What alternative Middle Easts have existed, are existing and, perhaps one day, could exist within and beyond differently imagined borders? From a forgotten Ottoman railway that memorializes a failed dream of imperial unification, to the Albanian roots of modern Egypt and a Tehrani road vibrating with socio-political possibility, ROUTES brings together narratives that will (literally) guide readers down forgotten, hidden and potential paths to erased, obscured and proposed Middle Easts.
Childhood recollections of a taxied escape from war-torn Beirut guide us through a geography reconfigured by conflict. How can memories of urban divisions traversed, snipers dodged and anonymous, altruistic compatriots encountered, re-narrate the Beirut of the civil war period?
Before the colonial powers carved divisive borders into a once territorially united Ottoman Empire, inventing the contemporary Middle East, they actually attempted to condense the geographic distance between the region’s key cities by initiating easier routes of travel between Haifa, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. As a result, two brothers from New Zealand, forgotten, for the most part, today, introduced a pan-Arab path that seems impossible to even imagine in our tumultuous present.
A road runs through Tehran, tracing its socio-economic diversity, immortalising, through the variety of names it has sported over the years, the political upheavals that have defined the city's recent history. A rare sliver of accessible public space in a capital that ignores the needs of the pedestrian, what socio-political potential, what opportunities for collective action, does this Iranian artery offer?
It's been more than two decades since the Lebanese civil war came to a clumsy halt, but the country continues to struggle under the weight of a lingering tension, reinforced by unresolved social, political and territorial divisions that circulate the echoes of past traumas throughout the present. A ride along the erratic route of Beirut's Bus no. 4 forces a confrontation with the untended tears that continue to undermine the country and its capital.
Tyre's nautical wonderland has ebbed and flowed throughout its centuries-long history. This is a story about its contemporary fishermen and how the Israeli occupation interrupted their seafaring ways, often rerouting them towards deadly results.
Much has been said and written about the Ottoman influence on the Balkans, but less attention has been paid to the ways in which the Balkans shaped the Empire and, through it, the Arab world. The Ottoman-Albanian commander Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the founder of ‘modern’ Egypt and, while much ink has been devoted to his military campaigns and socio-economic initiatives, the influence of his Kavalali roots on the Egypt he imagined and cultivated has been under-explored. Muhammad Ali did not leave the Balkans for Egypt. He brought the Balkans to Egypt.
The railways dreamt of, planned and, in a number of cases, laid by the Ottomans were a reflection of their imperial ambitions – a skeletal system through which to bind the disparate limbs of their realm. Today, all that remains of this vision are a few, scattered, forgotten bones, their forsakenness a residual reminder of the ashen dreams of a forgotten sultanate, and of forms of mobility that are no longer possible. In Bosnia, the Dobrljin line – one leg of an ambitious railway meant to connect Istanbul to Vienna – stands derelict today, a reminder of the abolished routes of centuries past.
A transport hub for a train network that spanned the entire region, Haydarpasa has transformed from a highly functional building to a heritage site. The fate of Haydarpasa resigns our dreams of a unified Middle East, into just that: dreams.