The Lovely Stones

Every village tour turns up surprises, even for people as experienced as those who work for the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah.

Every village tour turns up surprises, even for people as experienced as those who work for the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah. Sunday two weeks ago, the first surprise cropped up in Jammala, a village that was not on the original itinerary. Riwaq sends out expeditions to locate new conservation projects, in addition to the 50 projects under way or already completed.

In Deir Ammar, as in six other villages west of Ramallah visited that day, the Riwaq team was looking for the local council building. They had a proposal to submit: Riwaq would underwrite the restoration of a historical building chosen by the local council in keeping with the needs of the village.

At noon, a few young men sat outside their shop, curiously eyeing the unconventional delegation descending from the "acropolis" of Deir Ammar − a hilltop clustered with half-ruined buildings, impressive despite the neglect, featuring massive blocks of stone, arches, stone carvings, an olive press, vaulted ceilings and stairs leading to the roof. Ramallah to the east, Jaffa to the west, plowed fields in the valleys below, a gentle breeze blowing in the middle of a hot day. No wonder one of the team members sighed that he would be happy to live here.

As it turned out, both Deir Ammar and Jammala were under the purview of the same local council, and the office was in Jammala, down the road. As the Riwaq team got out of their van, a cluster of children tagged along after them. ?Are you foreigners?? they asked, without a hint of shyness. Here were four women, none of them in head scarfs, and six well-dressed men with cameras. Two even wore dark glasses − like Shin Bet secret service agents or Mafia mobsters, joked architect Su?ad Amiry, one of the founders of Riwaq.

Amiry and Nazmi al-Ju?beh, in their fifties, are the "oldsters" in the group. They run Riwaq ?(literally "foyer" or "lobby") together. The rest are in their twenties and thirties. The whole team, young and old, stopped to jest with the kids, explaining the purpose of the visit. The youngsters then led the visitors to the historic part of the village, which did not appear to have too much potential at first glance. "Come on, let?s show them the jannata ?(from "janneh," meaning garden or Garden of Eden?),? they said in unison, leading the "foreigners" to the top of the hill. Down below was a deep ravine with a bubbling spring, two small pools and patches of cultivated crops in every shade of green. The name fit to a T.

"Can a car get down there?" asked Nazmi al-Ju?beh, a historian and archaeologist. "Down, yes," replied one of the more talkative children. "But not up." So the visit to the Garden of Eden was postponed for some less pressured time.

The process of locating buildings to restore is no less important than the restoration itself. Riwaq, which has 15 salaried employees, was founded in 1991 when Palestinian society was bubbling with independent social and political initiatives, and the spirit of solidarity, volunteerism and desire for social change was as cohesive a force as ending the occupation.

This spirit lives on in Riwaq, but in an expanded, more professional form. Riwaq publishes books on Palestinian architectural heritage, organizes workshops for young people in the villages, mounts exhibits, and has drafted a law for the preservation of historical buildings. Riwaq receives financial support from several foundations in the West, but it is striving to stand on its own two feet. One way of accomplishing this is by accepting restoration work in the private sector.

A complete listingBy the end of the year, a full registry should be ready of all the historical buildings in Palestine − a project Riwaq has been working on since 1994. ?Palestine,? for our purposes, is the West Bank ?(including East Jerusalem?) and the Gaza Strip. To date, 50,320 buildings have been documented, and Amiry believes this figure includes all the historical structures − i.e., buildings at least 50 years old. Riwaq hired thousands of students, among them students of architecture, to visit every historical building in 708 population centers in 15 districts in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Our interest is not just in stones but in social rehabilitation,? says Ju?beh. ?We want to see social change.? For this to happen, Riwaq must establish a solid relationship with the communities in question. Riwaq cannot renovate all the buildings, nor does it intend to. The idea is to propose a model and encourage the community to cooperate with other organizations and raise the required sums elsewhere. Homeowners are urged to renovate their properties, hopefully with the active assistance of the Palestinian Authority.

Another prerequisite for "social change" is finding partners who will put the building to proper use. If the building has owners and tenants, so much the better. But if the property is abandoned, Riwaq suggests it be turned into a center that serves the community in some way.In Deir Ghassaneh, for instance, the owners of a large empty building offered it to Riwaq for renovation. A certain wing, probably the servants? quarters, had been buried under layers of dirt and garbage, and was only discovered when bulldozers cleared the land. The ground floor was built in the 18th century and the upper floor in the 19th century. The Medical Relief Committees, a long-standing NGO, agreed to sign on as Riwaq?s partner in this venture.

The association had a "crummy clinic," says Ju?beh, sliding into Hebrew slang. Born in Jerusalem?s Old City, Ju?beh spent five years in prison in the 1980s as a Palestinian Communist party activist ?(in jail, he joined the Democratic Front but quit that party, too?). As every partner of Riwaq, the Medical Relief Committees had to pay 10 percent of the costs. Other partners pay in labor or building materials. The Relief Committees paid in cash. The cost of the project was $80,000. In addition to the new clinic slated to open soon, the building will be used for various social and cultural activities. The whole process took less than a year. Restoration and construction took three months. The property owner leased it to Riwaq for 15 years at the cost of 1 Jordanian dinar a year.In the neighboring village of Beit Reema, Riwaq got several organizations and institutions to work together to establish a community center in a huge stone mansion with beautiful carvings over the windows and a large number of rooms and balconies. The Culture Club is run jointly by the women?s association, a youth organization and the municipality, although relations with the municipality were tense at first.

"When we were building, the local leadership wanted women?s activities in a room at the back with a separate door to keep men and women from mingling," Ju?beh recalls. "They told us to cover up the glass door facing the balcony so that no one could see the women." But a month after the opening of the center, on a routine visit to "check how the project was doing," Ju?beh relates with obvious pleasure that the glass door had been left open, and men and women were walking around on the balcony totally unconcerned about "mingling." There are now about 10 contractors specializing in the renovation of historic buildings under Riwaq?s supervision, and the projects supply tens of thousands of hours of work, which is nothing to sneeze at in a society where unemployment is so rampant.

The second surprise during the village tour on October 9 was a stone building perched high above the historic center of Deir Qadis. Riwaq knew there was a cluster of old abandoned houses with the potential for restoration and communal use in this village, but this one, probably dating from Mandatory times, came as a surprise because no one remembered it being there. From afar, the team could already see that it was a police headquarters of the type built all over the country during the British Mandate.

The reason for the location became evident as the Riwaq people approached. It was at the summit of a high, flat-topped hill with a panoramic view. No one had expected to find such a large building, with so many wings and courtyards. Although the walls were crumbling and the place was dirty and neglected, the division of the rooms was pretty much intact. The building had probably served the Jordanians, too, but with Hebrew signs saying "ammunition supply room," "mess hall" and ?living quarters,? it was easy to guess who had been there last − the Israel Defense Forces. In the village, someone said there were plans to turn the place into a community center. But given the size of the building, Riwaq has visions of something much grander − a concert hall, a convention center, a center for the arts.

Traditions built on continuityAs hard as it is to conjure up other times, Riwaq is trying to promote the preservation of historic buildings as an investment in the future. ?Palestine has no oil or land. All it has is cultural heritage,? Ju?beh keeps telling the Palestinian Authority. ?This is an asset that can attract tourists someday.? Winding between the clusters of stone houses are alleyways where the play of light and shadow can easily match Provence and Barcelona.

"This natural beauty is a product of the continuity and relative stability of our existence here," says Amiry. "You find it not only in architecture but in handicrafts like embroidery, in the way farmers cultivate the soil. Where there is continuity and stability, traditions grow up, built on accumulated knowledge. Because Palestinian villages have been relatively isolated for hundreds of years, local building styles and techniques developed using the materials close at hand: stones, limestone, earth.

"When people earned their keep from nature, they lived in harmony with their surroundings and were subconsciously sensitive to it. Today, when the land is no longer the chief source of livelihood, building has become aggressive. It?s the same here as in other parts of the world. Steam shovels gouge chunks out of the mountains to make room for concrete towers. In the olden days, the whole village pitched in to build, and cost was not a factor. Things changed at the end of the Ottoman period, and even more so during the British Mandate, when new materials like steel, cement and roof tiles were introduced."

Until the 1990s, even new-fangled construction materials and population growth did not ruin the natural beauty of the villages, which evolved over hundreds of years. Now, despite the efforts of Riwaq and like-minded organizations, this architectural heritage is in danger.

Paradoxically, the Israeli occupation has helped to preserve this legacy, in that the Palestinians were prohibited from building and expanding their towns and villages in keeping with natural increase. Amiry, a Palestinian born in Damascus, came here in 1981 as a young lecturer to study Palestinian village architecture. As the tour ends, she casts a pained glance at the neglected stone houses with the lumpy appendages of concrete added over the years, the vaulted rooms turned into outhouses and the yards strewn with garbage. In her office at Riwaq she has a treasure trove of photographs showing how hundreds of villages looked up until not so long ago − created by man but springing up from the mountains and the earth, next of kin to the trees and the fields.The establishment of Riwaq and organizations with similar goals has not managed to halt or moderate the process that began in the 1990s. As soon as Israeli occupation relaxed its hold on 40 percent of the West Bank ?(Areas A and B?), the thirst to build that had been suppressed for three decades articulated itself in a surge of construction guided not by beauty or historical preservation but by family need and the developers? insatiable hunger for profit. Old buildings were razed to make way for high-rises, and whole floors were added without regard for the original building materials. In one village west of Ramallah, half the buildings in the old part of town were demolished to build a soccer stadium.Israel?s occupation of 60 percent of the West Bank makes it difficult for cities and towns to expand as needed. With building additions possible only in Areas A and B, the price of land has soared. This tempts families to demolish old buildings, put their land up for sale or construct more profitable buildings on their property. The private sector responds very quickly, says Amiry − more so than any association or government authority.

One of the more unusual projects undertaken by Riwaq is the restoration of an Islamic shrine in the village of Nabi Saleh − unusual because Riwaq usually stays away from religious sites. In this case, it agreed because part of the building will be used for communal activities. A Crusader church has been discovered below the shrine. "Maybe it was a different holy site before the church was built. Or maybe the Tamimi clan that lives in this village was once Christian," jokes Ju?beh. "People will switch religions, but not their holy place."

Ju?beh, a secular archaeologist, says his interest at the moment is in buildings that live rather than in dead constructions. "It?s easy to understand why this is a holy place," he says. "People came here, saw the mountains and the valleys, and said ?with beauty like this, there has to be a God.?"