A metro for Gaza – unveiling the underground
Karl Schembri - 26/12/2011
For years now, Gaza’s underground tunnels linking the blockaded enclave to Egypt have served as a lifeline that keeps the 1.6 million Palestinians going on with their lives, albeit under cruel conditions. Tunnels have become a symbol of Palestinians’ enterprising resilience.
For Mohammed Abusal they are much more than a symbol and in them lies a long-term vision for the future – an underground metro train that would solve Gaza’s traffic congestion problems and pollution.
The idea sounds bizarre at a time when construction material is completely banned by Israel from entering the strip, not to mention the weekly air raids on the tunnels and the rest of the civilian infrastructure. But 35-year-old artist Mohammed Abusal is extremely serious about it – so much so that he designed his own underground metro grid for Gaza in a project that put him out on the streets confronting people with his unorthodox idea.
“I feel angry that we are so overcrowded and densely populated in Gaza. There is no system for public transport,” he explains. “When the siege was imposed on us and the tunnels started working, we started getting lots of new vehicles from Egypt. A lot of them were completely new for Gaza – like the tuktuks and motorcycles. A lot of old polluting cars kept being repaired just to keep them on the roads, and we started using very cheap gasoline from Egypt that is extremely polluting. This makes me angry, also because there are lots of diseases that children are getting, cancer-inducing pollution affecting the entire population.
“I started focusing on this problem, thinking a lot about it. I spent a lot of time thinking of how I could find a solution and present it as an artwork. It’s a visual solution, not a real solution because I’m not an engineer or working in the government. It’s a dream, an idea I’m putting out there, to get people to think of another kind of life we would have if we had an underground metro.”
The idea came to his mind on his latest visit to Paris last summer, where he was artist in residence and had his first solo exhibition there.
“I was using the metro all the time, and it dawned on me that this was a great solution. Paris is a big city and pretty overcrowded, but they have a solution. They have an electric train that does not use gasoline, it’s good for the environment, and it encourages people to use it as public transport to arrive anywhere. So I started researching about this. I visited the French company that produced the train and discussed with them at length about the shape of Gaza and what is possible within the territory. They were very interested in the idea and we spent a long time discussing whether the Gaza Strip would need one or two or more lines – because it is quite long – and whether we’d need a tram or an underground metro. The solution is the latter. It’s a dream: it can cut the traffic and a lot of the pollution. In Gaza we’re now experienced in digging holes and tunnels underground so we must use that experience to good use now. We are underground experts.”
At times it’s hard to tell if Abusal is pulling your leg, and that kind of irony is present throughout his installation held at the French Cultural Centre in Gaza City, in which he presents a metro system with a trademark ‘M’ sign photographed all over Gaza, from the tunnels area in Rafah to Gaza Harbour and further up north.
The grid map, designed on the same programme used by the French train company, took him two months to finish.
“I designed the big ‘M’ brand sign for this underground metro as well as some funny signs that can be used on the roads in Gaza, and then I went to 70 different points with my sign post, in the places that are designated as train stops on my map, and I photographed them. What was most interesting was the people’s reaction. It was very positive. A lot of people were positively surprised; they started thinking about the idea and discussing it. People started asking me lots of questions, caught between belief and disbelief, some cracked jokes and others felt lost but were still engaged. Some told me that with the current security situation and daily Israeli attacks maybe this would not be a safe option. It was fascinating getting the people’s feedback. I wanted people to feel that, temporarily, they had a solution in front of them, that there was a train station.”
Abusal’s artistic venture is somehow planting an idea by presenting it as if it was already normal reality. By imagining a metro in Gaza and ignoring all the problems brought by the blockade – most especially the ban on construction material from entering Gaza – Abusal is presenting this alternative as if it were an immediately viable option.
“Here I am presenting 30 photos taken in the Gaza Strip – very normal places – but with something totally new. There is a metro sign, one of 70 metro entry points. This is my experience and in this exhibition I am presenting this by exhibiting not only painting, not only photography, but I mix between technology, science and art. Art gives us a solution and an alternative. This is social art that interact with people and grows with their vision and feedback. It’s a work in progress because a lot of people are now interested; so it’s bound to grow. A lot of people asked me about the idea. Now I feel I am part of this dream, or future project.”
Of course, Mohammed is fully aware of the huge obstacles to such a project, although he strongly believes it can happen.
“It can happen. If the political situation becomes more stable, then we’d have an environment that encourages investment in the Gaza Strip. The political situation controls all our dreams. A big project like this would require a guarantee set in stone that it won’t be attacked in a war. We’ve already had the airport and the sea port destroyed, together with factories. We also need stable electricity to run this project – we can’t keep depending on generators like we do now. It can happen, but it depends on the political situation.
“I make a line connecting our metro to the West Bank and another line connecting it to the Sinai, Egyptian Rafah area. We already have a lot of commercial tunnels there, so this would be a natural extension and a reminder to everyone that we have a solution for all problems.”
Ultimately, for Mohammed, this project, as much as the Rafah tunnels, is a symbol of Palestinian resilience and love for life.
“In this project I mean to create a new awareness for Palestinian leaders, to show them that we can think. We’re not happy with the occupation and the siege and this division between Hamas and Fatah; we are thinking. We believe in this nation, we believe in this land, we love it. So we think of solutions, we think of the pollution, we think of the diseases affecting us. These require solutions now. We must have our sources of energy; we should enjoy a good life, despite the occupation. We can’t be complacent and accept everything just because we’re under siege. We can’t wait for solutions to come from outside. We must continue living, we love life, and we can find solutions for everything.
“I believe the artist does not belong to any Palestinian group or faction. The artist has his own language that can present alternatives and solutions. We also resist through art. The first thing we did after the war was a collective exhibition. We couldn’t let the war stop us, we cannot stop. We have a mission to give our message to the world.
“I am an artist not a victim. I don’t like it when I have an exhibition that some people may come as a sign of solidarity. I don’t like this idea. I present myself as an artist, not as a Palestinian refugee or victim. I’m OK, I’m fine, look at my art for its own sake. I expect our art to be in the best museums because it is good, not because we’re refugees.
Supported by the French Consulate, Abusal’s installation A Metro in Gaza will be touring across occupied Palestine in the coming months, to be hosted at the French Cultural Centre in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Nablus and Qalqilya.