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For Your Consideration:
What is a medina?
This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this? Would you live in one? Explain your answers.
Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water. Why is this better than your current neighborhood?
A medina (from the Arabic: المدينة القديمة meaning “old city”) is an area found in many North African cities, including those in Morocco. A medina is comprised of a densely-packed collection of buildings, typically walled off from the outside world. It is usually accessible only by pedestrians through a handful of gates. Because the winding streets of a medina are rarely wider than the hallway in your school, they are generally off-limits to modern automobile traffic.
Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical public works – features important to the whole community – such as fountains for drinking water, schools, markets, shops, public squares, mosques, and churches. Traditionally, the medina was the city, and its residents rarely needed to leave its confines.
Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most modern medinas look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years past.
The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand. In part because of the difficulty of moving bulky items without a motor vehicle, most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow, but rarely more. Furniture, modern appliances, and large construction supplies are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, then lowered down into a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house.
Across North Africa and the Middle East, millions of people live this way in the modern day. It’s tempting for an American to view this life as old-fashioned, but that would be an ethnocentric point of view. That is, it would be evaluating other peoples and cultures according to the standards of one’s own culture. This can be a very limiting way to understand the world, because it often leads us to judge other societies unfairly. On the other hand, members of different societies might learn valuable lessons if they approach each others’ culture with an open mind. Someone learning about a different way of life in this way would not say “right” or “wrong,” but instead perhaps “different” and “similar,” “useful” or “not useful.”
So, instead, let’s try a thought experiment…
Don’t think of a medina as “backward.” Think of it as an example which might inspire an American to think about alternate, perhaps more healthier patterns for organizing our cities… What, at first glance, appear to be drawbacks to medina life, when described another way, are what many Americans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.
It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need – shopping, school, work, healthcare – is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.
It is communal – there are basically no police present in the medina, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, safe drinking water can be found at most major intersections. Same with mosques, which, in addition to the streets lined with small, locally-owned shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives.
Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.
The narrow streets are shaded between high-walled homes. As a result, temperatures within the medina are typically several degrees cooler than the open air outside of it. So, while most who live within the medina don’t have air conditioners, they don’t really need them either.
All of this means that the carbon footprint of the average medina dweller is much smaller – much more sustainable by many order of magnitude – than the average American.
Without glamorizing social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas (as they do in many American neighborhoods), it is easy to see why this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times.
On the other hand, the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old. They have led to many comforts for those fortunate enough to afford this lifestyle – but the American way of life is sometimes criticized for the social isolation encouraged by our preference for single family homes, by the unsustainable carbon emissions and lack of exercise encouraged by our urban sprawl, and for water wasted irrigating green lawns, even in parts of the country where grass does not naturally grow.
As we said earlier, there is no “right” or “wrong” when we attempt to look at cultures in this comparative way. But is it possible that Americans might learn valuable lessons from this way of life, persisting as it has with so little change since ancient times?
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.