Juma Shaath took a deep breath.
The 56-year-old former agricultural trader, now unemployed, was looking at the transformation of the ruins of his house in Khan Younis in the south of the occupied Gaza Strip. It is a third incarnation in less than three years: from home to bomb site to art installation.
The unusual idea is the brainchild of Dutch artist Marjan Teeuwen, who for years has worked with the concept that buildings can become sculptures, adding a sense of temporality by working on buildings slated for demolition.
Seven such installations have been created: five in her native Holland, one in South Africa and one in Russia. But Gaza was a departure for her in more ways than one: here, the building had already been destroyed.
Shaath’s house – in its latest incarnation “Destroyed House Gaza” – was bombed from the air during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. Israeli warplanes almost leveled the two-floor building then and no start to reconstruction has been made since.
“I’m still living in a rented house with my family,” Shaath said. “We’re still waiting for reconstruction to start, but it never seems it will considering all the obstacles, financial, political and others.”
Shaath said he hoped those in charge in Gaza would hurry the reconstruction along, but held out little hope that the money to do so would be available any time soon. “We’re drowning in illusions about reconstruction.”
Meanwhile, Teeuwen’s installation has brought some hope to the father of five – one of whom was killed in the Israeli attack on the family’s home.
“This is the first time for me to feel some happiness in this house after it was destroyed. I hope this fine piece of art will bring attention to the savage aggression Gaza suffered in 2014.”
Beauty from rubble
Reconstruction in Gaza has been a painfully slow process. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, just 39 percent of the 17,800 housing units that were destroyed or severely damaged in the Israeli bombardment of 2014 have been rebuilt as of November 2016.
That leaves more than 10,000 families, Shaath’s included, displaced, according to OCHA, a total of approximately 53,300 people.
And while plenty of money was committed to rebuilding Gaza, promises have not yet translated into reality. OCHA finds that 22 percent of the homes destroyed have yet to see any funding for their reconstruction. According to the World Bank, of the $3.5 billion pledged in 2014 in Cairo, just 46 percent was calculated to have been disbursed by the end of July 2016.
In this landscape of rubble and despair, Teeuwen saw an opportunity to create art from destruction, impose order on a crumbled world. “War,” she writes in a press release about the installation, “is complete chaos and order is beauty.”
She worked with a local team of builders and artisans, putting in six-hour shifts every day for three months to complete the work. She used no new construction materials – a rare commodity in Gaza where Israel restricts the entrance of materials such as cement and steel from entering, thus also slowing reconstruction work – instead reusing material found in the rubble of the house or what wood and paint were available locally.
A testament to barbarity
Iron bars found in the rubble were used to support the walls; abandoned household items, from plates and kitchen utensils to toys and clothes, were utilized in construction. She decorated two concrete columns with white gypsum mixed with paint and erected wooden columns to support parts of what was left of the ceiling and covered them with concrete.
“Coming to Gaza doesn’t mean that I’m a politician or a journalist,” Teeuwen told The Electronic Intifada. “I’m an artist. My life is running in a strange bipolar way, approaching destruction and construction, linking order and disorder, standing and falling. This polarity is an essential issue in my life, as it is in everybody’s life.”
In Gaza, this dialectic was skewed in favor of destruction, Teeuwen said, with three wars in 10 years not allowing any time for recovery.
And the reality of Gaza’s desperate situation is never far away. While Teeuwen was talking, a woman walked in, greeted everyone present, then stood in one corner of the house, praying and crying.
Mariam, Shaath’s wife, was weeping for her son Muhammad, who died in the house when it was hit by an Israeli missile on 28 July 2014. He was 30 at the time and he was killed with three friends from one family. It was the first time since then that Mariam, 51, had returned to the house, a visit that was prompted by Teeuwen’s work.
“When I saw the house, I had two opposite feelings, sadness and happiness,” said Mariam. “I felt deep sorrow to remember the loss of my son, but happy when I saw my house converted to art.”
Like her husband, Mariam also urged Gaza’s authorities to speed up reconstruction, though she admitted to feeling conflicted about her own home.
“We’re now living in a small house lacking a lot of basic facilities. But after the great achievements of this artistic work in our old house, I suggest keeping it as a witness to the savage aggression on Gaza and compensating us with a suitable flat to live in.”
A permanent installation might just suit Teeuwen, whose work otherwise has a lifetime determined by demolition orders.
It was a process full of obstacles. Muhammad Abu Daqqa, 37, one of the artisans working most closely with Teeuwen, and a constant companion to the Dutch artist during her stay in Gaza, said insurance companies even refused to underwrite workers’ safety at the site.
It did not deter him. “The job was very hard and costly but the artist was full of determination to accomplish her job,” Abu Daqqa said. “I hope this house will represent a message to the world showing the suffering of Gaza’s people due to the savage occupation and its war crimes.”
“Destroyed House Gaza” is open to the public until the end of January and Teeuwen urged everyone to visit. Palestinians in Gaza, she said, had showed her that they “love life and art in spite of the siege and the war.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a freelance journalist and writer from Gaza.