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> Riwaq: Non-stop Evolution
Photo by Idioms Film, Riwaq Photo Archive
By Nazmi Ju’beh
With this Second Biennale, Riwaq is crowning sixteen years of non-stop development. When Riwaq was established in 1991, there was a clear and genuine need to protect cultural heritage in Palestine. Riwaq was the only voice in the wilderness. The message was somewhat ambiguous and, due to various factors, Palestinian society was not ready to take such a step. Our determination and a strong belief in our mission were the only driving forces; the rest would follow.
Our humble resources - financial and technical - allowed us to organize an exhibition, hold a lecture, and gather some friends around our ideas and, in the best case scenario, publish a book. If this first-phase path had been followed, Riwaq would have ended up being a research centre. That is not to say that we do not appreciate research centres, but we soon discovered that urgent needs and priorities went beyond intellectual interests and theoretical documentary approaches. We have, therefore, sought more concrete ways to change the status quo of cultural heritage in Palestine.
Our second step led toward the development of a database, in a manner parallel to community outreach activities, research, and training. Our mission at that point was to get to know the status quo and to understand the complexity and vastness of cultural heritage in Palestine. We knew that we could not formulate any policies or come up with a philosophical approach without comprehending what we were dealing with. The database, which is now called Riwaq’s Registry of Historic Buildings, brought together information on almost 52,000 historic buildings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This database proved to be the right beginning for our work. It signalled the dark future that awaits cultural heritage in Palestine and required us to become more aggressive in our approach.
The third phase of Riwaq’s work began with actual restoration of historic buildings for public use. Run-down and abandoned buildings were turned into community centres, childcare rooms, and women’s associations (among other facilities). Riwaq sought to restore one building in each village in the West Bank to serve as a pilot project that would help the community discover the potential uses of historic buildings. This stage was filled with learning, teaching, and exchange. Riwaq had to learn new skills, assist in training, and send staff members abroad for further education in order to face the challenges that we had accepted.
Concomitantly, as Riwaq was fully engaged in restoring buildings, bulldozers were destroying others at a pace that was quicker than our capacity to save. We were on the edge of giving up and almost considered cultural heritage to be lost forever, but instead we jumped a step forward. With the help of other partners, we began to use legislation as a tool for protection and prepared new and modern laws for the protection of cultural heritage. Unfortunately the legislative council in Palestine was going through multiple crises that prevented the ratification of the proposed laws. We are hopeful, however, that as soon as political conditions permit, the cultural heritage protection law would be returned to the list of priorities.
These turbulent political situations made us reconsider our strategies and look for new outlets for the protection of cultural heritage. We found our answer in planning and zoning regulations. Amendments to the existing bylaws were enough to stop the massive destruction of historic buildings. Riwaq has, therefore, formed a new unit in the centre: the planning and development unit. This unit has so far prepared 16 protection plans for 16 historic centres in the West Bank in order to ensure the acquisition of proper training and knowledge and the means to be able to transfer this knowledge to other institutions and organizations. In addition, the unit has adopted comprehensive socio-economic approaches in the protection process.
The fourth phase aimed to adopt more aggressive ways of protection. This had two pillars: the first was the utilization of our social network - something that we were previously reluctant to use; and the second was the drive to rehabilitate entire historic centres instead of individual buildings. This comprehensive approach aims not simply to renovate the historic centre but also to revitalize the socio-economic life of the centre, a concept that is consistent with present models of development.
Riwaq’s Second Biennale reflects the soul of our institutional development and philosophy; it is a means to expose our fresh and modest experience to international experts, with the aim of revising this experience according to international standards. This will be an opportunity for all cultural and art institutions, universities, and national authorities to examine their achievements, revisit their projects, and network with international institutions. It is true that our experience is modest, but we are very proud of our achievements and are open to constructive criticism and further exchange. The Biennale is a cultural demonstration - a rediscovery of the power of culture.
Nazmi Ju’beh, co-director of Riwaq
This Week in Palestine