AbdouMaliq Simone is an important urbanist whose research surfaces overlooked narratives and makes apparent what he once described as “the sheer volatility of urban life”. He speaks with Achille Mbembe.
On a recent visit to Johannesburg, urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone spoke with philosopher Achille Mbembe about his peripatetic early life, his formative investigations into urbanism in Khartoum, the influence of Islamic thought on his academic output, also living and working in South Africa at a time when Senegal was confused for a town near Bloemfontein.
AM: Some of the meta-theoretical narratives that dominated the 1970s, 80s and 90s today seem to have dissipated. There is, one feels, a kind of emptiness in terms of powerful ideas that could renew our understanding of the city form in a variety of places, not only in the north, but also in what we’ll call the south. It seems to me that your work, the work you have been developing over the last three decades, represents a voice that is, as far as I’m concerned, extremely original and needs to be heard. So I thought that maybe what we could do is to create a space in which you yourself open doors of your work, and take us by the hands and show us whatever you want to show us from the interior of that home. I would like to start with the Khartoum period. How did you end up there? What led you to produce that book on political Islam and the city in Sudan?
AMS: Like many things, these kinds of engagements were largely accidental and fortuitous. I was in a critical period of my own political work, in relationship to various strands of Islamic activism, and part of that was a kind of participation in a project at the time on Islamisizing the human and social sciences. I half took it seriously and half with a lot of scepticism, so I thought that at best if I was going to continue in that vein to try take some time away from being a psychology professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, to do something different.
At this time the International Institute for Islamic Thought asked me if I wanted to go to Khartoum. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know Khartoum, and my Arabic is really bad.’ ‘Don’t matter,’ they said, ‘would you like to?’ I discussed it with my kids, step kids and my wife at the time—and off we went. The thing is that I didn’t know quite really what they had in mind. I was appointed as visiting associate professor of psychology at the University of Khartoum. It was basically an Islamic Brotherhood department in a very politically contentious university. The salary was $80 a month, which they offered to top off. To this day I never could understand exactly what it is that they expected of me.
To some extent I think maybe they wanted some kind of American Muslim academic to be there as a showcase, but in my almost three years there the university was rarely open. It was around the time of the 1989 coup where Hassan al-Turabi [a Sudenese religious and Islamist political leader] and a lot of different forces were jockeying for power. The university was closed down most of the time. So what does a boy do, you know?
Spirituality is a way to move with others in ways which are not so always accountable or explicable.
In cities there are always different kinds of actors—collective, institutional, associational—looking to use the city as a way in which to do something. There happened to be a theatre school, part of the university; it was the only thing that wasn’t balkanised. They knew that they were the one remnant of a kind of institutional form in Khartoum where there were communists, southerners, westerners, where there were all kinds of political tendencies and people from different kinds of backgrounds. Login to read full article