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From Rabad to Habitat Social: An Urban-Cultural History of the Suburbs of Fez

Abstract of paper to be presented by Said Ennahid, Al-Akhawayn University at the conference "Fez, Morocco, Crossroads of Knowledge and Power: Celebrating 1,200 Years of Urban Life"

Archaeologists and urban historians studying Islamic cities usually use socio-economic status as a criterion to divide their sites horizontally into “elite” and “non-elite” quarters or neighborhoods.  Social status is relatively easy to detect archaeologically by the presence (or lack thereof) of “luxury” and/or imported items (e.g., glazed wares, pieces of jewelry, coins, etc.), elaborate and labor-intensive building techniques, materials, and architectural decoration.  It is also fairly common to find a strong correlation between social status and the degree of proximity to the urban center, i.e., elite neighborhoods tend to be clustered in proximity to the center as opposed to non-elite quarters—and polluting industrial zones—which are usually relegated to the periphery.  Non-elite quarters are commonly referred to in Arabic medieval documentary and cartographic evidence as the “rabad” (ربض pl. arbad, ارباض).  The rabad designates a residential neighborhood located at the periphery of cities and occupied by the marginalized (e.g., the poor, rural migrants, former slaves, small artisans and merchants, the lepers, prostitutes, etc.), political contenders, and subversive groups (e.g., the uprising of the rabadi or rabad's population of Cordova in A.D. 818).  In this paper, I propose an urban-cultural history of the suburbs of the city of Fez—as the medieval non-elite neighborhood par excellence—from the 8th century to the present. 

The rabad was often blamed for all the ills of society.  In his Della Descrittione dell'Africa (completed in A.D. 1526), Leo Africanus used the harshest terms to describe the rabad of Fez stating that it was the "receptacle for all the filth of the city."  He listed five suburbs to the west of Fez of a total of 1370 cooking hearths or households, the equivalent of a population size of 6850 people.  Although very detailed on many respects, Leo Africanus' Della Descrittione dell'Africa does not provide any details on the rabad’s urban structure and topography.  For example, did the houses in the rabads have the same plan as houses in the inner city? What type of building materials were used in their construction?  How were the neighborhoods within the rabads organized? Was there a socio-economic or professional hierarchy in the rabad that could have mirrored the one found in the inner city?

Furthermore, I will link the proposed urban-cultural history of the suburbs of Fez to the newly launched (2004) state-championed program of social housing or “habitat social” in Morocco where whole new cities are being built at the periphery of existing ones.  This is arguably the most ambitious housing program in the last 50 years (since independence in 1956); the current rate of construction is at 100,000 housing units per year.  This paper will use selected social housing projects in Fez as a case study to provide a preliminary assessment of this program and its impact on the urban structure and demography of the city.  For example, 1) what are the theoretical-empirical models of reference and the architectural-urban repertoires used by a new generation of Moroccan architects in building new homes and new cities for the Moroccan family of the 21st century?  2) to what extent the new social housing projects, both as a state-championed housing program and as an urban-architectural model, break away or duplicate preceding programs and models from colonial and post-colonial periods?

Center for Near Eastern Studies