Palestinian Architect Now Rebuilds with Words

April 2, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Suad Amiry, a Palestinian architect who is now an author, tries to rebuild her world with both physical structures and with words. This report is a continuation of a NewsHour series on writers in the Middle East.

SUAD AMIRY, Palestinian Author: Here, actually if you look up there, there is a stone that mentions, above the bird, it mentions the name of the owner…

JEFFREY BROWN: Suad Amiry is an architect by profession, and now, as she says, an accidental writer. Her architectural calling came 25 years ago, when she first set eyes on the old buildings in Palestinian villages.

SUAD AMIRY: The villages were sort of indigenous and were part of the landscape. And these stone houses, the scale of those buildings, the small scale of the roads, the natural setting was very, very beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amiry’s Palestinian father fled his home in Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, in the midst of the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel, and Amiry herself was born and raised in Jordan and Syria.

She studied architecture in Lebanon and the United States before coming to the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1981. Ten years later, she founded the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, an award-winning organization that restores and preserves old Palestinian buildings.

Conservation as job creation

SUAD AMIRY: Basically, Riwaq is an organization for the protection of culture and heritage, but we're not here to protect buildings as museums. We are more socially interested in the place, and we have developed a philosophy of conservation whereby we see conservation as job creation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the last 16 years, Riwaq has restored 70 buildings, using local laborers. As a security measure, after the violence that hit its streets several years ago, Israel stopped allowing Palestinian day-workers to cross into Israel to work.

Amiry says Riwaq's projects focus on villages where the unemployment rate is often 50 percent or higher.

KHALDUN BASHARA, Architect: The bubble art, this means late 19th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Khaldun Bashara is the architect in charge of this project in the village of Bruqin, about an hour north of Ramallah. Like many of the projects, this will be a cultural center for the whole town to use.

KHALDUN BASHARA: This village of 6,000 or 8,000 people don't have a library; they don't have a computer lab; they don't have a place to meet; they don't have a multi-purpose hall. So we try to suit the building for their needs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Suad Amiry says her work is about finding ways to normalize life, in a place where violence often flares and just getting through military checkpoints to work or back home can take hours.

SUAD AMIRY: Unfortunately, we are always seen as people who are dying, but we want to be seen as people who are living and people who want to live and have a will to continue to live.

'Sharon and My Mother-in-Law'

JEFFREY BROWN: Amiry is a woman who clearly has her priorities -- her work, her dog "Nura," and her sense of humor, which comes through in a memoir she wrote several years ago, with the unusual title, "Sharon and My Mother-in-Law." That's Sharon, as in Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister of Israel.

It came about this way: In November 2001, responding to the growing violence of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that had reached Israel's streets, Ariel Sharon sent the Israeli army into Ramallah, the West Bank home of the Palestinian Authority government.

The city was put under tight control with a curfew and numerous military checkpoints. Amiry quickly realized that she needed to have her mother-in-law come stay with her as a safety precaution.

SUAD AMIRY: She came to live with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So she's here on the couch...

SUAD AMIRY: She's 91 years old, who wanted to have her breakfast at 7:00, and her, you know, lunch at 1:00, and what have you. At the time, we were under the curfew, where you couldn't know whether it was Monday or Wednesday or morning and evening, and I have my mother-in-law nagging me about, you know, when are we going eat? And what are we going to eat? And I had the Israeli soldiers just right outside. And really the pressure was incredible.

So at the end of the day, I just wrote what happened with me that day. And, you know, I became a writer by pure accident.

A bit of joking goes a long way

JEFFREY BROWN: It's alternately funny and sad; is that how you felt?

SUAD AMIRY: Well, this is our reality actually. I think lots of anger spoils your life, and I think that the occupation has spoiled Palestinian life, but as well as Israeli life.

And I always find out that, you know, a little bit of joking, even on checkpoints -- I do it every now and then -- it gives the soldier and you, the occupied and the occupier, into reminding one another that we are human beings, you know?

I remember one time I was going home, and there was a checkpoint and a curfew in Ramallah. And the soldier stopped my car and said, "Go back." I said, "Back where? I'm coming from the university. I'm reaching home." He said, "No, there is a curfew. You can't get home."

He was peeling an orange at that time, so I looked at him, and I said, "I will only listen to your orders if you give me half of your orange." And the soldier just looked at this crazy woman, and he didn't know what to do with me. He sat there, he peeled the orange, gave me half of it, and after that, he told me, "OK, you can go home now."

JEFFREY BROWN: "You can go home after you've shared the orange"?

SUAD AMIRY: Exactly. And this is what I do in the book, I think. I keep reminding ourselves and the Israelis that, at the end of the day, we are human beings like one another. And I always tell the Israelis when they ask me, you know, we just want what you want, not more, not less. But as simple as it sounds, it's very difficult.

New difficulties in the community

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Suad Amiry talks about new difficulties within her own community. She sees a growing religious fundamentalism, reflected in last year's election victory by Hamas, and worries about the impact on any potential peace process and on Palestinian society itself.

SUAD AMIRY: I was surprised, because we didn't expect Hamas to win. But I was saddened that Hamas won, and I was saddened because of the social agenda that Hamas represents, I being an Arab woman. Their social agenda is a very conservative one.

But also I was saddened because I felt that the group which I belonged, whether on a social level or on a political level, has been undermined.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that means more extremism?

SUAD AMIRY: I always feel the following, that each one of us has a multi-layer of identity. You know, I am a woman; I am an Arab; I am a Palestinian; I am a Mediterranean; I am a Muslim; I am many, many things.

I grew with a group of people. I really don't know who was Muslim, who was Christian. I didn't know whether I was Sunni or Shiite until I went to the university, to Beirut, you know? When I went to register at the university, they asked me, "All right, what are you, Muslim or Christian?" I knew I wasn't Christian, OK? So there's Muslim. Are you Sunni or Shiite? I had no clue.

And here we are, we are living in this part of the world, and unfortunately our identity, all of a sudden, I've never realized I am a Sunni. All of a sudden, it's people saying "Sunnis" and "Shiites." So you are living in an area where everything goes against your own thinking, against being a human being, and this hurts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Suad Amiry the author is taking this new situation to heart. Even as she continues her architectural restoration work, she's writing a new book on the role of women in her part of the world and the growing challenges they face.