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You Can Glimpse the Post-Apocalypse in This Photo From Gaza

Roberto Schmidt

It’s so hard for novels or films set in the dystopian future to rid themselves of all traces of utopia. That’s one of the reasons they’re so popular. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, even the bleakest post-apocalyptic scenarios tend to have an idyllic quality about them. Think of the lack of traffic in 28 Days Later or Will Smith’s high-security apartment in I Am Legend. Our aversion to queuing at the checkouts in lavishly stocked supermarkets is so intense that the idea of breezing into an abandoned Trader Joe’s and helping ourselves to whatever’s on the shelves seems the ultimate indulgence—even if all that’s left is a rusty can of dog food whose expiration date serves as a poignant reminder of life before whatever it was that brought civilization to an end.

For years now, Gaza has suffered many of the symptoms of extreme dystopia: ravaged infrastructure; chronic food, medical, and power shortages; breakdown of water- and sewage-treatment plants; unemployment; sectarian infighting; rise in extremist religious beliefs. In the past months, things have become even worse: bombing, civilian deaths, massive destruction of property, further wrecking of the already ailing infrastructure, and so on.

Location: Gaza City Date: August 10, 2014 Photographer: Roberto Schmidt

According to local fishermen, it is becoming harder and harder to catch fish because of raw sewage being pumped into the sea from Gaza City. And yet this image of a catastrophic situation has the visionary lyricism of nineteenth-century paintings of the timeless allure of the Orient. The timelessness is symbolized by two things (three if you count the sea): the minarets and the “simple” fishing boat. The minarets, though, are paired with the industrial smoke stacks undermining the idea of the timelessness as they pour pollution into the sky. But the smoke seems to be doing its bit to contribute to the appeal of the scene as it merges with the gently looming drama of the heavens. It even seems that what the towers are pumping out or generating is, precisely, sky.

This brings to mind two quite different associations. First the painter J.M.W. Turner, whose skies convey the achievements and grandeur of civilizations ancient and modern while—and by—evoking their inevitable dissolution and eventual ruination. The splendor is bathed in and enhanced by the ruin to come. Second—and more explicitly—the scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker when the eponymous Stalker, his wife, child, and dog begin making their way home after his trip to the Zone. The camera pulls back to reveal a large body of water in the midst of a polluted industrial wasteland whose desolation is enhanced by its beauty and vice-versa. The setting of Stalker is routinely described as post-industrial even though, on the evidence of this scene, what we are seeing is a fully malfunctioning industrial environment. In the same way, images of Gaza remind us that, while the post-apocalyptic scenarios beloved by film-makers and audiences alike are set in the future, there are places on Earth where people have already adapted to what might be termed the pre-post-apocalyptic present.