ZahaHadid’s buildings are not warm. With long, curving lines and sudden sharp angles, they tend to transcend their surroundings rather than grow out of them.
In the same way,Hadid’s life story is one in which she transcended her surroundings, transcended the categories and limits of gender and race. She was a perennial outsider. It is one of the ironies of her life that a woman who built projects that strongly marked those cities never herself felt rooted.
Yet Hadid did grow out of a very specific time and place: the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s. Born into a time of immense optimism and progress, Hadid lived through the last years of Iraq’s monarchy and the beginning of what felt at the time like a new era.
“When I was growing up in Iraq, there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism. It was a moment of nation building,” she told an interviewer in 2012.
The republics of the Arab world were teeming with new ideas and Hadid’s father, like many upper class Arabs of his time, threw himself into politics, helping to found a liberal political party. It was a time of immense political experimentation, not all of it positive: the Hadids lost some of their wealth due to nationalisation.
But it was in this society that Hadid’s early ideas were formed. Asked many years later about her youth, she noted that many of the divisions that seem endemic to the Middle East today didn’t exist, or at least did not exist in their current form.
The ease with which different faiths interacted at that time has been much remarked upon, but even gender lines were drawn differently.
Listen carefully to Hadid’s words from a TV interview last year about life in Baghdad.
“As a woman in Iraq, there was not a moment when I wouldn’t pursue a career,” she said. “Many of my contemporaries in Iraq actually went into architecture, medicine, the sciences. It was not seen as a strange thing.
“It was actually stranger when I came to Britain and everyone said, ‘Oh my God, a woman architect!’ There it wasn’t so strange.”
To our modern understanding, that view of the Arab world is so unusual that it is either ignored or dismissed.
That Hadid would have faced some prejudice for her race in European society is taken for granted. But that she faced more prejudice for her gender in London than in Baghdad is impossible for many to grasp.
Again, the reality is in the nuance. “I’ve never been patronised in the Middle East,” she told CNN four years ago. “Men maybe treat women differently, but they do not treat them with disrespect. They don’t hate women. It’s a very different kind of mentality.”
This is part of the challenge of seeking to understand the past and the present. A simple narrative makes more sense. A reality of complexity merely bewilders.
Why does this matter? It matters because a conversation about where the Arab world and the West are today can only be conducted if we know where they started from. Progress is never linear but our understanding of progress too often is.
If we don’t know where the West has fallen short, how can we build it up? And if we don’t know where the Arab world once was, how can we go back?
Note that this isn’t merely about seeking to glorify an Arab past against a European present. It is actually about confronting the regressive forces and developing the progressive forces in both societies today.
Starting from a mythical Arab past does not help the region progress, but nor does aspiring to a mythical European present.
By understanding why freedom, progress and optimism declined in the Middle East over the past half century, we can better understand why those forces are also under attack around the world today – and how to defend them.
In the days after Hadid’s death, millions of tributes to her flooded across social media, many from young people across the Arab world. At first, this devotion to a faraway figure, albeit a pioneering one, is puzzling. Hadid was a starchitect but hardly a household name.
But I wonder if in the midst of mourning there were also feelings of inspiration. That a rising generation doesn’t only see what their countries are not, but also what their countries once were and could be again.
Perhaps they understand that just as Hadid could be influenced by cities like Baghdad and Beirut, so millions more architects, artists and scientists can be influenced by and flourish in the great cities of the Arab world. They just need what every one of ZahaHadid’s iconic buildings needed: the right vision and the right foundation.