'Entrepreneur's Dream, Historian's Nightmare'

Jerusalem's Arab houses inspire Israeli architects, but to Palestinians, they represent a catastrophic memory and the erasure of their national identity

Since 1948, the "Arab house" has been centrally featured in Palestinian propaganda on the Nakba (catastrophe), the dispossession of Arab lands and homes. In recent years, several Israeli intellectuals and academic figures have joined in. Groups like Zokhrot (remembering) organize trips to abandoned Arab villages and battle for their preservation as part of the collective memory of the Palestinian people.

In some instances, Israeli society has tried to erase the identity of Arab villages and neighborhoods in urban areas by changing their original names - particularly after the 1948 War of Independence. For example, during that period, government and municipal authorities changed the name of the Jerusalem neighborhood Katamon to Gonen, and Talbieh to Kommemiut. Fortunately for Jerusalem historiography, some of the names did not catch on, and few today call Abu Tor "Givat Hanina" or Musrara "Morasha."

Erasing historical memory

In 1991, the Government Names Committee officially changed the name of the picturesque Arab village of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to "Mei Naftoah" - to mark the western border of the ancient tribe of Judah. Some consider this name change part of the erasure of historical memory and evidence of the existence of a Palestinian village that was built hundreds of years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palestinian use of the houses for political purposes stems, among other things, from the symbolic importance of the home, which is both political and national. Tom Segev, in his book, "One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate," describes the effort and the love invested by famous Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini in the construction of his house in the Katamon neighborhood in 1937. He kept a record of the project, Segev writes, as though it were his national home, and decided to give each room a name: Sana and Damascus, Cordoba, Baghdad and Cairo. He called the gates of the house "The Gates of Eternity."

Private Arab construction is sporadic compared to official Jewish national construction, which is arranged around the central city and is a central component of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The illegally built Arab house, constructed mainly on city margins, stems from a genuine need to meet the housing requirements of the growing Arab population, as well as from "political needs." Seizure of territory and the determination of geographic-physical and demographic facts on the ground, through government confiscations and the building of illegal settlements, constitute the answer to the proliferation of Jews in East Jerusalem. In the past, Arab families received financial assistance from Saudi Arabia as an incentive to build homes on the periphery of the city.

When Ariel Sharon openly purchased a house for himself in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, the act was first and foremost a political statement, designed to emphasize the importance of a physical Jewish presence in Arab territory.

Over the years, attempts have been made to compare the expulsion of the Arabs and the abandonment of their homes during the 1948 War of Independence (the Nakba) to the traumatic events of the Holocaust of European Jewry. In her memoirs, Hala Sakakini, Khalil's daughter, describes her visit in July 1967 to her former home in Katamon, which now serves as a kindergarten. She met two women there, to whom she tried to explain the reason for her visit: "This is our house. We lived here before 1948. This is the first time I've seen it in 19 years. The older woman seemed to be moved, but immediately began to tell us that she had also lost a home in Poland, as though we personally or the Arabs in general are to blame for that. We saw that there was no point in arguing with her."

'Jerusalem's flower garden'

Immediately after the unification of Jerusalem, in the summer of 1967, families who lived in the former Arab neighborhoods until 1948 started visiting. In his autobiographical book, "The Day of the Long Night: A Palestinian Refugee Remembers the Nakba," Jamil Toubbeh, the son of the mukhtar of Katamon, discusses his feelings after a visit to the neighborhood where he grew up. He was particularly touched by "the eternal existence and the Palestinian nature of what was once 'Jerusalem's flower garden.' In spite of the fact that the neighborhood was densely populated mainly by Jewish families from Europe, it retained its Palestinian character. My parents' little house, the place where I was born and spent my childhood, was destroyed. The lot on which the house stood had unfortunately been turned into an entrepreneur's dream and a historian's nightmare."

Hala Sakakini mentions that the houses in Katamon were built "in a simple, modern architectural style, and in spite of that, each house had its own identity. The Jerusalem Arab was always considered a proud person, maybe even arrogant. Just as his outward appearance reflects his personality, so does the house in which he lived."

Among the traditional characteristics of "Arab construction," one can include high-quality construction, careful attention to planning, facade design with stone detail, particular interior and surrounding gardens. Most Arab architecture at the end of the Ottoman period and during the British Mandate period (and some during our period), points to the importance that the Arabs attribute to the status of the house, and reflects the planning and financial effort, and the great love invested in its construction. Over the years, the concept "Arab construction" lost its true significance, and in the eyes of part of the Israeli public became a synonym for careless construction and inferior finishing. That is because during the years of abundance, before the first intifada and the Al- Aqsa Intifada, non-professional Jewish contractors carried out poor-quality construction work with the help of hard-up Arab laborers.

Arab houses in demand

After 1967, the "Arab house" was in demand on the real estate market, mainly by members of the middle class and well-to-do new immigrants from Western countries, in particular, who invested in the purchase and renovation of homes. Buying an "Arab house" was the fulfillment of a dream: a house with a yard, stone wall and stylized gate; a balcony with an arcade; vaulted ceilings in a romantic and picturesque architectural style and colored floor tiles.

For years, Arab construction, especially in rural areas, has served as a source of inspiration for modern Israeli architecture. Its character, which has attracted local architects since the 1920s, is essentially an adaptation to the natural landscape and integration into it. Architect Erich Mendelssohn, who avoided Oriental ornamentation in all the buildings he designed, nevertheless placed three domes on top of the entrance building to Hadassah Hospital that was dedicated on Mt. Scopus in 1939, so that they would serve as an architectural reflection of the houses in the adjacent Arab village.

The Old City and its wall, like the houses of the Muslim Quarter, served as an important source of inspiration for the public housing projects that were built on the periphery of Jerusalem after its unification. The graduated construction, the interior courtyards, the arcades, the gate structures, the rounded windows, the recesses and the reliefs - all of these, which are all elements of Arab construction, enjoyed renewed popularity in "neo-Oriental" buildings, most of which were designed with an overabundance of forms.