Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

Solar panels in an Israeli landscape, an example of an energy project that affects local communities.

Esra Bakkalbasioglu is the I. Mervyn and Georgiana Gorasht Scholar in Jewish Studies for 2013-14.

Being born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, I learned to appreciate good architecture and differentiate between styles when I am very young. As I was not educated about architecture, my appreciation was mainly instinctive. To give an example: like every other student in Turkey, I took the general middle school exams after finishing primary school. A couple of months after the exam, it was time for me to choose the school where I would study. One weekend, my parents took me to the two prestigious middle schools that I had a high chance of attending. The first one was a dark building with a huge and scary sculpture at the main entrance. The second one was a yellowish building, full of windows and light. I made my decision right away. I was only 12 years old, but was pretty sure that I would be depressed and sad if I decided to study in the first building, so I chose the yellowish building.

In that bright building, I experienced the most challenging years of my life, both academically and socially. However, I always thought that things would be worse if I had chosen the other building. During those years, I started to think about the impact of buildings, specifically, and the physical environment, in general, on people’s psychology, moves, and lives. I did not have any framework for exploring this interest except my own daily observations.

Years later I started my bachelor degree in the political science and international relations department of the Bogazici University in Istanbul. During my studies, I came across a fruitful discussion of French philosophers such as Henri Lefebvre (The Production of Space) and Michel De Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life) on space-society relations. I kept reading philosophical works on this fascinating field, which essentially contends that in which we live shapes our relations and reactions to each other.

Stroum Center for Jewish Studies Graduate Fellow Esra Bakkalbasioglu

The Israeli separation fence caused Esra Bakkalbasioglu to start thinking about space-society relations.

While thinking about possible ways of introducing space as a useful concept for research in political science, I started to work for a small, Istanbul-based architecture magazine. Whatever I read and saw, I was looking for ways of understanding the close connection between space, built environment, and politics. One day, I found what I was looking for in Israel. I was trying to locate some pictures for the next issue of the magazine, and I came across a picture of the West Bank Wall. I was so amazed with the wall’s hugeness that I kept reading about it for days and nights.

The Separation Fence was the starting point for me to think about infrastructure projects and their impact on daily life and politics. I was already amazed by the leftist movements in Israel and had studied them as a curious BA student. I decided to combine these two issues and to write my masters thesis on the West Bank Wall and non-violent anti-Wall movements. After finishing my masters thesis, I knew what track I wanted to pursue for my doctorate: I would dig deeper into the ways in which infrastructure projects affect Middle Eastern politics.

While applying to the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington, I was determined to write my dissertation on the relationship between politics and infrastructure. My original research proposal concerned oil pipelines and their political impacts. However, shortly after I sent my application to the UW, the first demonstration took place in Tunisia and triggered a series of demonstrations and political turbulences in the region. Rising political and economic tensions, as well as violence in countries such as Egypt and Syria, made it impossible for me as a researcher to go and collect information on my project. I decided to stay loyal to the topic of infrastructure, but to slightly change my focus.

I am currently pursuing my dissertation project with the outstanding guidance of my advisors Prof. Joel Migdal and Prof. Resat Kasaba on the ways in which electrification of minority regions in Jordan, Israel, and Turkey affect the state-society relations in these three distinct political settings. As the I. Mervyn and Georgiana Gorasht Scholar in Jewish Studies for 2013-14, I am developing a specific part of this dissertation project for the Jewish Studies Graduate Fellowship. My study attempts to delineate the history of the tense relations between the state of Israel and its Bedouin citizens living in the Negev. As it commodifies sunlight and distributes resources in a specific way, the state of Israel has determined the winners and losers of these solar panel projects and has affected relations between state and communities, as well as between and within specific communities like the Bedouin.

Stroum Center for Jewish Studies Graduate Fellow Esra Bakkalbasioglu

The Bedouin community is one group affected by the solar panel projects in Israel.

The hot weather and direct sunlight that were considered to be the curse of some sub-regions of the Middle East have become a commodity with the development of solar panel field projects. New technologies have spawned large-scale infrastructural projects, creating huge solar panel fields in Middle Eastern countries, including but not limited to Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. As one of the countries conducting large-scale solar panel field projects, Israel provides a natural case study for my research on how solar panels impact the redistribution of both economic and political resources.

Policymakers and social scientists alike have treated these projects as environmentally beneficial and politically neutral. However, the commodification of sunlight has disempowered some communities, while empowering others. Therefore, delineating the complicated relationship between state, society and infrastructure projects can open new ground for thinking of ways to develop social and economic projects that would better respond to the needs of the people residing near the project sites.

Find out more about Esra’s project and our other terrific Graduate Fellows at our Spring Research Symposium on May 2nd.