Reflections on Ethnographic Work: Shopping, Safety and Maneval’s New Islamic Urbanism (2019)

To better understand issues related to housing and how house fit within cities, I have read many texts about the growth of cities on the Arabian Peninsula. Across differences between authors there are two similarities: writers often fail to put themselves in the location and scorn shopping. Perhaps the genres they are writing in (political science, urban studies, architecture, etc.) call for a distanced view but it’s odd to read so much information about a place by people who never talk about what it’s “like” to be there. Critiques of road placement, enclave developments, poorly designed open spaces, congestion etc. might be accurate, but there’s nothing in the text to show that the author was actually there except for some ‘taken by the author’ photos.

And there is widespread contempt for shopping with lots of remarks about mindless, over-consumerism but nothing about joy of walking into a shopping center with a mix of languages, scents, sights and people. I lived in Sharjah from 1997-99 and City Center Mall and the Blue Souq were my favorite places to shop and people-watch.

This summer I was in New York City, Boston and small towns in the Northeast. In each location, people blended together. Most clothes in NYC were black; most clothes in Boston were khaki. No feathers, no saris, no rhinestones, no apricot-colored silk dresses worn with sandals decorated with small birds, no little girls running around in 7-layer tulle dresses with bare feet, no long robes with pointed hoods, no teal leather slippers with the toes curled up, no purple fake-crocodile leather skirts. But that is what is waiting for you at a Dubai mall: uniforms from every kind of job, clothing from many countries and people strutting around in whatever dream they and their tailor could come up with, plus goods from Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Japan, Korea, South America and others.

And the souqs! When you read the disparaging comments about how inauthentic they are, how they are set up for tourists and what was torn down to build them, you get no sense of the wonder of, for example, the Sharjah Blue Souq. It’s lovely (and safe! more on that below). There are Emiratis and expats shopping and a wonderful cacophony of Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, Afghani, Syrian, etc. sellers.

To walk into Muttrah Souq in Muscat is to overwhelmed with rainbows of colors: scarves, shoes, dresses and ribbons. There are displays crowded with shells, colored glass lanterns, little metal oil lamps, spices, frankincense, gold necklaces and silver rings. It might not be completely authentic or following all best practices for urban design but it’s fun. And used by Omanis as well as tourists.

By not talking about the “feel” of urban spaces, writers miss another important aspect: safety. When I worked at the American University of Sharjah, I didn’t have a computer in my on-campus apartment, so I would often walk about 6 blocks to work in the evening. How many female academics can say that they can walk through any building and any part of their campus at any time of day or night and feel perfectly safe?

In Dubai, Sharjah and Muscat I get into taxis without a second thought. I walk through parking garages without threading my keys through my fingers or looking around. At Washington National airport I had to assess fellow passengers before deciding who I could ask to watch my carry-on bag when I went to buy a magazine. At Dubai and Muscat airports, I just leave the bag if I need to walk a short distance to get a soda. At my café in Salalah, men leave their laptops, phones and sunglasses on the table when they go to pray. At the grocery store, I can leave my purse in the cart as I go to get some apples and then stand in line to have them weighed.

I do not ever try to put myself in danger. I never camp alone but many times I have driven home from a research meeting at 2 or 3am. I worry about camels on the road, not about being harmed. The times when my car has broken down or gotten stuck in the sand, the men who have stopped were helpful.

Happily, Maneval’s New Islamic Urbanism (2019) does not follow the norms of talking about urban spaces in the abstract and disparaging shopping centers. Maneval has a thorough understanding of the history and architecture of Jeddah but he also muses on what “it’s like” to walk down the streets and through the buildings. The focus of his work is to reframe the concepts of public and private to

conceive of these spaces as variable products of social practice involving both people and artefacts…[e.g] walls, doors, curtains etc. are not enough to turn a building into a private space. It could just as well be used as an office or for the assembly of a political party. In order for it to become a private space, whether continuously or temporarily, people have to use it as such, that is, keep other people out to remain undisturbed, screen certain bodily appearances and activities from view, do what they only want to do alone or with a limited number of persons with whom they share an intimate bond (63)

However, to me, how he sets himself within the context of Jeddah is just as important as his academic framework. He is the only author I found who talks in first person about the difficulty of every-day actions such as crossing a street or finding the entrance to a building. [An article that also discusses “what it’s like” to walk in Arabian Peninsula cities is Nastasi’s excellent “A Gulf of Images: Photography and the Circulation of Spectacular Architecture” (2019), but this text concentrates on urbanscapes, not houses.]

When Maneval talks about how gender separation displaces both women and men, he discusses how he was not able to enter an art exhibit or sit in a café with a group of men. His opening example, of being guided/ guarded through a female-only university, is the only time I have read a male author explaining how it feels to be “othered” on the Arabian Peninsula.

I am grateful that I found his book early in my research on Houseways ; it was heartening to find someone who blends the academic with the personal to create a comprehensive view of how people navigate through houses and cities.