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Why “Now” is an Important Moment in History: Corona and the Re-Figured Mobility of the World

23. April 2020

The spread of coronavirus since early 2020 has put many of us at home. Suddenly, the streams of bustling mobility across the globe have stopped. In this blog post, Ayham Dalal reflects on how transportation and mobility re-figured the world. Tracing their impact in the formation of unequal and asymmetric geographies, he puts two less-visible worlds in conversation with each other: “overly connected” and “overly isolated” ones. Using his personal experience of transiting between both, the article aims to show how the global growth and expansion of mobility networks privileged some and hindered others, thus producing unequal geographies and distorted imaginaries. In this historical moment, the article addresses the impact of extensive mobility on the re-figuration of spaces and urges to revisit the potentials of dwelling as counter-practice for a more just and livable future.  

Distancing

How far did they fly? not very far at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another. The distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space.[i] The invention of airplanes, cars, trams, buses and trains with their infrastructure – airports, highways, streets, metro stations and railways – re-figured the world. Distance was no longer a numerical measurement between two geographical points. Instead, it came to be a relational subject, dependent on the level of connectedness between places through mobility infrastructures and technologies. Mobility, therefore, made parts of the world become tightly connected, and left others in utter isolation. The geographical map of the world as we know it has never been more deceiving than in this respect. A map more true to life would be one that reflects the connectedness and isolation between the dissimilar geographies of the world. 

Architects and planners were among the first to notice the impact of mobility on our future. The French modernist Le Corbusier saw cars and highways as the skeleton of the modern city. His sketches of the “city of tomorrow” shows that clearly. The medieval European city with its dense and crowded mobility networks was to be replaced by a rational grid of streets – everything put in place to ensure high-level connectedness and mobility. Cars and highways were brought into the center of urban life, everything else was compacted within boxes of high skyscrapers (see figure 1).[ii] Although his ideas were strongly criticized, they show how the invention of the automobile, and therefore modern mobility, had induced structural changes in thinking about and producing, space. These structural changes were not restricted to the scale of the city, their impacts were regional and global. However, what was invented to facilitate movement, ultimately lay the foundation for two globally emerging, distinctive territories: an “overly connected” one – with bustling networks of transportation, cars, airplanes, buses, trams, trains, tunnels, highways, airports to ensure high and quick mobility between parts; and an “overly isolated” territory – detached and distanced from these growing networks of global mobility. While the interaction between these two worlds resulted in “grey”, or in-between zones, demarcations between both worlds became clearer and stricter. The freedom of movement was controlled, regulated and disciplined through borders, walls, passport requirements and checkpoints. The geography of the world was re-figured – now “open” for some and “closed” for others. 

Figure 1: A visionary sketch of the “City of Tomorrow” (Source: Le Corbusier, 1929)

Migrating to Germany as a student in 2012, I became aware of these two paradoxical realities, and how mobility played a role in their formation. Living in Syria until 2011, I hardly ever met a person who had traveled by airplane. “Is it scary? How does it feel to be flying above the clouds? I heard it’s most scaring when the plane takes off!” – my grandmother asked with curiosity. The formation of nation-states around the globe went hand in hand with the re-figured mobility of the world. A good example is the collapse of the Hejaz railway network in the Middle East. Once built in an endeavor to connect Arab cities like Cairo, Haifa, Damascus, Medina with metropolises in Turkey and Europe, the birth of different nation-states cut through the network of the railway project.[iii] What had started off as a means of connecting the region was suddenly blocked by borders, mobility restrictions and walls, making transportation in the region harder than ever before.[iv] The Mediterranean Sea, a symbol of connectedness between civilizations and cities around its shores throughout history, turned into a symbol of death, isolation, and illegality.[v] Amidst the global re-figuration through mobility, borders and political agendas dictated the conditions for connecting territories. The geographical map of the world changed radically, and hierarchies of connectedness/distancing emerged. Political boundaries undermined the illusion of “one world”. Instead, “overly connected” and “overly isolated” territories – and their in-between zones, started to take shape. As part of the Soviet-socialist camp, Syria threatened to drown in isolation. Slowly but gradually it separated from the “overly connected” part of the world. 

Figure 2: A map showing the Hejaz railway and connections to Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Turkey 1929 (Source: Wikipedia)
Figure 3: An air flight service promoting travels from Haifa to Beirut in 40 minutes (1946), in contrast to the only possible connection today across three borders and with the distance of 6 hours’ drive as suggested by Google (Source: Al-Khazen Archive and Google, 2020)

Transiting

In the absence of a global “right to mobility”, I could observe how living in Germany, or rather: transiting from an “overly isolated” to an “overly connected” territory, changed me. In Syria, I was much closer connected to my neighborhood, and I used to wander a lot with my friends across the city, enjoying to be part of where I lived. I had a local identity and presence. In Germany, working in academia, I gradually slid into an endless world of airplanes, airports, trains, luggage, and permanent travelling – I got absorbed by the rhythm of the “modern life” facilitated through a network of intensified and rapid mobility. My knowledge about the world’s different geographies became irrelevant, and I had to learn, first and foremost, how to travel. Being an absolute illiterate in traveling etiquettes, I remember the embarrassment of arriving to Germany with an extra-big luggage for a one-week workshop. “Wow, that’s what I call a really a big suitcase, Ayham. You could fit a human being inside!” someone said in amazement. Over time, my luggage got smaller and smaller, and I learned how to free myself from all the clutter and unnecessary items to make travelling easier. I also needed to learn how to navigate the city. In the Middle East, it used to be easy and quick: whenever I was on the street, I could wave one of the passing taxis to take me wherever I needed to go – in a few minutes I was there. In Germany, things were more complicated. The spontaneity of transportation is channeled and replaced by precision and functionalism. Trams, buses, trains, metro lines are connected and synchronized in a multi-layered and complex network explained by maps (figure 4). For a first timer coming from the “overly isolated” world, these maps are quite intimidating. I still remember the frustration every time I stood in front of the Berlin route map: lines, names, colors, symbols, signs – they were all trying to communicate with me, while the clock was ticking, and the pressure to figure out how to move from one point to another built up. Nervously, and unable to crack the codes of the map on time, I often found myself hopping on the first arriving metro only to discover that I was travelling in the wrong direction. In order to cope with and follow the pace and rhythm of this new, “overly connected” world, I had to learn the language and etiquette of mobility, otherwise I’d be lost. Transiting from one world to another, from an “overly isolated” Syria to an “overly connected” Germany, I myself was being re-figured. 

Figure 4: Example of a transportation route map (Source: BVG, Berlin 2020)

Stretching

For people confined to their territories, cities, camps, slums, travelling around seems like a dream. Seeing, experiencing, and discovering new places! “Ibn Battuta – where have you been last?”[vi], people back at home would ask because they thought that I was enjoying my travels and had a blast. But in fact I was experiencing a growing anxiety. I felt a scattered presence swirling in a world of intense mobility, which left me with nothing but shattered and incomprehensible memories. Instead of being anchored by the place where I live, my presence was occupied with flashbacks of places, locations, scenes and people, of which I am not sure if I have met or experienced them in real life – or just in my rather vivid dreams. “I really hate airports, I can’t bear to see them anymore”, I told my mum on the phone. My world had turned into a vertigo of hectic and random images, stories, perceptions, and blended with the anxieties of modern life and the pressure to achieve. 

The surrealness of my own feelings was no different from the surreal impression of the cities in the “overly connected” world. My own sense of localness was replaced by a hybrid collage of chaotic, random, globalized realities running at fast pace. “This is not Germany…this can’t be!” a friend of mine expressed in shock when we passed a Falafel joint in Neukölln crowded with Asian tourists. In an “overly isolated” place like Syria, one cultivates the guilty pleasure of imagination.[vii] Far-away territories like Europe, even closer ones like Egypt and Lebanon are imagined realities for most Syrians – constructed and treasured in the mind of the individual, fed by images and stories encountered in magazines, movies, and only visited in “cyber space”. The pleasure of physical encounters and personal discoveries is replaced by curiously investigating exchanges on social media platforms. The constitution of nation-states in the Arab region resulted in the formation of local enclaves, which remained “open” for three purposes only: for economic exchange, for maintaining connections with imperial powers, or for hosting refugees. “You know, before coming to Germany, I had lived all my life in Alexandria, and I had never met anyone who wasn’t from Egypt” a colleague of mine confessed with a feeling of bitterness.

Encountering

Imagining is an individual act. It differs from one creative person to another. In the absence of creativity, one must surrender to stereotypes, i.e. collective imaginaries.[viii] Europe, for the overly isolated, is imagined as a heavenly place, full of dazzlingly beautiful things and sophisticated castles. But in real life Germany is a crossing point at the center of an “overly connected” territory, overly globalized: dazzling castles next to Shisha shops with young European hipsters, next to a Sushi place serving veiled women for dinner, next to an African barber shop, next to a gay bar with a leather-dressed and fully pierced bartender. “Have you tried Chinese food before?” my friend, who’s recently arrived from Syria, asked full of curiosity. The recent refugee crisis – the biggest exodus in history since WWII – has broken with the traditional rules of mobility, has changed the game. The inhabitants of “overly isolated” territories have, for the first time in their lives, entered a swirling space of exchange, a world of surreal mixtures, an “overly connected” territory. First encounters between the inhabitants of these two worlds are something to remember. They are fraught with awkwardness and a vague sense of discovery and creation (see figure 5). Initially they are driven by curiosity on both sides, but soon turn into a question of power: whose knowledge is relevant here and now? The exchange between the worlds of the “overly connected” and the “overly isolated” is never symmetrical. Relations must be negotiated; identities have to be reconstructed; and perceptions of the world are to be re-figured. 

Figure 5: Footage of a first encounters between a white man and members of the Toulambi tribe in Australia, as shown in a documentary by Jean-Pierre Dutilleux in 1976 (Source: YouTube, 2020)

The division of the world into “overly connected” and “overly isolated” is structural and political at once. The growth, expansion and complexification of mobility networks produced incessant streams and flows connecting specific parts of the world. This is reflected in the “daily aviation maps”: streams of airplanes flying across the globe, restlessly, day and night, creating an “invisible” infrastructure of global mobility (see figure 6). Mobility and its infrastructures are at the center – as in Le Corbusier’s plan for the city – and everything else deemed to be less relevant is in the periphery. The parts of the world at the distance of these centers of mobility have produces “swamps” in the wake of these developments: areas of stagnation and repetitiveness. In swamps, newness is characteristically besieged, sometimes killed by history and time; while in rivers, history is buried, rather short-lived compared to the fascination with newness. Mobility is the barzakh between old and new, death and life, future and past, here and there, now and then.[ix] It is only the velocity of the flow that dictates which of these Janus-faced realities is more present than the other. 

Figure 6: A satellite image by the Zurich School of Applied Sciences showing air flights in yellow (Source: YouTube, 2010)

Dwelling   

The spread of coronavirus has forced us, perhaps for the first time in history, to put a stop to what used to be an incessant stream of mobility across the globe: air planes are grounded, borders closed, cities locked down, and movements of individuals restricted. Being thrown back on the basics, the significance of dwellings reappears. Mobility and dwelling are opposites. Spatially and conceptually, they embody the paradoxical nature of “human being”. Mobility represents the human side, dominated by mind and reason. It is the desire to be here, there, and everywhere, the urge to discover, connect, build and expand. This results in an externalized human presence – never fully here nor there. Dwelling, on the other hand, is being. It embraces the here and now in all its complexity and contradictions. It means to settle, be protected and safe, to surrender to what exists, and locally cultivate the earth.[x] Just as “human” and “being” stand in opposition to each other,[xi] so do “mobility” and “dwelling”. 

The current pandemic is putting the two worlds of the “overly connected” and “overly isolated” in a temporary state of equilibrium. All of us stay at home, grounded and anchored in or around our dwelling places, instead of flying and floating across the globe. For the first time in years, I am able to explore and discover the area where I live, without feeling the pressure or need to be somewhere else. Coronavirus reminds us of the scale of our immediate presence: the sleeping room, the living room, the kitchen, the garden, the neighborhood, creating a long forgotten intimacy. We suddenly realize the need to be connected to our surroundings. People begin to take care of their gardens and cultivate their own food if they can. Some bake bread and produce staple foods themselves, which until recently was brought to them via the networks of mobility. This is not to romanticize the past, nor is it a call to go back in history. Mobility and dwelling are fundamentally interrelated, and inevitably linked to each other. Coronavirus clearly shows that. Mobility and dwelling are both direly needed in everyday life. The question is, what do we need more urgently for a fairer world and a livable future?

About the author: Ayham Dalal is an architect, urbanist and artist based in Berlin. He obtained a PhD in architecture with highest distinction from TU Berlin. Currently he is associated with the project “Architectures of Asylum” in the CRC “Re-Figuration of Spaces” and works on his first monograph “Dwelling and the End of Shelter”. 


[i] Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses”, (London: Vintage Books, 1988), 41.

[ii] Le Corbusier, “The City of Tomorrow and its Planning”, (London: Dover Publications, 1987).

[iii] It is worth mentioning here that the Hejaz Railway was constructed during the Ottoman military control in the region, and was therefore met with resistance. 

[iv] In his memoir “Out of Place”, Edward Said describes a train journey from Cairo to Haifa, which nowadays is not possible anymore due to restrictions on travel and the closure of the Israeli state on itself against surrounding Arab countries. 

[v] See for instance: The Left-to-Die Boat, “Forensic Architecture”, (https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-left-to-die-boat), accessed 15 April, 2020. 

[vi] Ibn Battuta is a scholar known in the Arabic world for his extensive travels and journeys.

[vii] Which is closely linked to discussions on Orientalism and Occidentalism. See: Edward W. Said, “Orientalism”, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). 

[viii] Which also played a role in the social construction of the nation states. For more see: Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism”, (London: Verso Books, 1983).

[ix] “Barzakh” in Arabic means the space of transitioning between life and death.

[x] Martin Heidegger, “Poetry, Language and Thought”, (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 213-229. 

[xi] I am inspired here by the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment”, (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1999).