Nancy Um


On her book The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port

Cover Interview of November 19, 2009

A close-up

This book intervenes in one of the long-standing issues in Middle Eastern studies regarding the shape and analysis of the Arab city. Urban scholars agree that the conception of the Arab city as a uniform and distinct spatial type with consistent features is inherently flawed, over-essentialized, and drawn from limited examples—the product of the limitations of early Orientalist scholarship.

The Merchant Houses of Mocha was written with the understanding that the Arab city is an evolving concept that must be understood through a diversity of cases and with a focus on the historic and regional specificity of each example. But the goal, particularly in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, was not just to present a counter model to long-standing ideas of a uniform and standard Arab city, but also to provide new avenues to analyze the shaping impulses behind the construction, use, and meaning of urban form in Arab and Islamic cities.

As a key port city on the southern fringe of the Arab world, in communication with the Indian Ocean, Mocha presents an important set of spatial and architectural principles that contribute to our understanding of historic urbanism in the Middle East. It should be added that these regions, the Indian Ocean littoral and the Arabian Peninsula, are often excluded from the scholarship on urbanism in the Arab and Islamic world, which usually focuses on key well-known examples from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

My treatment of Mocha looks to the ways in which this city was shaped over time to accommodate the practices of the trade, which included the everyday exchange of goods, but also the social activities of merchants and the representation of status and creditworthiness as necessary attributes for merchants who worked in foreign lands. To that end, the city was laid out in a diagrammatic manner, which was read differently by those who arrived from land and by sea.

Surprisingly, Mocha lacked traditional public structures of trade, caravanserais and funduqs. Houses, which are often cast as the protected private domain of the family, became sites for trade transactions for major merchants. Additionally, while the city was divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Somali and Jewish communities settled in quarters outside of the city wall, Baniyan merchants were exempt from spatial segregation because of their centrality in the trade.

While Mocha should not be taken as a paradigmatic example of an Arab city, a port city, or an Indian Ocean city, it does present a fascinating case of how the processes of trade shape city form and intersect with the politics of urban functionality in coastal regions.