Why ‘Now’ is an Important Moment in History: Coronavirus and the Refigured Mobility of the World

Town Planning Review (University of Liverpool Press) | Issue 92.1

This paper was selected by the editors of the Town Planning Review as a featured article in a special issue on Coronavirus 92.1.

The paper addresses the impact of mobility – as a force, a structure and a mechanism, for connecting and distancing people at the same time. This structure was only visible – thanks to COVID, once we were all forced to stay at home and the usual bustling life outside was stopped, especially trams, buses, aeroplanes, cars, and trains. It was almost as if the veins that drive the formation of our world suddenly appeared. And beneath that, was a multiplicity of layers and territories that can be measured according to their degrees of connectedness and isolation from these routes of mobility. These I call in this paper, for the sake of contrasting and provoking: the “overly connected” and the “overly isolated” worlds.

We often think about mobility in terms of technicality, as an innovation and sometimes a source of pride; we marvel at human cleverness and our ability to challenge the forces of nature. Suddenly we were able to fly on earth – a dream that humans dreamt about for years, to cross vast distances in a few seconds, to surpass our natural abilities to be mobile using our feet. The invention and development of mobility networks and techniques was something to be celebrated. It enabled Phoenicians and Romans to roam the Mediterranean in the past and allows us to cross continent today using trains and aeroplanes. Yet, it is often forgotten how our success to defy these natural conditions of the Earth produced asymmetrical and unequal realities. The excessive development of mobility networks did not make our world a “small village” but instead divided it apart into two worlds – an “overly connected” and “overly isolated”, and all that lies in between.

To juxtapose these two worlds with one another, I use my own personal trajectory. In an almost auto-ethnographic manner, I portray a set of events and memories where my knowledge about the “overly isolated” – where I originally come from, caused friction or contact with the “overly connected” world. Travelling from Syria to Germany, and even looking back at how my Palestinian family was dispersed across the region in separate territories, sometimes unable to meet although being geographically very close, was a drive behind writing this article.

Borders, check points, passports, we all know how the world is being structured and how the regimes of mobility and border crossing work. Yet, what I often found fascinating is how these borders are always disappearing in the “overly connected” world, making connectedness, transition and exchange easier, and how these borders, walls, regulations and detachments are increasing in the “overly isolated” world. This applies very much to the Arab region – a region that has always celebrated a one unifying “identity” while its population really know very little about each other as they have become detached and separated from one another. With the inability to move, to travel and to be mobile, people rely on TV and Media networks to see and learn about others. Actual physical contact is decreased in the “overly isolated” world. It is left for the imagination to construct.

The increasing gap between the two worlds is best shown and expressed through encounters. Refugee-refugee encounters, refugee-citizen encounters, tourist-refugee encounters, tourist-tourist encounters, refugee-migrant encounters, citizen-citizen encounters, and so on. The power of encounter is its ability to reveal how distanced the two worlds have become from each other. It reveals the absurdity, awkwardness, and shame, of our illiteracy about the “other”. Moments of encounters capture the essence of this world’s “re-figuration”. In these moments of encounters, two human beings are confronted with the conditioning of their worlds – their culture, social codes, knowledge(s), materiality, spaces, and etiquette. In other words, encounters are moments of collision, of collapse, of re-construction, of creativity, of the possible, and of what these two worlds are and what they can be.

Dwelling is also a powerful notion that contrasts, and brings forward, our understanding of mobility and how it influenced our world. Indeed, all of us are in one way or another on the move, and have the need to dwell. One could even think about translocal dwelling practices, or even nomads that have to change locations and maintain their homes as they travel. Yet, what I am trying to refer to here in this paper is actually two contrasted, almost Janus-faced, forces that pull us apart: the need to dwell and the need to be mobile. The modern structuring of our world seems to have prioritised mobility over dwelling. We need to be always ready to leave, to change location, to readjust and to travel when needed. Some new “refugee” designs are tents that allow them to be folded down to luggage for use while fleeing, and when it is time to settle, erected again.

The world is structured around these multiple displacements. But what is often forgotten is that there is a “hidden”, almost “forgotten” importance to dwelling. Dwelling is a force that can fix us in place and bring us all back to our intimate space before we started wandering aimlessly around the world. It reminds us of our basic task on this earth, which is to be, and to embrace the isness of the present. Mobility, when excessively used, is a distraction from that. It works almost as if it holds the promise that our future lies somewhere else, somewhere there, and not here and now. Dwelling, on the opposite, is an anchor. It brings us back to a settled point, in a world full of distractions. We have learned a lot about how to travel and be mobile, but did we learn enough about how to dwell?

Finally, I should say that this paper has benefited greatly from the stimulating and eye-opening discussions that have been taking place at the Collaborative Research Centre “Re-Figuration of Space” (SFB1265) at TU Berlin, for the last couple of years. The notion of “re-figuration” used in this paper, emerging from the field of urban sociology and developed further by Martina Löw and Hubert Knoblauch, encouraged me to observe the “global” dimension of mobility and circulation, and their impact on space as a social and relational construct. And while an earlier draft of this paper was published in the centre’s Corona Blog, I should thank Fabian Gülzau, Julia Fülling, Nina Elsemann, and Martina Löw for their encouraging comments and feedback; and of course, to thank the editors of the Town Planning Review for selecting this piece to be featured. Hopefully this will give a wider platform for the message to get across.

Town Planning Review (University of Liverpool Press)