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Jala Makhzoumi: A Landscape Architect in a Race to Stop Desertification

With passion and dedication, Jala Makhzoumi has sought to bridge the gap between academia and practice throughout her career in teaching and conducting projects across the Middle East.

“I love teaching, and seeing my students excel is such a great reward,” said Makhzoumi, an adjunct professor of architecture and design at the American University of Beirut. “Working on the ground nurtures you. An architect needs both.”

As a project consultant, Makhzoumi has visited places across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, helping to put in place master plans for city development and establish green belts, and to preserve heritage in IraqSyriaLebanonCyprusSaudi Arabia, among other countries.

In 2009, she served as a lead consultant for the Erbil Inner Green Belt project. The economic crisis and the war against the Islamic State put the project aside, but Makhzoumi and a team from the American University of Beirut recently revived and completed it as a rural heritage recovery and post-conflict development.

“In the region, green belts mean only reforesting; this is a mono-cultural landscape,” said Makhzoumi. “We completely changed this by rediscovering 23 forgotten villages with amazing agricultural landscape around Erbil.”

Keeping the Desert at Bay

The team persuaded the Municipality of Erbil to focus on impoverished rural communities and invest in capacity-building.

“Our vision was to include fruit orchards and support agriculture to provide a livelihood to families and displaced communities,” she said. They also trained architects and archaeologists from Erbil’s Salahaddin University to work on developing “solutions with the community rather than using the parachute solutions brought by foreigners.”

Deserts are bewitching and inspirational places to Makhzoumi, but she does not want them to encroach on other landscapes. “I love to go out and see them, not have them visiting me,” she said.

Desert encroachment due to abandoned agriculture is just one of the serious environmental challenges facing Iraq, Makhzoumi said. Other issues include debris from shells made of depleted uranium that were used during the Gulf war. (See a related article, “An Iraqi Scientist Speaks Out on the Lingering Effects of Radioactive Weapons.”)

A Pioneering Program at Yale

Makhzoumi’s love of architecture and archaeology began as a child growing up in the vibrant Baghdad of the 1960s. This led her to enroll in Baghdad University’s College of Engineering.

Jala Makhzoumi was a keynote speaker at the International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress 2019, held in Oslo (Photo courtesy of Jala Makhzoumi).
Jala Makhzoumi was a keynote speaker at the International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress 2019, held in Oslo (Photo courtesy of Jala Makhzoumi).

In 1971, Makhzoumi and a handful of top engineering graduates got government scholarships to study abroad. “I joined a Master of Environmental Design program just launched at Yale University by Charles Moore,” she said. “The environment was something just being discovered at the time.”

Makhzoumi was astonished, however, to discover that Iraq’s women were more privileged than women in the United States.

“Iraq was quite egalitarian in terms of gender, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds,” she said. “What qualifies you to study is your grades. Nobody can interfere, whether you were the son of a farmer or a minister. … In the 1970s, women in the U.S.A. were fighting for some of their rights.”

After graduating, Makhzoumi returned to Baghdad and taught environmental sciences to engineers at Iraq’s University of Technology for 15 years. For much of that time, she was cut off from traveling by the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war.

“The situation was difficult,” she said. “In the late 1980s, I received a letter from the Aga Khan Award to be nominated for their award. I felt scared about how to hide it. He was seen as a CIA agent. I was horrified to be interrogated on how and why they had nominated me.”

From Competition to Collaboration

She was on a vacation to London in 1990 when the first Gulf war broke out, forcing her to abruptly bid Iraq, her house, and colleagues farewell.  However, this gave her the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield, which she completed in 1996.

In the United Kingdom, Makhzoumi’s work on Northern Cyprus—developing an ecological landscape methodology still used by AUB graduate students—brought her to meet Gloria Pungetti, an Italian scholar with mutual interests.

“We were researching such similar things,” said Makhzoumi. “And two islands: Sardinia in her case and Cyprus in mine. We were literally competing with each other. However, the external reviewer said we have to publish together.”

This turning point led them to a continuous collaboration that resulted in co-authoring two books: Ecological Landscape Design and Planning (1999) and The Right to Landscape (2016).

In 2001, Makhzoumi co-founded a landscape department at the American University of Beirut’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences after she gave a lecture there. She created the curriculum and taught there for 12 years.

“I started the program from scratch,” she said. “Now, it is one of the leading, most outstanding landscape architecture programs in the Arab world.”

An Inspirational Award

At times, Makhzoumi questioned the value of her academic career until she became the first laureate of the Tamayouz Award for Women in Architecture and Construction in 2013.

“My students nominated me! That was quite touching,” she said. “The Tamayouz Award made me suddenly realize that what I used to see as bad luck turned out to be the best thing ever. I saw students saying we love her, she taught us. What can be more valuable than affecting people’s life?”

Ahmed Al-Mallak, a U.K.-based Iraqi architect and the founding director of the Tamayouz Excellence Award, sees Makhzoumi as a wonderful role-model to many young architects.

“Jala devoted her life to scholarly activity and the advancement of landscape architecture in Iraq and the wider region,” he said. “Throughout her career, she made sure to pass this knowledge to students through classes and research.”

“Jala devoted her life to scholarly activity and the advancement of landscape architecture in Iraq and the wider region. Throughout her career, she made sure to pass this knowledge to students through classes and research.”

Ahmed Al-Mallak  
Founding director of the Tamayouz Excellence Award

Landscape Citizenship 

While not a fan of politics, Makhzoumi took to the streets in the campaign to protect the Dalieh of Raouche,  Beirut’s last pocket of nature that is open for people from all backgrounds.

“I went mad when I heard of plans to build on that site,” she said. “For one year, the activist group, all of them young women, met at my office. We had an international conference to find alternatives and signed a petition that eventually stopped Rem Koolhaas, one of the chief architects, from going ahead.”

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Now, she is working with the World Monument Fund to restore the Mosul Cultural Museum, besides new projects in Al-Zubair and Basra in southern Iraq with Dewan, a U.A.E.-based firm.

“My heart bleeds for Basra, the jewel of all the Gulf’s cities,” she said. “When I visited in 2014, I could not take my eyes off its majesty. There is a tinge of pain in me, because of what it can be and how it is now. It has too much potential. I am looking forward to having a tangible imprint there.”


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