The Work of Riwaq: Reclaiming Space in Architectural Rehabilitation of Palestinian Villages

Video & Transcript
Dr. Suad Amiry & Shatha Safi
 Transcript No. 530 (September 26, 2019)


Dr. Suad Amiry:

Thank you so much Samirah. It really feels like home. I know almost every person in the room. We have a special relationship with The Jerusalem Fund. Thank you for the invitation. I have been here, my sister has been here, my husband, Salim, has been here. I’m back here so it really feels like home. So, I’d like to thank the [Executive] Director Mohamed, and I’d like to thank Samirah, Ziyad and Leila who made the connection. I’d like to thank (name) with whom we’re staying, and all of our friends around.

I’m here to introduce Shatha — Shatha Safi, who is the Director of Riwaq. I always say the Arab Spring did not start in Tunisia or in Egypt, it actually started in Riwaq, because in 2011, I stepped down from being the Director from a foundation I organized, I started in 1991. In 2011, I decided it’s time to give the leadership, or dictatorship, actually, to the younger generation. That’s why we have Shatha today who is almost 34 years old, and we’re very proud to have such a young, woman director. When I stepped down, they asked me, “Suad, what is your legacy? What do you want us to keep in this organization?” I said, “One thing: I want a woman leadership in this organization. Not only, at least, there should be 60 percent women architects in this organization, and the director …” — we also have the habit of having co-directors — so I said, “… We either have to have two woman directors, maybe one man one woman directors, but never, never, never a man alone in this organization.”

What I want to say is the following: We are here, because we have been, as Riwaq, invited to the Chicago Architectural Biennial, which is one of the biggest events in architecture in the world. They have invited 70 architects, or companies/firms, from the whole world, and Riwaq participated. So we came from Chicago. We have installed something called, “[Secrets of a] Digital Garden, 50 Flowers, 50 Villages.” By the end of this presentation, you’ll probably know more about it. We, at Riwaq, have a project called “Protection of 50 Historic Centers.” So, we went to Chicago, and we did a digital garden. We brought 50 flowers from 50 villages, and the work was dedicated in memory of the 420 villages that were destroyed by Israel between 1948 and 1952. Many people in Chicago did not really know about what had happened to the Palestinians, how 90 percent of our people were thrown out of their homeland, including my family that came from Jaffa. Now, these 420 villages have always been the reason for which I started Riwaq. I said, “They destroyed 420, we’re gonna protect 420 villages. We started working on those villages.

I don’t want to go too much there because Shatha will be doing the presentation, but I’ll tell you something. I have a habit of changing gears of my life every 10 years. So, I was teaching at the University of Jordan in architecture in 1981, and then I decided to go and do some research on Palestinian village architecture. I have never been to Palestine before because my parents were thrown out of Jerusalem actually, and we became refugees in Jordan, so I grew up in Jordan. My mom is Damascene from Damascus, so I spent all my life between Amman, Damascus, and Lebanon. Like most of you here, diaspora or Arabs, we have to imagine Palestine from a distance. So, I always say I became an architect because of the models I sort of constructed in the way my father described his house in Jaffa, and when he went after the ‘67 war to visit his house in Jaffa, he was not allowed by the Israeli family to come in. This for me was always like — my dad would describe the house, close to the sea; how he would put his towel on his shoulder and walk. So, as an architect I always say I became an architect because of that image of Palestine. I had to imagine Palestine from a distance.

So, in 1981 I decided to go to Palestine, to cross the bridge. I got a permit in Hebrew, a language I didn’t/don’t speak. It was the weirdest thing to cross into Palestine. I have taken a leave without pay for six months from the University of Jordan to do some research on Palestinian village architecture — and the 6 months have not finished yet. It has been 40-some years and I am still there. In ‘81, I crossed to Palestine, taught at the University of Birzeit, and then in ‘91, after doing the research, I wanted to do a center to protect the remaining cultural heritage of the Palestinians. That’s why, in 1991, I established Riwaq to protect the cultural heritage.

In 2001, my mother-in-law came to live with me for 40 days, when the Israelis reoccupied occupied Ramallah. My mother-in-law was 91 years old. She was living on her own. Her house was very close to [Yasser] Arafat’s compound. The Israelis occupied the area and they were bombarding day and night. Eventually, I had to bring my mother-in-law to come and stay with me. The Israelis imposed a curfew of 44 days. I always tell the Israelis, I may forgive you one day for all the atrocities you did for us, but I shall never forgive you for the 44 days my mother-in-law stayed with me. Which made a writer out of me, so every day I was writing one story about the Israeli occupation, and the next day I was writing a story about my mother-in-law. The internal occupation that happened in my life. I ended up with a book called Sharon and My Mother in Law. That’s how I became a writer. In 2011, I decided enough Riwaq. I passed on my dictatorship and went to be a fulltime writer. Thank you very much.

Just a word about Shatha. I really want to tell you in 2011 when I decided not to be the Director, I went to the Board of Trustees, and I told them I’m stepping in [down]. “No, no. no Suad, you can’t, you can’t, the organization will not go on.” And then I said okay. There was a prize for Riwaq. They asked me to receive the prize, and on this stage, I stayed, I sat there. There was audience, there was TV, [you] name it. On it I said, “Thank you for giving me this prize, but this is my day day with Riwaq”, and I named two co-directors before Shatha. Khaldoum Shara and Fidah stand up. They stood up, and that’s how they became directors. The Next day, I went to Riwaq to say congratulations to them, so I said “Mabrouk, but I have one question for you.” And they said, “Kheir inshallah, shou fi?” I said, “I just want to ask you one thing. From now, I want you to start thinking who’s going to be the director after you.” And they both said, Shatha Safi.” This was 2011. Thank you.

Shatha Safi:

Hello, how are you? Are you sure you retired, Suad? Thank you for coming. I’m Shatha Safi. I’m the serious one, so the jokes are done. I’m going to tell you more about Riwaq. This is the heritage we deal with. We have the deserted houses and deserted historic centers, demolished or partially demolished. This is near Ramallah. This is Jerusalem. You’ll see this is the kind of heritage we care for. This is the kind of heritage we’re losing.

We have lots of pressure on cultural heritage. There’s no legal protection. We just had ratified the law in May 2018, and it still needs work to be implemented. There was a long period of time where we were working on the law with the government and with UNESCO. There’s no official commitment. The budget for cultural heritage is very minimal. Like zero point five zero zero percentage of the government [budget]. There are other priorities. There is no local funding or enough international funding for heritage. There’s also the massive pressure, expansion, because the available land available for Palestinians to build are less than 30 percent of areas in West Bank and Gaza. This leads them to have a very minimal area to build on, so there’s massive urban pressure on land. They demolish historic buildings in order to have high-rise apartment buildings or to widen up roads or to build mosques or kindergartens. There’s also the limited awareness and local buy-in heritage and its importance, although it’s very crucial in our conflict if we’re not maintaining our heritage. It’s crucial.

Also, the Israelis manage to demolish lots of historic buildings and lots of villages and towns. So, Riwaq decided to start, back in 1994, with the documentation. Because at that time, we didn’t know what we have. There were no documents, no documentation. The journey between 1994 until 2006, thousands and thousands of architecture students were engaged into registrations, so we ended up having the Riwaq National Registry. We managed to document around 50,320 historic buildings in more than 420 villages, towns, and cities. Its database is online. Each and every house in West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza is documented. We also managed to have a series of publications, because that was also crucial. Everything was written about Palestine was written by colonialists and Orientalists. There was very few written by Palestinian writers, and this was really important to write about our own heritage with our own writers.

With the documentation, there was a parallel sort of process of making things on ground, creating facts on ground, because people believed in documentation, but they also need to see things, need to see facts. There was the project of job creation through conservation. We managed to rehabilitate over 120 historic buildings as community centers for women associations, children’s libraries, youth clubs for village councils. With that program, we managed to set examples. People need to see examples.

We also managed to create jobs because renovation is labor intensive. If you want to build a new modern wall, 80 percent of it will go to concrete and steel, and only 20 percent will go for labor. But in traditional buildings, 80 percent will go for labor, and only 20 percent will go to material, which is originally coming from the ground. Limestone, pottery. So, it’s labor intensive. Thousands and thousands of hundreds of job opportunities for Palestinian laborers were created through this program. We also managed to have capacity building on traditional know-how. There was a gap. Out laborers, our elders were gone, so there was a gap of knowing the traditional know-how. Also, one important thing about this was creating an alternative cultural infrastructure in the rural [areas]. The rural is really rich, but it’s abandoned, it’s neglected. It has all the productions. It has the agriculture and crafts. By doing that we managed to create cultural infrastructure.

These are our workers. We are very proud of them. Without them, nothing would have happened. The capacity building also of engineers and architects like myself. This is in Gaza. Lots of variety of trainings. This is Sebastia. I’m going to show you a bit of visuals of how the buildings we renovate how they look like before renovation and after renovation. This is Sebastia, a village. It has Qasr Al Kayed, and this is after renovation. We find decent places for people to interact. This is Qasr Al Kayed again, and this is through renovation. Lots of engagement with our labors, and this is after renovation. People are very proud of their places. They’re willing to come back. This is in Jalboun, Jenin area. It’s also a special kind of the rural houses. This is after renovation, and focus on the public space created through these renovation projects. They teach French in that [space]. Everybody in Jalboun knows French because of this.

This is Kufr al Aqif. Also, we had an environmental aspect in our designs because, traditionally, the houses are really environments. Thermal comfort, they use environmental material, the recyclables. So, we follow what we have. This is Asir al Samaliyeh. This is a residential neighborhood. This is how it looks like before our intervention, and this is after renovation. The authenticity of the space is kept, it’s styled and designed for them to easily have a social interaction and dialogue. This is Ni’lin Kasir al Khawaja. It’s another important village. You can see it’s demolished. We still have the stones. We managed with training and having the traditional know-how on reconstructing the building with the same stone. It’s used by al Qatan, they have a cultural organization for youth. This is in Taybeh. You see, also sometimes we have concrete additions. We also deal with them. So, we uncover, and we have decent places for people.

I’ll show you more visuals now. This is Tulkarem. If you look at this, you’ll feel desperate. What will I need with this structure? But after renovation, the original structure is kept, uncovered. There is a transparent sort of barrier to create more privacy. This is in Birzeit. We always dream of the Shami biyout and the places in Syria, and Beit al Bahri, but after renovation, you’ll have very nice places in the interior as well. This is in Birzeit, a guest house owned by the municipality. This is Birzeit, too. This housh, or courtyard, is called Housh al Atem, the Dark Courtyard, because it was dark. People around it used to dump their rubbish and their sewage in it. After renovation, it is a residency for Birzeit University. Riwaq also managed to have a residency room inside the building. We have a residency for artists, writers, researchers to come and explore and spend time in Palestine and create.

This was perfect for us, but we also discovered that it was not enough. We’re losing more and more. We’re having more demolitions. People are not aware of their heritage. We had some visits where [there was] very rich and high numbers of historic buildings. We discovered today that we’re only having 40 of 400. We started to have a parallel program called the Fifty Villages. If you remember the 50,300 buildings in 422 villages, they’re not distributed evenly. You have villages with higher numbers of historic buildings. We decided to focus on the most 50 significant historic buildings/centers. By protecting these 50 villages, we’re protecting 50 percent of cultural heritage in Palestine. That was the goal and dream of Riwaq. I’m happy to share with you that today, we’re in village no. 20.

We started working on the rehabilitation of the historic centers, so we approached the village as a whole. This is Abwein. We approach the whole historic fabric. We work on the alleys, on the public spaces, on preventive conservation for the whole context. We approach the whole village. We work through preventive conservation on, you know, restoring the historic fabric from the outside, the public spaces, restoring and pointing for the outside facades, doing insulation for the houses. So, they’re kept for another 20 years, until we find more opportunities. maybe future generations will find more opportunities for them to be restored fully. Through this program, we also work on having cultural institutions, but not only that. We have public spaces and playgrounds. We also have to deal with housing, because you can’t turn a whole historic center into cultural centers, so there’s housing, there is private use.

This is the preventive conservation. We enter a village, like this, and we protect it just from the outside. We need only non-objection agreements with the owners because they don’t have to pay, we just do it from the outside. We keep it the same, sometimes we uncover. We redefine the boundaries because it’s crucial in the rehabilitation process, and we provide public space. When villagers find decent public space, they’re more encouraged to come and restore their houses. This is Taybeh. Just from outside, [inaudible] the roofs. This is Beit Iksa near Jerusalem. You can see the settlement all around it. You’ll see more interventions in public space. This is Beit Iksa again. This is Ramon settlement — they’re taking part of the village. The whole ruins, through intervening into public space, we encourage people to come, intervene, and then discuss with them more potential for full restoration. This Dharia near Hebron. This is Jema’een. You can see our projects are distributed in the West Bank north to south, and also in Gaza and East Jerusalem. This is Runteece, the one I showed you earlier. After preventive conservation, it will look like this. We redefine, we sometimes rebuild. We do roof installation, because if water is not coming through the building, it’s protected for another 20 years.

This is more about the common spaces because, traditionally, our villages used to have some sort of intact historic fabric, and they leave the agricultural fields, because this is where they produce, and also for protection. They used to common and shared spaces, productive common spaces where they make food, where they wash their clothes, where they interact, where they have their weddings, and their salat al-jummah, and their gatherings. It’s becoming different now. People are seeking more independence, more privacy. Individualism is more into the people, so we’re losing this sense of shared and commons. With that we’re losing the social cohesion and the social dialogue. Our projects are trying to recreate spaces for social interaction and social dialogue. This is Hajjah. This is the jamaah, the mosque plaza. Lots of festivals were organized throughout the rehabilitation process, and lots of playgrounds, because we believe if the young generations are living within their heritage and is part of their daily life, they’ll have more sense of belonging, and they’ll consider it in their future. They are the future decision-makers.

This is in Sebastia. The colored tiles. This is one Ramadan iftar we had with music. Lots of storytelling and oral history sessions. This is Taybeh again. This is Salfit. Because the concept was not to recreate a whole cultural hub — we have a cultural hub, but you can’t turn the 400 buildings into cultural organizations — we also have to have mixed use.

We believe that if there is an owner who lives in the house, who breathes in the house, who takes care of the house on a daily basis, on a seasonal basis, it’s protected. This is the ultimate goal and ultimate level of protection. We needed to bring life back, so we worked with the owners on the concept of Aouneh, reciprocity. People used to gather when they built a traditional house. They used to do the roofs together, and with a kind of celebration, they have to cook and celebrate, so there is a sense of gathered and common and shared in building each house. I was told by one Lebanese friend that dabke came from people being on the rooftop shoulder to shoulder and doing the stomping of the roof, so that’s how dabke came. This sort of, you know, building things together is the concept that we worked with owners of historic buildings. They owned their houses. They didn’t have enough resources to renovate, so we provided material and designs, and they provided labor. Most of the time it was themselves and their family working to do the rehabilitation. Instead of making one house, we could make two or three with the Aouneh thing. This is some of the housing projects we had. This is in Hajjah. They were very proud of the thing they created themselves. It’s them, their hands. This is in Hajjah, too. Lots of families were back into their historic buildings, living and expanding. More houses. More housing.

We are very responsive. The demand and the challenges for the cultural heritage sector is very huge. We also work on the clusters since 2012. We’ve been working on the cluster of East Jerusalem villages, trying to connect the villages because these villages — Al Jeeb, Qalandiya, Kufar Aqab, Jebah, and Bayt Haneena — they had Jerusalem as their hometown, and this relationship was cut because of the Israeli occupation, because of the separation wall. There was a social some sort of cut in their own relationships, and their own relationship to their hometown. By approaching the restoration project as a cluster, we tried to connect these villages together. Whatever will be produced in Al Jeeb would be marketed in Qalandiya, what kind of common services will be on those villages, and we’ll connect them together.

These are the villages we’re working on right now: Al Jeeb, Qalandiya, Kufar Aqab, Jebah, and Bayt Haneena. The idea of connection through their historic centers and through production chains, through community relationships. This is beyond physical, because we know all the physical challenges. What about the non-physical? This is an oral history session in Qalandiya talking about its historic relationship with Al Jeeb and what kind of products they were traditionally selling to Haneena. I’m going to show you Qalandiya in this video. Qalandiya is known for the checkpoint, for the airport, for the camp, but nobody knows that Qalandiya that the village exists.

You can see all the contradictions. You can see on that side Kufar Aqab. You can see the wall on the other side, and the airport on that side. Most people see this house, Al Haqiyyeh, from the road when you approach the roundabout. We’re doing a renovation of the 20 rooms in this building to be occupied by cultural institutions. Thank you.