[This article is part of a bouquet developed by the Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (15 May 1948), the day that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination in the face of the violent establishment of the state of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. This day would mark the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of over 500 Palestinian villages, the murder and internal displacement of countless more, and 75 years of settler-colonial rule. Read the rest of the articles featured in this bouquet at the bottom of this page.]
In the last several weeks leading up to the 75th commemoration of the Nakba, we were reminded of the multitude of ways Israel continues its colonization of Palestine and its blatant disregard for Palestinian life. From the martyrdom of an imprisoned hunger striker to literally scaring a child to death in Gaza, it is – once again – increasingly difficult to see the (Indigenous) forest through the (settler-colonial) trees.
In 2020 – at the height of a global pandemic and the year Gaza was deemed to become unlivable, I wrote a short piece trying to remind geographers, and all of us, that how we understand urban histories and discuss them in the present is not merely an intellectual exercise. It can and does impact our imagination for the future in meaningful and concrete ways. The difference between discussing settler colonial transformation of Indigenous cities and lands and settler-colonial production of urban sites is not semantic or negligible. The latter bestows agency and temporal ownership to settler-colonial structures, whereas the former revokes it, and more importantly, guides us to write and see ourselves in an active, ongoing history not just of Indigenous survival but vibrant Indigenous urbanism and growth.
Gaza provides an opportunity, as one of many Palestinian cities, to center an urban landscape born of Indigenous development, not a precursor or placeholder to settler colonization. To do so is not to exceptionalize Gaza, but to reconfigure where we look in our search for understanding. Cindi Katz recently reminded us that space, not time, hides consequences from us. Her description of topography as “both the detailed description of a particular location and the totality of the features that comprise the place itself” applied to Gaza city, strip, and historical district, opens up endless possibilities in finding the forest through the trees.
It is true that maps can confine and erase peoples and places, but they can also free a vision. Spatial imagination provides opportunities that policy debates do not. As a practice, mapping extends far beyond scientific documentation of the present; it offers a perspective imbued with realities we may not see otherwise.
In a mapping of Gaza district topography, it is places like Ashdod (built near depopulated Isdud) or Ashkelon (built over depopulated Majdal) that are the settler-colonial cities. Khan Yunis and Rafah, on the other hand, stand as testaments to Indigenous urbanization. The 1948 Nakba and the displacement and erasure that follow is indeed a rupture to Palestinian society, but it is by no means the starting point of Palestinian urbanization or the variegated Palestinian urban lives that fill the landscape.
On my first visit to the Gaza Strip as a child, my cousins found that playing tricks on me via place names was the joy of their lives, and I was along for the ride. One night in the middle of a soccer match in Deir al-Balah, a blonde man, his blonde wife, and his even blonder children cut through our dusty street pitch. They waved and said hi and headed up to the roof where everyone was spending the evening socializing. I asked who they were and my cousins, in unison, responded, “They’re visiting from Canada!” I said, “Oh ok,” imagined them local NGO workers, and went back to trying to score without knocking over the snack stand at the grocer next to us.
An hour later, I went up to the roof, and my mother pulled me aside. “Did you go greet your cousin Hasan? He’s been asking about you,” she said. I responded, “Who on earth are you talking about?!” My mother pointed to the blonde interrupters of our match. I said “Mom, those are guests from Canada!” After she stopped laughing and got a hold of herself, she explained which Canada they had arrived from, probably visiting some friends on the border. My cousins tried this again weeks later with “Brazil” camp, but by then I had wised up and started harassing my uncle for explanations whenever we walked down a new street, especially in Rafah.
I realized quickly that geography seemed to function differently; simultaneously everywhere and hardly anywhere was “Gaza.” The nomenclature was unwieldy for a kid that liked labeling dots on maps. Every new spot I encountered had innumerable geographies wrapped into the others. Spaces were filled with histories and genealogies that started to settle in my mind like layers. I could see topographic contour lines everywhere: they were temporal more than physical, but never linear. The highest elevation was sometimes the present iteration and other times as far back as WWI. Driving through the checkpoints and around the settlements to get to the beach, the Israeli outposts started to appear like anthills, not mountains, in the extravagantly contoured topography of my mind.
I think back now to that developing image of my childhood map and wonder what it would look like to conduct such a mapping across Palestine. What if we started with Gaza? Every iteration of “Gaza.” What if we re-contoured the topography of Palestinian cities across one of its largest districts to look not for remnants of the Nakba but for the Palestinian lives actively, daily mapping its features? Katz asks “what of drawing contour lines connecting spaces of hope?” I’ll add: what if the lines are already drawn and we continue to ignore them?