“Critical Encounters: Nasser Rabbat”

book cover
Book cover for “Critical Encounters: Nasser Rabbat” (Courtesy of Dongola Limited Editions, 2023)

By Michelle al-Ferzly, Léah Khalil, Zena Takieddine
(Adapted from their contribution to the second volume of the Dongola Architecture Series, edited by Raafat Majzoub)

Critical Encounters is the second book in the Dongola Architecture Series, a platform to publish multi-layered readings of conversations with Arab architects and architectural thinkers working across the region’s contemporary landscapes. Dongola’s inquiry of architecture is rooted in the discipline’s lack of discipline, in the way it generatively leaks into other fields as a true intersection of thought and practice. Architecture allows us to speak to the nature of our times, and in this case, the pertinence of our contemporary cultural production in expanding our world beyond current pessimism about the future.

Nasser Rabbat is one of the most crucial voices of his generation. His deep engagement in reclaiming authorship of Arab and Islamic history from the multiple positionalities of academic, columnist and public intellectual has been key in narrating our architectural heritage and paving way for more engaged platforms to build more accessible and nuanced political sensibilities.

Nasser positions himself within discourses, analyzing the threads of conversation and commentary through a sharp critical eye. With an artful orchestration, he seems to form new terrains with every encounter. Dongola describes their conversations with Nasser in the process of making this book as “choreographic exchanges of discovery,” whereby a chat with Nasser is to enter a generous archive that is continuously growing, reflecting, and changing with whom he invites to dance. “My approach to the world is much less experiential and much more reflective like all of us who work on books, or writing,” Nasser says, downplaying his impact, “I do not build, but I speak about buildings. I don’t protest, but I speak about protests.”

This range encompassing the productive tension between intellectual and the built, the urgent and the latent, is exactly the platform Lebanon-based publisher Dongola is aiming to construct, dissect and question in this second edition of the Dongola Architecture Series: What are the factors that are needed to accept the urgency of history and historiography? How can critical encounters with our environment’s past and present inform how we design our future?

Nasser has been the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1999. The program is at the forefront of innovation in research and teaching Islamic Architecture, promoting relevant contemporary readings of Islamic cultural heritage. Today, with an incomparable critical contribution to the field over 40 years and a lasting imprint on how Islamic architecture history is accessed, perceived and analyzed.

History’s entanglement with unveiling complexities of identity has always been with Nasser even before he would consider approaching it professionally. Taking a critical yet playfully combative stance, Nasser injects his historical writing with a strong political bent. “I was a rebel even without knowing what I was rebelling against.” It is his aim not only to combat preconceived ideas of Islam and Islamic visual identities, but it has also been his aim to shed light on what he sees are “innate social injustices.” From his early years as an architecture student inspired by Egyptian Hassan Fathy’s socially oriented designs, to his work on medieval Cairo’s public architecture, and to his ever-growing body of political commentary, Nasser is a multi-hyphenate thinker just as he is a hyphenated Arab.

Although his reflections seem oriented towards architecture first and foremost, his critical practice entices his audience to grasp at the larger strands of history and to challenge the ways in which this history is told. Embracing his hyphenated status of choice — Arab-American, Syrian-American, Syrian-Lebanese — allows him a distant critical space to question powerful concepts of agency, identity and authorship.

One of the things that distinguishes Nasser’s analyses is how he accesses society’s cultural production through its architecture. “I am more interested in work that looks at meaning.” Specifically, he is interested in social meaning, and positions his work within the realm of social history. He looks at class relationships, power and resistance as they are reflected in building.

Through a bird’s-eye view of an Islamic architectural history, Nasser illuminates a history of mentalities and a history of thought. His recent work on the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi illustrates this. By focusing on the life of the fourteenth-century intellectual, Nasser aims to trace a history of thought, intellectual approach, and social context that transcends more traditional histories of architectural expression or visual culture.

In adopting an approach that focuses on production as well as reception of intellectual thought, Nasser aims to remind his Arab audience that “we belong to a land saturated with creativity and that we can learn from this creativity” encouraging an understanding of geography, culture, sociality, and thought through a renewed historical awareness. Through multilayered encounters with Nasser, readers will come to understand this intellectual output as driven by a strong sense of ethos and public service, which has deep roots in his formation.

In conversation, Nasser seems able to trace the lineage of his thoughts through a series of articulate narratives of encounters with places, people, books, ideas and challenges. He is able to guide his audience through a rhizomic web, jumping from one moment to another, and utilizing this growing archive of encounters to make even the most trivial of interactions have profound meaning. It is through acknowledging this very social form of knowledge that one can understand Nasser’s prolific momentum. An appetite for discovery and an urgency of participating in public-making.

Nasser is revolutionary in how he writes through history. His histories are dynamic and engaging. He writes not only about buildings, but about the environments and contexts they emerge from. His writes about historians, and the legacies these historians have left for us. He writes to reformulate, to theorize, and to critique. He writes to open up knowledge, make it more permeable, accessible and inclusive. At the core, Nasser is interested in the social, in the complex, polyvalent relationships between people and cultures.

Perched between his many roles as public scholar, commentator, and academic Nasser is invested in both directions of writing and research: the creation of a critical text and intervention, first and second, the conversations, and debates with its audience. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining a dialogic relationship with readership, “One has to think more creatively at this stage,” asking, “What is the critical context where you are going to be reviewed and presented to a wider audience?”



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