Mahdi Sabbagh’s Their Borders, Our World explores Palestine through the lens of Black and Indigenous architects, journalists, and scholars

Mahdi Sabbagh, a Palestinian PhD candidate at Columbia GSAPP,  co-curated The Palestine Festival of Literature in 2019. Part of his mission that year was to make the event “explicitly spatial” so he invited urbanists, architects, and planners to PalFest which historically had focused on literary figures. In turn, Sabbagh asked architecture educators Samia Henni, Mabel O. Wilson, Leopold Lambert, and Keller Easterling to participate. Their responses, recorded in the form of essays, are part of a new anthology edited by Sabbagh titled Their Borders, Our World: Building New Solidarities with Palestine.

Their Borders, Our World was published recently by Haymarket Books. Its contents productively focus on Palestine, solidarity, and resisting colonialism. The texts also explore how Israeli force uses architecture as a mode of population control and oppression. Other contributors include journalist Yasmin El-Rifae; poet Jehan Bseiso; anthropologists Dina Omar, Kareem Rabie, and Omer Shah; authors Tareq Baconi and Ellen Van Neerven; and filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton.

Each essayist responds to their experience in Palestine and grapples with hard questions. How do we make sense of the destruction, uprooting, and pain endured in the region? And given our seemingly impossible reality, how is mutuality constructed?

In years past, Sabbagh was a contributor to Open Gaza, another important anthology edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp. More recently, he wrote for Curbed about the war’s toll on Palestine’s cities and communities. Sabbagh also recently reviewed the documentary film Bye Bye Tiberias for New York Review of Architecture.

ANs Daniel Jonas Roche interviewed Sabbagh to learn more about Their Borders, Our World.

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(Courtesy Mahdi Sabbagh)

AN: Many people who read this book will be learning about Palestine for the first time in its pages. What will architects and general readers take away from it?

Mahdi Sabbagh (MS): Today, Palestine is typically portrayed as a place that’s being eradicated, a place full of death, a testing ground for technology and weapons. This book tries to push back against that by centering Palestinian perspectives and first hand accounts of Palestine. It explores how Palestine is far more than a testing ground for weapons: It is a world in of itself. This means that Palestine, its cities, its villages, and its communities harbor thought, philosophy, ideas, and practices that form a whole world. 

I don’t think that this book is novel in that sense. Lots of different books, literature, history, social and political analyses have demonstrated this. But in this case I think the book is different because we approach Palestine from a spatial angle. We look at how people are resilient in how they care for their cities and lands, and how they themselves make space, and speak and think about space.

AN: The book features contributions by several architects, including yourself. Why is it important for architecture to engage with Palestine and Palestinians?

MS: A lot of the questions about Palestine I usually get in architecture spaces tend to be: How can we help? How can design help? I think this book shows that design sometimes isn’t the first step. Sometimes it isn’t the answer. Sometimes the first step for architects needs to be to just listen. In the case of Palestine, this means listening to what Palestinians need.

When you position yourself in solidarity it’s fundamental to listen to people on the ground and not immediately jump into action. Architects are trained to jump in using their design skills. There’s a real disjuncture, I think, between how architects think the world works and their position in it, and then how the world actually functions. This book asks architects in the case of Palestine and other colonized worlds to slow down and take a back seat.

One example I’ll give came a few months ago when I was asked to participate in a university workshop about rebuilding Gaza. I was baffled by this request. I mean, Gaza is still being bombed and its people continue to suffer under a ruthless genocide. When I heard the request, I understood that it was coming from a place of wanting to help, but not a place of truly listening to Palestinians. Today, what Palestinians are saying is: Permanent ceasefire now, open the borders, let in aid, restore our fundamental right to unobstructed mobility in both directions, and most importantly, leave us alone. Gaza belongs to Gazans, and Gazans belong to Gaza: It is for them to determine how it should be rebuilt.

AN: How did the project start?

MS: The book basically started in 2019. That year, I was invited to co-curate PalFest. I was asked to bring urbanists, architects, and planners to the festival which, prior to 2019, was largely focused on literary figures and poets. As curators we wanted to introduce new ways of looking at what’s happening in Palestine. The year 2019 was really the first year we said, “let’s make PalFest explicitly spatial.” 

The occupation of Palestine has always been spatial, of course, manifesting in conditions like checkpoints and walls. Our process began by taking authors to different cities in Palestine so they could see exactly how the occupation is constructed, what it looks like materially, and trying to understand things like discriminatory zoning and regulations. We really benefited from inviting new people from different geographies to look at the space and scrutinize it.

All this thinking fueled PalFest 2019. Mabel Wilson, Samia Henni, and Leopold Lambert were there, and so was Keller Easterling who was my professor in architecture school. I think it was a really important festival for a few reasons, but mostly because it led to several collaborations between the different people who attended. After PalFest, conversations continued, and we had the idea of writing a volume with a bunch of essays that captured what people experienced when they visited Palestine through the lens of the built environment. 

A few of the book’s contributors, including anthropologists and spatial thinkers, didn’t participate in the 2019 PalFest, but their work deals with Palestine’s built environment and its colonization in ways that felt fundamental to the mission of the book. These writers ask: What does colonization really mean? How is it experienced? How is Palestine mapped and what kind of power dynamics do these maps uphold? The book is ultimately about understanding power through architecture.

AN: What was the editing process like?

MS: Each of the ten essays takes a very different approach, and none of the essays reach the same conclusions, which I’m very happy about. Omer Shah and Kareem Rabie are both anthropologists, so the details they pay attention to are different from other contributors. For instance, the human experience and human scale are a lot more centered in their work. There are also two pieces by poets.

I’ve never edited anthropologists or poets before. So, I learned a lot of new references from that process. They explain architecture differently than an architectural historian would. Overall, I think this made the book somewhat novel—all of the different approaches and conclusions it makes. It was a thrill to bring these different voices together. 

book layout
(Courtesy Mahdi Sabbagh)

AN: Can you give a preview of some of the essays? 

MS: Samia Henni’s essay is this really interesting investigation into nuclear technology under French occupation in Algeria. Her piece draws connections between this system and more contemporary Israeli colonial projects. Samia basically looks at how nuclear technology is central to both the French and Israeli colonial project, and how at some points colonial nuclear knowledge was transmitted from France to Israel. It goes to show how many colonial projects have more in common than we often think they do; not just symbolically, but also technologically.

Samia’s piece thinks about the solidarity between French and Israeli colonial projects, which sheds light on both. Why would one country share its nuclear technology with another country if they didn’t have shared interests, right? I think Samia’s piece really distills this beautifully. It can be read as a warning of how we’re up against something much bigger. It opens up the possibility for solidarity in and with other places, too.

Keller’s piece is also really essential to the volume. It’s called “Try to be in Palestine,” and comes in the beginning to lay the groundwork. This piece calls on all of us to center Palestine in how we think about the world itself. It makes a very compelling dive into Palestine’s planetary position, with the Non-Aligned Movement, the Pan-African Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, among others. Keller connects these movements to Palestine to show how Palestine has always been there. That’s a very short summary; I will let Keller’s own writing speak for itself!

Mabel’s piece concerns the violence of architecture. She walks us through her firsthand experience of crossing into Palestine from Jordan, driving and walking around in Palestine, and looking at different landscapes. She describes the architecture of occupation and apartheid, specifically how checkpoints separate and therefore extend a spatial hierarchy into the streets and cities that they divide up. She reads all of this through the prism of [Frantz] Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Palestine felt familiar for Mabel, she said, because it reminded her of Jim Crow. For her, the connection between Palestine and Jim Crow is hauntingly clear. 

Ellen Van Neerven is a Mununjali poet from “so-called Australia.” She chose to write about soccer to discuss Australian geography. Soccer fields in Australia were built on Aboriginal land, and the fields themselves prescribe which activities are—and aren’t—allowed. For instance, it’s easy to step on a field and begin playing a game of soccer, but if Aboriginal people were to congregate in other ways, perhaps ways illegible to or unrecognized by Australian settler society, the police would immediately arrive and stop them.

Van Neerven’s piece simultaneously looks at the history of soccer in Palestine, and the attacks and assaults on Palestinian football players. Many soccer players from Gaza have been maimed and can no longer play. I never would have thought to write about soccer, but the way Van Neerven uses it to access solidarity thought works so well.

(Courtesy Mahdi Sabbagh)

AN: What did you learn from these non-Palestinian voices?

MS: It was an honor to have Black and Indigenous writers look at Palestine with their own lived experiences. This exercise gave us so much clarity and was extremely useful for us Palestinians to learn from. For us it revealed new reference points and opened up new horizons. 

I think many people will see the book as a response to these last several months. But in fact, every idea in the book has been in the works for years. I think an important point to make is that the processes of genocide in Palestine are now more visible than ever before, but the conditions that led to genocide have been happening for much longer.

The genocide happening right now is unique in its brutality and in its visibility. But it’s not the first time that a colonized people are being eliminated. So all of our thoughts about solidarity predate these past waves of violence. As the editor of Their Borders, Our World, I have no control over how the book is received, but I do want to emphasize that the book should be understood in this broader arc of history. 

The Nakba is ongoing, and I think that the pieces really bring that point home. Some of the pieces show this historically while others focus on contemporary identities and geographies. I really hope this book destigmatizes talking about Palestine and demystifies the place. I also hope it shows how there are many, many ways to enter solidarity networks with Palestinians. I hope it is received like an invitation to join in.

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