Mud, concrete and obsolete comparisons

March 8 2010

1964, first half, and harking back to an ancient world view:

[In] Old Massawah [in Eritrea] […] one is in the Oceanic world of Zanzibar and Maskat and Bahrain and Singapore.

1964, first half, and equally strange now:

The city that Kano recalled to my mind was Riyadh, the capital of Sa’udi Arabia […].

In 1964, Riyadh did not look much more developed than Kano, northern Nigeria. Twenty years earlier, Kano must have had the edge.

Riyadh changed, Kano did not, or not as much. Much of Kano has become concrete recently. I haven’t been there. But old Kano has and probably has always had the edge in architecture. The mud buildings, domestic and religious, are close in style to the buildings of Niger and Mali.

There are now almost no clay or mud-brick buildings in Riyadh, though Masmak fortress stands. There were a few more when I first went there in 1984.

It is relatively difficult to make ugly buildings with mud and relatively difficult to make beautiful buildings with concrete.

Concrete replaced mud as Riyadh grew from settlement to metropolis, but it remained a low-rise city. There are only two high buildings, even now. One is the pointed Al Faisaliyah Center, which you can see on the left of the picture below. The other is the awe-inspiring and rather chilling Kingdom Tower, whose 66th floor (there are 99) is the private domain of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

I am the only person I know who prefers Riyadh to Jeddah, and I would choose it as the place to live if I had to live in Saudi Arabia.

October 1929, en route to Japan:

Bombay is one of the great cities of the modern world – the only really first-rate modern city which I have yet encountered on this journey since I left Vienna […].

Newsreels and Imperial propaganda presented Bombay in this way, as a great, modern trading metropolis. What Toynbee and his contemporaries were seeing was a Victorian city with a big railway station and drains, and electric light and broad streets, and a port where big ships arrived. Therefore it was modern.

A few days earlier:

As I landed at Karachi I admired those docks where a ship could do its business alongside the quay without the plague of boats and lighters which beset the same ship when it calls at Muhammarah or Bushire. As I drove through the streets of Karachi I admired the solidity of the buildings: shipping offices and banks and business houses.

In February 1957 he is still sufficiently dazzled by the modernity of Bombay to think of it as a city apart from the real India:

Much of the World’s business is transacted [in Bombay]; but you might as well be in Liverpool or in New York.

The parallel with England and the US no longer works because the colonial scales have fallen from our eyes, because Victorian cities no longer seem modern anyway, and because Bombay, like most cities formerly in European empires, has lost most of its colonial neatness.

I have never thought of New York as at all “modern”, but as a nineteenth-/early twentieth-century encampment. It has changed less than London in the past twenty years, so it seems even more old-fashioned now than it used to.

Kano from Dala Hill, africawithin.com

Riyadh from the air, source lost

Hausa house in Kano, africawithin.com

Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965 (first two quotations)

A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

3 Responses to “Mud, concrete and obsolete comparisons”

  1. richard Says:

    harking back to an ancient world view

    … is this because of the “Oceanic” perspective? I note that this has been quite fashionable in History circles over the past decade: there’s been a rediscovery of the Indian Ocean as an (equally troubled) alternative to some other area studies rubrics.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Yes. A sort of mariners’ view. Is the point about NYC pretentious? Writing in a hurry, so who knows.


  3. […] societies was a subtler process than he acknowledges. He rarely examines its nuances. He had a rather superficial conception of what constituted […]


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