In Conversation with Mahdi Sabbagh: MED Working Group and The Architecture Lobby


Abolition in Practice?

Volume 9, Issue 03
December 1, 2023

Mahdi Sabbagh (MArch ‘15) is a writer, architect, and urbanist. He is a co-curator of PalFest, the Palestine Festival of Literature. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Columbia GSAPP.

The following interview was conducted by members of the MED Working Group and the Architecture Lobby and on November 7, 2023. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

MED+TAL: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today. We have all been thinking about what has been going on in Gaza. The late historian Patrick Wolfe identified settler colonialism with a “logic of elimination.” This system relies upon conceptions of racial difference in order to rationalize the genocide of indigenous populations and assert dominion over land. Is Wolfe’s framing relevant to understanding the ongoing removal of Palestinians?

Mahdi Sabbagh: I think we’re always looking for words that make sense of everything that is going on. We are always looking for words that define the entire project—the entire enterprise of settler occupation. And I don’t think that word exists. In fact, the reason I like the words “settler-colonial” or “settler colonialism” is because they are umbrella terms that can include a lot of ideas about occupation. So, in the current phase of Israeli occupation—let’s call it either “Israeli expansion” or “Israeli war of elimination”—I do think that the term (settler colonialism) is relevant. But in the current formulation that we’re seeing today, certain terms that we have used historically to talk about settler colonialism are all of a sudden no longer useful, and they’re no longer descriptive. So “apartheid” could be a term that is helpful for understanding the slow violence of the everyday. It is helpful to explain the violence of structural inequality, like the inability for Palestinians to seek justice.

I think the way colonialism works is the way it has always worked. But we’re seeing it blatantly now. I think this is a moment of clarity. It’s unfathomable what we’re seeing, and we Palestinians are having a hard time making sense of it. But it is by no means surprising. Basically, the point I want to make about language is that you need a term that can encompass all of these different violent tactics that are being used. One of them is a system of apartheid, but another one is elimination. And elimination was there from the beginning. Elimination is a mode that has been used episodically in the history of settler colonialism in Palestine, or what Rashid Khalidi calls the Hundred-Years’ War on Palestine. I think that is a good formulation—that there are moments of elimination where Israel itself will bend its rules and bend its laws in order to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to occupy as much land as possible and allow as few native people as possible. This is the entire goal. So what’s happening now in Gaza is mirroring things that we’re very familiar with that happened in the Nakba in 1948. Some people are not talking about it because they’re scared to make that analogy, but it evokes what happened in 1948. At the very least, that is something you can’t argue against. In that respect, occupation still stands, and apartheid still stands, but these are different tools that are used during different stages. At the moment, these tools are used in only parts of historic Palestine. In other parts, there is a war of elimination. What I think we’re realizing is that one (apartheid) leads to the other (elimination) in the case of Zionist settler colonialism

If the logic is to cut the relationship between people and their land and then remove the people, then all those tools are at the disposal of that ultimate goal. I have been looking at some of the early Zionist writings, which I find to be really telling, and this is helpful when there’s pushback on the use of the term “settler colonialism.” For example, look at the words of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s. He uses the term “Zionist colonization.” There is this objection: How can it be settler-colonial if this is the ancestral land of Jewish people? Although, hopefully, that question is not being asked in academic circles any longer.

MED+TAL: Oh, I think it absolutely appears in academic circles. Occasionally, one hears people saying, “Israel is really the first decolonial project of nation-building.” That stuff.

MS: Well, this is where I think you have work, and I have work. This is something that you can teach quite easily. You can debunk this quite easily. It’s also about considering notions of what it means to be native or indigenous and questioning those.

MED+TAL: The Palestinian resistance against settler-colonial violence is distinctly architectural. Palestinians know that Israeli occupying forces will continue to demolish their homes, with bombs or bulldozers, and yet through sumud, or “steadfast perseverance,” they continue to build their communities. You observe, “When a Palestinian family renovates their home or adds a room or a patio, it is a form of defiance, stemming from a sense of sumud… . The very act of building becomes an extension of life.” Does architectural sumud hold significance in the current moment when such unimaginable devastation is being wrought?

MS: There’s a way in which sumud, I think, is relevant now. I think it still stands for what’s happening in Gaza today. The fact that there are about 400,000 people who remain in Gaza City and are not leaving even though they’ve been asked to leave, and even though they might all get killed—that is sumud. The idea that your life will be threatened, but you’re choosing to stay put—that’s exactly the tactic of resistance that we are seeing from the people in Gaza, among other tactics and forms of resistance, which I don’t need to get into here. But that’s what sumud specifically looks like. Sumud is choosing to stay alive. So it could also mean picking up and going to the south to what is essentially a concentration camp that Israel is designing down there. I think it is a really useful term. And I might be criticized for saying it that way because there’s also the pushback that we’ve used sumud as a tactic of life for the last 75 years. It is important to ask what it has led to. People are still being removed from their homes, and villages are still being destroyed. But I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. Sumud means that you choose to position yourself against the grain of the settler colonial project. So, instead of making it easier, you make it harder for them.

I mean, sumud is resistance—a way to say, “We haven’t forgotten that our lands are on both sides of the border. These are our lands.” Most people in Gaza are refugees, and that is a very important fact. I don’t think you can look at sumud as simply to stay put in one’s house. I think it also implies a kind of perseverance that directs you towards life, towards living, and towards surviving. It is not just a passive thing, it’s also an active thing. Sumud sometimes means taking the political solution into your own hands and saying, “No, I’m going back to my land.” There’s something in this act that I think is important to understand and talk about.

MED + TAL: Your discussion of sumud suggests a radical way of viewing architectural practice. So much of what we teach and practice is about designing for prosperity. But, especially in a site of active colonization, it is urgent to think about how design can advance freedom and liberation. How can we reimagine the design studio as a space of resistance? Given the complicity of our discipline in settler colonialism, both presently and historically, is this even a fair question to ask?

MS: From a design perspective, what if you were to approach the Gaza Strip without starting at the border at all? You look at it instead from the position of this city that has existed for 4,000 years. It has an immense history. It’s one of those cities that has so much archeology beneath it that you could tell the story of the entire region through Gaza. This region, this entire area of historic Palestine, was completely destroyed. All those villages were destroyed. These Israeli towns, which in the Palestinian narrative we call “settlements,” were built on top of our villages.

There is a way to look at the past and the future simultaneously. One could take a position, for example, to not center the border and not center the colonial apparatus. You might come across other relations to land; you might come across other ways to do this, and you would very quickly realize that there is no place for the border. Palestinians reject this border, and categorically all borders, but this border in particular. And that is the violence that should be centered if you’re talking about violence.

But again, if you’re talking about a place like Gaza, I would love to see a studio that centers the kind of worldview of the refugees themselves. You would also quickly realize that this narrative of the refugees in camps who can be moved around doesn’t hold because that’s not how they see themselves. They don’t believe that. They know that is not true. And they know exactly where they want to be. They know exactly what that looks like. And there’s knowledge in that connection. I think you can completely implode the entire narrative that this is a place full of refugees that has a border around it that needs to be solved from the outside. There are already solutions there. And I think that is where I get a lot of inspiration. Even with all the bombs and starvation, people’s connection to the land continues.