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Marvels of Despair

The Status of Cultural Heritage in Palestine

By Khaldun Bshara

In Palestine, heritage has endured a double-bind relation due to its dialectical relation to Palestinian identity. On the one hand, heritage suffers from “falafelization,” the compounded alienation of Palestinians from their heritage via processes of destruction, expropriation, and confiscation that are exacerbated by settler colonialism. On the other hand, Palestinians and their official and nonofficial bodies have been preoccupied with making Palestinian heritage global. This globalization manifests itself in further alienation via processes of commodification or through the universalization of the local. While settler colonial processes have advanced rapidly, the national globalization project (which includes placing sites on the World Heritage List, the drafting of charters, and the adoption of Eurocentric heritage rhetoric when talking about local conditions) has been hindered by the manyfold colonial and non-colonial conditions. The division of the Palestinian territories in the post-Oslo era, the absence of effective national legal frameworks for the protection of heritage, and the lack of public awareness and resources have led to the loss of a great portion of Palestinian heritage. Unless Palestinians embrace their heritage as a mode of life and of knowledge production at the local level, Palestinian heritage will not only undergo further “falafelization,” but Palestine will also risk the loss of the transnational global dreams.

Palestine has a rich and diverse cultural and architectural heritage: historic cities and towns, hundreds of villages, and thousands of archaeological sites – some discovered and others yet to be. As a result of the role of media and the legacy of Orientalism, emphasis is placed exclusively on monumental landmarks, biblical sites, and sacred shrines. Thus, Jerusalem has become summarized in the Dome of the Rock, Bethlehem in the Church of the Nativity, and Acre in its fortifications. This understanding undermines the practices, customs, and cultural and architectural traditions of ordinary Palestinians who have maintained a balanced relationship to their cultural, spiritual, and productive space.

The British colonization and Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine significantly altered the relationship between Palestinians and their space. Perhaps one of the most important manifestations of colonization has been the limitation of Palestinian movement to geographically isolated units, while they are caught within the colonial economy and its means of production. In addition, colonial territorial policies have alienated the Palestinians from spaces that once were communal and common. The plazas, alleys, mountains, churches, mosques, holy shrines, pastures, and water springs were considered to be the property of the colonial state, whereas the spaces that are delineated by land titles (deeds) define the boundaries of private property.

The transformation of Palestinians’ relationships with their spaces cannot be isolated from covert land sales to the Jewish National Fund and the outcomes of the 1948 War. These events were, in effect, the concrete foundations for the transfer of ownership of a whole country to a newcomer, manifested by the forced displacement of a large segment of the Palestinian population, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns, and the theft of their homes and belongings, popularly coined as “the biggest robbery of the twentieth century.” The success of the Zionist colonization of Palestine was perhaps most evident in the separation of Palestinians from the region and its facets that made up their pluralistic identity: Palestinians, Syrians, Arabs, Ottomans, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Romans, and Mediterraneans. This diversity was unmistakable in their culture and architecture. For in Palestine, there are great sacred monuments, bazaars, and monasteries, as well as simple dwellings and mundane spaces. There are villages, towns, and khirab (ruins), peasant houses and mansions of the petit-bourgeois, palaces and castles for sheikhs and notables, and shrines of holy men and women as well as demons. This plurality was accompanied by great architectural diversity that includes Canaanite, Iron Age, Roman, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman, and European styles.

The Throne Village of Obwein Historic Centre, Ramallah. Photo courtesy of Riwaq Photo Archive.

Certainly, the events of the year 1948 and their colossal impact on the Palestinian body in the geographical sense cannot be overcome in any essay about the cultural or architectural heritage in Palestine. As a result of the 1948 War, Palestine has been transformed into a set of abstract symbols that are detached from material practices. While embroidery is worn to show off at weddings, the olive tree has become an icon on a wall, the Dome of the Rock a wooden souvenir, and the map of Palestine an image in a retro book. What once was an integral part of everyday life – from clothing to rituals and customs – has been turned into a set of symbols in a desperate attempt to salvage any relics from the vanishing past amidst the Palestinian-Zionist existential conflict.

By virtue of the dialectical relationship between heritage and culture on the one hand and collective memory and national identity on the other, Palestinian towns and villages were systematically destroyed and their inhabitants displaced. It is imperative, and this has been the nature of colonialism that strove to create space for the nascent entity on the ruins of the social, cultural, and spatial structures of the Indigenous people. This is why Palestinian spaces and culture have suffered a great deal since 1948.  Historical sites without military significance were destroyed in every confrontation, establishing “facts on the ground,” strengthening the colonial presence, and weakening the relationship between the Indigenous people and their habitat.

There are 50,320 historical buildings in 422 villages and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Riwaq Registry, 2006). But every year, we lose a minimum of 1 percent of our heritage.

Devastated by colonization and destruction, the Palestinians employed heritage to knit a national identity that is also material. Palestinian institutions have sought to document the heritage (both material and immaterial), with successes and failures here and there. Following the 1993 Oslo Agreement, moreover, increased attention was paid to culture and cultural heritage, spearheaded by civil society institutions that tried to document, protect, restore, and develop culture as an important pillar in the nation-building processes. Yet, colonial notions of heritage, which are in essence Eurocentric, have long stood as barriers between the local vision and its implementation. For example, Palestine still operates under the British Antiquities Act of 1929 that was recently modified by the Palestinian National Authority Heritage Law (2018) yet retained the same value system that gives age precedence over societal values. Thus, nothing constructed after the year 1917 is considered part of Palestinian heritage. Moreover, the common perception that heritage and culture and their development are luxurious activities has relegated culture and cultural heritage to the lower ranks of national priorities and budgets. It suffices to say that the combined budgets of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture constitute less than 1 percent of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) budget. At the same time, the PNA spends more than one-third of its budget on security. The simultaneous investment in what is lacking (security) and disinvestment in the abundant (culture) demonstrate the absurdity of the notions of development and governance in a context of subordination and colonialism.

An Interior of Traditional Palestinian Home. Photo courtesy of Riwaq Photo Archive.

Colonialism operates through two strains: spatial and psychic. While the first strain has been largely successful, matched only by the disappointments and failures of the Oslo Agreements, the psyche’s raging battle against colonization remains. In the first and direct kind of colonization, the colonizer uproots and destroys the local community to make room for the newcomers. In the second indirect and subtler kind of colonization, the colonizer appropriates the life and means of production of the local community. Furthermore, the colonial regime claims the right to these life forms in what I have described as “falafelization” in reference to the fierce battle between Palestinians and Israelis on the origin of falafel and hummus. Whatever survives the process of falafelization acquires a stigmatized reputation: primitive, backward, and uncivilized. Even Palestinians will have to make a great effort to convince one another that their heritage is worthy and meaningful. Palestinians suffer a double alienation when they do not possess the tools to defend their falafel, their everyday practices, and their culture. In light of the continuous preoccupation with great issues (such as liberation) or with everyday concerns (such as making a living), Palestinians find themselves consumed in battle after battle against an entire system of research, education, knowledge production, and colonial propaganda.

Cupole di un santuario sacro dipinte di verde, Midland Palestine. Photo courtesy of Riwaq Photo Archive.

These circumstances drive cultural heritage institutions, such as Riwaq, to work on the restoration and development of historic buildings and towns as a means of resilience, resistance, and decolonization – at least in its second form – of the psyche. In the post-Oslo era, cultural heritage institutions have acknowledged the absence of heritage from the national agenda, the lack of a legal framework, and the limited awareness of the importance of Palestinian heritage. They have been working with their limited (and varied) resources to place heritage on the agendas of donors and the PNA and, more importantly, on the agenda of ordinary Palestinians. It is no surprise now that intellectuals and ordinary people alike are mobilized to safeguard a historic building (unprotected by the heritage law), regardless of the asymmetry of powers that consider neoliberal economic gains far more important than Palestinian identity and collective memory. In the absence of a strong and willing authority, civil society institutions have been trying to fill the void associated with the protection and development of heritage, albeit with limited success.

Since 2006, we have lost 25 percent of our historical buildings in Palestine, as documented through Riwaq research and study trips.

Civil society approaches are often overshadowed, or concealed, however, by grand processes such as inscription on the World Heritage List employed by Palestine, which joined UNESCO as a full member in 2011 and used this status to place as many Palestinian sites as possible on the list (such as Bethlehem, Battir, and Hebron), even if only for fame and prestige. Such attempts overlook the potential that these sites might have in terms of benefitting the local community before serving the international tourism sector, which benefits the colonial regime much more than it benefits the local population (as tourism is mostly controlled by Israeli agents and ports). This means that in the absence of sovereignty over both territory and the tourism market, Palestinians are turned into one of several touristic streams that benefit their subordination. The incorporation of the cultural system (which has not yet been fully captured by the colonizer) within the colonial economy has turned an absolutely losing project (colonization) into an absolutely profit-making project with almost no risks.

Voluntary working day at the historic center of Hajjeh, Qalqilia. Photo courtesy of Riwaq Photo Archive.

Culture, which has been celebrated as a basic human right, needs an enabling environment to fulfill its premise in identity-politics and nation-building processes. This enabling environment entails first, and most importantly, decentralized policies in which the state (OUR state) entrusts people and their civil society institutions with implementing responsive cultural strategies and actions. We need a local definition of heritage that is driven by Indigenous values and practices rather than Eurocentric terms and concepts. Once culture and cultural heritage are recognized as important pillars in nation building, a fair share of the national budget should be allocated to culture and cultural heritage. The revenue of this budget should not be calculated in terms of monetary capital but in terms of symbolic and cultural capital gained by ordinary people – are we contributing to the production of individual and collective consciousness? Since the Heritage Law is the product of its conditions and not an abstract theoretical exercise, it needs to be revisited to capture community needs and struggles.

Since 2006, more than 130 historical buildings have been turned into community centers in more than 80 Palestinian villages and towns, and 20 of the 50 most significant historic centers in Palestine have been rehabilitated by Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation.

Palestinian people and cultural actors expect their government to have an integral role in the protection of their heritage. Success stories all over the world indicate that effective central protection that is paralleled with decentralized implementation can make all the difference. While governments establish legislation, bylaws, and monitoring schemes, local communities and nongovernmental bodies document, protect, restore, and manage their cultural treasures. People understand profit very well, and in order to be on board in the protection and valorization of their heritage, they need incentives and tax reforms that can be in the form of shares of restoration costs or tax reduction for cultural and heritage businesses. People need to see that their taxes are returned to them, which would foster their sense of citizenship. As an architect restorer, who has worked in the field for 27 years, I believe that the culture sector needs an independent commission for heritage affairs to coordinate governmental and nongovernmental efforts, especially among the ministries of culture, of tourism and antiquity, and of local governance. This commission would eliminate duplication of work on all levels in the documentation, planning, restoration, branding, and activation of sites. The task looks complicated, but there is no simple solution for a complicated field with many stockholders and beneficiaries.

A musical performance at the historic center of al Taybeh, Ramallah. Photo courtesy of Riwaq Photo Archive.

In short, we need to (un)learn about the possibilities and potentials that cultural heritage in Palestine (the marvels) might hold in terms of being a source of support and a pillar of cultural, social, economic, and political development for Palestinians. This is not in isolation from the conditions created by colonialism and Eurocentric approaches towards heritage and from the Palestinian quest for a piece of the cultural tourism market. In Palestine, it is impossible to gain a coherent view of Palestinian heritage disassociated from the deficient national structural and legal frameworks and the enduring colonial discourses and structures, or separate from attempts by civil society to find approaches closer to the owners/users of local heritage than to that of tourists and meta-discourses. Until we realize this (as individuals and institutions of civil society and state), we will not be able to take up the cultural platform meritoriously or use these marvels as a resource for the process of knowledge production, mobilization, decolonization, and nation building, rather than as a source of grief.

  • Dr. Khaldun Bshara is an adviser at Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation, a Ramallah-based NGO that has won several awards, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and an associate professor at the Department of Social and Behavioral Science at Birzeit University.

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