The Middle East may be a fascinating place politically but architecturally, it’s on its last legs. Years of corruption and poor governance mean it’s slowly becoming one of the ugliest places on earth. You just need look at at the sprawling mess of glass and metal in Dubai to realise that something has gone awry. Salma Samar Damluji, an Iraqi architect of 30 years says that greed and corruption is behind the fall of architecture and insists that this money rush is destroying the region’s architectural heritage one building at a time.
And no-one knows this more than Damluji. She has fought what she calls architectural recolonisation in Egypt alongside Hassan Fathy who championed mud architecture practiced by the falaheen (rural peasants) in the 197os. And she’s also worked in Yemen restoring and renovating eco-friendly mud buildings in Yemen’s Wadi Hadramout where ancient building can disappear over night.
“In Europe, countries have been able to preserve their own culture, architecture and urban heritage but the rest of the Arab world hasn’t done that,” explains Damluji. “So as a result they have no architectural heritage left – everybody is imitating Dubai which is a complete disaster. Unfortunately you see the result of it now all across the Arab region.”
One country that Damluji believes has been able to hold back the mass commercialisation of architecture is Yemen. “When I first went in 1981, there was a kingdom of architecture and there was a huge rich resource of architectural heritage. Yemen, I felt, was the last place in the Arab world that had this incredible civilisation and urban heritage that had been going on for hundreds of years. They were so developed that they were creating these amazing palaces out of mud – very modern too. I felt that there was a cause there and I felt I had to take on that cause.”
She has been visiting Yemen ever since and from 2005, the Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation has supported her work to restore buildings in Wadi Hadramout. Another important institution has been the Cultural Emergency Response (CER) of the The Prince Claus Fund in Netherlands, which funded restoration projects in ‘Aynat and Sah following a destructive flood in the region in 2008.
Damluji’s effort to protect and preserve the mud architecture of Yemen, however, hasn’t been easy. Civil war, political in-fighting and badly mismanaged resources mean she’s had to rely on outside support to carry out any restoration and she also has to take on other projects just to make a living. And it isn’t getting any easier.
“It’s harder now than it used to be to work in Yemen as a woman because there are more people in Hadramout who are more… I wouldn’t say fundamentalist. There is a worse level of education and people are taking the girls out of school at the age of 12 to get them married and people rely on money that comes from relatives living in Saudi and the Gulf.”
“So, things are difficult but there is still an architectural scene for me to engage in and there are all these builders who I adore but the people don’t like dealing with a woman… They think that to become good Muslims they need to do what the Saudi’s do and not talk to women. I think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick.” Continue reading