Today has been a fantastic day.
First though, a quick summary…
I was on skype to Sarah last night, and ranting about how frustrated I was getting with this workshop – sold as something completely different to that which has transpired, no real brief, no real team hierarchy, and many egos and working methods bouncing around and conflicting. Also our accommodation arangement is awkward – although we’re based at a hotel, after a week you start to crave your own space, and its also like living with EVERYONE you work with. The walk to work is a sweaty uphill struggle amoidst heavy traffic to a lonely house on the top of a hill near the Separation Barrier that serves as an ‘office’ – we steal our internet from the house next door, there was no fridge until a day ago, we have a two-hob stove for almost 20 people, and no pots or pans. Shops nearby are few and far between, and with one exception, rip us off as foreigners obviously out of place in this arab neighbourhood. Being a house, there is no one room big enough to accommodate us all, and so we are in three very distinct groups….separated in fact by preferred methodology and hierarchies established before I joined the project. The ‘inclusive’ guys, who went to saite a lot, talked to people and creatively mapped things, who are building an ‘Atlas of Knowledge’, all use Macs and all work or teach together are in one room, and are actual quite exclusive in terms of explaining their methods or making them accessible to everyone else. Then there are the corporate guys – OMA and DfL stock, who take their own familiar methodology, based on the transfer of existing typology, and sit at desks tracing and comparing stuff from New Orleans to Stuttgart and dumping it on the site to bring a ‘western’ expertise to housing in this contested context. The mavericks comprise a third group, in their own room, and characterized by having an agenda before joining the workshop. Whilst the others are at least working towards the common goal of a masterplan for a new covertly Palestinian neighborhood, this third group see the ‘Studio’ as a chance to explore personal interests, or simply are segregated through an inability to us the english language with quite the finesse of the London scenesters. No one talks to each other anyway, room arrangement aside.
So today I got the f**k out.
With two fellow students, including one of the Mavericks, we decided that to design a place that is conducive to the development of a strong Palestinian civil society, we first needed to understand Palestinians, how they live in Jerusalem, and the problems that come with that – from discrimination all the way through to the cultural warfare waged by Israel weakening Palestinian society under the radar.
The Maverick has lived here for 4 years, as an architecture student studying at an Arab university. From Germany, she has been unable to obtain a student visa from Israeli authorities due precisely to the fact of her institution of study. Her tourist visa has recently expired, and to renew it means standing in line, with no shade, just to make an appointment which then takes place around six weeks later. This is an example of what is becoming a common theme as I spend time here. Things for arabs – and friends of arabs, including those who objectively do not take a pro-israeli position – is made difficult. Not actively prohibitted, but made uncomfortable, beaureucratic and demeaning.
But the Maverick has contacts through study. A friend who we visited today, could be classified as a wealthy, upper middle-class Palestinian. He is educated, politically aware, and and engaged Muslim. I would upload the videos I made of him talking to us, but as a former member of Hamas and former prison resident after the fact, he would be put in danger by anything linking him to anything that does not actively seek to reduce Paletsinian influence in the middle east. He very eloquently explained things such as the Muslim importance attached to Jerusalem and the land occupied by Isreal, the history of the estblishment of Isreal as a nation, and the mindset of arabs behind the things we witness on the news in the UK. I’d like to say at this point that the first mistake we make is to consider all arabs under one name, and all Palestinians as muslims. I hope very much to write up this conversation with our friend, as it contained many illuminating stories.
Anyway, we were researching existing Palestinian neighbourhoods, their strengths and the challenges they face in modern Jerusalem. We studied our friend’s shop, and the way it related to the actively arab commercial center of which it is a part. We looked at how it is divided in order to make best economic use of its floor area, and how that floor area is massaged in order to circumvent the draconian restrictions imposed by the Israeli-run Jerusalem Municipality that seek to make business difficult for arabs. We looked at the way that – behind the shop block – there is a rare Palestinian Secondary school, and talked about the importance of schools in Palestinian culture and society. We then were taken to see our friends house, and were introduced to the different concepts of land ownership amongst arabs, principally relating to the shame attached to selling land, which is demanded in Israeli-designed settlement plans. The idea of self-construction, in which arab families add to their home as their family grows in order to support their younger family members is key to understanding how any new neighbourhood would grow. The importance of civic buildings, such as Hamams (bathhouses) and coffee shops was explained, alongside Israeli measures to weaken these, and so disrupt Palestinians access to each other, to their culture, and to a forum to talk about their politics and family life.
All in all, what began to reveal itself was a war that is only ever partially fought on a militaristic level. Culturally, Isreal seeks to disrupt the social fabric of Palestinian society, distancing the young from its history and culture by closing schools, and the engaged from meeting the like-minded in open community forums. From inside Palestinian society, Israel seeks to take away that which makes it cohesive and strong.
Its early days, but I am beginning to understand the complexity at play here. I do not for one minute want to base that understanding on one encounter with one Palestinian and it is important to keep an open mind. The difference being so far, is that Israelis will try to convince me of the merits of Israel, whilst Palestinians ask only that I keep an open mind.