“Order” in Chaos? Some Lessons from Zabadani

By Nazia Hussain.

The Syrian conflict that has been raging since the past three years has generated debate in the international community for many reasons. However, one story that sheds some light on the emergence of an order of sorts while chaos surrounds the cities in Syria is that of the city of Zabadani. In Zabadani, the rebels have been reported to ‘have established a city council, a prison and court system, a financial office and even a Facebook page. And their efforts are not unusual: Locally operating rebel governments are springing up across the country’.

Zabadani city council has a budget and a Facebook profile where it registers the money, most of which comes from Syrians in exile. The city's bookkeeper is responsible for the most important task of the council: the financial administration and the humanitarian aid for residents and refugees in nearby villages. Every family gets 3,000 lira, about €20, every one to two months. "It's not much," he says, "but they should know that we're there." Spiegel Online

Zabadani city council has a budget and a Facebook profile where it registers the money, most of which comes from Syrians in exile. The city’s bookkeeper is responsible for the most important task of the council: the financial administration and the humanitarian aid for residents and refugees in nearby villages. Every family gets 3,000 lira, about €20, every one to two months. “It’s not much,” he says, “but they should know that we’re there.” Spiegel Online

It was fascinating to discover that amidst the extremely violent chaos that has engulfed Syria since the past three years, an order of sorts has emerged in Zabadani. This order is sophisticated; it comprises of a 15-person city council with (elected) 150 middlemen responsible for organization of food deliveries, humanitarian aid for residents and refugees, municipal institutions like an underground hospital, law enforcement and courts, and even the disposal of rubble. It is also not the only town that is witnessing such a phenomenon; there are Zabadanis springing across the breadth of Syria.

The story is important on many levels for those of us studying urban narratives. Though it might be tempting to brush it aside as a survival mechanism of those who are caught in a war, one can also view it as a simulation of urban violence that rages in various cities of the world. For instance, the drug war that has been raging in Latin American cities is also a type of war. The daily violence that engulfs Karachi, Pakistan, could also be deemed as a kind of war that pushes citizens to resort to various survival tactics. Thus, if one were to set aside the lens of viewing Zabadani only in terms of a civil war, one might see parallels and sub-themes that resonate in other aspects of urban narratives in different parts of the world.

For one, it is emblematic of the struggle to reclaim space, something along the lines of what Andy Merrifield notes in other cities (not necessarily those in a warzone). In his article, ‘Citizens’ Agora: the New Urban Question’, he expands on these words of Rousseau, ‘Houses make a town, but citizens make a city’. He explores at length how the questions of rights for citizens involve struggle: what has been taken away must be reclaimed. He notes,

‘So rights, including the right to the city, have no catch-all universal meaning in politics, nor any foundational basis in institutions; neither are they responsive to any moral or legal argument. Questions of rights are, first and foremost, questions of social power, about who wins. The struggle for rights isn’t something ‘recognized’ by some higher, neutral arbiter; instead, for those people who have no rights, rights to the cité must be taken; they involve struggle and force. What has been taken must be reclaimed through practical action, through organized militancy, through urban insurrection.’

For another, the story of Zabadani reminds of the phenomenon of how state services are being provided by actors other than the state. For instance, security of life and assets is provided by informal militias in Rio de Janeiro (Gay 2009), drinking water is sold to residents by non-state actors in Karachi, and rich and poor alike attempt to provide their own water supply, power generation and security services in Lagos (Gandy 2006). Jaffe (2012) reports that criminal organizations are engaged in informal provision of material services such as welfare, employment, security and justice to inner city residents in Kingston, Jamaica. Simone (2001) in his work on African cities observes that city governance processes are becoming increasingly informalized.

Can we find one common theme in all these narratives or is it more useful to keep studying these strands that show up here and there and everywhere in different forms and colors? Perhaps there are no easy answers. However, one aspect that has been highlighted by Zabadani’s makeshift governance is that an order emerges even in the presence of dizzying chaos. If order can be established in complete absence of state functionality, one can argue that an order can emerge in cities that are not in the clasp of extreme situations such as a civil war, but which are experiencing violence nonetheless, and where the government is ceding control to non-state actors and criminal groups.

Endnotes:
Matthew Gandy, “Planning, anti-planning and the infrastructure crisis facing metropolitan Lagos,” Urban Studies , 43:2 (2006): 371-396.
Robert Gay, “From popular movements to drug gangs to militias: an anatomy of violence in Rio de Janeiro,” in K. Koonings, & D. Kruijt, ed. Megacities: the politics of urban exclusion and violence in the developing countries (London and New York: Zed Books, 2009), pp. 29-51.
Rivke Jaffe, “Criminal Dons and Extralegal Security Privatization in Downtown Kingston, Jamaica.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 33 (2012): 184-197.
Andy Merrifield, “Citizens’ Agora: the New Urban Question,” Radical Philosophy 179 (May/June 2013).
Abdoumaliq Simone, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads (New York and London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010).