Published in WTD magazine issue 08 titled Making Other Natures edited by Faysal Tabbarah of Architecture + Other Things
Photos: Farah Al Amin
Text: Haitham Issam
Bad smell is often misunderstood. To urban planners it is a nuisance. Afterall, it is the outcome of our lives that we keep somewhere on the fringes of cities, unknown to most of us. Where we decide we are going to dispose of our lives’ remnants, often decides how we live those lives. It affects urban form on every scale, from the dark rooms in the buildings we live in to the hills in our cities that smell when we drive by them. We look the other way, we forget, we misunderstand.
The nature of this misunderstanding is rooted within our collective neglect to recognize that we are indeed among the species. What has differentiated us from others though is that we developed the capacity to reflect. Smelling lowered our chances to attract a mate, which turned our attention to preventing our nature from being observed, we synthesized a characteristic which is far from reality.
Smelling Memories/Bad Smelling Memories
Aromas excite a part in the brain in close proximity to a part where memories are stored. That is why when we smell a flower or the scent of a partner, it excites memories of the past where the same aroma was experienced. Memory by association of smell is so vivid, but could it be linked with bad smell? Could the stench of diesel bring happy memories of a house in Homs, lighting up the heater for the first time announcing the start of winter? Could the burning of sage or orange peel on a stove bring back magical times from Amman? Could the stink of humidity recall a distant memory from Central Souk in Abu Dhabi?
Could memories be formed and linked with bad smell? The displeasure of a salad gone bad? The disgust we feel in a room reeking of sweat, turning one’s stomach? Driving past a certain spot every day that is damned with a funk smell? Those bad memories creeping into the vicinity of our pleasure, could those be culled?
A bad smelling memory of a fall that broke a tooth of a loved one, reeking of blood, must be erased. Every time the smell of blood makes its way into the nostrils, that tooth-shattering fall is played again, with its screams and horror.
Bad Smell Urbanism
The existence of another life form in the vicinity of humans has been increasingly curated, from ancient times when the more cool headed ancestral wolves cosied up to our own ancestors and as a result forming another species of a different nature that we synthesized and called dogs. We are now deciding the fate of mosquitos, if we only knew it wouldn't be disastrous, we would've wiped them out. We venture into the sea to pleasure ourselves in the harsh world of struggling marine species which are ruthlessly stretching their lifetimes by one day, every day, and when one human being falls prey to one of those species, the answer is culling them to ensure the pleasure, our pleasure, persists.
We curate the forms of life we want near us, and the remnants of life we want away from us. We’ve disposed those as far as we could, yet, our cities have outgrown the distance we thought was enough to forget the stink. Now, not only do we dispose them far, far away, but also deep into the ground in a place we call a landfill. That land was already filled with land, we just synthesized a cavity to justify the name. We are not doing nature a favor by filling its cavities, we are drilling its land to give it what we don’t want near us.
But we decided that the remnants of our bodies are different. We decided that we should consume more land for graveyards, because our remnants are different. Vast lands, capable of agriculture, capable of relieving some cities of a land use that they do not really use. Those stretches of land are like car parks, they kill our cities, no one wants to see them, we want to forget them, because deep down we know they stink.
We can’t afford to forget anymore. Almost all the dead in Japan are being cremated instead of taking more scarce land, many cities in congested Europe are running out of land for graveyards. Will we run out of land eventually to remember the fate that awaits us all?
They are all remains that will face decay. In the vicinity of nature, it is not death and it is not birth, but one long and painful lifetime of many natures that either kill or are killed, and it all stinks. And we stink just the same but our noses have been calibrated to our own stink.