– Photo: ICAHD
A personal account of a Palestinian architect in Jerusalem
By Muna A.
Since I was a small child I dreamt of building houses. I remember my father used to take me on afternoon walks through the old city and tell me stories about the history of the four quarters, the ancient houses and the stories of the alleyways. These walks in the old city and other parts of Jerusalem inspired me to build houses that will also carry with them, one day, parts of the history of Jerusalem. So while other girls of my age were playing with dolls, I was building houses from stones, mud and sand.
As the years went by I kept on nurturing this dream until I was finally able to enroll in college and major in architecture & preservation. My father was so proud of me, he was sure that once I will graduate and become an architect the future and the past of the houses in Jerusalem will be safe.
My father was a very sweet man, unlike my teachers who were not sweet at all. When I think back now at all the classes I took, not even one professor had prepared me to deal with the bureaucratic hell that would prove to be the biggest obstacle in the way of fulfilling my dream of building houses.
Shortly after I graduated from college I was lucky to have been accepted to a small office of architects. It was my first job as an architect; it was interesting and challenging, and being the only woman in the office meant that I was also making a change in the field that was dominated by men. Soon after I joined I received my first project: a family from Sur Baher were finally able to build their dream house: 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, 2 bathrooms & a small balcony. Easy.
I had several meetings with the family in which we went over the design, budget and time frame. Once they gave me the green light we started the process to issue a building permit with them. My colleagues asked if I need help, but wanting to prove that I can deal with everything, I declined. That was a mistake.
I never managed to build a house for that family. And in the years to come I have had to let down many other families and see the excitement in their eyes go off when I told them I cannot build them a home. So many families have had to cancel projects to build their homes because they couldn’t get a building permit and they were too afraid to build.
I thought my colleagues wanted to show off to me, offering their help at first, but what they really wanted was to show me that there is the Israeli “legal” system and then there is the “Palestinian way”. As a Palestinian, it is almost impossible to work through the Israeli system and to achieve something. So we have to improvise and risk losing everything – our homes, our savings & our dreams – if we want to build a house, or else it is not possible.
That same afternoon, after my colleagues explained to me how things “really” worked, I went on a walk in my beloved old city. I walked through the streets and alleyways, visiting the places I used to when I would walk with my father, looking at all the old houses with shiny eyes. But this time, my eyes were not shining with excitement, they were shining with tears. Those beautiful old houses suddenly looked so old and ugly, crumbling and pathetic. I asked myself if is this all that will remain from our Palestinian legacy?… if we are not able to build houses, buildings or any structures at all, what will be left of us..
I have worked for a long time as an architect. Throughout the years, I did manage to build many houses, although in full honesty I can tell you that very few of them had legal building permits. I have met many brave people that with all the difficulties the Israeli system put in front of them they managed to build for their family a home. Some of them were demolished, some are still standing today.
I also learnt throughout the years, that there are more people that share my passion for building homes. Three years ago while I was on the bus to Anata, I overheard a young woman on the phone talking about a rebuilding camp. Naturally, that made me very curious. A camp to build a house?! To my delight, we got off at the same station. I approached her and introduced myself. In a short time we started talking and she explained to me that she works with an organization that rebuilds homes for Palestinians that had their homes demolished. She mentioned that they were planning the next rebuilding camp shortly and invited me to join.
A month later, I joined her on a tour she led in East Jerusalem that ended in the building site in Anata. I was amazed to see a group of internationals carrying blocks, mixing cement and planting flowers. My favourite part was seeing so many women working hard and building. I heard the story of Beit Arabiya that was demolished so many times and shed a tear with the rest of the group, but I left with a big smile on my face and a mini Halwa sweet that Arabiya gave me for the way. On the way back we were stuck in the long traffic line caused by the Shu’fat camp checkpoint, but this time I didn’t mind the long wait, it gave me time to absorb everything I saw and heard. I couldn’t wait to go to work the following morning and tell my workmates where I was.
I hope that the people in the rebuilding camp understand the meaning of what they were doing, because we do. To come all the way from their home countries, to share their time and hard work to build a house for a family, making their dream of a home come true after it was crushed by the Israeli army means that we are not alone in this struggle, that there are people in this world who see that it is wrong and shameful to take someone’s home away from them, deeming them as criminals. Well, I built many houses for those criminals and I am proud of it, and as long as I can, I will continue building houses. The rebuilding camp symbolized to me a resistance to the occupation, and I will continue resisting with my pen, my designs and my heart.
Muna was born & raised in the old city of Jerusalem. She has been working as an architect for the past 13 years in the Old City & in East Jerusalem. She is a longtime friend and supporter of ICAHD