The Casbah and the Castle

How Cultures Think, Part III

©Witr | — Crac des Chevaliers
This is the third part of a chapter from my next book, How the World Thinks.

The coastline of the Mediterranean Maghreb (the North African stretch consisting of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) gleams with the remains of old Arab cities and towns, strung like fading shells in the sunlight, from Benghazi, Libya in the east, to Casablanca, Morocco in the west. Each of these towns was originally built according to the Arab plan; what is today known as the old city (the medina), overlooked by a protecting fort (the casbah), usually built on a high hill. There are medinas and casbahs beyond the Maghreb coast throughout all of the Arab Middle East. Today, the word “casbah” has become somewhat synonymous with the medina, referring in general to not only the protecting fort, but also the warren of tiny streets and soukhs (a collection of shops) that surround the fort; the area collectively known as “the old city,” as opposed to the modern constructions of the new city, which may have emerged more recently around it.

Having made my way through the tiny alleyways of the medina in Marrakesh, dismissing the persistent hawkers of leather, henna, chickens, spices and anything else that can be sold, I found my way uphill toward the entrance to the casbah itself, an eleventh-century monolith, massive and overbearing in size and grandeur, today worn down by the centuries but still mainly well preserved. Its imposing size made it appear closer than it actually was, and in order for me to approach it, I needed to meander uphill along an entrance road strewn with uncomfortably large boulders, that twisted around many stone walls which, from all current appearances, were once mighty and imposing themselves. Feeling a bit like I was walking down a very bumpy and difficult Yellow Brick Road, I made my way through this ancient stone maze and suddenly found myself standing in front of a massive wooden doorway, far away from the hustle of the medina and its soukhs, with an invitation from a guide to “come inside and have a look.” And so I did.

It was a fort, and its main job was to protect the ruler and his supporters from attack, so its walls were unsurprisingly thick, high and crenellated. What was surprising, however, was the view that greeted me when I stepped through those massive wooden entrance gates, built originally to keep all strangers out and now thrown open to happily welcome the day-tripping tourist. Instead of an open courtyard or interior entrance to the inner quarters, I was greeted suddenly by another massive stone wall, with no apparent entrance or opening of any kind. This wall, my guide explained, was in fact, the wall of the interior quarters, which I expected, but where was the entrance to get in? No doors, no windows, no gates.

“We have to walk around to the other side,” he explained, and so we turned left along the interior wall, turned right, turned right again, and found ourselves in front of another grand wooden door, exactly on the opposite side of this fortress-within-a-fortress.

“Let’s go in,” he said.
Inside, of course, we were faced with yet another massive stone wall. “This time,” the guide said, “we’ll walk this way,” and he led me to the right, then turned left, and left again until we were greeted with the third set of massive wooden doors, again, exactly opposite the wall we faced when we first encountered this most inner of fortresses within a fortress. He opened these gates, and we entered a tall dark chamber of spiral stone steps, with no alternative path but upward.
When we got to the top, the view was breathless, as was I, and I breathed in the hot dry air of the Sahara as my guide explained. The fortress was designed so that any attacker would find it extremely difficult to approach, difficult to get into, and most important, difficult to maneuver through. The zig-zagged, boulder-laden entrance made approaching the fortress difficult, allowing defenders to pick off the attackers before they even got to the citadel. If they managed to get through the front gates, they were met by a narrow street surrounding another stone edifice, too narrow for legions of troops to enter at once, with no entrance for them to go into. They would be forced to march around the interior building, giving the advantage once again to the defenders above. Should the remaining attackers have managed by the third time to get into the interior tower, they would be forced into a dark spiral staircase, with defenders at the top reigning weapons down on them. And remember, anyone looking to get out would have to follow the same tortuous, slow, winding route in reverse.

I thought about all this as I stood, several years later, in front of the Crac des Chevaliers, on a windy hill in western Syria. The Crac is the remains of a 10th-century crusader castle, built originally by Christian Europeans in their efforts to reconquer the “holy lands” and free them from Islamic domination. Throughout much of the Middle East, in addition to the casbahs, there are also European-built crusader castles, reflecting the region’s tumultuous, centuries-old conflict between Islam and Christianity. The Crac today is a crumbling relic of what it once was, but its outlines and design are clear, and clearly different from that of the casbah of Marrakesh. The old crusader castles followed a design, as well, but it was a European plan, built to defend, but also to impress and conquer. There were similarly crenellated, high, thick stone walls, but the path approaching the entrance to the Crac is smooth, straight and wide. It leads directly to the massive wooden entrance gate, which, when opened, leads to another wide, straight path that extends across a large open courtyard and ends at the entrance to the large inner living quarters, the door of which is directly in line with the entrance gates to the complex. Once inside the central complex, the rooms are organized along a central axis with several parallel corridors, and staircases leading up and down to additional levels organized in similar ways.

This was very different from the casbah: this plan was designed for the inhabitants to efficiently move the massive military equipment and numbers of troops at their disposal as quickly as possible, whether for defense or to send them out on offensive attack missions. The crusader castle was Mission Central; the casbah was Stealth Attack Headquarters.

The day before I visited the Crac in Syria, I was in Damascus, working with Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis, Palestinians, and their European (mainly British and Dutch) and Canadian counterparts on a joint venture they were trying to put together. At the negotiation table in Damascus, I was witness to all the cultural differences in full blossom. Standing on the windy precipice of the Crac the next day, I understood these differences more profoundly than ever before.
The crusader castle was an architectural rendering of the medieval European mind, and the casbah was the architectural rendering of the medieval Arab mind. “Castle-think” was linear, directive, purposeful, on the offensive. “Casbah-think” was circuitous, indirect, exploratory, on the defensive. Organization, be it of troops, things or thoughts, will simply be different, if organized according to a casbah or a castle mindset.

At the business table in Damascus, there was an agenda that both sides had apparently agreed to, with the schedule of the agenda mapped out, hour by hour, topic by topic. Both sides apparently had input into the design and content of the agenda which, on paper, if followed, would help advance the team toward solving some specific business questions that needed to be addressed. But people are different from paper, and once the meeting got going, addressing the specific points on the paper, on schedule, proved to be anything but easy, specifically because the European and Canadian teams were thinking and communicating according to “castle-think,” while the Arab team was thinking and communicating in “casbah-think.”

While the Canadian and European team drove the agenda relentlessly forward, point by point, the Arab team approached the issues sideways; avoiding addressing the points head-on, alluding to them, referencing them (when expressing their proposals) or questioning the points being made by the Canadians and Europeans obliquely through metaphors or related examples and experiences that eventually made their position self-evident without requiring them to actually state their position.

This only confused the Europeans and Canadians further. As the day went forward, and as the discussions fell more and more behind schedule, the European and Canadian team became increasingly anxious, and when it was apparent that they were not going to get through even the majority of topics on the agenda, proposed that they stop the discussions in order to reset the expectations for the meeting. The Arab team’s response was based on a sense of being shut down and bullied: they expressed remorse and disappointment that their ideas were not being considered, and no amount of reassurance on the part of the Canadians and Europeans could convince them that the case was otherwise.

In the dynamics of culture, no single cultural element will determine the outcome of any single cross-cultural interaction; the outcome of any human interaction is the result of the combination of all of the cultural elements that make us who we are. In the case of this Damascus meeting, there are many other cultural elements at work beyond just casbah-thought and castle-thought mindsets that derailed that meeting, including residual historical legacies of colonialism, trust building, decision making and conflict resolution style differences, and others. But from a mindset perspective, the business agenda for this meeting was in conflict with the very different cultural agendas at the same table, resulting in a meeting that, despite the hopeful expectations for its success on both sides, was doomed to go off track quickly because of the differences in the way both sides thought.

And this is not just evident at the business table. It is noticeable at every level of life, social and political, as well. Listen to the way Israelis and Palestinians speak with one another: a prime example of the result of the confluence of many cultural differences, but if we can tease out the thought mindset issue from the many others (like the mutual distrust that has been institutionalized into both groups due to the decades-old failure to resolve the conflict between them), we hear the echoes of the castle and casbah. Israeli directness, assertiveness and specificity sounds to Palestinians as blunt and calculating, aggressive and threatening, with no room for compromise. Palestinian circularity, indirectness and metaphorical speech comes off to Israelis as untrustworthy, indecipherable, intentionally unclear in order to gain a hidden advantage. Add layers of historical animosity, and elements of many other cultural differences, and we have a context through which anything that one side says to the other will be seen through a screen of unforgiving mistrust and skepticism. The differences in thought mindsets only adds to the complexity of this heartbreaking political problem.

Admittedly, castle-think and casbah-think are metaphors — perhaps an example of casbah-thought itself! — and, as such, perhaps an interesting lesson reminding the castle-thinker of the value of casbah-thought. Though imprecise and vulnerable to subjective interpretation, and certainly taking longer to describe and explain, often with the conclusion hidden behind unseen walls, casbah-thought nevertheless might take us to a place of more meaningful understanding than a clear, linear, clinical definition.

The idea of architecture as a metaphor or a rendering of a human thought process should not seem far fetched. After all, architecture is an activity of the human brain, and how we think about things, as we have seen, clearly determines the nature of the things we think about. That the path into and through the casbah is circuitous and winding, and that the streets of the surrounding medinas curl around each other in the shape of a snail or a shell is not an accident: it is the product of the mind of the people that created those streets and towns, with a perceived advantage in doing so. That the path into and through the castle is straight and direct, and that the roads surrounding those castles became the efficient grid of streets and avenues of the Western city is not an accident: it too, is the product of the people that created those original streets and towns, with their own perceived advantage in doing so.

We are not only what we think; we are, more fundamentally, the result of how we think.

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