A roundabout way

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Uzma Z. Rizvi.]

In reading news about Gaza, Syria, and Iraq (among other places), I have been actively searching for spaces of humanity and hope in the world around me. Where is that space in which we trust other human beings, the people we do not know and may or may never intersect with again? I have been thinking about how we might design trust and co-operation into our urban fabric and the ways in which we traffic ourselves through our every day.

I am in Sharjah at the moment and there are a few things that one cannot escape mentioning about being in the UAE during summer: the sheer heat and traffic (arguably the latter is a year-long concern). Last week while in traffic, bemoaning world politics with the air conditioner blasting, I considered how we merged into a roundabout. This one very simple urban traffic structure forced all of us to be considerate of each other, watch and anticipate each others’ movements, and continue to move in a direction together with the ability to peel off when desired.

As a form of urban design, roundabouts have their own history, upon which is layered another, local, culturally specific history. Most roundabouts out there in the world, are considered to be modern roundabouts, that is “a one-way circular intersection without traffic signals in which traffic flows around a center island.” (definition from the US Institute of Transportation Engineers Briefs on Roundabouts and click here for a fun Flash timeline of Roundabouts). Roundabouts come from a very specific lineage and were not always ‘modern’ – in fact, the first circle, called the Circus, was designed in Bath, England in 1754 and was a pedestrian centric design. Today, it is a Grade 1 listed building with the city on the World Heritage List.

My introduction to the Circus at Bath came in 1985 at the British Council Library in Karachi. That summer (also one of sheer heat, traffic, and load shedding), for the love of air conditioning, I had decided to read every book in the Fiction section. I learned about the Circus in Bath while reading Georgette Heyer’s, Bath Tangle (1955). Against the backdrop of this ancient city of circular pedestrian walk ways, healing airs and amazing waters, the Regency Chick-Lit provided some serious discussion of class, gender, and society.

The Circus at Bath sets up a certain form of heritage for later roundabouts. These are spaces where there is a history of publics, and these publics seem to acquire distinct shapes. Although I am trained to think of a public sphere, when imagining a public space, I think of squares. Interestingly enough, roundabouts, in many Gulf contexts are also signed as squares. For example the sign for Kuwaiti Maidan in Sharjah also says Kuwait Square and in colloquial speech, called Kuwaiti roundabout. The use of square is a holdover place-name from when these areas (pre-roundabout, c. 1950s) were much larger squares or a maidan/maydan, a word with roots in Arabic, Persian and Urdu/Hindi (not surprising given the history of the region and it’s inhabitants).

According to Dr. Bassem Younes, the 1950s and 60s saw the construction of many roundabouts in the UAE as spaces to organize traffic, as well as for sculpture and flowerbeds, with Sharjah having arguably some of the largest roundabouts in the world. The 1950s were a time of civic development in Sharjah, although much of this happened with the aid of the government of Kuwait who provided the means to build schools, hospitals and various social institutions. In fact, the Kuwaiti roundabout was constructed in the mid-1980s, built in recognition of Kuwait’s contribution to the development of Sharjah.

There is something about roundabouts/maidans that may, despite what urban planners design, provide a space for dissent through co-operation. One only has to look to the protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, or to the after effects of pro-democracy rally held at the Pearl roundabout in Bahrain to recognize that these every day, vernacular spaces where co-operation may become powerful, are the ones that military aspire to control through force or design. This is true about cities in which there is escalating domestic civic violence such as at  chowrangi (Urdu word akin to roundabout) checkpoints in Karachi, or ad-hoc military stations created on roundabouts in the residential suburbs of Aleppo. The roundabouts, once activated as public spaces of potential co-operation move into spaces of control and violence and are no longer really about driving around, but rather, standing and claiming a place.

It continues to be very hot here in Sharjah. I drove around some roundabouts today and noticed that when it is ridiculously hot outside, people drive in rapid short spurts. This leads to some driver confusion in the usual co-operative strategy of driving around at a constant speed, yielding into and out of traffic.  As I drove around the large and lush green circle with the double masted Dhow surrounded by a small fountain and a Kuwaiti landscape, I thought even amid some driver confusion, starts and stops – there was some sense that we were all in it together. And given what was happening at so many other roundabouts in the world, quite lucky.

Kuwaiti Roundabout, Sharjah UAE August 1st, 2014 Photo by Uzma Z. Rizvi

UPDATE: You will be connected to a link when you click on the highlighted text.

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Center, American University of Sharjah.

8 thoughts on “A roundabout way

  1. Thank you, A.J. West. I’ll add that into my analysis. If you click on the highlighted word in the blog text, you’ll see that I was citing dictionary.com and they pulled the information from Random House. Good to have the root though – comment much appreciated. Cheers.

  2. A lot of intersections are being replaced with roundabouts here in upstate NY, and I love them. I love how they make everyone more conscious and responsible, and at the same time, move us all along faster. I also like how forgiving they are of mistakes — you always have another chance to go around again and do over! Lots of nice symmetry with democratic movements. Nice piece, Uzma!

  3. Thank you all for the comments and positive feedback. I really enjoyed writing and researching this piece. I think my favorite part researching roundabouts was finding out about the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society: that made me quite happy. Cheers.

  4. Lovely piece, Uzma. I just have this nagging feeling that there is an extension of the metaphor in the different rules about using roundabouts. In particular the Brits seem to have a spiral approach to them (which I find quite helpful) whereas other countries have lanes around them that are concentric on the roundabout. The lesson is that there are different types of cooperation and both examples get people to the other side safely. Driving the tank straight over the top tends to cause inconvenience to others.

  5. Yes, Iain – I agree. I actually felt like there was much more to say by extending the metaphor as well. I thought I might leave it up to the readers to extend it in their own ways – at least for this blog post. Once this piece moves into an article, I might think through some of the metaphors for specific arguments that I’ve been formulating. I’m glad it got the wheels turning – ha, pun intended! Glad you enjoyed the post! Cheers, Uzma

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