Prita Meier. Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. 230 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-01915-8.
Reviewed by Emily Williamson (Boston University)
Published on H-AMCA (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Jessica Gerschultz
In today’s unsettled age, when globalization has sponsored a higher degree of interaction and uprooting, and as James Clifford points out, “there seem to be no distant places left,” questions concerning how “elsewheres” root “here” emerge as central and urgent to our time. How do people grapple with two seemingly paradoxical human desires—to belong both to local places, people, and ideas, and to those of faraway? And second, what might the material life embodying these values, beliefs, and attitudes reveal about how and why people negotiate multiple identities? In Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere, Prita Meier carefully and courageously tackles these significant questions through the particular historical context of the Swahili coast in East Africa—a place where “Islamic,” “Arab,” “Persian,” and “African” identities have intermingled and transformed for centuries. Drawing from diverse literature in art history, architecture, anthropology, and transcultural studies, Meier tells the fascinating story of the stone cities in Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar and how their materiality has continuously shaped the histories, identities, values, and experiences of the people who inhabit them.