Winter Term Meeting (21 February 2008)

Discussing Cities

Winter Term Meeting, 21 February 2008
Nelida Fuccaro, Christian Sassmannshausen, Stefan Weber

Assistant Professor Stefan Weber speaks about his research about social change in Tripoli from the 19th century onwards.

On Thursday the 21st of February, the first Discussing Cities Lunch Conversation was held at AKU-ISMC. The Discussing Cities Lunch Conversation series is a discussion forum on cities and urban issues held once every term by the history department of SOAS and AKU-ISMC. The first of the seminars contained three presentations, by Assistant Professor Stefan Weber, Christian Sassmannshausen (PhD candidate, Freie Universität Berlin) and SOAS Lecturer Nelida Fuccaro.

In the first session, Assistant Professor Stefan Weber presented an overview of the research-project Transforming Urban Worlds: Local Agency and Material Culture in 19th and early 20th Century Tripoli, Lebanon  which explores changes in society through looking at various urban spaces.

Weber's personal research explores cultural change in Tripoli from the 17th to the 19th centuries, exploring, for example, changes to the structure and layout of commercial and residential properties, interiors and belongings and generally how the inhabitants organised the spaces in which they lived.

Nowadays, Weber said, much of what remains from this era is beginning to fall into decay our out of context. Objects, like ceramics, books, fabrics are displaced; spaces, like living rooms, houses and neighbourhoods fall into decay; and people's histories are forgotten. Weber said that this has resulted in the setting being dismantled, with what was contained within private homes or palaces now either in museums or on sale to private collectors.

Sassmannshausen discusses the project looking at 19th and 20th century Tripoli.

Weber said that it is important to reconstruct the different elements of space in order to relate them to each other and thus understand them within their own contexts. This new approach allows an opportunity for research in fields such as Islamic art history, but also for the field of social history. This re-contextualisation allows an understanding of how social agents shaped their daily lives and acted and responded to the influences of their time. It also feeds the cultural memory of societies after a period of "amnesia".

In the second session, Christian Sassmannshausen of Freie Universität Berlin delivered a presentation entitled Transforming Urban Worlds: Local Agency and Material Cultures in 19th and 20th Century Tripoli. During the seminar, Sassmannshausen presented information about this project - a micro-historical study which focuses on Islamic court records, quarter censuses, family documents and material cultures to map changes in society, especially among the non-elite.

Sassmannshausen pointed out that Tripoli is a good example of a city where an almost complete collection of Islamic court records (1666-1918) can be found as well as a number of buildings and spaces from the 19th century (and before) are still intact, allowing for a study of actors in their various environments. The project combines approaches of social and cultural history with material culture in order to construct a view of changes in society which were occurring at that time. In this regard, Sassmannshausen said, Islamic court records have proved to be an invaluable resource, as they provide detailed and complete records for people living in Tripoli across an array of social backgrounds, classes and religions.

Sassmannshausen said that this project has adopted Bourdieu's theory of 'differentiated capital forms' (especially social, economic, and cultural) to describe and analyse social order in a more flexible manner - for example, by using court records to explore how people used their various kinds of 'capital' in a number of ways, whether bargaining over resources, furthering interests or resolving conflicts.

Nelida presented a report on a workshop she attended at Harvard University in February 2008. The workshop, organised by the Kennedy School of Government, sought to identify new areas of research on the port cities of the Persian Gulf with particular reference to the United Arab Emirates and Dubai.

Throughout the session, there were a number of discussions about material history and an exploration of changes in society through looking at urban fabric. The next Discussing Cities seminar will be held in the spring term.

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