Planning and Protest, Or, Freedom is Not Square

Last Friday in Egypt, Tahrir Square played host to violent clashes between protesters and military forces. An image quite distinct from the ones we watched a little over two months ago, when Egyptians stood alongside military forces – often protected by them – demanding an end to autocratic rule; when Hosni Mubarak stepped down from his 30-year post as Egypt’s president; when Egyptians raised a new statue in Tahrir Square, in honor and remembrance of the 300 civilian lives that were lost over the period of protest. For many observers, it felt as though one was watching a public square grow into its name (Tahrir literally translates to Liberation), because we were literally watching Egyptians fight for their freedom at freedom square.

Interestingly, a February interview in Dwell Magazine with Nezar AlSayyad from UC Berkeley (planning, architecture, urban history) pointed to the fact that Tahrir Square is not square at all, and that, in fact, from an urban design perspective, its lack of square-ness lent itself well to its success as a place of protest (and by the way, if you missed the NYTimes interactive graphic that illustrated how the space was used by protesters, you can still check it out here).  In the same interview Professor AlSayyad discusses how Tahrir Square received its name in 1955 to celebrate Egypt’s liberation from the British and from the monarchy of King Farouk (British left in the 20s, while the monarchical system remained to the ‘50s… I haven’t searched for its pre-1955 name, but assume it’s something that honors the monarchy).  In Professor AlSayyad’s opinion, however, Tahrir Square did not “earn” it’s name until Jan. 25, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down.  But, that almost implies that freedom has a singular scale of political meaning.  Could it not be the case that liberation from British influence had just as significant a meaning to the country in 1955, as liberation from some other form of oppression in 2011? Friday’s recent violence certainly points to a more complex reality, in that it’s still unclear what (and from whom) liberation truly means for the country and its people. Across the region, in Tehran, a square with a similar name — Azadi (or, Freedom) Square — points to some of this complexity as well.

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Azadi Square was Shahyad Square, or, Remembrance of the Kings Square.  The place “earned” its new name through its role as a significant gathering place for protesters throughout the movement that eventually overthrew the Shah of Iran. Since the Shah’s government, army, and secret police had been massively funded by the US government after the UK and US-lead 1953 coup d’etat (which overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister, who, not-coincidentally, was responsible for nationalizing Iran’s oil companies), the revolution was widely recognized as a movement that “freed” the country from foreign control.  Azadi Square would be only one of many public places throughout the city that experienced a re-identification after the revolution.

While I have yet to come across a comprehensive documentation of the re-named streets and squares, in her Memoir, Journey from the Land of No, Roya Hakakian documented the many name-changes in just the small area around her childhood home. Palace Square became Palestine Squ

are; Elizabeth Boulevard becameFarmers Boulevard; Kennedy Square became Square of the Pious, and Pahlavi Ave (Pahlavi being the monarchy’s family name) became Messiah Ave.  It’s not surprising that the names of places with a direct link to the Shah or American and British influence in Iran would be “wiped off the map” or reclaimed by a new government, but even a place like Persepolis Street – literally translated to “The City of Persians,” which calls of Iran’s pre-Islamic past — was changed to Ayatollah Talegani Ave.  Combine this widespread move to rename public places with the creation of massive government-commissioned murals throughout the city — also commemorating fallen soldiers, ayatollahs, and celebrating disdain for all things American or British — and you can see that the country’s new political identity – or at least the political identity pushed by new leaders — was literally painted and printed across the capital city.

Jump forward 30-some years to the present day, and there’s something eerie about this physical imprint.  While the 1979 revolution “freed” the country from its American and British control, it has struggled to modernize in a way to keep the growing and increasingly educated youth populations employed and satisfied.  Murals of martyrs and ayatollahs still amass large buildings, but their colors are faded. Newer murals, with richer colors, are more abstract, often portraying a romanticized landscape – almost reflecting a need to escape the realities of a suffocated economy.  And while the streets have maintained their post-revolutionary names, in many places throughout the city people still refer to certain streets and squares by their pre-revolution one (I learned this the hard way two summers ago when I continually got lost, unable to find the streets people told me to meet them at).  As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a clear political purpose to the practice of calling a place by its pre-revolutionary name – it’s not necessarily a political gesture – but it suggests a certain duality that is still fascinating to consider, particularly for a country with what seems to be a never-ending struggle to define its identity, both internally (be it around geography, linguistics, politics, or religion) and externally (the world knows much about what and who the government stands against, but little about what it strives to achieve).

This duality was completely exposed (rather, debunked!) in the summer of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets and squares that had been given their names some 30-years back by a government that prides itself for freeing the county from foreign control, but has since failed to provide the kinds of personal and economic freedoms most humans desire. So it is appropriate, though with a bit of irony, that people — collectively known as the “green movement” — gathered at the oval-shaped Azadi Square — to fight for the kinds of freedoms that have become meaningful to their lives in the 21st century.

I often wonder whether Tehran would undergo another re-identification of its streets and public places if the kinds of political change the Green Movement pushes for were to be eventually realized. But then I remember that the individuals who were immortalized through street signs and other public spaces after the revolution were, mostly, disturbingly young men who volunteered with the Basij to run in front lines to protect soldiers during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war that immediately followed the revolution.  This undoubtedly noble role is quite distinct from the Basij who today ride on motor-back striking their own people during protests (so, on what time-scale would a re-identification even be considered?).

Which brings me back to last Friday in Egypt, where military forces and civilian protesters, who 10 weeks back stood collectively in favor of freedom from autocracy, clashed over the unknown, impending direction of their country. Whether or not Tahrir Square or Azadi Square “earn” their names in their respective regional contexts in the 21st century is still unclear; but that also may not be as important a question as whether a collective vision of what freedom means in a given place and time is formed, and whether the meeting places (be they virtual or physical) for building and sustaining the collective action to achieve that vision are actually accessible and accessed.

In Tahrir Square the protesters effectively found their routes to a meeting place where they voiced a vision, barricaded out dissent of that vision in the short-term, and held their ground long enough to bring Mobarak down.  But while the design of Tahrir Square contributed to a lasting physical presence of the protesters, in the summer of 2009 it was in many instances the design and recently opened BRT lanes in Tehran – intended to help alleviate commuter traffic and its impact on air quality — that enabled police and the basij to swiftly move through the city to crack down on protesters before enough critical mass could often gather.  Perhaps the road in Tehran to keep a close eye on is that which connects Azadi Square in the eastern part of the city, to Revolution Square (Engelab Square) in the west; that street, of course, is called Freedom Road.  One can’t help but wonder whether planners meant to imply that Revolution leads to Freedom, or, Freedom to Revolution.