From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta
The beginning of a folktale, which all of us know:
A weary traveller arrives in a town at night. He is a stranger from afar, and he is alone. He knocks at doors, asking where he can stay, until he finds someone who has room to house him for the night. He is given food and lodging, and stories are exchanged: stories of here, and stories of there. The traveller leaves again in the morning to resume his journey.
Perhaps the traveller reveals himself to be a king, or a magician, and the host family receives an astonishing reward. Perhaps he is a figure of darkness, a disturbing new presence in the town's otherwise humdrum life. Either way, a tale can begin from there.
Contemporary, capitalist, society is conspicuous in its indifference to the virtue of hospitality, which has lain at the centre of most other cultures. Across history, and in many different places, the idea of providing food, shelter and cash to strangers in need has played an obvious and important economic role. More than this, it has brought together strangers in intimate settings, and provided a vital channel for news, culture and ideas to be exchanged.
The magnificence of many of the caravanserais built across the medieval Muslim empires lay not in the private quarters provided to travellers, but in the prominence of the poets, musicians and philosophers who congregated in the courtyards to talk to guests and provide entertainment. Through the sarais, musical styles travelled across enormous geographical zones, politics and new technology were transmitted and discussed, poems and stories were spread, and philosophical ideas were communicated.
The ethos of hospitality was considered to be central to those earlier forms of globalisation, not just because it made journeys economically viable for those who could not afford to pay for weeks or months of accommodation, but also because it demanded a certain openness of spirit, both in those who provided hospitality and in those who received it. It demanded that both parties expose themselves to the foreign and walk away, possibly, changed.
Thinking back to an earlier post on this blog, written at the time of Israel's bombardment of Beirut, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that contemporary cities are increasingly militarised spaces, and that city warfare is one of the major preoccupations of today's military strategists. Even the fortress of the City of London betrays such preoccupations, but there are other cities, of course, where warfare is a much more literal and everyday component of city life.
This has been the long-term focus of the work of Eyal Weizman.
Look at this article from Newsweek earlier this year, which basically states that current growth - in population and productivity - is coming not from the established cities of the world, but from more flexible secondary cities.
Great cities like London, New York and Tokyo loom large in our imaginations. They are the places people still associate with fortune, fame and the future. They can dominate national economies, and politics. The last half century has been their era, as the number of cities with more than 10 million people grew from two to 20, as now famous names like Rio, Mexico City and Mumbai joined the list. But with all respect to the many science-fiction novelists who have envisioned a future of increasingly dominant urban giants, their day is over. The typical growth rate of the population within a megacity has slowed from more than 8 percent in the '80s to less than half that over the last five years, and their number is expected to stagnate in the next quarter century. Instead, the coming years will belong to a smaller, far humbler relation—the Second City.
While I was in the Caucasus, researching my current novel, I had a number of conversations about Chechnya, and the idea of a future Chechen state. Chechen intellectuals were wondering what model would be appropriate for their country, if and when it ever found independence, peace and justice. The murder, this week, of Anna Politkovskaya, reminds us again of how far we are from such a situation. But the conversations were theoretical, and the dismal reality did not detract from them.
These thinkers were not convinced that the European idea of the nation state would be the best one for Chechnya. The ways of life in the country were too varied. There were tribal communities in the country, whose legal system was based on the blood feud. The Sunni Muslim majority had elements that supported Shariat law, and others that imagined a system of liberal laws. There was no way of bringing these things together.
The only solution, therefore, was to imagine a system of local, provisional legal systems. The nation would be imagined not as a single legal zone, but one with several overlapping legal modes. This was to some extent the idea behind a recent text I wrote for Radio 3 on the city of 2056.
Asian Dub Foundation's video for ‘Flyover,’ the lead track on
gives an interesting picture of London as a machinic, over-accelerated zone.
I am indebted to Mrinalini Rajagopalan, PhD Candidate, Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, for adding the following to my earlier discussion of American architect Yamasaki.
The architecture of Yamasaki and its unfortunate dance with death has one more crucial piece that you forgot to add in your notes. He was also the well-intentioned (as always) designer of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis Missouiri, built in the late 50s. A modernist dream dedicated to social engineering, the housing project was to be the bromide that would solve racial segregation, urban poverty, lead to a brave new world...
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