Urban Revolution: Yasser Arafat's Unlikely First Job
The design of our neighborhoods shapes our lives: how we commute to work, run everyday errands, meet up with friends. What if your neighborhood were designed by one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries? Before gaining global notoriety as the leader of the Palestinian cause, a young Yasser Arafat retreated from freedom fighting to temporarily take up urban planning.
At age 28, Arafat needed a day job and a place to crash. After graduating as a civil engineer from the University of Cairo and having dabbled in arms smuggling and combat missions against British and Israeli forces in Palestine, Arafat was in search of safe haven to regroup. Denied visas to Canada and Saudi Arabia, Arafat was accepted into Kuwait in 1956, where many educated Palestinians were migrating to fill the demand for roles such as teachers and engineers.
It was a time when the map of Kuwait was also undergoing radical change. The discovery of oil was spawning the birth of a new modern city. With the guidance of British town planners, the 1952 master plan for Kuwait called for the replacement of a myriad of mud houses with a radial city of stately villas and open green spaces, banded by ring roads—a blank slate of utopian town planning that had proved impossible to carry out in London due to spatial constraints.
Upon arriving in Kuwait, Arafat ditched firearms and fatigues for drawing boards and tripods. He landed a job with a construction firm building the first road to Iraq, and then joined the Ministry of Public Works, where he helped implement the new British vision for Kuwait City. Of the eight new neighborhoods laid out in the 1952 plan, only one—the area of Dasma stands out as defying a conventional rectilinear logic. This is where Yasser Arafat worked as a civil engineer on the construction team.
“Whenever I go to Dasma, I get lost,” confesses Sheikha, a 32-year-old architect who grew up in an adjacent neighborhood. While the commercial centers of all other neighborhoods are blocks within a consistent street grid, the commercial heart of Dasma is a super-sized roundabout containing the supermarket, butcher, pharmacy, mosque, and other amenities. Not all roads in Dasma lead to the roundabout and roads spiraling off from it follow confusing curves. The result is a kinky housing block alignment and a lot of people asking for directions.
Saleh, a recent college graduate who grew up in Dasma explained how his friends typically get lost coming to his house. “They call me from the roundabout and tell me they’re driving round, and round, and don’t know which road to take.” He added another sore point about his childhood ‘hood, “They also make fun of the name Dasma because it means fatty or greasy in Arabic.”
Back entrance to mosque at the Dasma roundabout
Fat aside, urban legend traces the spatial stigma back to Arafat—why else would Dasma be so bizarrely distinct from all the other cookie-cutter 'hoods if it were not for the off-the-grid thinker preoccupied with political causes? Or perhaps this was Arafat’s intention: to use urbanism as a medium for rebellion. Like Palestine, Kuwait was also a British protectorate. Was Arafat screwing with the perfect town plan to stick it to the Brits? If he couldn’t stop the division of Palestine, then he could mess with the royal radial city?
Kuwait City neighborhood plans from 1952
Recently renovated cooperative supermarket at the center of the Dasma roundabout
By 1964, roads and roundabouts proved a limited medium. Although Arafat had launched a successful engineering career, later opening his own firm and earning enough to buy three cars, he ultimately decided that city-building was not in his blood. The Al-Fatah political and paramilitary movement he had founded by night was taking off and it was time to start applying the political and monetary resources he had accumulated in Kuwait to stage attacks to free Palestine.
While people continue to get lost in Dasma, better urban planning and greater political freedoms are far from a lost cause.
Kuwait City plans image courtesy of Studies in Architecture and Planning: Architecture in Kuwait