Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Casino Candidate Lights Up Gaza"- my latest article for This Week in Palestine

“…met the needs of the city’s 20,000 people… without imposing new taxes… opened new markets and projects that increased the municipality’s income by 50 percent... a vegetable and meat market that generated 400 Palestinian pounds annually for the municipality… opened a girls’ school for 200 girls… new water network… five times the number of street lamps… and fixing the Yafa-Gaza road…” 

above: copy of the document 

These were only some of the things that Fahmi Husseini Bek, candidate for the Gaza City municipal elections in 1934, had accomplished during the six years of his first term. These accomplishments also include restructuring and fixing the Jamal Pasha road, which the municipality renamed to Omar Al Mukhtar Street (after the Libyan freedom fighter, and against the will of the Italian Consulate in Jerusalem). The municipality’s budget in 1929 was approximately 7,129 Palestinian pounds, whereas the expenditure was 7,265 Palestinian pounds. 

Fahmi Bek listed these accomplishments as part of his electoral campaign, which he hoped would win him and his team of seven a second term - another six years in the municipality. He published it in a newspaper, dated 16 June 1934, that my father found and still keeps in Gaza City. To this end, Fahmi Bek vowed eight main promises to the 20,000 inhabitants of Gaza, if they chose to elect him and his party. These included planting 200 dunums of orange trees in the municipality’s park and improving it over the following year, building a casino and a hotel in Gaza, and lighting the city with electricity, among other municipal projects. Fahmi Bek, you have my vote. 

Back then, the municipality was the only leading body where Palestinian officials were decision makers because Palestine was still under the British Mandate in the 1930s. The British were in control of the whole country, but the various municipalities handled the affairs of their respective cities. This is one of the reasons that the municipality, as we can see, had a huge role to play and was a big part of people’s lives. 

Gaza’s municipality, which was established in 1892, shows impressive historical records that prove transparent democratic and electoral practices, impressive on-ground accomplishments, and a very active lifestyle. This document is proof that candidates campaigned hard for the elections (for this specific election, there were two main competing parties) and that they worked hard to fulfil their promises and meet people’s demands. 

Notice also that Fahmi Bek vows to constantly meet the demands of the city’s 20,000 people … Twenty thousand people … in Gaza?? Today, this could be the number of people who normally spend a summer afternoon on the beach, but not the number of inhabitants of the whole city! Not the Gaza I know, at least!

But the Gaza I know seems to be very different from the Gaza described through Fahmi Bek’s document. The orange trees are still the same (at least the ones that the Israeli bulldozers left in peace), but the population has increased by 75 percent over the span of 77 years. The markets are not as clean as described in the document, and they certainly do not generate as many Palestinian pounds as they used to, if any. Many households on the outskirts of the city are not even connected to the municipal water, electricity, and sewage networks, nor are all of the main roads lit.

And we can only travel on the Yafa-Gaza road through history books, old documents, and our grandparents’ story. We can only begin to imagine what that road looked like, and what it felt like to casually decide to spend the day in Yafa, Haifa, Jerusalem, or any other Palestinian city. 

To learn that the same municipality that is shrinking in importance (and even in existence) in today’s Gaza was able to do all these things more than 70 years ago is beyond astonishing. Whereas municipal elections were of great importance back in those days, today I can imagine that many, if not most of the people in Gaza do not even know the name of the mayor. It’s not because of political apathy or lack of civil engagement, but it’s because the municipality is losing - or has already lost - much of its historical importance and respect as an institution. 

For the 21 years that I have been alive (mostly spent in Gaza), I cannot remember even hearing about municipal elections in Gaza. My parents also have a hard time recalling exactly when the last municipal elections were held, whereas everyone easily remembers the last parliamentary and presidential elections. The only thing that people have to say about the municipality is most often limited to complaints about its poor performance and idle role in the development of the city.

Was Fahmi Bek able to win the 20,000 votes of Gaza? Yes, indeed he was. He was elected for a second term along with the seven candidates that he nominated in 1934. Two years later, however, the General Strikes of 1936 were ignited and lasted for six months. This municipal council, led by Fahmi Bek, was very active in the country’s struggle against British Occupation and against the increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine, and was consequently involved in the strike. In 1938, a national revolution erupted in the whole country in opposition to British occupation and Jewish immigration. In their effort to oppress the revolution, the British arrested Fahmi Bek and forced him into exile out of Palestine. 

Well, this sounds more familiar to me than the Palestinian pounds and the Gaza-

Yafa road. I can connect to this very vivid memory of foreign “intervention” in my country’s affairs because I lived through a similar experience myself, whereas I never used Palestinian pounds or travelled on the Gaza-Yafa road. It seems that whenever Palestinians make a democratic choice and elect the candidate whom they believe is most suitable for a certain position, a foreign power begs to differ and decides to get rid of the person. Thus, Fahmi Bek was deprived of the opportunity to keep his promises to the people who voted for him. 

The emblem of the Gaza City Municipality is the mythological phoenix. Legend has it that this beautiful bird grows and lives for hundreds of years, and then it builds itself a nest of twigs and ignites. A young phoenix is reborn from amidst the ashes to which the bird and the nest have been reduced. This, more than anything, reminds me of the Gaza I know. We will arise, and already are arising, from the ashes to which we are constantly reduced. Our first municipal council chose the right bird for the right city, but our history shows that the most important decisions for our society are rarely left up to us.
Published in EMAJ Magazine:

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