The Latest Buzz in East Jerusalem Is Sticky and Sweet

Thanks to a community program that teaches beekeeping and honey-harvesting, local Palestinian women are bringing joy to the neighborhood's rooftops

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Dallal Nsardin Qassem. After taking the initial beekeeping course, she is teaching other women herself.
Dallal Nsardin Qassem. After taking the initial beekeeping course, she is teaching other women herself.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

Every morning Dallal Nsardin Qassem, climbs up to the roof garden of her home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah with a cup of coffee. She sits among pots of blooming flowers, herbs and medicinal plants facing the beehives she has been cultivating for three years, watching their inhabitants going about their business of gathering nectar and listening to their buzz.

Qassem, 52, a mother of five and grandmother of seven, learned the art of beekeeping three years ago as part of a course offered by the Sinsila Center, located on the rooftop terraces of East Jerusalem's Central Library. The center is a project of the Muslala NGO, which initiates a host of social and artistic projects in Jerusalem.

Dallal Nsardin Qassem, who took part in the first Sinsila Center beekeeping course, and her rooftop in Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Bees are blessed and there is a story about them in the Koran where it says: ‘The honeybee holds in its belly a liquid that is a medicine for mankind,’” she says. “I have learned to get close to the bees and to stop being afraid of them. I learned how bees work together, as a single entity, and we humans can learn a lot from them – how to conduct ourselves and behave in the best way.”

Qassem admits that it took a while for her family to get used to the new neighbors. “In the beginning, all of them were afraid,” she laughs, “but now they get close and love the bees. My husband, who was against the idea at first, even opens the hive to extract the honey. My grandchildren really play with the bees.”

A beehive at the Sinsila Center in East Jerusalem, located on the rooftop terrace of the Central Library.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Qassem was one of 16 women who participated in a pilot project at the Sinsila Center in 2019: a course in beekeeping by means of a biodynamic approach that stresses breeding in a natural and stress-free environment. The participants met at the center's hives where they learned how to set up their own green roofs and hives; now Qassem and others are themselves teaching local women how to raise bees at home. Recently she and her colleagues completed a particularly ambitious course involving 115 participants, each of whom received two beehives. The aim is for the honey that is harvested to be sold during the summer at Sinsila – with most of the profits going into the women’s pockets.

The overall aim of the center is to empower local women economically (according to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, the unemployment rate among East Jerusalem's Arab women is nearly 75 percent) and to support urban initiatives that focus on sustainability and ecology – in this case, to counter the threat of the global extinction of honeybees. And there is also another wonderful benefit: creation of leafy, blossoming roof gardens throughout East Jerusalem, an immeasurably important undertaking in an era of acute climate change and crises. Trees and plants reduce air pollution, absorb rainwater, cool the temperature of the buildings (beneath them, in this case) and provide a welcome bit of greenery and color.

The beating heart and founder of the Sinsila Center, a few minutes' walk from Jerusalem's Old City, is Tareq Nassar, 38, an architect and urban planner who grew up in the Old City and the nearby East Jerusalem quarter of Ras al-Amud. When he returned from Europe after completing his studies about six years ago, he began to apply what he had learned to his childhood surroundings.

Tareq Nassar. The urban planner and activist is the beating heart of the Sinsila Center and its beekeeping initiative.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nasser is a proponent of placemaking – an approach to urban planning that promotes community involvement in shaping public spaces, within a relatively short amount of time in able to effect changes felt on the ground that will strengthen inhabitants’ connections to one another and to their surroundings. Thus, for example, he initiated establishment of a public garden and netting for shade outside a local mosque, so that inhabitants were able to pray outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic even under the broiling sun.

“The government has allocated 2 billion shekels (about $600 million) for the development of East Jerusalem, but it isn’t clear where all the money is going. Most of it is not really changing the inhabitants’ everyday lives,” Nasser says.
'Healing' the environment

Nasser established the Sinsila Center about three years ago, inspired by a project created by Muslala on the roof of the Clal center in West Jerusalem – an urban oasis in the middle of downtown that serves as a thriving center for community activists, artists, environmentalists and educators. “I said to myself, screw it! We have to have something like this in East Jerusalem too,” he recalls.

The flowering roof of the center offers residents a real breath of fresh air, according to its founder, that also helps, he says, to “heal" the urban environment. The word sinsila in Arabic refers to the natural stones used to construct hillside agricultural terraces so as to prevent soil erosion, thereby enabling the planting of trees and seasonal plants. Like those terraces, Nasser explains, the Sinsila Center aspires to create and preserve soil and to introduce vegetation – to urban areas.

Palestinian women from East Jerusalem participate in the first Sinsila Center beekeeping course, in East Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

However, in East Jerusalem's neighborhoods there is very little soil and a lot of concrete. Walking around there, one rarely see trees or other vegetation among the densely constructed buildings. Nasser's dream is to transform the areas into a flourishing paradise by taking full advantage of the tremendous unrealized potential of transforming what he calls the “desert of rooftops.”

In addition to Sinsila's rooftop garden and hives – installed inside a wooden structure that has places to sit and enjoy the buzzing of the bees – the center also boasts a small community café and a variety of exhibitions, programs and workshops for children and adults on topics relating to sustainability and environmentalism. These include courses for making products from beeswax and propolis.

“Thanks to the courses we are giving, we have succeeded in creating a community here. People come here to learn, to meet, to work together. Almost like WeWork,” says Nasser with a smile. “We also aim to go back to the cultural roots of the community here – and make new use of them. In the past, rooftops were an integral part of everyday life. Why not go back to that?”

The beekeeping project has turned out to be a great way to realize his vision, he continues: “Had I gone to the women and asked them to make the roofs of their homes green and plant things on them – I would have sounded like a fool. They would have laughed at me. It’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s agenda here. But if I suggest that they keep bees and produce honey to earn money – they will build a green roof of their own free will, because the bees need flowers and plants.”

Examining a hive frame during Sinsila Center's beekeeping course, in East Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Changing women's lives

To create sustainable solutions, it is necessary to look at the root problem, he says. The beekeeping project proves he has indeed found it: One-third of the women who participated in the pilot project set up their own green rooftops and hives, and have produced a respectable quantity of honey which they profit from. In 2020 the hives on Qassem’s roof and those of her colleagues yielded 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) – and a year later their swarms collectively produced a whopping 250 kilos. A few months after the successful pilot program ended, the participants established an organization called the Sinsila Women's Cooperative, which they manage themselves.

“This project is really changing these women!” Nasser says proudly. “And I’m not talking about the elites – most of the women here don’t speak Hebrew or English, most don’t have jobs. Now they have a profession, they have a green terrace of their own on their roof. Of the women who participated in the pilot, three have been accepted to teach sustainability at a local school. Can you imagine how that changes the life of a 55-year-old woman who never had a job or completed a degree?”

The Sinsila Center, on the local library's rooftop terrace. Making the “desert of rooftops” in East Jerusalem bloom.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the last two years Nasser and his partners expanded the project and if all goes well, its recent and past participants will harvest as much as three or four tons of honey, to be sold in Sinsila-brand jars starting this summer.

While his ambitious undertaking receives funding from Israel's Economy and Industry Ministry, Nasser says it covers only 20 percent of the center's budget. Indeed, he adds, the center has to date purchased 200 hives at a cost of over 100,000 shekels. Now he is initiating a crowd-funding campaign for advance purchases of the honey.

Social activist and beekeeping expert Yossi Aud has been accompanying the Sinsila Center project from the outset, and is well-known among bee enthusiasts in Israel. He is leading a nationwide effort to bring bees back to urban and other areas by means of a biodynamic approach, and to that end founded the Magen Dvorim organization some 10 years ago.

“Bees,” he explains, “are responsible for most of the plenty in the world. They are the main pollinators in nature and as such they have direct influence on the entire food chain in nature and ecological processes.”

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