Media @ McGill

Ali Karimi: The Pursuit of Urban Modernity: Kabul City, 1870-2006

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In a broad sense, my doctoral project is centred on the question of urban modernity. It explores Afghanistan's quest for modernity through the study of its representations in the city of Kabul. I examine architecture and the built environment, as well as the literary and visual constructions of urban space, in order to understand the nature of modern experience in Kabul city since the 19th century. Within the theoretical tradition of "City as Text", I discuss the ways in which modernity has been imagined, produced and represented in the city's architecture, art and other cultural texts over the past 150 years. The main body of the evidences for this project is drawn from the urban space, which I employ as a medium of communication which mediates meanings and messages about the inhabitants/producers of the city and their shared experiences.  

Although Afghanistan's initial encounter with European modernity occurred when the British Army invaded the country in 1839, it was three decades later in 1870 that the economic and cultural influences of modernity began to emerge in Kabul. In that year, Amir Shir Ali Khan (1868-1879) the Afghan king, initiated a series of modernisation efforts which included the publication of a newspaper, the establishing of a modern factory, and most importantly, the planning of a new city in the north side of the old Kabul. In 1878, the British invaded the country for the second time, and all his modernist projects remained unfinished. After Shir Ali Khan, Afghanistan's quest for modernity continued, though, with constant confrontation with different forces of opposition who resisted social change. The various versions of modernisation efforts that the Afghan ruling regimes exercised throughout the 20th century, almost all ended in failure, nevertheless, managed to produce district forms of urban spaces, cultural texts and social transformations in the city. The last major attempt in urban modernisation in Kabul took place in 2006, when the Afghan government initiated the ambitious planning of a $50bn new city from the  scratch in the northern plains of the capital. The feasibility of this project, widely seen as a desperate utopian enterprise, is considered doubtful by both the public and the planners.

My research, by providing a discussion on the spatial and cultural aspects of urban modernity in Kabul, intends to refine our understanding of modernisation and urbanisation processes in the city and address the question of why the project of modernising Kabul, after more than a century of various efforts, is still an unfinished business. Understanding the failures of urban modernisation in Kabul will also help us understand the failure of the larger modernisation project in Afghanistan, and to some extent, put into perspective the ongoing conflict in the country.