The young boy, who later turned out to be an 11th grade student, just skinny and short for his age, suggested visiting Abu al-Rijal (in Arabic, the father of men). The guests, a team from the Riwaq organization, understood that he was one of the elders of the village, and full of stories. Why not? Riwaq (in Arabic, entrance or corridor) is, indeed, an independent Palestinian institute whose main activity is architectural conservation and restoration. But the collection of memories, testimonies and oral traditions, and personal angles on historic events, has become another cornerstone in its work.
This year, Riwaq's team completed a registry of more than 50,000 historic buildings (at least 50 years old) in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. According to a legislative initiative it submitted to the Palestinian Authority some time ago, these buildings would be designated for conservation and restoration.
During the registration process, which took about 10 years, Riwaq collected the stories and memories of thousands of people from every village, city and district. Thus, it was only natural to meet with Abu al-Rijal in the village of Jammaleh, west of Ramallah, during the first stage of practical work: checking the potential for renovating a building and submitting a letter to the local council, seeking to interest them in the renovation and adapting it to local needs.
But no, it turns out that Abu al-Rijal is not a living person, but rather a place of prayer dedicated to his memory, a small stone structure with a dome, with an entrance that is shorter than the adult height. There is no gravestone. And the young teenager (whose face was scratched from many quarrels) informed us that al-Rijal was the mukhtar of the village in 1937. Another visit to Jammaleh and we can learn why the man merited having a place of prayer built in his name. Another visit in Deir Qadis and we can hear about the huge police station from the British Mandate era, which the Israeli army was the last to use. And there, as in any other village, we can learn more about the families who own abandoned homes that are 150 years old and more. The homes themselves are built upon more ancient structures, which were covered by dirt over the years until they raised the level of the street.
Another visit to Bil'in, opposite the tractors of the separation fence, which are devouring the hill to the west, and we will hear more details about the old mosque that was transformed into a kindergarten. Because during an earlier visit, less than two weeks ago, Suad Amiry, an architect and one of the founders of Riwaq in 1991, did not manage to extract much from the old woman who sat in the shade of one of the small stone buildings that looked as if they had sprouted from within the mountain. "How many people still live in the old quarter?" Amiry asked. And the old woman responded sulkily: "I don't know. I have no home. I'm a refugee." There was almost no one in the streets, so Amiry asked: "Everyone is at the olive harvest?" The old woman continued angrily: "What do I know? I have no home. I have no olive trees. I'm a refugee." But, in fact, this is also information of sociological and historical importance. It seems that a number of refugees from 1948 live in the village and on another visit we can ask which destroyed villages they came from and what memories they harbor from there.
And thus, by accompanying the Riwaq team, another layer of their work is revealed, work that is so varied, combining refinement and aesthetics with the activists' enthusiasm for social change. Wandering around with them exposes another facet of the local society, natural and deeply planted like the rocks and thick olive trees, scarred and vulnerable like the half-destroyed buildings. Also revealed is an almost involuntary determination in the face of various invaders and destroyers. With Riwaq, one can also learn about the differences between villagers and city dwellers, and between these two groups and refugees, but also about what unites them. Humor, for example.
Nazmi Ju'beh, a historian and archaeologist, born in the Old City of Jerusalem, who together with Amiry has managed Riwaq for years, is a known jokester. He always seasons his concise explanations about the history of each family of effendis, or about the bureaucratic hassles of the Israeli Interior Ministry, with some joke. Therefore, he is just the man to remember what he heard about 30 years ago, when he was still a student at Bir Zeit, and accompanied an American journalist to the village of Nabi Saleh: "How long have you been here," the journalist asked the village elder, while still looking at the first houses in the Jewish settlement of Halamish, as if to suggest that the Palestinians also had just arrived recently. And the 90-year-old, as lucid as morning light, looked at the young journalist and replied: "Do you see the wadi below? When Adam courted and chased after Eve, I stood here and watched them."
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