ER '20

Kafr Aqab’s
Unbearable Futures

An interview with architect Rula Zuhour
on mapping a Palestinian neighborhood
and its possible futures.
By Leah Gallant

Leah Gallant  (MAVCS 2020) is the arts editor at
F Newsmagazine. Like
Brad Pitt, she is mostly
made of water.

Illustration by Rula Zuhour

A product of contradictory and dehumanizing Israeli policies and practices, the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab, which is located within Jerusalem’s city boundaries but outside of the separation barrier, is characterized by dense high rise buildings and poor infrastructure. Kafr Aqab is the thesis subject of recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) graduate Rula Zuhour, who completed her Master of Architecture (MArch) degree in 2020. Her thesis, which won the 2020 Schiff Architecture Fellowship, and which will be published in full by Chicago-based architecture press MAS Context this fall, uses mapping and data visualization to critically examine the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab and suggest its possible futures.

Like many Palestinian neighborhoods, it lacks basic services, with no access to healthcare and water utilities available only two days a week for its 80,000 residents. One of the reasons for its high population density is the complex and segregationist set of policies that makes up the Israeli ID system, which requires that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza hold different IDs that limit the areas they can access. This means that Kafr Aqab is one of only a few areas where Palestinian families who hold different IDs can live together.

We talked about why architecture is inherently political, how racist and anti-Black policies and practices in the United States relate to Israel’s apartheid system, and what Kafr Aqab might look like in fifty years.

Leah Gallant: You practiced as an architect in Palestine for six years before coming to SAIC, and you mentioned in an earlier conversation your concern that to continue to practice as you were would mean contributing to inequality rather than confronting it. Can you tell me about your previous work as an architect, and what you meant by how it would contribute to inequality? 

Rula Zuhour: I had a fairly traditional, capital-A architecture education. It was part of an engineering department where we learned about architectural design, urban design, and structure. When I graduated, I was very design-centric and just wanted to design beautiful spaces, which led me to a series of jobs where, as is historically true, architecture serves only the wealthy and the privileged, even within a context of occupation. 

Many practices are breaking from that paradigm and shifting their focus from answering to market demand to serving the interests of the community, but I feel like as a whole discipline, we still struggle to see that architecture is inherently political, whether it’s in Palestine or in the U.S. I didn't want to take part in projects that not only weren't addressing those issues, but were sometimes even involved in demolishing historic buildings that represent our heritage, our existence, and our history. Some were also harmful to the environment, by relying on quarries in Palestine, for example. I really wanted to learn more about how architecture is inherently political, and now I can see that every decision that goes into designing spaces actively includes and excludes certain communities, impacts their movement, and reflects a certain identity. When architecture does not confront inequality, it automatically becomes complicit in it. This is especially true in Palestine, because any building that does not address the occupation, whether it's in Israel or Palestine, ignores the fact that the very space in which the building resides is weaponized and used as a tool for oppression. 

LG: Can you give some examples of a couple of specific projects you were working on?

RZ: One eye-opening major project that I worked on was with a client who got funding from Qatar and started building his whole empire, a city called Rawabi, which grossly depicted the aesthetics of an Israeli settlement. This was extremely problematic for Palestinian identity and heritage, and even the idea of a closed community, or one that serves only a certain class of people, is alien to Palestinians. Rawabi also exploits cheap Palestinian labor and buys Israeli products, it’s very controversial. In addition, while working for Senan Abdelqader, a Palestinian architect with an Israeli passport, I worked on projects in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and being able to see both sides of the architecture process, whether it's east or west of the wall, was very eye-opening to me.

LG: Can you talk a bit about the role the future plays in this project? The way you have the project structured now, it's broken into five sections that look at the present conditions and policies that have led to why Kafr Aqab looks the way it does. Namely, how the future can figure as a sort of fantasy to critique the present, as with a
lot of science fiction, dystopian or otherwise. However, your work looks at several possible futures, none of which present a humane resolution because they are extensions of the oppressive Israeli policies that have shaped Kafr Aqab. Are there solutions that you see within architecture, even if small-scale ones, or do you think that although architecture can be a way to look at how the Israeli state’s apartheid legislation manifests spatially, paths towards justice can only happen in other disciplines, or through other means?

RZ: I’m struggling with that critical question, of what it means to work with speculative architecture in this context. Some professors tried to direct me towards “subversive speculative intervention,” which is a new cool thing in architecture, but all my research, and even the role I want to play as a Palestinian, and as an architect, led me to an investigative speculative approach. And I think that small-scale architectural interventions will do a whole lot for a neighborhood like Kafr Aqab, it is completely neglected by the city, so any kind of design service would have a great impact.

As a Palestinian, the only humane soluation for Kafr Aqab is to allow its residents to return to Jerusalem, to move freely, and to live with their families regardless of their ID color — or even dismantling the whole ID system, having no walls, abolishing the “center of life” law, and providing equal civil rights to Palestinians. And as I show in the Israel's colonization apparatus map, you can see that this apparatus is so complex and intricate that it becomes impossible to imagine a different reality. I tried to do it, and I thought I would have to redesign the whole region and start from scratch. It’s a reality that we’ve been living with since we were born. 

Many Palestinians are inspired by Afrofuturism, and, like African Americans, they use fiction to reimagine their homeland. While fiction can be an outlet, the fact that the reality is so traumatic and dystopic led me to use speculation as a tool to reveal the present stakes of Israeli policies and practices. To elaborate more on that, I think that while Native Americans and African Americans are dealing with a sort of aftermath of an apocalypse, Palestinians are at a different moment in time, where we are very much living in the apocalypse. In order to imagine a post-apocalyptic world, one needs to identify and anticipate the extent and impact of an apocalypse. Especially right now, in light of the annexation of the West Bank, it felt critical to me to illustrate that the annexation was not a decision that was made overnight, or a single chess move that Israel was making, but the culmination of decades of oppression only made possible by the displacement of Palestinians, the expropriation of their land, and the complete control over its natural resources. 

LG: I’m curious about the lives of architecture projects like this, that are speculative or analytical projects that are exhibited at progressive, anti-capitalist, or anti-imperialist architecture biennials or published in print — i.e., they don’t become realized buildings, but they also have this concreteness or potential reality to them. How do you situate your work in relationship to the work of analysis and speculation in architecture, and who is your ideal audience for this work?

RZ: This type of work is especially popular in architecture biennials, and since architecture is so solution-oriented, and traditionally serves a certain class of people, biennials become a platform for wider audiences and students to explore new topics and challenge current paradigms in the discipline. Within the Israeli-Palestinian context, Israel has also used pavilions in architectural biennials to construct false political and historical narratives. The most obvious example that comes to me is Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal’s exhibition in the 2002 International Union of Architects congress in Berlin, which was about how the Israeli state uses architecture and planning. That exhibition was hugely opposed and censored by Israel, and when something is so violently opposed, you know how powerful of a tool it can be in constructing an opposing narrative. This is exactly what my thesis attempts to do, by taking part in creating this larger narrative which is crucial to keeping the Palestinian identity and cause alive. For me, as an architect, that's the first step to catalyzing true change, rather than the superficial solutions that we usually resort to. 

“When architecture does not confront inequality,
it automatically becomes complicit in it.”

LG: You mentioned in an earlier conversation how many stories there are about how the occupation shapes Palestinian lives, and wanting to do something that’s more research- or fact-based. Can you expand on what you mean by that? 

RZ: I think using both research and stories can help form a deeper understanding of any human condition, but especially the Palestinian one, because it’s so grossly misrepresented and undermined. Between research and stories, there is both a shift in scale when addressing this kind of condition, and it’s also key to have both to identify the root of the issue. Stories humanize people who are affected and impacted by these practices and policies. This reminds me of a quote that really touched me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, addressing his son: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body.” And presenting the research alone tends to distract from the fact that human lives are at stake, whereas sharing stories alone makes one think of those experiences as sad, unfortunate, isolated events, which might stop us from seeing the issues that are systemic and intentional. The story that I share in my thesis was purposefully a typical one within the context. It wasn’t unique or extreme, because I wanted to emphasize how obscene and typical that reality is, and the fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians share the same story.

LG: In your thesis, you write that in Kafr Aqab, “architecture and urban planning are instruments of dispossession, displacement, and control” that work in tandem with legal policies and other forms of enforcement. How has your work with Kafr Aqab informed how you understand other human rights issues, Palestinian or otherwise? And in thinking about spatial inequality in Palestine vs. in the United States, what has surprised you in terms of similarities or differences?

RZ: I’ve only been in Chicago for two years, but studying at SAIC, I've learned about the extreme segregation and disparities within Chicago, and I’ve found so many parallels between Jerusalem and Chicago, like lack of access to facilities, healthcare, and education, and heavy surveillance and policing. Redlining and discriminatory real estate practices in Chicago echo policies and practices in Jerusalem, where Palestinian neighborhoods are extremely under-served, receiving only 10% of the city budget for 40% of the population, and the areas for expansion for Palestinian neighborhoods are only a fraction of what is allocated for Jewish neighborhoods. The building permit system and house demolition practice in Jerusalem also resembles the building violation practice in Chicago, where in Jerusalem 78% of building violations take place in West Jerusalem, but 87% of house demolitions due to violations take place in Palestinian neighborhoods. And the same in Chicago, building violations take place disproportionately in Black neighborhoods because of their lack of access to services, and these result in displacement and the vacant lots that we see today. For example, homes in Woodlawn and Washington Park, in the South Side, have been undergoing so much vacancy and demolition since the 1930’s that there has been a 70% reduction in building density and over 600 vacant properties in Washington Park alone. 

As for the built environment, and architecture being used as an instrument of inequality, Palestinian enclaves are outlined by concrete walls and wire fences, whereas in Chicago, Black neighborhoods are often outlined by highways and parks, so they’re both being used for segregation. There’s also the issue of displacement: Palestinians in refugee camps who were displaced in 1948 are being displaced again, as my thesis shows, and African Americans who came to Chicago during the Great Migration are again being displaced due to gentrification practices. Even at the scale of the individual and the relationship between the human body to space, especially now with everything that's happening within Palestine and the U.S., we hear a lot of comparisons between driving while Black or driving while Palestinian. Just as an individual going about your day, you’re incredibly aware of your own body, and cautious about stepping on an imaginary boundary, like a white person’s lawn if you’re Black, or stepping out of a line at an Israeli checkpoint if you’re Palestinian.
A very similar visceral experience between the two, and one story that really resonated with me, is one I heard from Jahmal Cole of “My Block, My Hood, My City,” where he talks about Black children in the South Side being able to see the infamous Chicago skyline on the horizon, with the belief that they cannot physically go there, even though it’s one train or bus ride away. It’s the same reality in Palestine.
For Palestinians, it’s especially being able to see the sea from a distance on a clear day and knowing that this is not accessible to you because of who you are. Those similarities and parallels are something I’m very interested in further exploring in the future.

LG: Are there any differences that have stood out to you?

RZ: There are so many variables when you are Palestinian that you have to consider and anticipate. At any moment a decision like the annexation can be made, and your whole life can be turned upside-down. Home ownership is an aspect that is similar in some aspects, where a person’s whole life can be around you getting ownership of a home, but for Palestinians its loss might be more violent. You could physically have your house demolished and you would have to pay for the fees to demolish your home.

LG: What has your experience been like working on this project at SAIC, in terms of how students and faculty respond, and how much knowledge base they have? Have you experienced any freedom of speech or censorship issues while working on this project?

RZ: Fortunately, I did not experience any form of censorship, which was incredibly surprising to me, because I was expecting to be shunned and dismissed. A lot of faculty and students lacked the knowledge of the history, but this wasn’t a huge issue for me, it didn’t bother me because I was mostly happy to explain the history. Sometimes I grew tired of it, because I felt like it was my job to educate everyone, and sometimes I just wanted to focus on my work rather than do that. 

What was most problematic for me was what some faculty wanted from my project. For example, one of the responses I got from faculty or critics at reviews was, “Why don’t you do something provocative or dystopic.” My response to this was, this is already provocative, it’s already dystopic, the sight of homes being demolished and cages at checkpoints is dystopic, and what could be more ‘provocative’ than an ID system that discriminates based on race? And it was incredibly transparent to me when faculty members, whether they had knowledge of the geopolitics or not, were primarily interested in the products of my thesis as something cool or provocative, not to amplify my voice, but to use it as a tool to market the department as being inclusive or progressive or radical. This sort of exploitation and tokenism is not unique to SAIC, but for me, as a Palestinian, we are almost always grateful for any chance or platform to represent ourselves, express ourselves freely, and advocate for our human rights, because we’re so often shunned and dismissed.

The uprising following the murder of George Floyd also opened my eyes to the practices of exploitation, tokenism, and woke-washing, which happens both in Israel and the U.S. That being said, that struggle was hugely outweighed by incredible faculty members and students who supported me and were very compassionate, and who gave me the courage to present and talk about this project to rooms or Zoom calls with sometimes very uncomfortable audiences.

LG: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RZ: I hope to connect with people who have similar interests, and to start working on similar projects, both in Palestine and in Chicago, that use architecture as an investigative tool to help communities be seen by the world. I’m hugely interested in drawing more parallels between the Black and Palestinian causes, because I feel like we can learn from each other, support each other, and hopefully build a better future for both. f

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