Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Reading the city (2)
About 16 years ago, I wrote an essay titled “Reading the City”. This was about trying to understand our cities, as aware and responsible citizens. That was tantamount to taking a particular political stance, and engaging in a conscientious way with one’s city and its people. I wrote that from the context of my own engagement with my city, Calcutta, as an activist concerned about the rights of the city’s labouring poor. I proposed that educational curricula should be developed to help people read cities. In the years after that, this activist engagement deepened and eventually led to major transformations in my work and life.
In an earlier post titled "Reading the city", I had written:
"We should learn to read our cities. So that we can then also write, through our life and work, the story of the city of tomorrow."
So I read with interest a recent article by Ajmal Kamal on Karachi. I reproduce the opening lines of this article.
In his inspiring essay, "The City and Death", Bogdan Bogdanovic, the renowned architect and teacher from former Yugoslavia, suggests that the only way out of the mess we have turned our cities into is that each citizen — man, woman and child — should be taught the lost art of reading the city all over again. Only then, he says, we can hope to be able to proceed to the next stage in human progress, i.e. the restoration of the art of writing the city, a precious art and human right which we have long lost.
These lines also brought to mind my visit to the ancient city of Nablus, in the West Bank, in early 1999, to meet my friend Prof Marwan Haddad. As Marwan was taking me around the old quarter of his city, I remembered Aristotle's words:
"Men come together in cities in order to live. They remain together in order to live the good life."