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Al-Balad as a place of heritage: problematising the conceptualisation of heritage in the context of Arab Muslim Middle East

Shawash, J.; (2011) Al-Balad as a place of heritage: problematising the conceptualisation of heritage in the context of Arab Muslim Middle East. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis addresses a problem affecting places of heritage throughout the world as represented by the case of al-Balad, the historical centre of Amman in Jordan: despite the increasing efforts expended on the conservation of built heritage, most social groups appear to be uninterested; this contradiction results in problems of neglect, dilapidation and lack of participation in its construction and representation. The research explores three possible sources of contradictions that cause this problem: the process of meaning construction in capitalist societies, the global conceptualisation and institutionalisation of heritage, and the role of dissonance of identities in creating dissonance in the construction of heritage. In order to explore such a subjective topic in a manner that would produce generalisable findings instrumental for purposes of urban planning and development, the chosen methodology is structural and positivistic and relies on frameworks of semiotics, mapping, media topic analysis, and most importantly on the findings of an extensive questionnaire survey that was made possible by the gradual opening up of public expression in Jordan. The first source of contradictions explored manifests through the construction of meaning. In an investigation of frameworks that explain the process, the semiotic framework of the myth developed by Barthes is synthesised with the ideas of Baudrillard and Lefebvre who also explored the process of production and consumption of meaning in bourgeois societies that is of particular relevance to the neo-liberal economic framework in Jordan, which caused a focus on cultural tourism and revitalisation of heritage as drivers of economic development. An application of the semiotic framework to the attributes of al-Balad showed that although al-Balad is becoming known as a place of heritage (a place of the past), for the majority of the Ammanis it is still conceptualised as a market (a place of the present). The second source of contradictions emerges from the global conceptualisation and institutionalisation of heritage. An analysis of the plethora of definitions of heritage in literature leads to re-instating its historical role as a legitimiser of social identities, and the significance of this role for the newly emergent nations that accompanied the advent of the age of Enlightenment and modernity and espoused its ethos and latent contradictions. The major contradiction in this process is conceptualising an interruption between the present and the past, which renders the past frozen and dead. The third source of contradictions is the dissonance of identities in Jordan. An exploration into the society of Jordan reveals several hybrid identity groups: Islamist, Arab, Jordanian nationalist, tribal and Palestinian; it also reveals that the construction of heritage in Jordan is dominated by an exclusivist Hashemite narrative constructed by the Royal family for purposes of self-legitimization, and by an attempt to create a historically unique Jordanian identity rooted in pre-Islamic history to counter the threat of Israel. Despite the dominance of these two narratives in the Jordanian historical discourse, in reality heritage narrative is strongly shaped by US funded tourism industry, resulting in an emphasis on Jordan’s Christian past. The resulting manipulation of narrative in the construction of heritage for purposes of political empowerment or economical revenue excludes most identity groups from the process, and thus they find the resulting urban heritage of little meaning or relevance; it becomes “abstract space” in Lefebvre’s terms. The conclusions of the exploration of the three sources of contradictions are discussed against the results of statistical analyses performed on the findings from the questionnaire survey revealing that despite al-Balad’s deteriorating status in the urban dynamics of the city, the Ammanis still find it significant, however they perceive it primarily a place of function, and do not fulfil its potential as a place of heritage by using it to legitimise their identities. Understanding the complex socio-cultural processes that accompany the construction of heritage in Amman reveals numerous aspects of urban practices in Arab Muslim cities at a point in time directly preceding the Arab Spring.

Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Title:Al-Balad as a place of heritage: problematising the conceptualisation of heritage in the context of Arab Muslim Middle East
Open access status:An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language:English
UCL classification:UCL > School of BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment > Development Planning Unit

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