Suad Amiry: A Conversation

Author ········· Danah Abdulla & Karim Sultan (Kalimat Magazine)
Published ······ Issue 03, 2011
Section ·······  Current Affairs

Published in Kalimat, Issue 03 (read this issue)

Suad Amiry, or “Tante Suad” as we like to call her here, is best known now for her closing lecture at TEDxRamallah back in April. Dr. Suad Amiry, made the entire audience laugh with her stories and insights – not only at the event in Ramallah but during our livestream of TEDxRamallah in Toronto also. We were immediately interested in picking her brain about architecture, planning, Palestine, becoming a writer and so much more and managed to arrange an early Skype interview with her. Throughout the conversation we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling at her wonderful humour—we even made jokes to each other about how we wished Tante Suad was our aunt by blood. And that’s why we’ve decided to keep her answers as is, because we can’t seem to get her adorable Italian-cum-educated Arab accent out of our heads!

KM | Why did you want to originally pursue architecture, and what did you want to accomplish with it when you initially began your studies?

SA | I think the reason I studied architecture—reflecting back of course—is that my mother had a woman friend who was an interior designer, by creativity and not by study. As a little girl I really liked Aunt Hikmat and she probably left an impact on my brains. My mother is from Damascus, from the Jabri family, and I grew up in an beautiful old mansion in Old Damascus. Every summer, we spent time in the Old City by the Ummayyad Mosque and the narrow streets and that also left an impact on me, especially since we had a big family. Everyone used to come on Fridays and play in the courtyard. The third, less romantic element, is I am dyslexic, so the last thing I expected to become was a writer (we'll talk about that later). My sister is a psychologist, and she told me that when we read we use one part of the brain, and when we draw we use the other. Since I was dyslexic, I think I depended more on my memory and visual things and, by accident, I became an architect. For these reasons I was more inclined to go towards visual arts rather than literature or writing and reading.

KM | Can you tell us a little about Riwaq?

SA | I graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and then taught a little bit of Architecture at Jordan University. Then I pursued my Masters at Ann Arbor [University of Michigan] in Urban Planning, but soon enough I realised that I hated urban planning, the concept that one person, the planner, would come and decide, put the map on the table and colour something red and make that the centre, here are the schools, here is the hospital, industrial zones and what have you. I found that more and more I was intrigued by the architecture without the architect. I must say that a visit to Italy, where I drove from North to South in two weeks, made me ask, "How is it that the Italians protect their cultural heritage and how is it that we, in the Middle East, keep destroying it? How could they keep all those layers together?" I think that also had an impact on me, so I ended up deciding to do my research on Palestinian village architecture. Remember I am a hakawati (storyteller) I can speak forever, so feel free to interrupt me!

Mazare nobani before

KM | Not at all, please go on.

SA |  I decided to study vernacular architecture in Palestine, and of course I grew up in Jordan and did not have access to Palestine, so I got my permit for one month and then ended up going in '81. I fell in love with the place. It wasn't like now, 30 years later. 90% of the buildings you see today were built after 1996. At the time it was very beautiful with the landscape, the buildings, the olive trees, the small stone houses—they were all coming together in a most intriguing way. My PhD research in village architecture was on space, kinship and gender. I tried to understand why the Palestinian village was divided up the way it was, the centre of town, the piazza or the sahha, the hara al-fawqa and the hara al-tahta (the upper and lower neighbourhood), and how kinship and gender organised the spaces, what was the role of women, the role of men, how they worked together in the fields. Anyways, I ended up doing a PhD on the subject, and came back to teach at Birzeit University, by this time it was already '88, and realised that there was no organisation in Palestine that dealt with the protection of cultural heritage. That's why I decided to establish this organisation in 1991. Riwaq's aim at the beginning (and current aim), was to document to understand what it is we have in Palestine. Then, as time went by, we decided to connect conservation with job creation because, as you know, finding a job in Palestine is quite difficult, especially after the year 2000. Sharon decided he did not want to have Palestinian workers in Israel, which meant one third of the population woke up without an income. At that point we realised that maybe in Italy or elsewhere in Europe renovating historic places is a privilege, but in Palestine we have to tie the economic situation to job creation.

Mazare nobani after

KM | What do you see in those buildings, and the cities in which they reside, that other people may not see?

SA |  I see that the old and the new could live together, and should live together, to create a new building that doesn't necessarily mean that the old is demolished. Just for you and the readers to know, historic centres in Palestine are sitting on just over half a percent of their city limits. If you take the area of Ramallah as a city, the historic centre is sitting on half a percent, maximum one percent of the land. So I found it extremely unacceptable that people insist on demolishing this half or the one percent, when they have ninety-nine percent to build new buildings and show us their creativity. And also, I personally have decided to renovate old buildings because architects, by our training, have not been given a good education to create beautiful and environmentally friendly buildings like the old buildings we have. For me it is better to renovate and keep the old building than build a new one. Many people also think that renovation is expensive, while building new is not but in reality, renovating an old building costs one third of building a new one. So these are the things I see. I also think that what the Israelis are trying to do is to erase the existence of Palestinians on their land. One of the first things done between 1948 and 1951 was to demolish 120 Palestinian villages when it all became Israel. What I find quite amazing is that we Palestinians are demolishing the rest of this historic architecture. For me, it is also our haqq (right), our heritage, our identity, and our culture, and that's why I feel that it is our duty to protect it for our future generations.

KM | What is the relation between architecture and the people who inhabit it, and how does this relation change over time?

SA | In the case of Palestine, the architecture normally reflects the mode of production. There are three communities: the urban dwellers, whose mode of production was commerce, the peasants whose mode of production was agriculture, the Bedouins, inhabitants of the lowlands...this made three types of architecture. The relationship, and I am an expert in peasant architecture, in the housing reflects how people lived the land, how they can accommodate their animals, their product, and themselves. The Palestinian peasant houses had spaces for their animals, which were used in the fields, but were also a source of heat, in the lower levels, with the human beings in the middle and their cultural products on the upper level. The village was inward looking, towards the piazza, and the land around it was the most important source of livelihood. In the case of Palestine with the British Mandate, in the 1940s, more and more people became employees, going to the coast to work as labourers. That changed the family from being an extended family to a nuclear one, the houses, instead of having the whole hamooleh (extended family), they started having the nuclear family, in which the father only went out to work. This reorganised the village, spreading out from the piazza to the road to wherever the people worked. Architecture tells us all this about the people, who they are, and how they worked. Now the role of the architect and urban planner is very strong. In the past, it was the builder that would ask the people, "What is it that you want?" and they went accordingly. Now the architect has a role where they assume superiority and knowledge, and the client often has very little to say, or the people have very little to say, that's why we live in cities where we feel a little alienated. The scale—not only in Palestine, but everywhere—of places had a human scale, while new towns and cities have a new scale, a state scale, we feel alienated when we cross streets that are very wide or live in a building that is very tall. The human being and their natural needs were taken over by technology's needs.

KM | I know we're speaking to you as Suad the Architect instead of Suad the Writer, but do you find any connection between the architecture in Palestine and the rest of the region, along with other cultural forms?

SA |  Absolutely. In my mother's time, it was Greater Syria. Of course, dividing Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria happened in 1917 to 1923, but in fact it was always a rather open area. There are a lot of similarities between cities and city-dwellers. For example, most coastal cities look alike: Alexandria, Gaza, Jaffa, Beirut, Saïda (Tripoli), Constantinople…I think we forget that, not long ago, these areas were connected by the Mediterranean. There were a lot of similarities between these places because they were connected by the sea. After the creation of Israel we were thrown off—we not only lost a country, but we lost the sea. The sea has a very strong culture and a very open culture, and unfortunately Palestinians have lost their main sea cities. Secondly, my father, who also studied in the AUB, used to tell me about how he used to travel from Jaffa to Beirut, with a stopover in Saïda for lunch—these days this is unthinkable! Today we cannot even imagine going straight from Jaffa to Beirut. The geopolitics have really changed, have created a lot of borders. For example my mother's mother is from Arrabeh, a village close to Nablus, and when they went from Damascus to Nablus they went through El-Houleh and Tabarriyah (Tiberius). It was an open area where people moved more, intermarried (a Syrian or a Lebanese marrying a Palestinian was common), and so on. If you asked me, I would say that maybe the Arab World has a few subcultures, one being Greater Syria, Iraq, another the Gulf, Egypt at the heart of the Arab world, and the Maghreb. Culturally, Greater Syria is all very similar. Food, for example: what is the Syrian food? What is the Jordanian food? What is the Palestinian food? Maybe the Palestinians make their chicken a little differently, who knows. Unfortunately, the colonisers put these borders and we follow them in our brains, but if you ask me about my identity I will first tell you that I am Mediterranean, then I will tell you I am an Arab, then I will tell you that I am a Palestinian by cause. But our identities are changing all the time, and the identity that is strongest is the one that is under attack. If women are attacked, then our identity as women becomes very high; if Palestinians are under attack or occupation, then the identity as a Palestinian comes to the surface; if there is Islamophobia, and even someone like me who isn't religious (I am an atheist), then my identity as an Arab, a Muslim, Palestinian comes forward. But if I am sitting at peace with myself, really I feel I am a human being, nothing more, nothing less, all the rest have to do with how people relate to me and not to do with how I really feel. I don't know if I made my point clear...

KM | Perfectly clear.

SA |  We all have a lot of identities, and it is changing. The whole issue of belonging to one place has changed in the world, at least for a certain class around the world. Are you, across the world interviewing me, an Arab, Canadian, Palestinian, Lebanese, or whatever? What is a Canadian after all? The whole issue is changing, but our brains refuse it. We are still sticking to old paradigms.

KM | Sometimes the old paradigms can be the safest, and the most dangerous in many ways.

SA |  Let’s say that it’s comfortable. If we are brought up and we fear the other, we feel very comfortable with the ones who are like us, but this could also become very dangerous—we become very conservative, very racist, if you feel that you are afraid and you are better. Anyways, it the whole issue becomes more complex for people like you and I who have decided that we belong to two worlds and not only one, and what is wrong with that?

KM | Let's talk about the future and go back to architecture. In terms of the future of architecture in Palestine and the region, have you have any conceptions, and proposals?

SA | Not really, I wouldn't be that pretentious to pretend that I know. But I will tell you something, that one of the real problems we suffer in Palestine for now is that we have control only 10-12 percent of our land, we can only build on 10-12 percent of the whole West Bank, which is Area "A" and "B", and then Area "C", which is almost 90 percent under Israeli control. That is why everyone is going high-rise, and why buying a piece of land in Palestine is so expensive. We don't have access to that other 90 percent, and perhaps that is why when people buy land they always go for the high-rises. Once we have control over the land—and we're talking about the West Bank here—number one is I think we should stop going vertical, and create green areas. If I was the mayor of Ramallah, one thing I would want to do is create parks: we don't have any green areas. If I had some money, I would buy tables and chairs to sit in the streets, unfortunately now the cities are only made for cars. We have followed, in the Arab world, in Palestine, in Jordan, the American example where the car takes over. We find that there is no human scale, but I would have made green areas, pedestrian areas, a centre of town where people would have to park their cars far away and walk and meet one another. I always say that if I want to be something, have an official position, I think being a mayor of a town is extremely important. If I want to change something in Palestine I want to empower the municipalities and the local communities, which is not the case in Palestine, everything is very centralised. I would make public transport, a free tramway or bus that can come in and out of town rather than every other person with their car.

KM | I think you should run for Mayor.

SA |
Maybe at the age of eighty—I'm a writer, I have to go to the theatre, then at eighty I will become the mayor.

KM | A writer by the name of Ziad Jayyousi, you might be familiar with him—who is a very funny person—wrote an article blasting the city of Ramallah about the amount of garbage filling the street and the lack of garbage bins, which they implemented shortly afterwards. People have more influence than they think, and even though the new garbages don't hold very much trash, at least they are there, it’s a start.

SA | You see, there is a thinking against the people. I remember with the municipality, they would say, "If we do this, then all the young men will come and sit in the street, on the rail." Why are you against this, young men coming out and sitting in the streets? "Because," they would say, "they would come and harass the women." If you put them together, sure, they might harass them the first day, the second day, but then they get used the idea. You are the ones making society reactionary by forbidding the mixture between people; you know what I am saying? Sure, the villagers will come and harass banaat Ramallah (the young women of Ramallah)—so what? Let it happen for a day, two days, a month, and people will get used to it, people will grow. It has happened in other places in the world. Planning can be really separating, and that is what I don't like about planning our cities like this, it is meant to separate people from one another.

KM | It doesn't take into account the community and its growth.

 SA | It is anti-community, I think.

KM | My next question is a simple one. What do you love about Ramallah? And please don't say "the Duwwar Assad Abu Seiya!" (the roundabout where the statue of the lion is wearing a watch).

 SA | It overlooks Jaffa, my homeland from 1948. I love my friends in Ramallah. And to tell you the truth I think Ramallah, for all the odd reasons, has become the only real city in Palestine. Ask me why.

KM | Why?

SA |
Because if you go to Hebron, you only find Hebronites, if you go to Jerusalem, you only find Jerusalemites, if you go to Nablus you only find Nabulsis. If you come to Ramallah, people are from all over Palestine, if not further. In that respect it has become a city that tolerates the other, an open city, because people assume there should be space for the other. And that's what I love, it has become a real city of a little bit of anonymity, and the other. The original people of Ramallah have become a minority, two thousand out of the forty or thirty-five thousand. That is what I love it, and I love my garden there.

KM | Our last question is about your book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, (which we enjoyed a lot), which was a rather light-hearted look at the occupation. Do you think writings like this are necessary amidst all the serious writing on the Occupation that are found on bookshelves today?

SA | Well, first of all, I must admit that this book was an accidental book for me. As you probably know, it is mostly emails sent to friends, so the lightness of it comes from the fact that I did not have a reader in mind, and I did not have the oppression of thinking what will people think if I say this-and-that. It was written as a free person writing to my niece and my friends. I think we Palestinians have made a big mistake by only talking about politics and repeating the same five sentences: Jerusalem, the refugees, the right of return, etc, etc, and I think people got tired of us. I think the power of culture is much stronger than the power of politics, and culture reaches everybody. We have only been addressing politicians and the people who read newspapers. That's why it was a surprise for me that my book was translated into 19 languages in no time and successful, and when I reflected on it, I think people saw the Palestinians as normal human beings: I talked about my mother-in-law, the traitors and collaborator, I talk about my dog. People relate to us on a human level. I receive many emails all the time: "You were reading that book? I was also reading that book!" "You like La Traviata? I also adore opera!" "You have a dog?"—You have no idea how much my dog Nura made publicity for Palestine. In America, my publisher told me that there is a magazine for dogs, Bark, and they wanted to put her story in it. They have a 100,000 subscribers, and Nura's photo featured in it. The world is tired of seriousness, and people like crazy things. Being a little crazy is an asset and not a negative quality—the crazier my stories got, the more people loved them. I think we should allow ourselves to be free, talk to the reader like we would talk to our closest friends, and never be too formal or take yourself seriously. That was the name of the game for me in that book. My most recent book, Nothing To Lose But Your Life, wasn't as successful. I moved on, and there I did a trip with Palestinian workers and walked 18 hours from the West Bank to the Israeli border, and I was angry, as we all are. If you make people laugh, they open their heart, and they open their ears. Sharon And My Mother-In-Law made people laugh, but it also made them cry, and once they laugh then they are susceptible to what you say.