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photo: Adam Ferguson

By Michael Kimmelman, September 6 2014

Originally published on New York Times

AL FAWWAR, West Bank — Up a rutted alley, mothers in head scarves, seated under flapping cloth canopies, sip tea and weave baskets. They’ve gathered in a dusty, sun-bleached square, not much bigger than a pocket park, made of limestone and concrete, shoehorned into a warren of low, concrete and cinder-block houses. The square isn’t much to look at.

But, years in the making, it has stirred some profound debates here at this old and deeply conservative Palestinian refugee camp, about hot-button topics like the role of women and the right of return. Along with headline sites like Tahrir Square in Cairo and Gezi Park in Istanbul, it’s another example, small and off the radar, of how even the most unlikely public space can become a testing ground for entrenched political authority and the social status quo.

Public space like the plaza in Al Fawwar is mostly unheard-of in Palestinian camps across the West Bank. Architectural upgrades raise fundamental questions about the Palestinian identity, implying permanence, which refugees here have opposed for generations. The lack of normal amenities, like squares and parks in the camps, commonplace in Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank, was originally by design: Camps were conceived as temporary quarters. The absence of public space was then preserved over the years to fortify residents’ self-identification as refugees, displaced and stateless.

So construction of even a small public square is something unusual — a sign of change in a region of fierce, escalating tension, lately exacerbated by the war in Gaza and Israel’s newest claim to another nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land near Bethlehem, a move swiftly denounced by United Nations officials and others in the international community as undermining prospects for peace.

Established in 1950, Al Fawwar, covering less than a quarter of a square mile, just south of Hebron, is crammed with nearly 7,000 people, many of whom are the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948.

The square has given children in the camp a place to play other than in crowded streets. Families have begun to use the space as a gathering spot. Young couples are getting married in the square. Mothers who rarely felt free to leave their homes to socialize in public now meet there twice a week to talk, study a little English and weave, selling what they make at a market that they occasionally open in the square, an enterprise that one of the mothers told me “gives us self-esteem and a sense of worth, like the men have.”

The square has altered the sense of being vested in the camp — a change, partly generational, that challenges core ideas among refugees about keeping Al Fawwar a way station and temporary shelter.

“I don’t deny the feeling of home,” Ahmad Abu al-Khiran, head of the Popular Committee that runs a refugee camp nearby called Al Aroub, said recently. Mr. Khiran oversaw the construction of Al Aroub’s own public space, a new soccer field with stone bleachers, perched on a hill. It has become a hub for young people and a place where refugees stroll and exercise. “I feel at home in Aroub,” he said. “I want the right of return so I can decide for myself if I want to live here. It’s a matter of freedom, choosing where you live.”

That is a provocative concept in the camps — questioning an age-old strategy of dignified self-deprivation, reframing the right of return for Palestinians as something other than simply waiting to reclaim ancestral land. Mohammad Abo Sroor, a young man who grew up in Dheisheh, a camp near Bethlehem, participates in Campus in Camps, a new university devoted to investigating the life of refugees and the design of camps. He told me he had the key to the farm near Jaffa that his grandfather lost in 1948. But for him, as well, the right of return does not necessarily mean moving into that farm. It means “the right to live where I wish,” he said, which could include Dheisheh.

The right of return is ultimately about the redistribution of land and buildings. “It’s an architectural question in one respect,” as Sandi Hilal put it. A Palestinian architect, for some years she headed the Camp Improvement Unit in the West Bank for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, conceiving the square in Al Fawwar, as well as collaborating with her husband, Alessandro Petti, an Italian architect, on the soccer stadium in Al Aroub and on the creation of Campus in Camps.

She said pushback was initially fierce in Al Fawwar to improvement projects. “When we merely mentioned the word plaza, people in the camp freaked out,” she said, recalling discussions about creating the square that started in 2007. “It raised all sorts of red flags about the permanency of the camp and giving up the dream of return.”

But a counterargument took hold, Ms. Hilal said, that entailed “abandoning the strategy of convincing the whole world of the refugees’ misery through their architectural misery.”

Or as Muhammad Khalil al Lahham, head of the Popular Committee in Dheisheh, where Ms. Hilal and Mr. Petti worked on other public spaces, put it: “Strong refugees are healthy refugees. So refugees should fight for the right to good health.”

In Al Aroub, the committee member, Mr. Khiran, elaborated. “The expectations of young people are changing with globalization,” he said. “They represent a new openness to the world. Our stadium was built to give them a place to go and give dignity to all the people who live here.”

With Al Fawwar, Ms. Hilal’s focus was on women, young and old. Men in the camp argued against the square because it would encourage the mixing of sexes. Their opposition led women to fear that if it were built, men would simply take it over, but also that, if women did try to use it, they would feel too exposed in an open plaza. They wanted someplace to gather outdoors but with walls.

So Ms. Hilal and her team proposed constructing a low wall to enclose the square and turn the space into a kind of house without a roof, blurring the line between inside and outside.

The idea of a house without a roof redefined the place as a site for collective privacy and ownership. In a refugee camp there is no public space, but also no private property. Concepts like shared space, inside and outside, are blurred.

“Citizenship in a normal city is represented by public space,” Mr. Petti said. “The camp, with neither public nor private space, represents a sort of unformulated urbanism.”

The L-shaped, 7,500-square-foot plaza that Ms. Hilal designed, which opened last year, was constructed partly out of stone, to lend it architectural weight. But the wall was made of concrete because residents argued that the site should retain a link with the makeshift, “temporary” architecture of the houses surrounding it.

In the square the other day, Suhaib, a 12-year-old boy playing while his mother sat with her friends, puffed out his chest and said, “This is not a plaza for women; it is for men.” A group of girls playing with him laughed.

“This is my place, too,” said Ganat, a 12-year-old girl who towered over Suhaib. “We all play together,” she said.

The boys started kicking a soccer ball against the wall. “For me the radical change is that men here now look at women in public space as a normal phenomenon,” said a mother of six who gave her name as Rania. “And because I can bring my kids, I can meet my friends here.

“We are at home all the time,” she added. “We want to get out. Here we feel free.”