“Palestine is There”: A Problem, Evidently, for the Cornell Chair of Architecture

This Monday, Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay was kicking off the stellar lecture series Algerian architect and architectural historian Samia Henni has put together for the department of architecture at Cornell….

This Monday, Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay was kicking off the stellar lecture series Algerian architect and architectural historian Samia Henni has put together for the department of architecture at Cornell University in the United States. Entitled “Into the Desert: Questions of Coloniality and Toxicity,” this lecture series features a list of speakers that is arguably unheard of in the context of an architecture school. In this list, Aïsha is joined by Dalal Musaed Alsayer, Paulo Tavares, Asaiel Al Saeed, Aseel AlYaqoub, Saphiya Abu Al-Maati, Yousef Awaad, Nadim Samman, Menna Agha, Alessandra Ponte, Solveig Suess, and Zoé Samudzi. The topic of the desert as a site of colonial exploitation or invention is itself at the core of Samia’s ongoing research on the French nuclear testing in the Algerian desert between 1960 and 1966.

For one hour, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay unfolded her brilliant lecture entitled “Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been.” She argued with great rigor and precision how the very notion of the “desert” in the context of Palestine had been used as one of the main component of the Zionist narrative of the inexistence of Palestinian people in Palestine, and of the implementation of an Eurocentric idea of progress by the Israeli state in its endeavor to “make the desert bloom.” Such an engineered narrative thus allowed the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba (before and after the establishment of the Israeli state) and the subsequent construction of the settler colony known as Israel. Aïsha is herself the daughter of a Palestinian Jewish mother who grew up in pre-1948 Palestine and an Algerian Jewish father who was part of the Zionist effort to settle Palestine. She spent most of her life in Palestine.

The lecture gathered many spectators who, for many, were shocked when, a few minutes after Aïsha had began her talk, a message was posted by the person in charge of the technical side of the session on a clear demand from the Chair of the department of architecture, Andrea Lee Simitch:

“We are aware that these topics are sensitive and have multiple view points and would like to assure all participants that the department is looking forward to organizing a future lecture that presents other view points than those that are offered here today and in subsequent talks.”

While many antiracist and anticolonial remote conversations that happened in the last few months have been regularly interrupted by white supremacists and zionist provocateurs, the Cornell school of architecture apparently intends to take care itself of such interruptions. There is, of course, the blatant contempt displayed against the organizer of the series, as well as the speaker herself — imagine one second the Chair of a department interrupting an invited speaker after 10 minutes of her presentation to affirm that she “looks forward” to organizing a future event that would say the opposite of what she is exposing. This coward attack against Samia Henni and Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is outrageous and we would like to send them our moral and political support. However, our outrage extends much further the bounds of this specific talk.

Firstly, it is crucial to observe how works that examine and engage with the settler colonial conditions of Palestine are fundamentally more and more experiencing various forms of censorship. This usually culminates in the designation of anti-Zionist activists, including Jewish ones, as “antisemites” in a dangerous blur of what constitutes an antisemite speech or person, to the greatest joy of antisemites themselves. Just a few days ago, over 1,300 academics including Judith Butler, Diana Buttu, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Noura Erakat, Robin DG Kelley, and Ilan Pappe, called on academic institutions worldwide to end the censorship of works and speeches that explicitly supports the Palestinian struggle against colonialism and apartheid. The fact that such a censorship happens in an architecture school should not be forgotten either, as architecture is in no way a neutral tool in the matter. In fact, architecture, along with Israeli laws and military, is one of the key tools for the Israeli apartheid to implement itself all over Palestine.

The second point has to do with the blatant hypocrisy of academic institutions, in particular architecture ones. Many of them have understood (at least in North America) that it was no longer acceptable for them to provide their students and faculty with curricula and lectures that reinforce the white-dominated, settler colonial, patriarchal, and heteronormative status quo. Some have reacted by organizing a few tokenized events around the Black Lives Matter uprising to hide the screaming lack of Black people in their administration, faculty, and student body; others, admittedly, have initiated more ambitious programs, such as this lecture series curated by Samia Henni. Yet, they evidently did not realize the consequence of what it means to be consistent between anti-colonial and anti-racist posturing and an actual engagement to dismantle the structures of colonialism and white supremacy.

This letter does not demand anything from Cornell’s Department of Architecture administration (besides not interrupting any other lectures of the series), as we know that any conciliatory statement from their end would be disingenuous. This is rather a means to expose their cowardice and hypocrisy so that such malign interventions cannot happen without being called out publicly. We also write this having in mind that this type of censorship can influence the students themselves. Let’s hope however that they will have seen the obvious asymmetry between, on the one hand, a brilliant, detailed, deep, and smart exposé and, on the other hand, a petty comment written from outside of the conversation by a Chair more worried about her liability than the quality of knowledge produced in her Department and who will now be looking for a zionist speaker to establish what she perceives to be an intellectual balance. The story does not tell yet whether she’ll also be inviting a masculinist in response to a feminist event, a white supremacist after a Black Lives Matter one, and a climate-change denier after an environmentalist one. As for us, we very much look forward to following the rest of the lecture series proposed by Samia Henni and hope that we’ll be joined by many of you during the next talks.

The list of signatories is available here (so far 920 and counting)