PhD Profile: Rim Yassine Kassab

PhD Profile: Here’s the latest in our PhD profile series

Name: Rim Yassine Kassab
PhD Research Title and Summary: The medina’s continuity, between revitalization and reconstruction – Cases of Old Rabat and Old Aleppo

The difficult balance between preservation of heritage authenticity and integrity, and adaptation to contemporary needs requires urban heritage to change and evolve. Transformation is a natural process of a city, but when the change is drastic, sudden and unplanned due to a conflict, a new context emerges. This is the case of Old Aleppo in Syria, that has seen 75% of its heritage being either destroyed or damaged. On the other hand, new socio-economic dynamism and urban practices can also transform the face of the urban heritage. The pace of this transformation is slower, but can be equally drastic. Rabat’s old city, in Morocco, for example, is currently undergoing many such ‘rehabilitation’ projects. 

Both of these medinas are inscribed in the Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. A medina is the historic core of the city, and the cultural, social and economic hub of everyday life in the cities of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). The urgency of reconstruction and revitalisation are crucial : safeguarding the values of the urban and social fabrics of the medinas is not only important for them as World Heritage Sites, but also pivotal for the continuity of lives and livelihoods in these historic places. 

However, community participation is lacking within government and international regulations for the processes of reconstruction or revitalization. Without taking people into consideration, many issues arise: 

-a furthering of the conflict, 

-a neglect of the community’s needs 

-the loss of the medina’s values through inacceptable change. 

How can we safeguard the continuity of the past, to inform the future of the medina, particularly in the face of its current challenges ? How does the authentic medina look in the eyes of its various communities? How should reconstruction and revitalization be considered, so that the values and tangible/intangibles attributes of the medina are preserved while meeting the current needs of its users ? 

The choice of Morocco and Syria is not arbitrary: they were the first countries to be studied in the literature, and they belong to the extreme West and East in the Islamic World, as well as diverse conditions of change. This will allow us to study the nuances of the concept of continuity and the values associated with it: continuity in times of peace (Morocco) is totally different than after a conflict (Syria), as the first is about bettering peoples lives, while the latter is about reconciliation as well.

The methodology is built around primary data gathered from cases studies, along with conducting field work, such as mapping, photographing and cataloguing, as well as interviewing a wide range of current users of medinas (inhabitants, shop owners, street vendors, police officers, tourists) and the old community that have a strong link and many memories associated with it. 

Aims and Objectives: 

-Presenting the voices of the medina’s community 

-Documenting the changes of the medina, from archival to before the current transformations to now

-Cataloguing the tangible and intangible attributes of the medina

-Presenting the values on which reconstruction/regeneration should be considered

-Incorporating methods such as the Walk and Talk interview, and gathering data through social media

  • What did you do before the PhD Research? 

Before the PhD research, I completed both my masters degree: one in Architecture at the National School of Architecture in Rabat (Morocco), and one master research in University of LeMans (France) on history, civilisations and heritage. Throughout my double degree studies, I wrote three master dissertations. The first one, “Habous district, a colonial urban adventure”, shows how the French have understood and built a district in Casablanca following the urban model of the medina. The second one, “Damascus : resilience of a city at war”, which is an urban analysis of the Syrian capital city and provides solutions to its resilience during and after the crisis. The last one, “The old city of Damascus, history of its urban resilience” investigated the resilience of the city’s historic core whilst facing urban modernity.

After graduating, I started directly applying for a PhD. While sending applications and doing interviews, I was doing an internship at the United Nations, working on research in conflicted areas, through the lens of international relations. I also joined “Rabat-Salé mémoire”, a non-profit organisation for Rabat’s cultural heritage, where I was the head of the research department, and carried out a comprehensive analysis on a Moroccan urban heritage called the Oudayas Qasba. I was also responsible for training volunteer tour-guides for this same heritage, for the ‘week of heritage’ in Rabat.

  • Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?

Born in a mixed family and being exposed to two different cultures (Syrian and Moroccan) always triggered my curiosity about people’s culture and the impact it has on their building and tangible and intangible heritage. As a result, from my youngest age, I became aware of the cultural diversity the world has and was interested in its representation in form of cultural expressions, architecture and urban heritage. This also gave me hope about human kind, because we don’t just fight each other through war, but we can achieve many beautiful things. I became interested in cultural heritage, but more specifically the heritage of my countries: the medinas. Even if I studied them in my Masters, I wanted to know more because not enough attention has been paid to their set of tangible and intangible values. The subject is the first reason why I wanted to do a PhD. The second reason is that pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas is the core of my personality. I don’t like repetition and predictability, whereas research is a continuous new intellectual adventure. Each day we learn something new about the world but also about ourselves. Finally, my aim is not only the educational qualification, which is absolutely great, but I hope to make even the smallest impact on people’s life and experience. 

For the choice of Liverpool University, I started by looking for an UK institution thanks to its reputation for research and all the good things my cousins said about the excellence of the anglo-saxon system. Secondly, I wanted to challenge myself. Being in the French system all my life, I aimed to explore a new system of thoughts and new ways of doing research . Also, having a better proficiency of the english language is a remarkable asset to have in life, and another challenge I was looking forward to. The University of Liverpool brought an optimal environment for me to carry out my research: its reputation as an excellent university in terms of teaching and research encouraged me to pursue the application process. Also, my research aligns with the Heritage theme, one of the key research theme at the University of Liverpool in general and the School of Arts in particular. Finally, the research group ArchiAM provides a notable research platform where I can share my ideas and exchange reflective and critical discussions with fine researchers.

  • What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?

The most fun part of the PhD is the data collection: going to the field (in my case the medina), meeting and interviewing a considerable range of people, taking pictures of beautiful monuments, of everyday life activities, of domestic buildings, of street atmospheres, immersing yourself in the old city. Each day, people surprise me with original information. Some even invited me to their house to visit, others came to me asking me if I needed anything, some gave beyond what was asked because they were happy to have their opinion listened to. It is a pleasure to see people eager to talk about their heritage. I feel the most grateful when I realise that I am studying a subject people are passionate about, that I am doing something worthwhile and meaningful. This is when I feel the most productive: when my research is progressing, I feel the most motivated by it. However, this is not to idealise field work neither, because setbacks, rejections and difficulties are omnipresent. 

The most challenging part of the PhD is this roller-coaster of emotions between being confident about your research’ subject and thinking you’re going in the right direction, then loosing track of your initial idea by getting lost in a myriad of interesting subjects. Feeling like you have no idea what you are doing and that you lost valuable time is the worst feeling that I have during the PhD. There are so many interesting methods, concepts and problematics that it is difficult for me to focus on one thing. Besides, there is an ongoing anxiety about feeling like I haven’t read enough: literature review never finishes !

  • Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next? 

I would like to leave my options open at this point. Like during PhD, there are so many interesting options, both academia and industry sounds good. Academia will allow me to continue doing research and to teach, something that I would love to try. Another considerable option is working with my home country government or international organisations like Unesco to implement better management policies for heritage.

In general, I know that the best end result of doing a PhD is to develop valuable transferable skills: problem-solving capacities, working independently, managing stress, better communication skills (both oral and written), time management. So no matter which job I will take up after, a PhD is definitely an incredibly useful experience for me.

  • Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD? 

The first and most important advice is that you should embark in a PhD for the right reasons: a drive for research and a subject you’re passionate about. Do not apply just to be called Dr. one day.

The second advice is for the PhD journey: it is a marathon, not a sprint. It is crucial to have a good work-life balance. You should be prepared for difficult times, and if you don’t take care of yourself properly, it will be harder for you to continue, or worse, you might hate the PhD. As much as you can, enjoy the process ! It is as important, or even more important, than the end result, which is obtaining the degree.

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