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For better and worse, Arab cities try on a Western look

Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad still struggle with overpopulationand pollution. Other cities fare better.

In the halcyon days before civil war and urban sprawl overtook this Mediterranean city, Beirut was a charming mosaic of reassuring greenery, stylish plaster faades, and the red-tile roofs of traditional Ottoman architecture.

But now, rising from the ruins of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 is a drab, cement-box style of architecture - along with overpopulation, noise, and pollution.

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Beirut isn't alone. In Arab cities like Cairo and Baghdad, Western architecture has come into conflict with centuries-old tradition. What often results is a soulless downtown dominated not by people but by automobiles and a spaghetti of roadways.

"Western occupation of Arab countries [like the British occupation of Egypt and Iraq, or the French occupation of Lebanon and Syria] was a fatal problem in the Arab city. They tried to impose their city on us, without considering our values," says Ali Bakr, Egyptian-born professor of urban planning at Beirut's Arab University.

"It is important to educate decisionmakers on what they are building," adds Dr. Bakr. "What we are living in is not what we want to live in. Unfortunately, this comes from blindly copying Western-style architecture."

And yet other cities, like Damascus in Syria and Sana in Yemen, have so far resisted the downside of modernity.

Redesign upheaval

Beirut's metamorphosis is the starkest example of the challenges facing Arab cities. Commercial redevelopment is overseen by Solidre, a semigovernmental organization.

Vicky Abboud, spokeswoman for Solidre, maintains, "We are developing the finest city in the region, with all the most modern features including fiber optics, cable TV, and filters to collect rainwater, while at the same time preserving its character and spirit."

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But not everyone is enthusiastic. "They are building an island, a city within the city," says Huweyda al Harithy, professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut. "If we lose traditional architecture, let's not badly reincarnate it.

"You cannot create a new downtown in a vacuum," she adds. "This is no doubt most efficient from a business standpoint, but it does not tie into the fabric of the city, and it will surely suck the life out of other centers of the city."

A frequent criticism of Beirut's reemerging downtown center is that it kowtows to the omnipresent automobile. "Everyone thinks that modernization means to cut new roads," says Professor al Harithy. "We should avoid the mistakes Europe made 100 years ago."

Fouad Hamdan, regional director of the environmental action group Greenpeace, is equally adamant: "In their new city, the car plays a more important role than the human being.

"Solidre's only concern is to have two lanes into the city and two lanes out," he says. "They are ... ignoring public transport and building parking lots right in the middle. This is a sure formula for pollution and traffic jams."

Yet other Arab cities haven't fared better. "If you want to see a real urban disaster, go to Cairo," says Mr. Hamdan. "It has become the most polluted city in the Arab world, with more and more highways and flyovers in the middle of the city, causing immense damage to the buildings and health of the people."

Prof. Ahmed Attiya of the University of Alexandria explains that many of Egypt's urban problems were caused by "government neglect of rural areas resulting in an urban migration in search of better living conditions." This migration, in turn, "led to the deterioration of urban areas [when] people brought their rural mentality ... and their chickens to the city with them."

In the early to mid-1970s, the Egyptian government tried to alleviate overcrowding in Cairo and other urban centers by building a series of satellite cities a short distance away. But these industrial centers were often badly planned "ghost towns."

Attempts at improvements

In the past decade, however, the Egyptian government has again tried to make life more livable in Cairo, in part by adding a French-built metro system to alleviate congestion. But overcrowded, poorly built skyscrapers continue to go up.

Iraq's Baghdad, too, has struggled to maintain the pleasant quality of urban life, as colossal urban prestige projects go up. Bridges, towers, and monuments are functional structures of the new city, as well as potent symbols of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's authority.

Writes Iraqi architect Hassan Mekiyya (who used the pseudonym Samir al Khalilin) in "The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq": "In the 1950s and '60s, the dirty, picturesque 'old' Baghdad - with its sectarian and ethnically divided neighborhoods, its colorful old souks, its horizontal skyline punctuated with pretty vertical minarets - was being destroyed by modern 'International Style' architecture and that rampant engine of individual freedom: the automobile."

Escaping downfalls

On the other hand, nearby Damascus seems to have fared better with the challenges of growth and urban sprawl. "Damascus has no traffic jams and a large, well-constructed infrastructure of highways," notes Greenpeace's Hamdan.

But Damascus is not necessarily a recipe for success, because it has not completely embraced the Western lifestyle. "Syria is still a very poor country," explains Hamdan, "and it is just a matter of time before traffic jams become a problem. Right now, most people can't even afford to buy a car."

One notable urban and architectural success story among Arab cities is the Yemeni capital, Sana, which partly because of UNESCO's aid has strived to protect the heritage and identity of the city.

"Arab cities," Professor Attiya says, "must use modern technology in ways that preserve their identity and tradition." Sana, he reflects, "remains a city of privacy and gardens surrounded by Yemen's traditionally ornate stucco houses."

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