Why a Renowned Palestinian Architect Quit Jerusalem

Senan Abdelqader says remaining in the capital is commercial suicide for an Arab. Now he’s building his hopes on a new project in Jaffa.

Omar Abdelqader

The interview with architect Senan Abdelqader took place at his new office in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. He moved there two months ago, after vacating his office in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of southern Jerusalem, where he still resides. This was not just another change of business address. The immediate reason for leaving was professional: Delays and postponements under various pretexts for the construction plans he was responsible for in East Jerusalem, on behalf of the Jerusalem municipality. Changes were made to his plans, which distorted their original goals – namely, planning “that deviates from the Western planning orientation that the authorities enforce on society,” and adapted for the lifestyle, building character, conditions, needs and aspirations of Arab society.

The obstacle course Abdelqader has had to run as an architect and urban planner led him to the conclusion that “to be stuck in Jerusalem as an Arab is simply suicide. It is agreeing to enter the labyrinth and sinkhole. An architect cannot work without hope and without a future, and in Jerusalem there is an attempt for extreme Israelization and negating the place of Arabs. You can be a construction worker there, not an architect. The policy is to turn architects into instruments of the establishment,” he says.

Jaffa, he says hopefully, is “a different type of platform.”

The projects and private homes he has designed, including his family home in Beit Safafa – known as the Al-Mashrabiya Building, which also featured his previous office – was presented at various exhibitions and has appeared in a number of books on architectural history, as well as in the international media. (“Mashrabiya” refers to the traditional latticed window screens in Arab houses that provide a division between private and public spaces, and is the building’s major visual motif.) The Al-Mashrabiya Building is a visual symbol of the modern Arab culture that Abdelqader espouses, and which refuses to remain inside the framework of “something cute, Arab, rural,” he says.

His plans for an art museum in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm (which weren’t later used) were shown at the 7th International Biennale of Architecture in So Paolo, Brazil, in 2007, and represented Israel there. He said at the time he saw himself as representing Arab-Palestinian culture in Israel, not the Israeli state.

Urban fault line

Abdelqader was born in November 1962, in the Arab town of Taibeh, where he also grew up. He is the best-known Arab architect in Israel, and outside the country too. He describes his family as well off and ambitious. In the early 1940s, he says, his parents were looking for the urban life. As part of the natural process for people of their status, they moved from the village to the city – “and for them the city was Jaffa.” In 1948, following the start of the War of Independence, they fled Jaffa and eventually returned to Taibeh.

Abdelqader himself searched for the urban life in Germany, after realizing that he couldn’t fulfill his “urban rights” given the reality in Israel. After studying engineering and architecture in Hamburg and Kaiserslautern, respectively, he worked in Germany and put down roots there. Ultimately, though, he returned to Israel. His familiarity with the elite Palestinian diaspora in Germany sharpened his recognition of the urban fault line in Palestinian society back home. His return to Israel in 1994 was accompanied with the hope of fixing what was broken.

Omar Abdelqader

This summer’s move from Jerusalem to Jaffa saw him swap the hills for the coast, and the insular atmosphere of nationalism for a space which hints that everyday life is stronger than the national conflict.

“Of course there are conflicts and inequality here,” says Abdelqader. “But I sense that the Arab and Jewish communities of Jaffa are not looking for an argument but want to live in good will. I feel, and hope, I won’t be disappointed; that in Jaffa the Arabs have more freedom. In Jaffa’s mixed society, there are remnants of the urbanization that was cut short in 1948. This is the thread to start the transition that I’m aspiring to – from “under-urbanization” to a productive society. My feeling is that to be here is a matter of choice and not a lack of choice.”

As opposed to the Al-Mashrabiya Building, his Jaffa office is in an apartment building without any noticeable presence. And in contrast to the soft and filtered light on his old home in Jerusalem, the Jaffa light feels harsh and bright. The Al-Mashrabiya stood out in comparison to the suburban buildings of Beit Safafa, but the Jaffa building is swallowed up in an urban street, between dozens of similar apartment buildings in Ajami – a traditionally Arab neighborhood that is growing more expensive and Jewish.

Abdelqader, however, refuses to be dragged into the gentrification and Judaization issue that interests so many planners, architects, academics and critics, and says his building and many other buildings on the street were built by Arab developers and contractors. “Local Arab families from the upper-middle class live in them. Yes, we deserve it, too.” He believes “Arab urbanization in Jaffa will create a richer and more complex culture for both sides.”

When it’s suggested that changing his address was also a declaration of moving from the “village” to the city, he becomes annoyed. “What ‘village’? The use of the term Arab ‘villages’ infuriates me. In a cultural sense ‘village’ means life on the land. Since 1948, there is no longer an Arab village. The men went to work for the Jews, and Arab society has become a society on the margins of the Israeli space. The communities are suffering from mutant suburbanization, from under-urbanization that prevents the formation of Arab elites and a functioning civil society.”

Open doors

After almost 15 years in Jerusalem, and stalled projects due to what he describes as the “Via Dolorosa of planning projects for Arabs,” a number of doors have been opened for Abdelqader in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, especially from the latter’s urban planning establishment. He’s been invited to present his work to municipal planning bodies and participate in two important design competitions: In one competition – the community complex in the Aliyah Market in south Tel Aviv – he won an honorable mention for his submission; another competition was for a mixed-use project in Tel Aviv Port. Although other architectural firms won both competitions, future options remain in place.

Abdelqader is now planning a residential and “commercial small neighborhood” project in Ajami, which he believes will contribute to the urban strengthening of Jaffa itself. The Ajami project is also far from the Al-Mashrabiya Building in its planning and design. It’s a contemporary, residential neighborhood without “characteristic signs.” He says he has no interest in such trappings, because “I’m not a stylist. I don’t do shapes, and I don’t concern myself with what they will say about this architecture 100 years from now. Culture doesn’t pass through the use of style and shape. In Ajami, I am interested in the urban typology that will grant those who live here ‘the right to a city’ and urban life,” he adds.

Omar Abdelqader

His architectural journey is an attempt – maybe from a sense of mission – to raise local Arab construction back to where it was halted in 1948, “and not to deposit it in the hands of engineers and builders, as has happened for years and still does. More than that, I believe architecture and planning cannot be limited through fixed formulas. We must return architecture to intellectual architects, and recognize the civil and public role of architecture as the urban instigator.”

Abdelqader also heads the Formal-Informal Design Studio unit at Bezalel, which he founded within its architecture department in 2006. The studio deals mostly with planning in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and he is the architect and planner of the Central East Jerusalem Master Plan. He has also taught at Tel Aviv University and as a guest lecturer in Germany.

The leading principle in his studio is that of the “third seam”: between formal planning enforced from above, and the informal planning that sprouts from below, and based on the needs and circumstances of the people. Abdelqader has reservations about the romanticism of “architecture without architects,” and the “new urbanism” that mimics and espouses the use of professional and theoretical planning tools combined with “local knowledge.” The Arab community contains “hidden urban treasures within it, and can provide a source of inspiration for complex and interesting urbanism,” he adds.

Just a short time after returning to Israel in 1994, Abdelqader opened an architectural firm in the exclusive coastal suburb of Herzliya Pituah – just north of Tel Aviv – where he rented a house with his family. He believed this was the way to break into the “Jewish awareness.” Things didn’t work out, though, because of what he describes as a lack of compatibility between his “professional achievements and family life.”

He integrated into academic life, but found himself almost without any practical architectural work – not even in the Arab community, where he tried to implement change. At the time, he said that change was through large public projects that Arab architects had almost no access to. Given the lack of public space and appropriate construction for the place and population, the Arab municipalities were in practice forced to employ Jewish planners who repeated the same old mistakes.

Abdelqader and the family – his wife Rose and their four children – then moved to Beit Safafa. “I would have stayed at Herzliya Pituah, near the sea, a pleasant atmosphere. But my son, Omar, started getting harassed,” Abdelqader recalls. Omar, now 24, has been present for the entire interview. He is an outstanding student in the photography department at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, and teaches Arab students history and theory (in Arabic).

“There are gaps between Arab and Jewish students,” says Omar. “Bezalel teaches only Western culture and Western theories, and there is no openness to absorb the environment and context in which the academy is located. Despite sincere efforts on the part of academics, in most cases the attitude toward Arabs is a romantic one, and it’s seen as a traditional and backward culture. There is no recognition of the processes that Arab society is now undergoing,” he states.

When quizzed about what he remembers from his school days in Herzliya Pituah, Omar says, half-joking, “I think what happened is not only that Herzliya is a small, homogenous place, but at the time there was a period of peace overtures, and there were vague hopes and dilemmas. Now, it’s clear there won’t be peace, so at least there should be a peaceful home.”