Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Palestinian architecture students bring new life to Nakba villages

By K. Künzl - October 07, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Displacement] [Nakba] [culture]

Founded by Palestinian researcher, Dr Salman Abu Sitta, The Palestine Land Society is an independent non-profit organisation based in the UK devoted to compiling updated data on the region’s land, people, and culture.

For the third year in a row, The Palestine Land Society has hosted a competition in which architecture students living in Palestine or of Palestinian descent around the world participate to reconstruct villages that were destroyed by Israeli forces during the 1948 Nakba, or 'catastrophe,’ using 3D blueprint technology. 

“The basic requirement of any human being is to have the right to live in his home, and if he is suspended from his home he has the right to return, and if he returns to find it demolished then his son or grandson is here today to show us how he can build that home again today,” Dr Salman Abu Sitta stated during the jury’s final statements. 

The winners deemed to have the most creative and powerful designs by an international panel of judges were then announced on 6 September, the first place to be awarded a cash prize in addition to a one-week fellowship in Europe.  

Yasmina Salman, an architecture student at An-Najah National University in Nablus, spoke to Palestine Monitor about her redesign of Sataf village which scored her first place out of 500 participants. 

For Salman the competition was not just about showcasing her passion for architecture, it was about bringing new life to a village that had been left for ruin in honour of its former inhabitants.

Salman chose Sataf, a village in the Jerusalem district because she wanted an area she knew Israeli forces had made unrecognisable since “I can’t work on a village I can’t feel” Salman told Palestine Monitor. 

With just two months to devote after her schoolwork seised in July, Salman started the project by venturing to the site of the destroyed village. She reached out to a geography student and Jerusalem native who had completed his masters with an extensive study of the village, to show her around the terrain. 

Due to her restriction of movement and inability to obtain a permit on time, Salman could only travel from Nablus to Jerusalem by purchasing a ticket with an organised tour company. 

Upon reaching the site, Salman was rendered speechless. She found that Israelis had created a “national” park commissioned by the Jewish National Fund with imported trees and an abundance of exotic flowers on the land, unassuming to the average tourist of the scars of Sataf village that lay beneath.

“This was the most calm place I had ever been, you can’t hear any sounds. It is so beautiful, but it is sad at the same time because you know there was life here and now there is nothing. There is just a national park now. It is called 'national' but it is not, it is an Israeli place,” Salman said.

Salman was also overwhelmed by her visit, with no evidence of the village she had to start completely from scratch.

“If you weren't an expert you would think everything was there naturally, but they (Israelis) are trying to make an open-air museum for their agriculture…..I wanted to make this clear in my project, the agricultural identity, what is Palestinian and what is not, because I found a lot of overlap,” Salman said.

Salman then needed an idea of the village’s former social structure. With the help of two journalists, she was able to track down an English professor living in Amman whose parents were Sataf natives.

“He was so excited about my project, his family was from the village and he was born just four years after it was destroyed. He was so emotional when I told him I had just come back from visiting the site, it was very touching for me,” Salman recalled fondly.  

Through the stories his parents had passed down to him, Salman was able to visualise the community's social life through oral history.

“Most of the Palestinian villages have their own studies and research you could find online but Sataf did not, so all I had was from what these people told me, which I think was so special in its own way,” she continued. 

For the reconstruction of the buildings, Sataf then ventured to a village outside Nablus that was built during the same period to study the architecture of the houses.

“I wanted to design the houses the same way because I did not want to design houses that were suburban and commercial like a resort. In this circumstance that we live this would be meaningless, it is so beautiful to recreate a time in history that would be familiar to these people,” Salman said. 

When asked about the challenges Salman faced she emphasised the numerous factors that have to be taken into account when redesigning a village almost 70 years later. The first being the population; while only 625 people were kicked out of the village in 1948, estimations predict that the population would have reached 6,000 today. 

“There is architecture and urban planning, two completely different specialisations and challenges ... also the land was so steep and I needed to figure out how to accommodate for schools, clinics, streets, cultural centres, parks, pedestrian walkways, etc,” Salman told Palestine Monitor.

Salman accomplished this by creating multiple modules, each with a set of different sized houses and a cultural centre in the middle.

Additionally, Salman wanted agriculture to remain the core of economic life in the village so she constructed a factory where inhabitants could produce local, artisanal goods from the land.

Finally, Salman wanted to reconstruct the women's roles in the village community, “they had suffered so much, walking so many kilometres every day to sell their goods in Jerusalem. So I created a road to Jerusalem in which each of the Sataf women would have a shop and people from the city would come to them to buy their goods, and they could finally rest,” Salman explained.

Salman not only aimed to reconstruct the village but also tell the stories of the previous inhabitants and remind us all that despite its picturesque facade, Sataf has not been forgotten.

“I think living here is what allowed me to win the competition, if you are not competing within this context you cannot put the same heart and soul into it ... in the end it was bittersweet, the whole experience broke my heart, I would like to hope my plans will one day become reality,” Salman said.

Salman wipes away tears over a Skype camera as her name is called out by a jury in the UK, describing her use of oral history to have created the most moving of designs. 

“Next year we hope to invite any young engineer, whether Palestinian or not, if he or she has the good intention to build something for justice and peace they can participate,” Dr Salman Abu Sitta announced.

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