An Israeli Arab's Home Is His Castle

An architectural study of the extravagant Arab villas in the north of Israel finds that they reflect more than just personal taste.

During his last visit to Wadi Ara in January 2012, Dr. Kobi Peled was surprised to discover dozens of Corinthian-style pillars on the facades of private homes. While some were structural, it was clear that many were not weight-bearing, but merely placed there to lend an appearance of classical beauty and sanctity to the house, or sometimes, to make homes look like public or government buildings.

At the building stage, when the new homes haven't yet been plastered, the ornate nature of the pillars is even more pronounced against the background of the gray concrete building blocks used locally. "On construction sites, which are sometimes more beautiful and interesting that the finished products, the pillars make the place look like the ruins of an ancient temple," says Dr. Peled, an architect whose latest book is entitled "Architecture: The Arab Home as Social Text" (published by Resling ).

Wadi Ara, known as Nahal Iron in Hebrew, is a 20-kilometer-long valley located some 35 kilometers southeast of Haifa; in antiquity it was a route connecting the Israeli coastal plain with the Jezreel Valley. It is one of the most fascinating focal points of Palestinian private construction. Vernacular architectural traditions hundreds of years old can be found alongside modern, stylish villas that could easily compete with those found in exclusive Israeli towns. Wadi Ara is also the setting for Peled's new book.

Although the book, an adaptation of his Ph.D. dissertation, does not distinguish itself with its prose, it is an important document (or "text," to use the word in the title ) about the development of the Arab home in the 20th century and how that development corresponded to the far-reaching changes in Arab society and in the Arabs' geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Peled studied architecture at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The combination of these fields, as well as subsequent history studies, gives him a unique perspective on the subject. He currently lectures and conducts research at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, in the Negev, and is a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University.

The perfect study

According to Peled, every component in the Arab home is a cultural text, and the question is which aesthetic features represent that text. Even in the era of the Trans-Israel Highway (Route 6 ), Wadi Ara remains one of the major thoroughfares in northern Israel. For Israelis this is where "you stop for some hummus," says Peled, but for Palestinian residents it's an urban metropolis, home to Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Arab city within the green line.

The residential hubs in Wadi Ara - the term "village" no longer applies - were the perfect choice for a social-architectural study. On the one hand, they're close to the pulse of Israeli life, but, on the other, they butt up against the West Bank. Originally, Peled had also intended to study adjacent West Bank locations, but the second intifada broke out while he was working on his doctorate and access to the area was blocked.

Many people before Dr. Peled have described the traditional Arab village home, as they saw it. European scholars and travelers, including pilgrims who toured the Holy Land in previous centuries, would often treat these Arab homes as the backdrop for oriental Bible stories. In those times, the home generally consisted of a single, large, high-ceilinged room and was an inseparable part of the village's agricultural infrastructure; animals lived in the lower portion of the home and the raised platform was reserved for the nuclear family. The extended family lived around a shared courtyard that served as the center of life. That was where food was prepared and eaten, domestic chores were done, children played, and more.

Between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Arab villages began to undergo significant transformations. Farming was on the wane, the War of Independence caused a rift in Palestinian society, and processes of modernization began to affect gender roles in the family. These changes could be seen in the layout and design of the home. For example, the interior courtyard disappeared, though extended family members still live in close proximity to one another, often in one large house consisting of four to seven stories, built on the steep hills of the wadi.

The homes' exteriors and interiors say a lot about their inhabitants: the Corinthian pillars, staircases and the color of the facade, as well as the luxurious living rooms and ornate lighting fixtures. One of the most interesting phenomena in contemporary private construction in the Arab sector is the building of enormous villas characterized by having a mishmash of historical design styles, and a color palette so strong as to be almost blinding. So, for example, a villa in Arara, one of Wadi Ara's residential hubs, crosses Moorish architecture with the crenellations one associates with castles, and a villa in nearby Kafr Kara looks like a miniature White House.

In Peled's opinion, this extroverted design reflects a society experiencing an identity crisis. "Unlike Israeli society, the Palestinians don't have a public platform from which they can release their frustrations and anger, so they scream it from their homes. It's a marginal society wanting to puff up its chest."

Loaded objects

The interiors of the home - the china cabinets, kitchens and living rooms - receive a lot of attention in the book. "Many Arab homes present guests with a cornucopia of accessories, furnishings, decorative objects and souvenirs; there's a lot of stuff everywhere. It's not only that the homes are loaded with objects, the objects themselves are also loaded. Picture frames are decorated with tiny musical instruments, themselves decorated with red roses, a blue ribbon tied around every tiny harp, and a teeny little rose stuck in the middle of the knot. A white bowl has wavy edges decorated with a thin relief layer of pink grape clusters and delicate grape leaves. Amid the leaf and cluster pattern, a delicate gilded butterfly, helped by an infinitesimally thin wire, hovers over a plastic banana."

The imagined abundance, liable to be seen by most Israelis (perhaps especially by Haaretz readers ) as kitschy and tasteless, is in Dr. Peled's opinion a response to the poverty outside the home, and to the lack of infrastructures and municipal planning. Peled notes that the the Arab home has lost most of its traditional features and currently reflects a society that simply is not certain about who it is, and what lies in its future. Of course, just as there isn't one typical Israeli home, there isn't one typical Palestinian home; it's all a matter of location, economic means, family needs, and to a great extent a question of taste.

And there is also a matter of adopting from their neighbors and adapting to their culture. The investment in shapes and decorations is directly affected by construction in Jewish cities that partook in a government-sponsored self-build initiative that began in the late 1970s, turning such neighborhoods into architectural Disneylands.

In addition, Palestinian society has a tradition of construction, so people can design and build quickly, and often do so without applying for the proper permits. It's interesting to note that since the 1980s, Arab architects (and sometimes also Israeli ones ) have been more involved in home design, and a growing number of Arab students are studying architecture in school.

Peled, whose research included many visits to homes in Wadi Ara, says residents always received him with respect, although they also had a certain amount of suspicion. Politics was always part of the discussion, though he tried "not to go in through the front door but rather through a window," to get political opinions.

At a time of tension and suspicion between Israeli Jews and Arabs, it seems that the home in particular serves as an interesting meeting point. The first step to talking may be that simple: visiting one another in our homes.

An Arara house.
Kobi Peled
Home in Kafr Kara.
Kobi Peled
Home in Kafr Kara.
Kobi Peled