A Palestinian brings stargazing to his homeland, and finds wonder alongside heartbreak

Scientists and amateurs are taking to the Gaza roofs for lessons in astronomy.
looking through telescopes skyward from a rooftop of one of the buildings of al-Aqsa University in Gaza City
From left to right: Ibrahim Saad, Mohammad Baraka, and colleagues point their telescopes skyward from a rooftop of one of the buildings of al-Aqsa University in Gaza City on December 11, 2019. Heidi Levine

Sarah Sax is an environmental journalist based out of Brooklyn who writes about the intersection of people, nature, and society. Nour Zaqqout contributed reporting from Gaza.

This story originally featured on Undark.

On a Wednesday evening in December, four young men, students and researchers at al-Aqsa University, carefully hoisted telescopes on their backs and made their way toward a five-story university building with roof access. Hoping to catch a glimpse of far-off stars, they walked through a Gaza City neighborhood, just over a four-mile walk from the Israeli border. The sky was streaked with electrical wires and the bird-sized Israeli drones used throughout the region to surveil and attack. When the group reached its destination, a security guard opened the door to the roof. It was empty, but for the large plastic containers that store drinking water for residents whose pipes produce a liquid that is brackish and undrinkable.

On the roof, the observers opened their tripods and set the instruments skyward. Ibrahim Saad, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and now teaches at the university’s Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences, peered through the scope. “Looking at stars from light years away through the telescope makes you feel just how small Earth is,” he mused. “Boredom, the blockade, and all the problems here are no match for something as beautiful as a star suspended in space.”

Astronomy is widely considered one of the oldest sciences. Cultures around the world have used the movement and position of stars and other celestial beings to navigate, chart planting and harvesting seasons, and plan rites and rituals. But few cultures so obsessively observe the movements of the sky as those that practice Islam. Astronomy is used to determine everything from the direction to pray to the exact moment that the fasting time begins. At the height of the Islamic Golden Age in the 13th century, mosques would employ muwaqqits, astronomers who track the precise motion of the sun and stars. While scholars still debate whether and how much Islamic and Arabic astronomical science influenced current astronomical science, many of the stars in our night sky still have Arabic names.

And yet, the rise of astronomy and space sciences in the Gaza Strip—140 square miles of land squished lengthwise between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea—may come as a surprise to many people. After all, the region has been under a blockade since 2007, when Hamas gained power and Israel declared the Strip a hostile entity. Trade is restricted, and the region’s two million people have limited ability to travel. Even so, the past decade in Gaza has seen the birth of astronomy hobby groups (the “Astronomy Science” Facebook group has more than 180,000 followers) and the creation of the Palestinian Astronomical Society. In 2012, the Islamic University of Gaza became home to a Unesco Chair in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences.

A common thread in all of this is astrophysicist Suleiman Baraka, whose life’s work—along with that of his students and mentees—illustrates the promise and challenges of astronomy in Gaza.

Baraka studies space plasma, the electrically charged soup of ions and electrons that constitutes the vast majority of space. And he creates kinetic models that simulate how these charged particles in solar wind interact with the magnetosphere of the Earth. He holds a part-time appointment at the National Institute of Aerospace in Virginia, and he also has a teaching position in Gaza, at al-Aqsa University. Colleagues around the world have praised his efforts to bring astronomy to Gaza.

“What Suleiman Baraka is doing is exceptional,” says Mario Martone, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who co-leads Scientists for Palestine, an organization of scientists advocating for better inclusion of Palestinians within the scientific community. “To be born and raised in Gaza, and then do the highest level of scientific research, and then return to Palestine to give back through science — a lot of people would have left. But instead he decided to come back and use astronomy and astrophysics to give people hope.”

Still, Baraka’s journey has been anything but straightforward, and while his international colleagues praise his outreach efforts in Gaza, few are under the illusion that the situation there is easy for a new generation of would-be space scientists hoping to find a better future in the stars.

Baraka was born in 1965 near the Egyptian border, in the town of Bani Suhaila. The eldest of 14 siblings, he attributes his desire for knowledge to his father who had only been able to afford two years of school—just enough to learn how to read and write. “Highly intellectual, but uneducated,” as Baraka describes him, so eager to continue reading between butchering animals that he would leave red fingerprints in some of the books he left to his son.

In 1969, 4-year-old Baraka watched on a grainy TV as the U.S. landed a man on the moon. That event, and the space race that ensued, sparked his love of space and astrophysics. He knew he wanted to work for NASA someday. When he later found out that one of the U.S. engineers that helped send the rocket to the moon was the Palestinian rocket expert Issam el-Nemer, he was elated. “The fact that there was a Palestinian connected to this made my dream more possible,” he says.

The Gaza City skyline at night.
The Gaza City skyline photographed at night. Heidi Levine

Baraka graduated in 1987 from al-Quds University in East Jerusalem with an undergraduate thesis on the formation of black holes and an offer to study astrophysics at the Australian National University in Canberra. To apply for an Australian visa, he had to travel to neighboring Jordan. The visa wasn’t processed in time, and because Baraka had overstayed his 45-day Jordanian visa while waiting, he was unable to immediately return to Israel. Baraka traveled instead to Libya, one of the only countries that accepts Palestinians without visas. Then 22, Baraka recalls nine months passing before he was allowed to return to Gaza.

He never made it to Australia, though this isn’t unusual. Scientists in Gaza are “essentially isolated,” says Robert Williams, an astronomer and former president of the International Astronomical Union. In 2010, Williams attempted to enter the Gaza Strip to attend an astronomy event, but was denied entry. And even within the West Bank—the Palestinian territory not under blockade by Israel—it is difficult for scientists to travel from one place to another, due to checkpoints and travel restrictions.

When Baraka returned to Gaza, he says he found work as a translator and public relations officer for the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce in Gaza. This was during the height of the First Intifada, a period of uprising against Israel, and a time when more than a thousand Palestinians were killed and tens of thousands were arrested. During this time, Israel shut down universities and schools and education was effectively criminalized. Baraka himself was arrested twice—once for helping foreign journalists report on the region, and once for secretly teaching Palestinian students. He married in 1994 and his first son was born the following year.

Baraka worked for the Chamber for more than a decade. But he missed astrophysics. He recalls how bewildered many of his colleagues were when he finally quit his stable job and enrolled for a masters degree in physics at a local university. There was no astrophysics specialization, so he learned to code at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. In 2008, almost four decades after first seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, Baraka started his fellowship as a post-doctoral researcher for the National Institute of Aerospace—the closest a foreigner can ever get to working with NASA.

But three months into that appointment, a rocket tore into his house in Gaza, destroying his father’s books and critically injuring his 11-year old son, Ibrahim. The boy was transported to an Egyptian hospital, where doctors tended to shrapnel wounds in the left side of his brain. Baraka says he flew from Virginia to Egypt and sat by his son’s bed for four days until his son’s body was sent back to Gaza in a coffin. Because the Gaza-Egypt border was closed, Baraka was not permitted to go back to Gaza with his son, so he returned to the U.S. with a new mission: “Escape is not an answer,” he says. “I decided to fight the killing of the children by educating the children.”

In 2009, after completing his fellowship, Baraka returned to Gaza. He took a position at al-Aqsa University, where he founded the Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences, the first center in the Palestinian territories to promote space sciences through lectures, public outreach activities, and curriculum development. And he says he dreamed of creating a star-gazing event where the public could be inspired by the vastness of space.

The challenge, at first, was bringing a research telescope to Gaza. The International Astronomical Union donated the first one, but due to security restrictions, the scope took four months to reach its destination, passing through several hands and being sent in parts. Even after the telescope’s arrival, Baraka says he worried that Israeli surveillance would think it was a weapon. When you mount a telescope, “it looks like a rocket,” he explains. In order to avoid being targeted by the Israelis, they did the first observation under the protection of the French Embassy and invited the general counsel in Israel and the media.

Ibrahim Saad built this telescope and now keeps it on display at his office at the Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences at al-Aqsa University in Gaza. Heidi Levine

More than a hundred people showed up for that first stargazing event in 2010. “People in Gaza, they have no chance to travel. They know everything from the internet,” says Baraka. “So when you show them a telescope, you take them out of that cocoon, and you give them this sense of time, and space, and distance.” The center now offers public stargazing events one to four times a month, depending on various factors including the position of stars, the availability of resources at the center, and—most importantly—the local security situation, which can fluctuate from each day to the next.

In 2012, Unesco endowed a chair in astronomy, astrophysics, and space sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza, which Baraka now occupies. Mirna al-Sabbah, who has an undergraduate degree in physics and currently works as a teaching assistant, was inspired by Baraka’s own story and has attended several of his lectures. She is now one of his mentees. Baraka, she says, “compelled me to explore my creativity and love of science.” Her bedroom in Deir al-Balah, a neighborhood in the center of Gaza City, is filled with stuffed animals named after planets. Astrophysical equations are neatly written on pieces of paper that adorn her mirror. She talks of getting a masters degree with theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, a professor at Stanford University in California. Al-Sabbah has taken a few of the courses Stanford offers for free online.

But while astronomy has captured the imagination of many students and members of the public in Gaza, doing research can be a struggle. “They are essentially isolated; it’s almost impossible to do high-level research there,” says Williams, adding that “most science happens in large groups, and with resources.”

That doesn’t mean that the students at the center aren’t trying. The walls of Saad’s office at al-Aqsa University are covered with posters of Saturn’s moons, electromagnetic waves, telescopes, and other, more far-off planets. Saad proudly notes that the astronomical images they are able to produce at the center by monitoring the Orion Nebula are of a quality comparable to other astronomical observatories around the world. The center “held an astronomical event to monitor the transit of Mercury in front of the sun,” he says. Mercury only does this 13 times every century. “As the crossing began at 14:37, it was seen as a small dot moving through the sun.”

Saad has found a calling exploring the chemistry needed for space exploration. But while he is grateful for the experiences that Baraka helped to make happen, he remains frustrated by a persistent lack of necessary equipment and resources, many of which are impossible to get in Gaza as they are classified as war materials. “The devices here are limited, but abroad there are huge research centers that provide everything necessary to develop my talent and improve real scientific projects that serve the world,” he says.

Baraka’s eldest son, Mohammed, is finishing his masters in physics at the center. Like his father, he is interested in exploring astrophysics, and says that he wants to know more about the sun’s relationship to the Earth, solar storms, and the interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and solar wind. And last year, one of Baraka’s students started a Ph.D. program in astrophysics at the Laboratory of Plasma Physics in Paris.

Mirna al-Sabbah, who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, in her bedroom
Mirna al-Sabbah, who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, sits in her bedroom in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. Handwritten scientific formulas paper her walls, alongside blinking lights that remind her of the stars. Heidi Levine

For all of this, Baraka says he is proud, but also worried that the whisper of death always seems to be lurking in the shadows. In November 2018, one of his younger brothers was killed by Israeli forces outside his house in Gaza. It was the same year that Baraka won the 2018 Renata Borlone Prize from Sophia University Institute in Italy. “For the passion he has shown in scientific research, for the ethical sense he has demonstrated in his work in favor of the younger generations of his people and in bearing witness to the fact that scientific knowledge and ethical research are jointly relevant and necessary to human life,” Sergio Rondinara, a professor of epistemology and cosmology said as he gave him the award.

When asked what he wants to do next, Baraka says he wants to build an observatory in Gaza or in the mountains around Hebron. He is certain that he will be able to find people to fill it with.

“In any country but Gaza, a telescope is something you go to an optics store and you can buy it like a popsicle,” says Baraka. But here, he continues, astronomy “is also a window for breathing freedom that we were denied for our whole life.”