Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp (eds.), Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope (American University in Cairo Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Deen Sharp (DS): This book was initiated by my co-editor Michael Sorkin who sadly passed away from COVID-19 in March 2020. Michael was outraged by the violence unleashed by Israel in 2014 in its so-called Operation Protective Edge (OPE), the third major assault on Gaza in six years. OPE provided the impetus for Michael through his non-profit Terreform, which I co-direct, to think through the kinds of productive interventions for Gaza that might result from bringing our community of designers, planners, scholars, and activists together. He initiated a discussion with the architects Nasser Golzari and Yara Sharif at Westminster University, who visited Gaza in 2010 to assist in the formulation of plans for reconstruction following Operation Cast Lead. They in turn brought the Gazan based architect Salem Al Qudwa into the conversation. From this small group, Michael and I organized a series of roundtables, individual dialogues, and research initiatives hosted by Terreform and our community, and finally arrived at the idea of Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope. Open Gaza is aimed not simply to denounce the literal destruction of Gaza by remorseless bombing and blockade, but also to imagine and celebrate the spaces of steadfastness and even hope. Open Gaza approaches this context not for its scenographic horror but because it is authentically urban, in defense of what we see as the “right to the city” of its inhabitants.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DS: The work in this volume is wide ranging and engages the tools of architecture and planning, the social sciences, and critical theory.
One essay takes us into the tunnels that run between Gaza and Egypt, detailing the sophisticated engineering and sociopolitical organization required to keep them operating. The tunnels have been critical for smuggling food, medicine, and even livestock, as well as basic construction materials, such as steel and cement, which Israel has banned from Gaza through the blockade.
Several chapters provide an in-depth critique of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), a tripartite agreement between the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and the United Nations, which was established in the wake of OPE’s destruction. The authors detail how the GRM entrenched the blockade and added to the immiseration of Gazans, rather than facilitating rebuilding and support.
Purposefully, the projects and essays in this volume engage Gaza beyond the malign logic of bombing and blockade. The contributors consider how life could be improved within the limitations imposed by Israeli malevolence, but they also reach beyond this framework of endless war to imagine Gaza and Palestine in a future without conflict. Several contributions imagine a rebuilding process that fulfils the urban aspirations, rights, and demands of Gazans. Nasser Golzari and Yara Sharif, for instance, explore the idea of “green stitching” that thinks through how Gaza City’s fragmented neighborhoods could be stitched together. Through their fieldwork in Gaza, they undertook a mapping exercise that identified existing initiatives that could be built upon and a proposal for a Learning Room that would act as a community laboratory for Gazans to learn techniques for “self-help” construction.
Also directed at imaging an open and connected Gaza, Terreform offers the idea of a ring city that ties Gaza within its larger system of cities, including Gaza City, Beershehba, Hebron, and Jerusalem. It outlines what Gaza would look like under “normal” circumstances, if it was able to embrace communities in its hinterland and fulfil a basic regional approach to a continuous conurbation.
Besides aspirational contributions, the book also celebrates and documents projects that have been achieved in Gaza. It features, for instance, Salem Al Qudwa’s design in Beit Lahia of low-cost housing solutions for poor communities, which are also environmentally adapted. It also looks at Omar Yousef’s elegant Qatan Center for Children. The school’s design, drawing on elements derived from traditional Palestinian architecture, is organized like a souk formed around a principal axis, which acts as a distributor for many different activities—the interior corridor is filled with light and crowned by domes. Yousef has never visited the completed school because of the Israeli siege.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DS: For Michael, this is his third edited book that focuses on Palestine-Israel. His first book, The Next Jerusalem: Sharing the Divide City (2002), was followed three years later by Against the Wall (2005). These books track a rapid descent from the myopic optimism that followed the Oslo agreement to the agenda of repression and apartheid concealed behind its false promise. These volumes follow the same trajectory of Open Gaza, bringing an eclectic group of designers and social scientists from Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere, offering essays that detailed the dire reality, acted as a riposte to mainstream analysis, and also provided progressive visions of a shared and open future for Palestinians and Israelis.
As for myself, this book adds to my own scholarly contributions to critical Middle Eastern urban studies, which I am delighted to report is a rapidly growing subset of Middle East studies. My first edited volume was Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings (2016), which engaged the socio-spatial dynamics of the Arab uprisings. I am also the co-editor of the American University in Cairo Press book series, “Middle East Urban Studies” and on the editorial board of “Arab Urbanism.” Open Gaza is my second direct scholarly engagement with Palestine-Israel; my first was the paper, “Dying to Live in Palestine: Steadfastness, Pollution and Embodied Space.” This chapter contributed to the book Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power, which added to theoretical understandings of embodied space, agency, and pollution.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DS: I hope that Middle East studies scholars will read this book. As I noted above, this is Michael’s third book on Palestine-Israel, but Michael is not widely known in the Middle East studies community. This is unsurprising to me, given that spatial perspectives do not constitute a significant part of the field; I have written about the weak links between Middle East studies and geography here. At the same time, the influence of geography and spatially grounded work is growing in Middle East studies. I would like this book first and foremost to be a way to introduce Michael’s broader work on the region to a new group of scholars and interlocuters.
In addition, the book is aimed at architects and designers. All too often, the design community creates interventions without a deep understanding of the context or existing research. I hope this book acts as a guide and best practice on how to approach a fraught context such as Gaza for architects who want to create imaginative and hopeful interventions. The volume is also aimed at policy makers and practitioners, in particular those engaged in reconstruction in the Arab region and beyond. The book features some cutting essays that show the great harm that the GRM has done and the Israeli strategy to transform Gaza from a political issue to a humanitarian problem. I live in hope that those engaging in reconstruction and humanitarian strategies can learn from the mistakes that have been made in the Gaza context.
Most importantly, we would like this book not only to highlight the immiseration of Palestinian Gazans, but also to insist and contribute to achieving their right to the city and the potential that resides in Gaza.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DS: This is not Michael’s last word or work. He has a number of books coming out in 2021, including an edited volume on the work of Mike Davis to be published by OR Books. I also have a book that Michael and I started together and which I aim to complete, entitled Stupid Cities, a clunking fist critique of the smart cities movement. I am currently working on a co-edited book, Reconstruction as Violence: The Case of Syria, which will be out at the end of the year with the American University in Cairo Press. And, finally, I am continuing to work on my monograph on the rise of urban development corporations in the Middle East, which will be out with the University of California Press in 2022.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 10-15)
At the Fun Time beach café located on the Khan Younis seafront in Gaza, a small group of Palestinian men were watching the 2014 World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina. Bilal al-Astal and the soccer fans gathered with him were not given the chance to find out which team would proceed to the global spectacle of the World Cup final. As al-Astal stated in his testimony to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem:
We watched the first half of the match together. We drank tea and coffee and there was a relaxed mood. We didn’t hear any airplanes nearby. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion. By the time I realized what was happening, I found myself buried under a pile of sand and dirt.
Such is the nature of daily life for Gazans: a schizophrenic rift between simple enjoyments that are routine for most of us and sudden eruptions of lethal violence from above. Urbanity instantaneously turns to terror.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most beleaguered environments on earth. Crammed into a space of 139 square miles (360 square kilometers), 1.8 million people live under siege in conditions that continue to plummet to ever more unimaginable depths of degradation and despair. In 2014, Operation Protective Edge (OPE), the third major Israeli assault on Gaza in six years, brought destruction on a scale that shocked both residents and long-time observers. As Sara Roy, who has worked for over thirty years on and in Gaza, wrote shortly after the end of OPE: “I can say without hesitation that I have never seen the kind of human, physical, and psychological destruction that I see there today.” OPE only accelerated the conclusions of an infamous UN report published in 2012 that questioned whether Gaza would still be a “livable place” by 2020.
The violence unleashed by Israel during OPE provided the impetus for Terreform to think about the sorts of productive interventions that might result from bringing together an eclectic group of designers, environmentalists, planners, activists, and scholars—from Palestine and Israel, the US, the UK, India, and elsewhere. Our aim was not simply to denounce or “deconstruct” the literal deconstruction of Gaza by remorseless bombing and blockade, but to imagine and celebrate the spaces of steadfastness and even hope. As firm believers in the “right to the city,” we approach Gaza not for its scenographic horror but always as authentically urban, in defense of what we see as a critical avenue of resistance: imagining a better place for its citizens, one in which gathering in a café or taking a dip in the sea no longer brings the constant threat of sudden death.
We are not Panglossian, naively optimistic, and this volume firmly rejects the immiserization of Gazans. It does so by insisting on the particularity of alternatives, by seeing Gazans as people filled with aspiration, not as statistics—subjects to be destroyed—or the numbed inhabitants of a completely bare life. Gaza and Palestine are more than occupied territories under siege, and existence there is not defined solely by Israeli domination. The projects and essays in this volume engage Gaza beyond the malign logic of bombing and blockade. They consider how life could be improved in Gaza within the limitations imposed by Israeli malevolence but also reach beyond this framework of endless war to imagine Gaza in a future without conflict.
The ever-expanding consequences of the blockade for Palestinian life have been profound, and the siege of Gaza has resulted in extremes of poverty, humiliation, injury, murder, and what Sara Roy has termed “de-development.” In this volume, Tareq Baconi writes that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is not merely about containment, but about terrorizing a population into submission. To a substantial extent, this strategy is working. The stresses imposed by the siege—and the petty crime, kidnappings, and domestic violence that have become normalized as a result—all work to tear the Palestinian social fabric apart. But Baconi argues that Israel’s enclosure of Gaza has failed to completely dominate the more emotional, metaphysical realm, nor has it succeed in destroying the solidarity of citizens under siege (and, in this way, Gaza reproduces the unexpected stiffening of resolve during the bombing campaigns and sieges of the Second World War or Vietnam). Indeed, the very familiarity of the daily horrors that occur in the Strip breaks the blockade and carries the cause of Gaza to the broader world. Protests in support of Gaza in Istanbul, San Diego, Oslo, and Osaka bind the territory to a broader humanity—a glimmer of hope in an otherwise desolate context. No matter how high the fence or unrelenting the systems of control, Gaza cannot be sealed off from the world. Despite the risks in even the most basic everyday acts—like watching a soccer match on TV at the beach—Gazans find ways to be in the world, to be part of its cultures of normality. Open Gaza celebrates the tenacity revealed in the heroic pursuit of what, for most of us, seems simply banal.
Like its contributors, the work in this volume is surely eclectic and does not aspire to any version of a “complete” picture; an acknowledgment that no single discourse is adequate to the urban, and certainly not to Gaza’s complexities. Engaging the tools of architecture and planning, the social sciences, environmentalism, and critical theory, it rises in defense of expansiveness, of freedom of thought and imagination, and proudly celebrates Gaza’s courage and positive capability. The tunnels, for instance, that have been built in the Strip in an attempt to circumvent the blockade articulate the ingenuity and steadfastness of Gaza’s inhabitants. Dramatic images of cows, fridges, and even full-sized SUVs being smuggled through these subterranean passages have circulated around the global mediascape. A chapter in this book (authored under a pseudonym—which reminds us of the constant danger that accompanies being in and writing about Gaza) takes us into tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The author and illustrator depict the sophisticated engineering and complex sociopolitical organization required to keep them operating, as well as the perverse routines—the smuggler’s Expedia—needed to negotiate them.
The tunnels have been particularly critical for the smuggling of basic construction materials, such as steel and cement, that have otherwise been banned from Gaza by the blockade. Several contributors describe the extensive lengths to which Israel has gone to ensure that Gaza’s reconstruction is interrupted and controlled. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), a tripartite agreement between the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government, and the United Nations, was introduced in 2014 following the destruction caused by OPE. The contributions by the Royal College of Art and Pietro Stefanini argue, however, that far from facilitating reconstruction, the GRM has entrenched the blockade of Gaza and allowed Israel to control what can be built, as well as how, when, and where. This reinforces the sick circular economy of destruction and reconstruction that continuously engorges arms makers and contractors.
The GRM also introduced a centralized database system to collect microdata from every corner of Gaza. Francesco Sebregondi argues that the GRM has effectively turned Gaza into a version of the latest technocratic wet dream, the “smart city.” While the “smart” technology utilized in the GRM is relatively rudimentary, it nonetheless offers us an insight into how the operation of smart cities—in which we all increasingly live—can be a dominating and oppressive technology of power. The deployment of these tools and techniques in Gaza powerfully illuminates just how problematic the questions of who manages and oversees the smart city and who controls the data it harvests really are. It also dramatically returns the smart city to its military point of origin, to the electronic battlefield and “network-centric” warfare. In this sense, Gaza is not unique but is the embodiment in extremis of the new normal for cities around the globe.
Beyond its analytical pieces on Gaza’s predicament and history, this volume also offers a series of more speculative interventions that, while grounded in Gaza’s particularities, take flight—like the kids of Parkour—to suggest directions in which a reimagined Gaza might grow and prosper. While these visionary forays offer strategies for wisely deploying resources in line with sustainable best practices, our objective is not to elaborate a model that obliges Gaza to “live within its means” but to unpack ideas about both limits and possibilities. These schemes include a blueprint for a solar-powered Gaza from Chris Mackey and Rafi Segal, which proposes a distributed energy infrastructure that could constitute a protective solar dome.
Embedded in these imaginative pitches for Gaza are arguments about how this beleaguered place can reclaim its independence and dignity through the agency of space. It was the fatal delusion of modernist architecture and planning that their spatial practices could by themselves transform the social and political realms. We are under no such illusions. Nor do we have the slightest doubt that substantive change can only occur if Israel’s boot is lifted from Gazan throats and Palestinian national aspirations are realized. We take special, dispirited note of the insanity of two current, externally proposed extraterritorial “solutions” to Gaza’s problems: the periodically mooted Israeli project to build an island in the Mediterranean three miles offshore—connected to Gaza via a tenuous bridge—to house an easily controlled airport, seaport, electric plant, and logistics hub; and the Trump-Kushner plan to employ Gazans as laborers in a Special Economic Zone under Egyptian sovereignty deep in the Sinai. Both resemble the situation in the American South not so long ago, where male descendants of freed slaves were imprisoned by the state in huge numbers and then hired out by their jailers to work in the very same cotton fields their ancestors cultivated as chattel.
These absurd declarations of a willingness to spend billions to “improve” the situation in Gaza as long as they do not actually have to be spent in Gaza constitute the kind of colonial villainy this volume vehemently opposes. Gaza needs a seaport, an airport, a robust source of energy, and a vibrant and diversified economy on its own territory. For this to happen, the Israeli siege on Gaza must end. Gazans—and all Palestinians—must be given control over the social, political, and economic resources that frame their own lives. Gaza’s “de-development” will continue as long as Israel represses Palestinian sovereignty and autonomy. While it seems today that we have never been further from any possibility of Palestinians being able to truly rule their own lives, or further from a durable peace for Gaza, this absence makes this volume—and every other expansive assertion of Gaza’s humanity—all the more urgent and necessary.
Open Gaza Now!