Gaza's Mud Homes Build Hope

RAFAH, Gaza - Although the idea of "necessity as the mother of invention" dates back to Plato's Republic, it has become a motto of sorts in the Gaza Strip today as people organize to rebuild and work around complicated obstacles. Not only are some of the ideas coming out of Gaza extremely creative, but they also present a modern twist on working with indigenous knowledge and the environment. Jihad Shaer is one of the many Palestinians spearheading a new age of ingenuity and has generated a considerable amount of buzz as the first person in modern Gaza to build out of mud.

I recently caught up with Jihad and his family at their new home in the northern part of the Rafah district. Jihad graciously shared his story over the course of an afternoon, and I was so impressed that I returned with a friend the following day to spend more time with Jihad and his family.

Jihad had previously traveled in Bangladesh and India where he saw sturdy mud houses that kept people cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The adobe houses were a way of working with the earth that reminded him of his grandparents' home near Ashdod (now in Israel) before they moved to Gaza as refugees in 1948. Jihad explained that the idea of using the earth to create shelter was part of his indigenous history as a Palestinian, although he never thought this would resurface in modern times.

Jihad was waiting for an upswing in the economy to fulfill his dream of moving his wife and children into their own home after having lived in a crowded Rafah City apartment with his extended family for years. Gaza's economy kept getting worse, and the blockade on all building materials complicated the situation even further. Ultimately, Jihad decided that he had waited long enough and was ready to take matters into his own hands.

When Jihad shared his idea of building a mud house with his wife Iman, she hoped that it was a phase he would get over and quickly laughed him off. He continued to persuade her by saying that it would only be a vacation home where they could get away and spend quality time with the children. Neighbors and friends had the same initial reaction, but Jihad decided that they would just have to see it to believe it and broke ground in early December of last year.

He made a matrix out of a few wires, brought in three truckloads of dirt from a nearby wasteland, mixed the dirt with water, and added hay to hold everything together. The whole process only took two months and cost $3,000. Jihad said that if it were not for the December and January conflict he would have finished in a month, explaining that his area was especially vulnerable to air strikes during the 23-day assault. (Several Israeli military bombs exploded nearby while I was visiting the family.)

The two-bedroom house is stunning with seamless walls and built in shelves showing off Jihad's attention to detail. It is also wired for electricity and hooked up to plumbing. Upon completion, Jihad brought in an architect to test the walls for stability. The structure passed with flying colors and the family is now planning to add a second floor. Plentiful gardens surround the house, providing healthy food for the family.

Iman was delighted with her new home, saying that the moment she saw it she knew she wanted to live there full time. Jihad's extended family and friends -- who had originally balked at the idea -- are now lining up to explore the feasibility of owning their own mud home.

I asked Jihad if teaching people in the community how to build mud homes could be a new way for him to earn a living -- especially in the wake of the December and January conflict that left at least 90,000 Gazans homeless. Like more than half the population in the Gaza Strip, Jihad is unemployed. "I would help people build," he said, "but I would not take money." Iman agreed with him, saying that people are tired and as a community they wanted to work together to be part of the solution.

The people of Gaza are struggling to rebuild, and using the earth is a way for them to move forward without waiting for outsiders to dictate a better political reality. Scores of mud homes are now being built across the southern Gaza Strip.

Jihad, like so many Palestinians I have spoken with, was frustrated that Gaza is continually being framed as a humanitarian disaster. He stressed that he was more than willing to share his story, but never wanted his family's home to be looked at with pity. Jihad is proud of his accomplishment and sees it as a symbol of pride and resilience.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, but invention is the mother of progress.