Islamic world's most forward-thinking architecture

Vancouver Sun, April 6, 2002

Where terror and hope converge: A town in Syria that once was home to the lead hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks also hosted the awards for the Islamic world's most forward-thinking architecture

The Vancouver Sun Sat 06 Apr 2002
Page: D11
Section: Mix
Byline: Trevor Boddy
Source: Vancouver Sun

ALEPPO, Syria - My suspicions were raised while watching repeated broadcasts of airplanes slicing into the twin towers, and I now know it to be true. Mohammed Atta-the Egyptian subsequently acknowledged by Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks-trained as an architect. After studying in Egypt he went on to postgraduate work in urban design at a technical university near Hamburg. The first plans for the attacks were made at his student lodgings there.

Funded by the German government, Atta travelled to Aleppo, Syria, for field research on his thesis, titled "The Conflict of Islam and Modernity." His design-student status helped disguise his repeated travels to the Middle East. It is now clear that architecture was not just the object of the heinous acts by Atta and his colleagues in terror, but to some degree, the subject of their actions. The same creative and technical knowledge used to construct spaces for human life could also be used by this architect of terror to destroy them. This is true right down to the deadliest of details of the attacks. While last-moment cell-phone calls by terrified passengers described them as "box-cutters," the retractable-blade knives used by the hijackers to overcome airline crews are a common tool used by architects to cut cardboard and make building models.

These realizations haunted me last November as I arrived in this same former hub of the caravan trade-Aleppo-for an utterly different event, the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture in the Islamic World. These are the richest design prizes in the world of contemporary architecture. The event gathers designers, patrons, developers, scholars and religious authorities from Morocco to Indonesia once every three years for a celebration of ingenious ideas for improving living conditions in Muslim communities. Although American journalists have typically attended, none were present this time out of fear for personal safety during the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While in Aleppo I interviewed prominent local architect and city planner Abdulaziz Hallaj, who had been approached by Atta to act as his supervisor and adviser on the proposed thesis-never completed, for obvious reasons. Hallaj refused to work with Atta. "His proposal did not make sense as architecture, it did not make sense as theology, it did not even make sense as theological was just confused," he said.

Despite this refusal, Hallaj nonetheless got a visit in October from the Syrian secret police, he says, as they worked with German investigators to determine how Atta used academic studies to facilitate his planning of the bombings.

Sept. 11 still hangs heavily over the Middle East, and my conversations with middle-class Arabs in Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates opened my eyes to the range of feelings experienced during and after the World Trade Center attacks. English-speaking Arabs I encountered generally had up-to-date, almost obsessive knowledge of the events, often derived from the Internet and CNN, but there were troubling exceptions. One was a successful Saudi Arabian magazine owner, real estate developer, architect and professor in his late thirties who had completed graduate studies in Texas. His wardrobe and lifestyle alternate comfortably between that of western businessman and a minor Saudi prince; he sports a full burnoose and robes one day, and western casual wear the next.

He was keen to talk, having just read the Arabic translation of one of my architecture reviews in a Saudi design magazine. It was all the more disturbing, then, when he switched from quibbling with details of my critique of a museum to describing-in the same matter-of-fact assertive tone-his strong conviction that Israel's Mossad security agency was "somehow involved" in the Sept. 11 attacks.

I was in the Middle East when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian nationals. While this fact caused considerable dismay in the West-we want our central-casting terrorists to be ignorant peasants from poorer and less strategic places like Syria, Sudan or Afghanistan-the news came as no surprise to the Arabs I talked with. Similarly, the news that the lead hijackers at the core of the suicide operation were mostly well-educated technocrats had been anticipated in the region, even if this runs counter to entrenched western preconceptions of violent Islamic fundamentalism stemming from rural poverty and/or lack of education, those two shibboleths of our liberalism.

A lost generation is emerging in the Middle East. After graduating in the liberal professions or technical specializations-often from European or North American universities-too many young Arab males now come home to no job or underemployment. Their bitterness soon increases with the knowledge that previous generations who took the same path are now entrenched as their countries' wealthy and often corrupt elites. There is no more dangerous a social situation than a crisis of stymied expectations by the best and brightest at their peak, at a time when the Arab world's economies are increasingly stagnating.

I first got a glimmer of these social pressures three years ago, as one of hundreds of international journalists gathering in Riyadh for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's 100th anniversary celebrations. One afternoon a group of us escaped the paternalistic gaze of our Saudi Ministry of Information hosts for a drive outside the capital to a desert canyon or wadi.

As we headed along a patch of dirt road toward a waterside picnicking spot, a souped-up BMW full of young Saudi males pulled up and followed us closely. They honked their horn and waved for attention, heavy-metal music blaring out open windows despite the dust. This was no carjacking, but simply a bunch of bored Saudis in their mid-20s who considered it a rare treat to talk to Europeans or North Americans away from the scrutiny of extended family or the religious police. Standing with them at water's edge, we soon learned that all five had degrees or diplomas in medical technology or engineering, but only two had jobs, both part-time.

Later that same day in January 1999 we continued our tour to a popular fair and exhibition tied to Saudi Arabia's largest annual camel races. I kept seeing the same photocopied bearded face adorned with Arabic text pinned near cashiers' tills at hawkers' stands or trinket stalls. I asked our driver if the icon-like man in the picture was a religious authority, and only in hindsight have I connected his answer with the bored young graduates I met at the wadi. "Not really," the driver replied, "he is a former Saudi named Osama bin Laden who wants the American soldiers out of our country."

* While Aleppo was the temporary abode of Mohammed Atta, architect of terror, it was also temporary home of the Aga Khan awards, a showcase for the most compelling architecture of hope for the Islamic world. While previous Aga Khan prizes often rewarded prominent designers producing signature cultural buildings, the architectural awards this time went to modest works that use local values and skills to improve neighbourhoods from the ground up. Low-key at first glance, the schemes selected by a prominent international jury of architects and scholars demonstrate how the Islamic world is working to alleviate the social pressures and injustice that in part spawns the desperate solutions of terrorists.

The SOS Children's Village in Aqaba, Jordan, integrates an orphanage into an existing community. The majority of the children accommodated here are Palestinian in origin, as is true for Jordan's population as a whole. Architect Jafar Tukan and team hand-picked natural stone for exteriors that built on local traditions, but the structure within is contemporary pre-cast concrete, the very kind of reconciliation of contemporary with traditional that Atta found so difficult. The project integrates accommodation for the families caring for the orphans, and there is a lively pattern of private and semi-public spaces, handsome buildings fostering a sense of belonging and importance crucial for these rootless youngsters.

The same qualities are in evidence for another winner, a project designed for the remote village of Ait Iktel in Morocco. The Ghoujdama Berbers living in the village needed basic services and infrastructure: a reliable water supply, electrical connections, new public buildings and improved schools. These were planned and built with the entire community, rather than being dumped hastily upon them by aid agencies or the national government, as is too often the case. If these needed improvements look less sexy than the stretched metallic skins, high-tech connections and crystalline glass forms so loved by leading-edge architects in the West, they are much more profound in this proud and independent rural context.

Cutting through the sectarian, cultural and linguistic divisions within the Islamic world, the Aga Khan Architecture Awards promote dialogue and co-operation between groups and countries that are otherwise hostile. The Aga Khan-spiritual head of the world's 17 million Ismaili Muslims (including a thriving Canadian community, largely arriving as refugees under threat from East African despots) -- describes the evolution of contemporary Islamic societies as "pluralist and humanist," two descriptors that seldom appear in western press accounts.

"No one in the West sees Christianity as an undifferentiated monolith, and yet this is the commonly held perception of the people of Islam, while the reality is quite different," he told journalists in Aleppo. "Pluralism in the practice of Islam and its [cultural] expression...has been validated by nearly 1,400 years of history."

Over tea after the ceremonies for the schemes he helped select as juror, Islamic scholar and librarian, Abdou Filali-Ansary said it was unfortunate that it took a North American terror campaign for the West to seriously examine contemporary issues in Muslim societies. In his role as director of an important library of Islamic texts in the ancient city of Casablanca, he deals with questions from secular scholars and western reporters on one side, and his Saudi funders and Morocco's own rising fundamentalist movements on the other.

Filali-Ansary grew reflective on the conundrum that he and other Arabs now face: "All of this is bad for our self-image ... Arabs are afraid that their true feelings cannot be expressed. The solution is silence, as true feelings can not be spoken, and this reticence goes beyond barriers of language, age and class."

His words carried the same nuances of bewilderment, anger, pain and hope I encountered from Arabs everywhere in my travels in the Levantine and the Persian Gulf. "There is such a lack of understanding of Arab and Islamic culture...but how does a dialogue begin again, with all this guilt by association?"

Travel-holic Trevor Boddy recently published his first architectural critique in Arabic.