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Ajam’s Mehelle: Recording Everyday Life in Endangered Neighborhoods

The following is an article written by co-Editor-in-chief Rustin Zarkar about our newest project that will be launched this week: Ajam’s Mehelle Project. If you would like to bring Mehelle to your neighborhood, email us at mehelleproject@gmail.com and submit information about your contribution here. All media featured in the piece is from Mehelle, unless specified otherwise.

The demolition of Sovetski in Baku, Azerbaijan, 2016

The demolition of Sovetski in Baku, Azerbaijan, 2016

Over the last five years, Ajam has supported exciting new research on urbanism and cityscapes in the lands stretching from Anatolia to Central and South Asia, This includes articles on urban beautification in Mashhad, social housing in Yerevan, native architecture in Bombay, right to the city initiatives in Canakkale, state development projects in Baku, and many more.

While we have been interested in urban history from the very beginning, we understand the limitations of the “traveling scholar” in accessing local knowledge, particularly in neighborhoods that are undergoing drastic change. In order to fill in the gaps of knowledge production about urban space, Ajam Media Collective has created Mehelle— a new project dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods from Eastern Anatolia to Central Asia.

Mehelle will serve as a multimedia resource for local inhabitants, community organizers, and urban researchers long after such neighborhoods have been demolished, gentrified, or transformed by private and state-led construction projects.

An alleyway walkthrough in the Sovetski mehelle. Turn on Closed Captions for English
 

From North Africa to Southern Russia and from India to the Balkans, communities use mehelle, mahallah, mahalleh, or махалля (from the Arabic محلة‎‎) to refer to a neighborhood or quarter. They are semi-private wards centered around a local place of worship, but also containing other social institutions such as neighborhood coffeehouses and baths. The mehelle was (and still is) the central organizing system for everyday life.

For hundreds of years people worked, celebrated births and weddings, buried their loved ones, resolved conflicts, and formed collective identities in these spaces. Though these residential units are still present in many of the cities of the Middle East and Central Asia, they are slowly disappearing due to the adoption of neoliberal development, large-scale transportation infrastructure, and suburban expansion.

State and municipal authorities have envisioned new notions of beautified public spaces while private contractors have tried to take advantage of rising real estate prices located in the city center, resulting in the construction of luxury condos, shopping centers, and parks. These projects have displaced the inhabitants of the mehelle further towards the city’s periphery, breaking up extended families and intra-familial friendships. As people resettle in disparate apartment blocks, they are physically removed from the social and economic networks that tied the mehelle together.

The aim of Mehelle is to help facilitate and maintain these social relationships by providing a repository for the materials and personal histories of those living in these disappearing close-knit communities. Furthermore, “disappearance” is not a simply foregone conclusion of the project, since urban schemes may be resisted, reversed, and reconfigured if challenged. By creating a space for tracking and documenting the destruction of neighborhoods through user contributions, we aim to assist people in their efforts to publicly push back against master planning and halt further demolition.

81 year-old Gulali recounts his life spent in Sovetski. Turn on Closed Captions for English
 

In order to accomplish this goal, Ajam has teamed up with a group of independent journalists from Red(frame), Chai Khana, and Rohro, as well as community organizers based in Baku, Tbilisi, and Dushanbe. Armed with cameras, these individuals scour the streets of endangered neighborhoods, recording life at local shops, major throughways, labyrinthine alleys, abandoned houses, as well as during festivals and holidays. 360 degree video recorders provide an immersive and interactive view of these places and events, capturing more of the physical environment and (to some extent) removing the photographer’s frame. These images are then placed and categorized on a Google map in order to provide a spatial orientation for the content.

Supplementing the visuals are the stories and memories told by local inhabitants, which will be made available in English, Russian, and local languages (including Azeri, Tajik, Georgian, and others). These testimonies are not simply selected by the local journalists, but are collected through community organizers utilizing their social networks and encouraging people to directly contribute.

The Mehelle project’s first featured neighborhood is Sovetski, located in the heart of Baku, Azerbaijan. Originally sheltering lower-income families who worked in Baku’s booming oil fields during the mid-19th century, Sovetski soon became a bustling neighborhood filled with shops, mosques, baths, and even a church. By the end of the Soviet period, Sovetski housed around 50,000 to 60,000 people and included over 230 registered historic monuments.

In 2014, the municipal authorities announced that they will be demolishing the neighborhood in order to build a public park–part of a larger urban beautification initiative aimed at attracting tourism and foreign investment. While the government offered meager compensation (1,500 manats— or $1,911– per square meter) for the loss of property, the announcement was met with disapproval and demonstrations.

BLUE – Streets & Corners | RED – Work | YELLOW – History & Stories | GREEN – Social Spaces | BROWN – Animals
 

As of October 2016, the vast majority of the neighborhood has been demolished. Over the last six months, however, our team in Baku has painstakingly documented the city streets of the neighborhood–the results of which can be viewed on the map.

Throughout 2017, we will continue to add content to our Sovetski initiative, while simultaneously expanding to two more cities in the Post-Soviet world–Dushanbe and Tbilisi–where state-led beautification programs intend to demolish historical architecture and inhabited residential areas. In Tajikistan for example, the government has announced a “master plan to reinvent the capital city,” which has resulted in the demolition of a number of Soviet-era cultural buildings, including the famous Mayakovsky theater. Similar processes have been witnessed in Georgia, where the Tbilisi municipality has tried to curb the unregulated construction boom of the 1990s, forcing residents out of their homes and places of work.

A photograph of school children found in a Sovetski demolition site.

A photograph of school children found in a Sovetski demolition site.

Over the course of the year, we will experiment with emerging technologies to make Mehelle more interactive and navigable. This will include the development of phone and desktop applications that will expedite the contribution process.

While global capitalism and unchecked development continues to ravage vibrant communities with deep roots, we at Ajam hope that the Mehelle project will serve as a way to preserve what has been lost, and to demonstrate the value of these spaces for those who care to learn. Please join us by taking time to explore the digital Mehelle experience by sharing the site, providing feedback, and contributing content.

A photograph that was abandoned near a Sovetski demolition site and drenched in chemicals.

A photograph that was abandoned near a Sovetski demolition site and drenched in chemicals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Rustin Zarkar

From a young age, Rustin aspired to study archaeology. His scope drastically shifted during his undergraduate career, where he became interested in Persian fiction and soon found himself studying the contemporary era. Rustin’s doctoral research at NYU focuses on material, literary, and visual culture-- specifically the circulation of cultural products in and around the Caspian Sea. His academic work has taken him to Iran, Tajikistan, and Russia, and he enjoys contemporary literature, cinema, and a good khoresht.

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