Yara Saqfalhait was a finalist in the Berkeley architectural essay competition for architecture with the theme of “sacred spaces.” She told me, “Being from the Holy Land, I could have written about a church or mosque, but I chose instead to write about Al-Bireh’s vegetable market, the Hisbeh. Newly under threat of being moved to make way for commercial construction, the Hisbeh has persisted for decades as open space in a city that Yara calls “terrified of the void.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Yara at a creative nonfiction class with Marcello Di Cinto sponsored by Palestine Writing Workshop. She studied architecture in Birzeit University, and now works in an architectural design office while pursuing her passion for writing about local spaces in Palestine “… in an attempt to expand people’s perception of space and architecture beyond the physical dimension.”
I am grateful to Yara for her willingness to share two short excerpts from her long essay, which she agreed to do on the condition that YOU, dear reader, would comment, reflect, share and advise. Yara is one of many young Palestinian writers with important ideas, deep insight, and delicious expression. Enjoy!
Part One: Open space in a city terrified of the void: The case of “Al Hisbeh” by Yara Saqfalhait
Ramallah’s history, in most books, is a poetic narration of the story of a small village plunging into urbanity and becoming a highly acclaimed regional metropolis. As opposed to its fellow historically-rooted opponents in the West Bank—Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron— Ramallah is a young city of ‘emergency solutions’ that still struggles to present an identity of its own. I remember my elementary school books in which the section about Ramallah came after a long list of other Palestinian cities including mention of unfamiliar Ottoman leaders’ names, British treaties, and countless “significant” dates. Not much was included except for mentioning that the central location of the city and its temperate climate have made it a popular summer destination for Palestinians, as opposed to warm Jericho where most went for winter. I used to get amused by the idea that there was a time when Palestinians actually moved in search of convenient weather.
The center of Ramallah is a sea of overlapping situations; signs of proud consumerist dominance, architecture that has clearly lost the battle with the investment market, four very lonely palm trees on which falls all the responsibility to prove that greenery was not completely left out, sidewalks providing much more than just a pedestrian walking place, and spontaneous improvisations ranging from vendors’ striking attempts to personalize what would otherwise be neutral shops arriving to the popular sesame bread trolleys.
In the middle of that chaos, and along the city’s most crowded street, resides the vegetable market, locally known as the ‘Hisbeh’. It’s one of the few features of the city that was not affected — yet — by rising land prices; almost everything around it was dramatically changed through the years, but the market was left to develop according to a pace of its own, as if it was restricted The Latin word is sacer, and translates back to English: sacred.
Starting out as a weekly bazaar and developing into a fixed market, the Hisbeh has managed to persist in the face of a violent wave of construction that the city has witnessed with the breakthrough of the ‘peace negotiations’ in 1993. The prospect of peace caused Ramallah to become a destination, not for summer vacationers this time, but for prosperous investors, mostly Palestinians coming back from the United States after promises of stability appeared on the horizon, as well as for job seekers coming from all over the region. The city’s population almost doubled, and so did construction. What was built during the period from 1994 to 1999 alone was equivalent to 50% of what was built in the city throughout its history. It was then, also, that the first multi-story commercial buildings started to appear, with the first one breaking ground in 1994.
This story will be continued in the next post! With photos!