ACADEMIA, THE MIRROR
Rethinking the education of an architect within economized urban spaces in times of political crisis. There is an urgency of producing an environment of critical and active knowledge that problematizes the hegemony between politics and economy in the city and questions the loyalties of architects and academia.
Thank you, ArtTerritories, and everyone in the audience. Many of you have been personally inspirational to my practice and to who I am today. It’s an important discursive moment in the Palestinian struggle against a new form of occupation that is emerging in the Palestinian territories.
I was asked to speak about my academic and educational experience at Birzeit University, where architecture is taught not as a utilitarian discipline but as material for thought, discussion and criticism. This approach to thinking and teaching architecture was also triggered by the emerging transformation of the city, which startled architects and academics alike. It urged us to stop and think, and begin to theorize what is happening.
Architecture and urbanism are distinct forms of cultural production in the sense that they reflect on the physical manifestation of socioeconomic relations of society and its power structures. The daily experience of urban forms and their visual experiential qualities provides architecture and urbanism with important cultural values grounded in the everyday life of people. Therefore, the production of space in the city is a reflection of the interplay between the prevailing local and global hegemonies that are in a constant strife to construct the image of the city. It is important to understand the power relations among the different actors that are shaping the space. Since the Oslo Accords, we have witnessed a conspicuous urban transformation in Palestine, where spatial continuity is disrupted, triggering a reading of the power structures produced by a new wave of politics and political forms that are taking shape.
We suddenly woke up after nearly a decade of the Oslo Agreements to find out that architecture has become a means of transforming the urban realm into an assemblage of containers, stacking people, homes, businesses and companies on top of each other, and branding the city with what is available only via liberal market forces. The temporality of the urban space and the tendency to replace has become a norm. The liberal destruction of what has no exchange value strengthens and furthers this constancy of disposal and renewal.
The hegemony of exchange value makes the city mobile, movable and transformative like a container harbor, but at a slower rate. When a society loses its organic connection with its history, geography, climate, tradition, language and values, urban space becomes a purely functional setting, like the container, based primarily on utilitarian considerations that can be easily copied and transferred from one place to another. This containerization of urban space, and the fragmentation of the humane, essential for the production of urban space, has its root in the history of colonial policies fragmenting and separating the Palestinians from their geography, society, culture and environment. This phase, which I call the neocolonial era and which happens to coincide with neoliberalism, is marked by a systematic fragmentation of what remains of Palestine. It transforms the long history of political resistance and struggle against occupation into a neoliberal project, to the point of presenting itself as the project for achieving the Palestinian dream.
However, the classical mode of systematic colonial transformation of the occupied territories ceases to be valid at this particular time. The occupation regime shifted from a state of physical presence of its institutions, armies, and personnel in the occupied territories, towards a withdrawal from the archipelago of cities and towns in Areas A and B (38% of the West Bank) to Area C (62% of the West Bank), where the military control and administration is under Israeli military control.
It’s the age of security, as Foucault would describe it, reminding us of the spatial origins of this kind of territorial control by going back to the plague regulation in 16th century Europe as an example of how security mechanisms interweave disciplinary and juridical techniques with the aim of curbing the risks of the plague. In Palestine, the equivalent of the “plague” is “terrorism”. Michel Foucault in his 1977 lecture on security notes that, “these plague regulations involve literally imposing a partitioning grid on the regions and towns struck by plague, with regulations indicating when people can go out, how, at what times, what they must do at home, what type of food they must have, prohibiting certain types of contact, requiring them to present themselves to inspectors, and to open their homes to inspectors.” It’s not a classical form of occupation.
In the archipelago of Palestine, the next step in the plague regime was to tame the rage of the contaminated, cure the Plague, sustain the containment of the plague without getting contaminated and without a leak. Foucault continues to explain how the security mechanism collects information about a particular space, in order to plan its control by using both juridical and disciplinary measures.
I experimented with an example given by Foucault in the same lecture series on security, by replacing the word “criminal” with “Palestinian” and the word “state” with “Israel”, to speculate about the Israeli security regime and what measures they would come up with for securing the plague and healing the contaminated in the archipelago of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The experiment reads as follows: “The general question was how to keep the hazard and risks caused by the “Palestinian Revolt” both in terms of people and local and trans-local political institutions within socially and economically acceptable limits for Israel and around an average that will be considered as optimal for a given social and political setting.”
The security mechanism asks questions and predicts futures, trying to evaluate the future knowledge necessary to control a space. This procedure entirely depends on the idea that control can be arbitrary, since it is a process that permeates into the daily life of people. In the case of Palestine, we woke up one morning and noticed that we were surrounded by a rapidly developing economy. There was no self-questioning because it is so entangled in the ordinary life of Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was established, incorporating all that it entails from executive and governance bodies, controlling and managing the contained and contaminated in the archipelago of areas A and B under the limitations enforced by the Israeli security measures on mobility, exports, imports, donor policies, public and private institutional structures, democracy, governance, government and spatial production.
From a collective political struggle for freedom and independence, the plague was assimilated to the individual consumerist project invading each and every family home. By means of a neoliberal peace concept, wherein economy is considered the remedy, the PA becomes the internally confined administration, designed for governing and driving ahead the assimilation process by administering inoculation to the contaminated and preventing any sort of leak.
Looking at the motto of the annual Palestinian Investment Conference, one could see the transformation of the symbolism of the olive tree. The olive, which has always signified the roots, the connection to the land and the landscape, and the core of the struggle against occupation, is transformed now into a simple resource for investment. The image heralds a new era, where everything is subjected to the new value system of neoliberalism. This is what Palestine is about now: how to sell more olives, how to sell our roots better.
There is an interesting parallel found in an earlier form of globalization, to read a quote from Eric Hobsbawn’s Age of Empire:
This tightening web of transport drew even the backward and previously marginal into the world economy, and created a new interest among the old centers of wealth and development in these remote areas. Indeed, now that they were accessible many of these regions seemed at first sight to be simply potential extensions of the developed world, which were already being settled and developed by men and women of European stock, extirpating or pushing back the native inhabitants, generating cities and doubtless, in due course, ‘economized’ civilization. The European may come, in small numbers, with his capital, his energy and his knowledge to develop a most lucrative commerce, and obtain products necessary to the use of his advanced civilization.
Now, going back to the Plague after understanding the administration of the Cure by inoculation inside the Archipelago, Ramallah seems to be a heaven for setting up the neocolonial liberal control mechanism, the cure. People inside Ramallah, as you may have noticed, hallucinate–as an effect of the treatment against the plague–they dream of independency and state building within the borders of the cities (Area A and B) as if the Palestinian struggle had come to an end and had reached its ultimate dream of independence and freedom. This may be the reason why the current rapid change in the urban appearance is understood as a norm of the current victorious political conditions, while the problematic image of the city with its emergence of new urban forms in housing, commerce and militaristic structures has not been recognized as an aftermath of the colonial political conditions and power relations, neither in the academic nor any other intellectual discourse.
I would like to present some images now, reminding of the issues we have seen and discussed during the bus tour yesterday.
Banks are thriving in Palestine. It seems that capitalism has found a new geography to examine. Everybody is on credit; everybody is on debt; sometimes for twenty or sixty years, or for a lifetime. Life is all about getting more money, paying bills and buying more. Then there are many transnational construction projects in Palestine. They are financed by the Gulf, by the US or by donors whose origin we do not know. Ramallah is full of signs about such projects, anticipating what Palestine is due to become. If you look at one of the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) projects, you could think it’s another Dubai landing on Earth. What we see is that the transnational is invading a space that doesn’t even have the mechanism in place to decide on its future. It’s already penetrating our cities before we get a chance to say yes or no, and decide what we Palestinians see as our future space.
There are striking similarities between new housing projects and already existing settlement patterns. When comparing Psgot, a Jewish settlement, with Al Rawabi, a new Palestinian city, we notice how they engage the landscape in similar ways. There is a strong similarity with the colonial mechanism of gazing at space, fragmenting space, controlling the mountain tops, creating gated communities and fostering elitism in the planning of these housing projects. There is an obvious parallel, however, how we produce space in this neocolonial era is not acknowledged.
Yesterday, we saw the diplomat housing project. Comparing it to Beitar Illit Colony, you can easily see the similarity in spatial production. We risk losing the connection with the heritage. In Palestine, the trend is to always destroy everything we inherited from the past, and start building something new. Instead of investing in the existing rural areas and preparing villages to become suburbs for the expanding cities, we build new settlements and demolish pristine landscapes.
We don’t salvage architectural history and architectural elements. When I was trying to understand why the new architecture is disturbingly close to the colonial, I discovered the loss in architectural elements that produce a “common,” and facilitate social relationships such as small plazas, internal gardens, corridors between the urban blocks, the loggias, the porticos and the stairs connecting one place to another. Our housing projects used such public and common architectural elements. Now it’s like containers standing next to each other where you squeeze people in. Architecture becomes a form of containment, reproducing the colonial strategies.
Another somewhat disturbing occurrence in recent architecture is the social reproduction of militaristic architecture. We copy the wall and watchtowers, and insert them into the political structure. The headquarters for the Palestinian Authority in Al Mukatah is an extraordinary case but it occurs all over Palestine. These architectures suggest that the political entity fears its own people. One is startled to see that the administration uses elements of defense, as if they are afraid of the passerby, of the citizen.
On the other hand, there is a continuous destruction of the old architecture. An earlier wave of this phenomenon happened around the time of the Oslo Agreements, as if we started celebrating Palestine just then, as if Ramallah never existed before. The old heritage, including the thriving cinema culture in the 1940s and 1950s is all forgotten now. With the Oslo Accords came the urge to start everything anew. This trend of starting everything from scratch repeats itself today. Israel was describing the land as if it was empty when the settlers came. For them it was the land of scorpions and stones. We are doing very much the same. We detach ourselves from the past. Rather than starting from our strong and rich foundation and building up from there, we raze to the ground and start anew. It’s taking place in the cultural and architectural scene, and the economy is strongly pushing in that direction.
There is a reinvention of the middle class in Palestine driven by the hallucination of freedom inside the bubble called Ramallah. Suddenly everybody thinks that we are not under occupation. We have banks, we have schools, we have work, and we can move up and have better jobs. The entire Palestinian struggle faded away and we dumped everything on the Palestinian Authority. The political struggle, once, a collective effort originating from our roots, our networks and our rich social life has disappeared, and individuality has become the norm. The point is not to criticize the nightlife of Ramallah, the problem is that it has become the final aim. The ultimate dream is to have a certain nightlife in Ramallah. We need to be aware of how these economic services are transforming the social realm.
There is a major transformation taking place in the organization of the civil society. As an academic institution, Birzeit used to be one of the most active civil organizations. The University was a key figure in the political struggle. Faculty members and students were leading a strong movement in the 1970s and 1980s, denouncing Camp David, demonstrating against occupation, drawing attention to demolished Palestinian villages. They staged actions whereby faculty members and students went to Jalazon refugee camp to pave the streets, and they organized voluntary days in Nazareth to connect with 1948 Palestine. They were a lot more interconnected at that time. There were constant initiatives coming from the students, now we don’t see that anymore.
During our visit at the Birzeit University housing project yesterday, I was startled to hear that these professors are now sitting in USD 600,000 houses. For sure, some of them would be intimidated at the thought of loosing that kind of money, while others are involved in building the Palestinian Authority. These circumstances contributed to the dismantling of the spirit of activism that once was at Birzeit University and its role to wake up the Palestinians. They were very active in producing knowledge that made people look at society through a critical lens by providing a different discourse from the ones of economics or politics.
Shrinking Geography, Shrinking Minds
Adania Shibli, a notorious young Palestinian writer and friend, has researched the correlation between the continuously shrinking geography of Palestinians and the immobility of the characters in her novels. She recently told me: “I’m trying so hard to push this character to leave the room but after 45 pages he is still stuck on the bed of his small room, thinking ‘what is happening to me?’” This prompted Adania’s curiosity about the relation between Palestinian literature and their shrinking geography. She looked into the works of Khalil Sakakini to examine mobility in the Ottoman Empire, which was limitless and rich with cultural diversities and characters. This freedom to move made Sakakini write about a whole journey from Jerusalem to Damascus in only two pages, while Adania Shibli was still struggling to move her character outdoor after 45 pages. She has also examined notions of time and mobility in writers such as Emil Habibi after 1948, Sahar Khleifeh after 1957, as well as other contemporary writers, to find out that a shrinking geography affects the type of knowledge of space that is produced and exchanged within the confined territoriality. It takes characters more time to move from one place to another and it takes more time to describe one character involved in a certain activity in space. Looking at all new writers, they are stuck in a shrinking space, which also means shrinking minds. The tempo is getting slower and slower. This is what happens to us who are closely bound to Ramallah; our production of knowledge is going slower and slower.
I’m very inspired by the people around me, coming from different disciplines. I’ve asked some of them what kind of education we need, because I see it as very important to reclaim civil society and produce alternative knowledge that will give us new binoculars to see what is happening here.
In an interview with Emily Jacir talking about her role in the International Academy of Art Palestine, she said:
“Before discussing my teaching practice, I want to emphasize that though, many in the international community treat us as if we are a sovereign nation with full jurisdictions over resources and our territory, we are STILL under occupation and we continue to suffer Israel’s work in progress. There is an increasing encroachment of colonial spaces such as settlements, military areas, checkpoints, and bypass roads. We do not have freedom of movement within our own country; half of our people can’t get in and half of us can’t get out.
As an educator in Palestine, I implement a multi-faceted approach to my teaching practice as a way of dealing with our complex and fragmented situation, and as a way of resisting Israel’s matrix of occupation. It is imperative to me that the international histories and concepts that I teach are taught hand in hand with local histories and practices with attention to the particulars and specifics of our space. I am also committed to continuously gathering our dispersed historical trajectories together in the classroom. In an effort to deal with these intertwining complexities, I also integrate into the curricula, explorations and examinations of the history and work of other occupied spaces and bodies such as Northern Ireland, Algeria, and South Africa. These parallel struggles play a central role.
Teaching and re-teaching Palestinian histories are of prime importance, as we are living with the constant erasure of ourselves. One factor, which contributes to this cycle of erasure, is the large influx and proliferation of international NGOs, artists and cultural projects, which continuously impose structures on us without any knowledge or awareness of our own educational histories. Generally speaking, the exchange of knowledge in these situations is one-directional and implies building the wheel from scratch.
My efforts in resisting this historical amnesia includes constant collaboration with my colleagues, who I make a point of inviting to my classroom on a regular basis–Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Issam Nasser, Khadeeja Abu Ali, Ahmad Habash, Taysir Anani and Munir Fasheh. I have also made it a part of any class I teach to go on walks. This practice of walking with my students is a form of exchanging and gathering knowledge, as well as a way of attuning students to the minute details of facts on the ground, which change at an alarmingly rapid rate. This walking as teaching was handed down to me by Munir Fasheh years ago, and we continue to walk.”
This is Emily’s way of dealing with education in the art academy. It’s nice to think about different models of exploring and experiencing space rather than following the already existing Anglo-Saxon curriculum.
On the importance of walking as a method of exploring space and creating an alternative personal reservoir of knowledge, I would like to leave you with a reading from Raja Shehadeh’s book Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape:
“I survived my prospects. I could not go to A’yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it has been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah’s expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish Settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the Wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire.
As to the valley to the south where I found the dinosaur footprint, it was now used for target practice by the members of the Palestinian security forces. At night one could hear the staccato dribble of their guns. Its access to A’yn Qenya was also blocked by the army post on the hillock owned by the Rabah family about 550 yards down from the Yad Yair military outpost.
So I decided to consult a map of the hills. I had to. It was not a practice I would have chosen, or it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, sign posted by historical memories and references.”
Finally, I would like to acknowledge how inspirational Decolonizing Architecture–Alessandro Petti, Sandy Hilal and the rest of the crew–has been for my thinking processes about Architecture, and by extension, how I work with my students. Most importantly, it is a concept of architecture as material for thought, rather than a utilitarian discipline, that has been very productive for my research.
This text is an edited transcript of Yazid Anani’s presentation “Academia, The Mirror”, for Designing Civic Encounter Symposium, July 22, 2011.
Yazid Anani (Ramallah) is an assistant professor at the Department of Architecture- Birzeit University, Palestine. He is currently part of several collectives, and projects such as Decolonizing Architecture & Ramallah Syndrome and has curated and co-curated several projects such as Palestinian Cities – Visual Contention and Ramallah – the fairest of them all? He took part in several art projects such as Al-Riyadh together with Emily Jacir, Urban Cafes, and Riwaq Biennale.
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-78. trans. by Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Hobsbawn, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, New York: Vintage Books, 1989: p.74
Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape. London: Profile Books, 2008.
Published November 3, 2011.