The new Iraq invasion: tacky, boring design
Having escaped the plastic camels and plasterboard Islamic arches of the Gulf’s mostly soulless hotels and malls, my heart sank when I saw plans for “new Najaf”, to be built next to the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
Here in a computer generated mock-up were the glitzy but anonymous tower-blocks that have mushroomed all over the Gulf, the sterile malls and boxy hotels that I thought I had left behind after two years of living there.
Yes, after visiting Najaf for the first time last week, it could be said the run down old city needs a revamp.
But its narrow lanes and vibrant souks, all encircling a golden-domed shrine, have charm and character.
Najaf is of huge importance to the world’s Shi’ites, and millions flock to the shrine of the Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Imam Ali, around which the city is built, every year.
But Iraq, like the Gulf states, is reaping the benefit of soaring oil prices, and a dramatic fall in violence in recent months is enticing developers into the country.
Their designs for the region, in my opinion, seem to represent the worst of Western urban planning, and reflect none of the Arab and Islamic design I had grown to love in the region’s old monuments and works of art.
As a youngster in east London, my mother would frequently take me to museums to see Islamic ceramics and other crafts, and pre-Islamic art and statues of the Middle East.
The trips were an antidote to a daily television diet of Iraq in ruins, of Palestinians sitting outside the rubble of their demolished homes.
Things of beauty come from the Middle East too.
Finely painted plates, mesmerising geometrically patterned tiles, swirling and intricate calligraphy. I saw the expertly carved reliefs of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, and the stylised and commanding statues of ancient Egypt.
Shiny and tacky is how I would describe the current stylistic direction of much of the Middle East.
Television footage of dignitaries visiting the region invariably shows them sitting in gold-coloured chairs, more than likely festooned with cherubs, birds and bunches of grapes, an over-wrought baroque style popular in the Arab world.
The plans for new Najaf were in the office of a senior provincial official with a key role in reconstruction.
His office furniture included a table supported by four glass camels, their hooves dyed yellow and their eyes dyed pink. A smaller table was supported by a glass dolphin.
In Dubai, where an indoor ski-slope juts out of its flagship mall, real estate developments include artificial islands made to look like a palm tree and a map of the globe.
News reports have said a building in the shape of a man in traditional Gulf Arab dress is also planned.
Such design is a far cry from the minarets of old Cairo, the tiled courtyards of Damascene villas and the Islamic-influenced Taj Mahal and Red Fort of Moghul India.
Clearly, such architecture may not be suitable for modern urban planning in the Middle East, and slavish imitation of the past could also tacky.
But Cairo’s Al-Azhar park, an Islamic-inspired garden of fountains and water channels opened in 2005 on the site of former rubbish dump, has been hugely popular. It shows there is a place for Islamic and Arab influence in modern developments.
Hopefully, that will not be restricted to the usual Arab-themed section of a typical Gulf mall.