In the new Portal 9, the first Arabic-English journal about the city, the founder of Abu Dhabi’s urban planning department talks with editor Todd Reisz about planning crowded Cairo, working with Sheikh Zayed and practicing in mid-century Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Todd Reisz: It seems planning has failed in Cairo. No one even knows how many people live in Cairo because demographics are not reliable. How do we plan, then, when it’s impossible to plan?
Abdulrahman Makhlouf: There is no impossibility.
TR: Can Cairo be planned?
AM: Yes, Cairo can be planned. It happens partly on paper: the principles and basic elements. We first have to know the problems. Then, we can find the solutions in between. But the means of doing it is another matter. For example, one solution was to promote birth control. But is that really a solution? No. Because birth rates go down on their own when people are more educated. People who go to school learn how to think. They think about having a family. They have a plan.
TR: So in the end, modernization leads to a sustainable urbanization?
AM: This word “sustainability.” I say this is the most cheating word. What does it mean? It means “no change” at a time cities need to be able to change. Through change is how we take care of our cities.
I heard this word already in 1976, when I was in the US. I was visiting universities, companies, etc. I discovered they were using this word to avoid saying “planning.” Planning is what we need.
Sustainability is like a dance. The word is a fallacy. Nobody is buying it except for rulers. They are saying “we are making things sustainable.” I say sustainability is only for God. We can go at anytime. Does anyone know when he is going to die? There are two things we do not know: what we will earn tomorrow and where we will die. Plan for whatever you plan. But nobody can know what will happen.
TR: Islam seems to have a significant role in your life. What kind of role do you define for Islam in urban planning?
AM: Islam gives us the rules of living. There are two Hadiths concerning the neighbor that come to mind. The first one, on the authority of Aisha, is when the Prophet says one should treat a neighbor as a family member. The second Hadith, according to Abu Hurairah, tells that in addition to having good feelings about the neighbor, you should not do anything that annoys him or disturbs him in his own house. He who violates this does not have the merciful God in him.
As town planners, we are trying to provide everyone with what he wants within the given means. We are making the plan to make the city a place of living among neighbors.
TR: If one part of your planning education comes from a religious or moral education and another part from the planning ideas you studied in Munich, can you tell me then how you brought the two parts together?
AM: When I was studying in Europe, I never thought that we would simply copy these ideas in Egypt. We belong to a civilization that we cannot ignore. We have to understand Western planning concepts and see what is good in them. But we should also know what we should not take from them.
Read the full interview, “Plans the Earth Swallows: An Interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf,” on portal9journal.org.
This interview was first published in Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City by Solidere Management Services s.a.l. All rights reserved.
Image via Ziyah Gafic