North Africa, West Asia

Homage to deformed cities

Gaza. Is there a city beyond the slogans?

Rana Baker
19 January 2015
Gaza city. Demotix. All rights reserved.

Gaza city. Demotix. All rights reserved.I often think, while Um Kulthoum sighs through soprano stanzas, rounding her lips in a perfect melodious circle, that Gaza, like Um Kulthoum for nationalist Arab hippies, is a hotbed of clichés. Having been away from it for fourteen months now, I am realising, or finally admitting, that it is desirably ugly. The ugliness, and its desirability, are, despite their apparent contradiction, plausible both materially and metaphysically. I say “desirable” in an irreducibly nostalgic manner, while recalling moments of merciless mundane ridiculousness.

Still on Um Kulthoum’s rounded lips, perhaps we can ride in on one of her couplets and take a detour to Gaza’s seashore, where her songs are trumpeted every summer evening. Along the horizon, where the broiling sun surrenders into the sea, Israeli warships flaunt about in sheer arrogance, the clamour of their motors cutting through ebbs and flows, and savoury conversations.

Pretentious as we have learned to become, we act as if the warships are a meaningless abstraction, as part of a languid landscape verging on nature. The shells of watermelon seeds do not cease to be released, littering, in varied intensities, the damp sandy crystals of the Mediterranean. Floating children neither budge nor put their pee on hold, but everyone curses or gasps, like a chorus, when the lights go off. Um Kulthoum’s vociferous melancholy, meanwhile, drowns in the indifferent hums of power generators.

Gaza beach. Wikimedia commons.

Gaza beach. Wikimedia commons.

Gaza is a boring case of overworked notions of steadfastness. An exercise in grounding them in Gaza’s present context is a foray into bottomless nihilism. Gaza is constantly misread, but it is squarely to blame for it breathes, less intelligibly every day, between the lines of somnambulatory gibberish blurted out by sumptuous politicians, pontificating analysts, and posturing activists so overtaken by their verbose obscenities that they clench their eyes shut rather than see that Gaza is pretentious, but not steadfast. “Steadfastness” is a discordant chord that Gaza takes no interest in striking.

Gaza revels in its profanity, in tantalisingly wading through gibberish while declining any form of intimacy with one or another contending rhetorician. It misreads its own existence, but only because it coyly recognises that every misreading, after all, is a reading and that the former is a quintessential element of the latter. Between the lines, Gaza carves out an antinomian, unaccepting and distinctively supercilious, existence. It despises steadfastness down to its innermost core, down to Shuja’iyya. Steadfastness implies patience, and only the non-haughty are ready to wait.

Gaza, the concept, its referent of “steadfastness,” exists only outside of itself. Inside, “steadfastness” is a stray word. Gaza cannot, however, delimit its outside from its inside. Perhaps, it is increasingly suspecting, there is no outside. Aleppo and Fallujah, are they outside, or are their throbbing wounds interlaced with Gaza’s deformity? Less a question than a statement, a declaration of allegiance, perhaps.

Deformed cities have no outside. Their outside is their inside. They will, one day probably, re-emerge, as superficially elegant as Beirut or two or three notches more elegant. Then, maybe they will have an outside, a very oppressive, but undeniably glamorous one. Their inside, one hopes, will not resemble the ugliness of Beirut, which dresses up every morning, and wields a searing whip made of contemptuous nationalism to lash the Syrians and Palestinians, who occupy, the same, presently freezing, inside.

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