Khaldun Bshara’s eyes light up as he points out some of the intricate designs and structural elements of the ornate Arabesque building that houses the RIWAQ Center for Architectural Conservation.
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“It was built in 1932, but the person who designed it only slept here for one night,” says Bshara, who officially became the organization’s director last January. “It’s a hybrid between modern and traditional architecture, but has a clear Ottoman style.”
The carefully renovated building, with its high ceilings and elaborate mosaic floor tiles, is set in a luscious green garden of indigenous olive trees and exotic Middle Eastern plants just south of the Palestinian metropolis of Ramallah, in the suburb of Al-Bireh.
It has been home to RIWAQ (Arabic for gallery), a nonprofit organization that renovates and restores old buildings and heritage sites in the Palestinian territories, since the organization was created in 1991 by Palestinian architect and award-winning author Suad Amiry.
Today, under Bshara’s leadership, RIWAQ’s role in highlighting Palestinian physical history has taken on an added significance as the leadership prepares to make a controversial bid for statehood this coming September.
“I don’t like this idea of declaring statehood,” states Bshara boldly, as we sit down together in what was likely a kitchen or storage room in this former family home.
“We have declared statehood twice before and it’s like we just want to declare something so that people will listen to us and not really anything more than that. I believe that certain practices are much more worthy than declarations and that such declarations need to be enforced by these practices.”
Bshara is referring to the practices that RIWAQ has committed itself to: preserving and restoring the Palestinian physical heritage while at the same time addressing some deeply-rooted socioeconomic issues and, more importantly, strengthening national identity and pride.
“At Riwaq we are not innocent,” he admits. “We are not necessarily doing this work for architecturally aesthetic values, but more to create and retain our identity. We believe that these buildings and cultural sites are the only physical [artifacts] that are left for us to use as an identity symbol and we see our work as a central element to creating a national identity of Palestine.”
It sounds easy enough, but like most things in the region, even the non-political work of architectural preservation and renovation is somehow drawn into the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite its success in restoring more than 100 buildings, documenting thousands more and publishing numerous annals of work, Bshara does not discount the challenges that RIWAQ faces both from Israel, outside, and from the Palestinian Authority, within.
“We were born into Israeli occupation and we still function under this occupation, but we were also born into a thriving civil society before our state became a fact, and that has unfortunately been undermined by the emergence of the PA,” says Bshara. “They see NGOs as competitors to what they want to do and say we cannot work without their blessing, but they cannot do what we do either, so they need us.”
Bshara further explains that because Palestinian law is based on a mix of laws from the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate period, Jordan and Israel, only buildings from before 1700 are officially protected by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Also, the complicated political map constituting areas A (under full Palestinian control), B (under Israeli military control) and C (under complete Israeli control) means that roughly 10,000 sites that RIWAQ considers part of the Palestinian heritage – built, designed or decorated by Palestinian architects or craftsmen – fall under Israeli jurisdiction and cannot be touched by the NGO.
Instead, the organization focuses on renovation and restoration projects in 16 districts spread across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, where it works as a consultant for international groups.
Although RIWAQ avoids territorial controversy, Bshara explains that projects that are selected are aimed at making a political statement.
“When we choose our projects, of course we consider the architecture and the history, but they are not the main criteria,” Bshara says of the group’s work, which is funded mainly by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SIDA, along with support from other international foundations, Arab organizations and wealthy individuals.
“How the project will help the community is much more important; the percentage of people unemployed in a certain area is more important; and the proximity to [Israeli] settlements and the wall [Israeli security barrier] are also important. We are doing something very political while we are doing apolitical stuff.”
Among the projects completed by RIWAQ in recent years is the renovation of a music center in Jenin, which Bshara says was undertaken to address “the suffering” felt by residents.
“We felt the people needed a place to meet and express their feelings. We thought that music would be a fantastic way to do this,” he said, describing how they specifically searched for a building to renovate that would be able to address those needs.
In addition, points out Bshara, the organization has created a comprehensive registry of historic buildings and sites that took 16 years to complete, and forms the basis for identifying further conservation projects. RIWAQ has also published numerous books detailing Palestinian heritage sites, architectural artwork and historic points of interest.
“So far we have published 13 books, with another two on the way, and we are rewriting the history of Palestine,” he says.
“This rewriting of history is very important because most histories of Palestine are not written by Palestinians and they favor some kind of angle. They are also missing the real voices of those who lived through the history. We are trying to capture our oral history.”
Started in 1991 by Amiry, author of the award-winning book Sharon and My Mother-in- Law, and a member of the Palestinian peace delegation to Washington from 1991-1993, RIWAQ, Bshara said, was the brainchild of “a bunch of crazy people” who had grown concerned that Palestinian historical sites were quickly disappearing.
“I think they said to themselves: ‘What is going on in Palestine? Everything is being erased, either by Israeli bulldozers or by Palestinians bulldozers, and all our cultural heritage is disappearing.’ They wanted to do something that would help promote [Palestinian] cultural heritage and restore it.”
Bshara, who was born in the village of Tubas near Nablus, but has spent his adult years in Ramallah, says he can understand this sentiment entirely and feels as though the process of erasure is ongoing today as part of urban renewal in the West Bank – particularly in Ramallah.
“I see that Ramallah is changing and it is not necessarily a dramatic change, but for me more of a traumatic change,” he observes. “I feel pain when I see all the pine trees were taken away to make way for larger streets and that large buildings with 10 or more floors have meant the removal of smaller buildings.”
Bshara says he is neither “romantic” nor “nostalgic” about buildings in general, but there is “something wrong when historic buildings make up only two percent of the West Bank,” much of which is being built anew.
“There seems to be a gap in awareness of what we already have, and I think we do not realize how precious these things are. It’s our job to prove it,” he says.
“It’s not easy to revive a dead beast, but it is important to change
this prejudice against old buildings because it is a key to identity and
solving social causes. I believe that we are not only doing
restoration, but we are changing the society,” he concludes.
“I know it is good to be on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, but if you
want to make a real change then you need to go to the physical space.”