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"It's interesting what a Palestinian like me is doing at a conference that is called `Reconstructing Zion,'" Prof. Nazmi al-Ju'beh said with a half-laugh at the start of his lecture last week at the WIZO Academy of Design and Education in Haifa.

The full name of the conference was "Reconstructing Zion: Architecture and Ideology in Palestine/Israel." The audience reacted with liberating laughter at the remark by Ju'beh, a historian and archaeologist who teaches at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and is co-director of Riwaq, the Ramallah-based Center for Architectural Conservation. Riwaq's activity to preserve the physical heritage in the Palestinian Authority is in many ways parallel to the work of the Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites and Buildings in Israel.

Ju'beh said that what brought him to the Haifa conference was the desire "to give you a different impression about us, the Palestinians, and to show that, beyond the fact that we and you are blowing up and being blown up, there is also normal life." Still, "normal" is not necessarily the first word that springs to mind when one considers that, even though Ju'beh's home in Beit Hanina, in northern Jerusalem, is just six kilometers from his office in Ramallah, the actual traveling distance, because of what he calls "the situation," is 60 kilometers and the trip takes an hour and a half in each direction, instead of 15 minutes.

However, Ju'beh is an incorrigible optimist and his lecture dealt with the effort being made by Riwaq, notwithstanding the impossible conditions, to rebuild the physical culture and the common memory that were destroyed in the course of nearly a century - in the wars of 1948 and 1967 and during the protracted Israeli occupation, but also by "natural" processes, such as suburbanization and the abandonment of the centers of the historic settlements, which began in the period of the British Mandate, or the demolition of old buildings in order to erect new ones.

These factors were compounded by the development of a consciousness of exile within the Palestinian people, Ju'beh explained. The expression of this, which is also familiar in Jewish society, is the preservation of a moveable heritage, such as literature, song or objects of folklore, but not of buildings, "which cannot be taken from place to place." Direct results of this are an absence of public awareness of preservation and a lack of acquaintance with the heritage.

Since its establishment, Riwaq has operated on several planes - educational, public and professional - to change the situation. This involves conducting conservation surveys - in the PA areas, more than 50,000 structures that are older than 50 years have been discovered that are worthy of preservation - taking schoolchildren on outings to familiarize them with their surroundings, and actual restoration. The organization, with the aid of local groups, has restored dozens of historical structures, most of which have been converted into community, educational and cultural centers.

Most of the organization's activity takes place in rural areas, where the destruction is the greatest and where awareness of preservation is the lowest, Ju'beh said. One reason for the preference for rural areas is the organization's conception of preservation not only as a means to create national identity or a lever to develop tourism, but also as a means to create jobs.

Unemployment is high in the rural areas and Riwaq encourages support for preservation as a source of work. For example, the restoration of a courtyard structure from the Ottoman period in the Ramallah area and its conversion into a museum and an activity center for children generated 5,000 workdays; the restoration of a palace near Nablus, which is now used by the conservation department of Bir Zeit University, generated 7,000 workdays.

The difficulties of moving around in the PA have heightened the sense of localness in the rural areas, Ju'beh noted; paradoxically, this is helping the preservation effort. The organization's activists work in cooperation with the residents, who make known their wishes and needs, and are also employed in the work. The result, Ju'beh said, is the renovation not only of historical structures but also the growth of local pride and the burgeoning of traditional handicrafts. From the standpoint of cultural criticism this is perhaps "Orientalism," but the circumstances obviously do not permit great selectivity.

Riwaq was founded in 1991, seven years after the establishment of the counterpart council in Israel. Last week, the council marked the 20th anniversary of its founding and conducted an interim summation of its achievements. Since its creation, the council has had many accomplishments and has become an influential body in Israeli public opinion and for decision makers. This festive occasion might be a good opportunity to urge the council to expand its activity - which now includes only sites related to the Jewish national and Zionist narrative - to encompass also the preservation of material testimony remaining in Israel of the Palestinian narrative.