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Maha Yahya: An Architect Turned Scholar Focuses on People

The architect-turned-scholar Maha Yahya has always been “people oriented.”

“What’s interesting about architecture is that it is not just about building, but very much about impacting people’s lives,” said Yahya, who has directed the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut for the past six years.

“When designing a space, be it private, urban or public, you do influence how people engage with the environment and with each other,” she said. “A space can bring people together or separate them.”

Yahya discovered her passion for research and policy making early in her career as an architect focusing on people in urban environments, and later in political and socio-economic contexts.

“I was fascinated by the transformative power of architecture and the politics of it,” she said. “When you design a space, you make a political statement. One can influence what kind of space is available for engagement and public discourse.”

Focus on Urban Environments

As she moved on with her studies—she holds two Ph.D.’s in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London—Yahya grew more interested in the social aspect of architecture, focusing on housing in urban environments. (See a related article, “Arab Universities Often Silent in Debates on Public Space.”)

Her doctoral dissertations centered in Beirut. The first focused on the informal settlements in Beirut’s suburb that today is a stronghold of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah party. It is almost exclusively inhabited by members of the Shia community who were displaced from southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation (1982-2000).

“I was trying to understand how this place came about, the politics of war that fragmented the city, and the survival strategies of people in such a context,” Yahya said. “In short, how to navigate an urban space torn apart by conflicts.”

“I’ve never designed a building. I found that my passion was more about the connections between politics and design, politics and space, and the impact it has on people.”

Maha Yahya

The second explored the politics of transforming Beirut from a port city in a larger Ottoman Empire to a capital of a newly established nation-state under French mandate.

“I’ve never built a building,” she added. “I found that my passion was more about the connections between politics and design, politics and space, and the impact it has on people.”

An Eye-Opening Experience

Before joining the Carnegie center, Yahya led work on sustainable development and social justice at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, known as ESCWA, where she was also regional adviser on social and urban policies.

She also worked in the private sector as a consultant on projects related to socioeconomic policy analysis, development policies, cultural heritage, poverty reduction, housing and community development, and post-conflict reconstruction in various countries, including Lebanon, Oman, Egypt and Iran.

She also served on a number of advisory boards, including the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. She is currently on Unesco’s international advisory group on the futures of education and the co-chair of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship.

Recalling her time at ESCWA, Yahya says, “it opened my eyes to the Arab region.”

“I am a child of the Lebanese civil war. I had spent a good bit of my life in and out of Lebanon and did not know much about the Arab region,” she said. “ESCWA opened my eyes to a broader region and broader Arab culture. I engaged with people at all levels of Arab societies, and that was very enriching.”

Achievements Close to Her Heart

Among the many achievements in Yahya’s career so far, two remain closest to her heart.

One is “The National Human Development Report 2008-2009: Toward a Citizen’s State,” on which she served as project director and principal author. The report, completed in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program in Lebanon, looked at political, socio-economic and cultural citizenship as well as education and civic initiatives in public life in Lebanon.

The other work that gives her particular satisfaction is the focus of the Carnegie office in Beirut into a mentoring space for researchers from the Arab region and a safe place for debate and discussion.

“We wanted to support knowledge production from the region for the region by creating a space where young scholars could make their voices heard, discuss and brainstorm in an open and non-judgmental environment,” Yahya said.

“She has a keen interest in issues of social justice, equity, refugees and migration, and she speaks and writes about them in a very objective, passionate and courageous way.”

Marwan al-Muashar
A former foreign minister of Jordan

Interest in Social Justice Issues

Marwan al-Muashar, a former foreign minister of Jordan and a colleague of Yahya’s at the Carnegie Middle East Center, says Yahya has excelled as a scholar, manager and fund-raiser, “but what is more important is her interest in human development.”

“She has a keen interest in issues of social justice, equity, refugees and migration,” al-Muashar added, “and she speaks and writes about them in a very objective, passionate and courageous way.”

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Although her studies were about building spaces, Yahya is more interested in building sustainable societies. “As long as you are passionate about an issue, you will excel,” al-Muashar said, “and that is what Maha did.”

Yahya is the author of numerous publications, including most recently “Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home” (2018) and “The Summer of Our Discontent: Sects and Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq” (2017).


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