Interview with Khouloud Daibes

The Fight for Palestine's Historic Architecture

Khouloud Daibes has been head of the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem for the last six years. Youssef Hijazi talked to the architect, who has recently been given a post on the Palestinian Authority Cabinet

Dr. Khouloud Daibes (photo: Youssef Hijazi)
"Because we have no legislation, we place a high value on educational work", says Dr. Khouloud Daibes

​​You recently gave a lecture on the preservation of architectural heritage under the title "Palestine's strong women: between tradition and modernity". Do you tend more towards tradition yourself?

Khouloud Daibes: The question I have been asking since the beginning of the 1990s is: how can you develop an architecture with a modern spirit out of an architecture with strong traditional roots? For me this includes preserving Palestine's historic architectural fabric, which represents an important cultural asset, both for us Palestinians, and in general. Only with this can continuity be guaranteed, for instance by handing this heritage down to the younger generation. The old architectural fabric is the physical evidence that we have been living in this country. And the preservation of this heritage also contributes to economic growth by promoting tourism.

So is it above all political and economic factors which motivate you in working to preserve historic monuments?

Daibes: I have been working professionally for many years to preserve historic monuments. But I also see myself as a kind of campaigner because I am fighting for the preservation of our heritage, which needs protecting, and is still not valued highly enough. This fight is all the more important because while one day a political victory may win us our own state, all the old buildings may have been torn down by then, which would leave us somewhat impoverished.

Unlike in Hebron before the bombing, walking through Ramallah or Bethlehem you can see that many historic houses are falling down. You get the impression that the preservation of monuments simply isn't on the agenda. Why is this?

Daibes: You can't compare Bethlehem with Hebron and Jerusalem. There is direct occupation by settlers there, and the people have to fight to remain in the old town. There is an organization in Hebron which takes care of modernizing houses so that families can remain in the old town or move to it.

In Bethlehem there isn't this political aspect, although the city is now surrounded by twenty settlements and has been reduced to its core by the construction of the wall. The old town is also under threat because of a lack of cohesive urban planning.

Since the Oslo Accord the occupying powers have had nothing to do with planning and its implementation. To what extent has the Palestinian Authority fulfilled its role here?

Daibes: For forty years we were not responsible for planning. Until 1995, there were no laws protecting historic monuments. During the last ten years we have been working on a historic monuments law, which also protects cultural assets older than fifty years; the previous laws protect all buildings erected before 1700.

Up till now we have had no information on the existing fabric. It will be a long time till we finish the inventory, so we want to get a law passed which prohibits the houses being demolished. At the moment new buildings are being constructed without planning, because the city council cannot prevent houses being knocked down or new ones being built without planning permission.

A bill has existed since the beginning of 2001 but still hasn't been passed. Why?

Daibes: There are various things which make our work difficult; the bill has not yet been through all the official stages because every few months we have a new government. And it appears that passing such a law is not a priority for politicians. The importance of this issue has not yet been recognized.

The owners of old houses lack the motivation to preserve them, as the price of the land is so high they would rather invest in building a house with many storeys in order to reap as much profit as possible.

The question of ownership is often very complicated too. Some houses are owned by up to ten families; this makes agreements on modernization difficult. Many families have emigrated, have rented out the houses for very little money and the tenants don't feel responsible.

So there are political, legal and economic problems, as well as a lack of awareness, amongst politicians equally as amongst the population?

Daibes: Yes, and added to this are the limited resources. Many people don't have the means, even if they are aware of the problem. Also the Oslo Accord divided the Palestinian territories into the three zones, A, B and C. The city councils are only responsible for Areas A and B. By coincidence the old cities are all in Area A. This means that the demand for new buildings in Areas A and B is great.

Are the old buildings and building methods taken into consideration here?

Daibes: In Bethlehem little care is being taken about proportions, surroundings and materials. If this continues, Bethlehem will gamble away its chances of being placed on the world heritage list because it will no longer fulfil the criteria.

What concrete measures are the Palestinian Authority, the planning authorities, town planners and architects taking to deal with this?

Daibes: I must say that we have only begun to address this since the beginning of the 1990s. However in the last fifteen years we have made considerable achievements, partly thanks to the work of NGOs and semi-governmental organizations. The ministries responsible have also helped, but they lack specialist knowledge, and money. In addition to this we are currently working on a preservation programme for Bethlehem’s old town in collaboration with UNESCO.

Together with the three town councils of Bethlehem, Bethjala and Bethsahour we are training architects, planners and builders so that we can proceed with our scheme. We have restored certain districts of these towns and the surrounding villages. These are intended to serve as models and to show the inhabitants and proprietors what it could look like after restoration. Because we have no legislation, we place a high value on educational work and hope that these models will serve to encourage the people not to tear down their houses but to repair and restore them in order to use them in the public interest.

How do you get people enthusiastic about preserving their houses? Are the finished examples enough, or can you create conditions which make such an undertaking profitable for people?

Daibes: Yes: we also see our projects as job creation schemes. The restoration requires intensive manual work. Thus more than 70 % of the project costs go directly into job creation schemes and purchasing building materials. At least 50 % of those working on the projects come from the neighbourhood.

We demonstrate to people that they can profit from the schemes in the short term as well as in the long term, through the public use of the buildings, for instance as youth and women's centres, or libraries.

We do a lot of educational outreach in schools. We explain to the children why we do this work and how they can protect their heritage. For the older generation it is almost too late. They seem to believe that visitors are only attracted by five-star hotels, whereas actually the trend is more towards cultural tourism rather than mass tourism.

There are two schools when it comes to restoring historic monuments, particularly when a change of use is intended: the conservative one, which carries out reconstructions true to the original; and the modern one, which uses new materials such as glass and steel in order to differentiate the old from the new. Which of the two schools do you adhere to in your work?

Daibes: We respect all phases of history, but we do not want to turn Bethlehem into a museum. It is a living urban monument and must continue to live. If you look at the individual projects in Bethlehem our centre has worked on, you can see that we work very cautiously with new materials or extensions. However we also have to acknowledge social needs, for instance providing bathrooms and kitchens for houses built without them, without destroying their original character.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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