On the destruction of cities – from Aleppo to Mariupol – Friday

How long does it take for a thriving city to become a desert, for a desert to become a thriving city? The destruction of Troy by the Greeks took years, but less than it took the hero of Virgil Aeneas to reach the coasts of ancient Lazio, where he founded Alba Longa, the predecessor city of Rome, which in turn was built a hundred years later. . Cities, you can see, procreate themselves, their history does not always continue where it has just been concluded by the hands of man. This also applies to Alexandria, bombed by the British two thousand five hundred years later, after Orabi Pascià opposed the European request to determine the entrance to the newly excavated Suez Canal on its own. The shelling of the ship is followed by a brutal invasion, the riches of the city being plundered in a few days. The poet Konstantinos Kavafis manages to escape with his family, the end of the city marks the end of his childhood. Again and again he will return to this moment: “Approach the window /…/ and say hello to Alexandria, which you will lose in front of your eyes”.

The loss as well as the internalization of cities belong to the era of forced geopolitics, to the subsequent programs of ethnic cleansing and resettlement. By contrast, the cities of Dresden and Hiroshima, which were destroyed in World War II, were each rebuilt for their surviving residents, which seems inconceivable from the sight of contemporary photographs. The river where the living torches do not go out, the shadow burned on the stairs: these cities have become synonymous with apocalyptic visions, which were transformed into museums a few decades later. Yet these cities remain etched with their trauma, only overshadowed by tourism.

You rarely leave the destroyed cities. Not even Aeneas could do it. And sometimes it doesn’t matter what caused the catastrophe. People whose entire living environment collapsed in an earthquake are not fleeing, but are demanding government housing programs so they can stay close to their misfortune. “Say goodbye to lost Alexandria”, this paraphrase of Kavafis’ poem in Leonard Cohen’s Love Song did not sound in their minds. Often enough these people want to be with their dead, but often can’t get over the fact that the accident spared them. They take their revenge on him by not turning their backs on him.

Grozny, Aleppo, Mariupol

What future awaits Ukrainian cities? In recent weeks, Mariupol’s images have traveled around the world, showing destroyed house facades, cars on fire and bombed-out infrastructure. Black smoke hangs over a covered market that hasn’t been used for a long time, fearless empty faces look out over piles of fabrics and paper, civil protection warns people to hurry. In the belly of the neoclassical city theater, more than a thousand women and children believed themselves safe from Russian attacks, so safe as to let the pilots know: the theater has now been pulverized and half of those seeking protection are presumed dead. That this was a city, inhabited equally by Russians and Ukrainians (so that their bombings show only how little Moscow is inclined to spare their ethnicity), with half a million inhabitants, a multi-ethnic history of over 200 years typical of the region of the Black Sea (next to a Muslim mosque), not seen in the photos. The bombs obliterated the special and pushed the place into the archive of destruction, where one desert resembles another. Large sections of the civilian population are waiting to be able to leave the bunkers and craters, with the sick and the elderly on their backs, as Aeneas once did. In light of the Russian tactics of encircling, bombing and starving cities that the army is apparently not trained to penetrate, it will be said that one of Moscow’s weapons of war is the “urbicide”. This requires neither great courage nor technical precision, just cruel patience and sufficient ammunition. They practiced in Grozny and Aleppo.

When Michael Moorcock created the term “urbicide” in 1963, he and other urban sociologists actually wanted to reserve it for the violence of restructuring and ghettoization in Western metropolises. In other words, for interventions that are often ordered from the point of view of the administrative elite and that destroy the subcutaneous network, the lifeblood of a place – often enough not known before breaking through. Road junctions, squares, avenues, but also schools, hospitals, parks make a city more than a settlement, give it a historical and spatial perspective, and mediate between the private sphere of the individual, his self-image, his desires. – and the space he carries it into. Urbicides are attacks on life itself, on its ability to regenerate itself. They are the fruit of hatred no less than the loss of the world: where the elite or the military operate on models that represent only reality.

According to Colombian Eduardo Mendieta, cities are “living structures” whose growth and decay escape rational planning. However, there seem to be vulnerable zones where you can hit a city in such a way that later it is “dead”, its awakening seems artificial, you have to build a kind of second city around the dead one. The Urbicides are also historicizing machines, in a war of conquest they prepare the colonization of collective memory at the point where the next power will establish itself. However, the people who take the murdered city to another place and let it resurrect manage to escape the urban killer. So it could be that one breaks free from their grasp and they from the grasp of their destroyers. Classical and modern Greek literature represents it. It is said that 10,000 Greeks lived in Mariupol.

The Sarajevo example

A city whose destiny is considered exemplary for “Urbicide” is Sarajevo. Once again, this is a multi-ethnic city where Serbs and especially Muslim Slavs lived together. In Europe Sarajevo has become the epitome of the twentieth century, which began here with the beginning of the First World War – which broke out after the fatal blow to the heir to the Austrian throne – and whose end was announced with the renationalization of the Yugoslav republics. The mobilized categories of nation-state, spheres of influence and geopolitics make it clear that, despite all integration efforts, the most effective global forces are fragmented, in short: that the 19th century is trying to assert itself with the weapons of the 21st.

The morning when the invasion of Ukraine began, I happened to be visiting the San Giovanni district, on the outskirts of Trieste. It has a certain notoriety due to a therapeutic village that has replaced psychiatric hospitals in Italy. Forty years ago, on the threshold of Western and Eastern Europe, a model of democratic participation and institutionalized empathy developed. This was symbolized by a disused horse being led through the city in procession. Today there is a kind of refuge in this therapeutic village, in the most innocent white and painfully bright red, on whose inner walls two poems speak – one by Abdulah Sidran, one by Marko Vešović – of which they speak and with Sarajevo. The installation recalls the traumatized refugees who were treated in San Giovanni, reminding us at the same time that it is important to use rituals to build small shelters when otherwise there is hardly any ground under your feet. A poem can be such a ritual.

You can wear it as a mask to, like Marko Vešović, look at your own helplessness from the outside: “But knowing who you are, if at all / is a victim’s privilege. Knowing how much you can / can bear without breaking / dying … / This experience is the sword that we do not draw / draw. I, at least, will hold my hand / by the hilt. “

The only question that remains is whether this self-awareness can end wars.

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