebanon, Nada Jouni examined how the village, Roumin, once had a big pond that was used as a natural, cheap source of water for the area. “Unfortunately, the pond was emptied a few years ago,” said Jouni. “My project explores the possibility of digging the pond and reviving it as a natural resource and social hub.”
Another AUB student, Ramzi Al Malti, focused his project on Borj Hamoud harbor, a highly industrialized coastal area suffering from pollution. His solution was to create an ecological threshold to protect the environment.
Overall, the students found the experience enriching and transformational. According to AUC student Hana Gamal, whose landscape was the fertile farmland in the Nile known as Island of Gold, the project was an eye opener. “I would never have known about this island if I had not taken this course,” she said. “It showed me a whole new community that taught me how to see the world. Not everything I see is as it appears; there’s always a hidden story somewhere, if you look for it. After visiting landscapes in Lebanon and Egypt, I feel a real need to change the world.”
Her classmate Azziz shares the same viewpoint. “The trip was a mixture of mentoring and site visits,” she said. “We, as AUC students, were able to gain an understanding of the landscape problems in Lebanon, and AUB students got the chance to learn more about Cairo and its areas. It was truly a reciprocal learning experience.”
Photo caption: AUC and AUB students worked collaboratively in a joint course that examines problems related to public space in Cairo and Beirut