Temporal pandemic, perpetual identity

By Wesam Asali, achitect and Ph. D.

 “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” 
― Charles Baudelaire

The lockdown in most European cities these days cannot but remind me of 2017 new-years’ night in Cologne, Germany. The police screened groups of people of non-European backgrounds, blocking them from entering the city plaza where the celebration usually takes place. Proudly tweeting that they were registering “nafris”, a term from NordAFRikanischer Intensivtäter” meaning “North African Intensive Offenders”, the German police reassured that they were taking measures for a safe celebration, and the association of the term to racial slur is refutable. This act of exclusion, to say the least, could have been protested much more than it was, had it not been related and contextualised within the 2015-2016 new-years’ sexual harassment attacks in Germany with reports showing that most of the attacker were from non-European backgrounds. While opinions split on the incident, it shows four important factors converging to make a case of an inaccessible city, namely: identity (NordAfrikan), Activity (Celebrating new year), place (main square) and context (fear of sexual harassment). In Cologne 2017, the four factors resulted both implicitly and explicitly in Cologne’s Polizei NRW K tweet “Hundreds of Nafris screened at main railway station”.

Only three weeks before this happened in Cologne, I was arrested in Copenhagen, a city where values of inclusion are allegedly celebrated and practiced in urban planning and municipal policies. I was taking photos of a building that was a site of an architectural competition, it appeared that the building was near a police station. Two police patrols stopped. A friendly conversation unexpectedly accelerated when my identity was declared: I am Syrian. I remember very well when the police officer asked, just before he handcuffed me: ‘Don’t you think it is dangerous that a Syrian is taking photos near a police station during these days?’ I froze. The then unfortunate question only made sense when I was in the cell. It is a perfect example of how the four factors forge a state of uncertainty leading to an explicit act of exclusion. “These days” in the officer’s question refered to a recent attack on a police officer near Vestegn Police station; the Danish police declaration described the offender as a “madman” (https://www.thelocal.dk/20161206/officer-shot-at-danish-police-station).

This “precautious arrest”, as one detective phrased it while interrogating me and scrolling through my mobile content, did have a huge impact on changing how I see Copenhagen after almost five years living and working in the city. It was no longer a place where I could enjoy the same accessibility to its facilities, public spaces, and urban life like a Copenhagener, I realised. The officer’s questions started to become a game I composed two hours after my release. By entertaining the four factors of exclusion, I started taking down one of the four elements at a time to see how the question would be:

Don’t you think that it is dangerous that, a Syrian is taking photos near a police station during these times?

Don’t you think that it is dangerous taking photos near a police station during these times?

Don’t you think that it is dangerous that, a Syrian is near a police station during these times?

Don’t you think that it is dangerous that, a Syrian is taking photos during these times?

Don’t you think that it is dangerous that, a Syrian is taking photos near a police station?

Setting up these four elements is much harder when they become variables, where locations and activities are changing. What would a map of the city illustrate to comply with the police officer’s four criteria? What would a map of the same city be like to me? Such interrogation led to an imaginary map of Copenhagen highlighting different scenarios. Despite its difficulty in the making, the map will provide a useful tool for a synergic segregation within an apparently open city. What I started as a protest mapping could be a perfect tool for what I protested. Hence the map’s name: The watcher’s dream map

Figure 1 Watcher’s Dream Map

Away from sarcastic mapping tools, each of the four factors is a tool that is recognised in studies of spatial segregation. Identities are spheres of contestation in cities that, when equipped with power, are also spheres of oppressions. Think of apartheid regimes. Locations are machines of controlled segregations as well as fabricating assumptions and racial screening. Ask any Syrian who travelled in the last ten years about airport controls, they will have at least one story to tell. Activities are flagged inaccessible in specific circumstances; we are very familiar with big signs of no photography. What seems a dilemma, however, is to join the four in one fold, now imagine a sign near the police station in Copenhagen saying: “During the times of attacks on police stations, Syrians are prohibited to take photos near police stations.” This dilemma of camouflaging such a shameless sign in procedures rather than openly convey the information on a sign as an urban element is what can be called “urban hypocrisy”. It is recently becoming well known for planners, it did create a controversy in the UK after London’s bridge attacks, forming a what is called anti-terrorism planning design (https://www.architecture.com/education-cpd-and-careers/cpd/riba-cpd-programme/2020/designing-out-terrorism). Perhaps, the dilemma is obviated in an opening statement of an article about design and terrorism that reads: “No one wants to live behind barricades and barbed wire, but everyone wants to feel safe”.

However, from the four factors, context is the most critical in smudging oppression on the canvas of security. It first imposes a sense of temporalities that makes the exclusion an emergency. It is not the norm. One of Trump’s answer to the question about the Muslim ban was “it is temporary, I am not saying it is permanent, it is temporary”. Second, this temporality solidifies into chronic temporalities. It is never a state of time, but a state of mind becoming a tool to oppress by imposing a dimension of waiting as a practice. Finally, while temporality is presented as an ‘exception’ it becomes justifiable. the protests on the evidently racial profiling of the police in Cologne was timid because it was that night that the profiling happened—of course in addition to the association with the harassment attacks in previous years. 

Our cities were never inclusive, layers of segregating and oppressive practices filters within the everyday function in the city, glossed over by images of accessible public spaces. Renders of proposals in Urban planning inclusivity is entangled with a superfluous diversification of activities, saturated with people practicing many activities of playing, fishing, running, talking and flying kites leading to somewhat a vacuous image. But the maps generated from these images does not comply with the watcher’s dream map as it covers only one factor: Activity. 

Today, the context is overwhelming the other three factors. Everyone should not get close to everyone during the pandemic. Identity, activities and location are generalised, not to be mistaken with neutralised. New identity has emerged rather strongly in relation to this particular context, coining age and health conditions as the main drives in the list. Will we soon be seeing how these identities are illustrated in the watcher’s dream map?

Limited accessibility to cities has been the case of many people before the current pandemic. For the last four years, I was interested in stories like mine. There are many: limited access to the rental market due to agencies’ rejecting to serve Syrian clients, hours of waiting at airports,  ‘random’ checks at train stations, and closed doors at clubs. I wonder though, does the city create its monsters or do monsters head to cities? Baudelaire never characterised his monsters roaming the city. Are they the vigilant oppressors or the demonised oppressed? It does not matter, the two know each other without the need to stroll the eyes open.