Saturday, July 28, 2007

Urban Decay


In my last post I said there was something to the argument that poorer areas in places like Cairo are somehow more ‘authentic.’ So why exactly do some people (like me) find these sorts of places so interesting? There is something about the winding alleys and cramped spaces that gives a neighborhood more character than the efficient, modern grid-based system of many North American cities. The accumulated wear of countless lives lived out walking up the same stairs, opening the same doors and being confined to the same dark rooms makes these places seem, if not exactly more natural, at least more ‘real.’ People who live here have to make the most of what little they’ve got and have very little choice in how they will live their lives. The more affluent are insulated against these necessities. It seems to me that part of what is impressive about these places is that life persists in them in the face of such adverse conditions – we like to see ‘how they live.’ As I’ve mentioned before, I think this is intriguing for Westerners because of a sort of Romantic attraction for whatever seems more rooted in the earth and closer to necessity. However, much the way some Italians might be irritated when someone identifies the real Italy and real Italians with the backwards and corrupt parts of Sicily rather than with Rome or Milan, this attitude can be quite annoying to people who live in these countries (Egypt in this case). It’s difficult for them to understand why so many people from the West focus on poverty rather than on their country’s achievements and their ore beautiful aspects.

On the other hand, it is important to try to understand where these notions come from since they may point to something we lack in modern life. Perhaps a certain lack of awareness of necessity? Perhaps a lack of enchantment?

Wishing for enchantment though is tricky business. I would never want to live in these places - although many who do live there would gladly come live where I do. But there is another side to enchantment that is also largely lacking in the West today. Walking through these crowded dusty alleys in Cairo you come across truly extraordinary mosques and other buildings, some of which are over 1000 years old and on a scale that rivals the large churches of Europe (none of which were built recently). These are examples of mankind’s highest achievements and stand in marked contrast to the squalor surrounding them. What exactly have we lost that prevents us from creating such things?



Chris McClure

1 comment:

L said...

Perhaps what we've lost involves that respect for death as something that is, at some level, unknowable (the place for myth and ignorance and the divinity that that points to).