Difference Maker

Khaldun Bshara has dodged bullets to preserve Palestinians' heritage

Khaldun Bshara heads RIWAQ, a West Bank architectural firm which renovates and preserves buildings that are part of Palestinians' cultural heritage.

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    Khaldun Bshara, director of the RIWAQ Center for Architectural Conservation, stands atop the 1932 building that RIWAQ renovated and uses as its offices in Al Bireh, just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah. ’[W]e see our work as a central element,’ he says, ‘to creating a national identity of Palestine.'
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Most visitors to the Palestinian architectural company RIWAQ would be forgiven for thinking that its building and people are similar to others in the area.

With its Arabesque entryway, high ceilings, and tiled floor, the stone structure that houses the firm is a standard Ottoman design common across the region. And the people, busily working behind desks, appear to be like any other office employees.

But RIWAQ, which means "gallery" in Arabic, is more than just an architectural firm: It's a thriving center for architectural conservation. Today, as the dream of an independent Palestinian state grows more realistic, the organization's work in preserving Palestinian cultural heritage has taken on added significance.

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RIWAQ director Khaldun Bshara excitedly points to the intricate details of the long-term renovation that has given this once-run-down 80-year-old former family home a new purpose. Most recently, it served as a strategic frontline base between fighting Palestinians and Israelis.

Standing in the lush garden with its vibrant bougainvillea and mix of indigenous plants, Mr. Bshara recalls how just over a decade ago he would have to keep away from the arched windows as bullets fired by Israeli soldiers and stones from Palestinian protesters flew past.

"We were right on the firing line during the second intifada," recalls the silver-haired architect, who started working for RIWAQ just before that Palestinian uprising began in 2000.

Bshara has gone on to dedicate his life to renovating such buildings and, in the process, has kick-started the efforts at heritage-building that lie at the heart of any viable national identity.

"I don't think that the declaration of [a Palestinian] state will have a huge impact on our work, but as we move in that direction, it will certainly bring more attention to the importance of heritage," says Bshara, referring to the Palestinian leadership's attempt to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. "Our work will continue on, regardless of whether there is a state or not."

Founded in 1991 by architect Suad Amiry, together with a group of Palestinians concerned that their historical sites were disappearing, RIWAQ has spent the past two decades rebuilding and reviving villages damaged by the constant state of conflict in the area.

Aside from its impressive data-collection operation aimed at identifying all buildings of significance to Palestinian history, RIWAQ has gained financial support from a wide range of local and international sources, which has allowed it to improve people's lives by rejuvenating their surroundings.

"One of our goals is to connect the disconnected villages spread out all over the West Bank," says Bshara, describing one recent project in which a team of architects and experts cleared, renovated, and even added a contemporary structure to a local music conservatory. "We could sense how the renovations had a huge impact on how the kids behaved and even found meaning to their existence in terms of music and openness," he says.

"RIWAQ helped by giving us a place to hold our activities," says Fatimah Issa, director of the nonprofit organization Women for Life. "They let us hold on to our past while helping us for the future."

She adds: "Their work is unique because it makes us feel thankful that we have a country. It makes our country real."

While RIWAQ's projects are largely chosen based on their architectural importance and history, Bshara concedes those are not the only criteria. "We also look at how the project will help the community, and we also consider the place's proximity to [Israeli] settlements and the [Israeli security barrier] wall," he says.

"We are doing something very political while we are doing apolitical stuff. We believe that these buildings and cultural sites are the only physical [artifacts] that are left for us to use as an identity symbol, and we see our work as a central element to creating a national identity of Palestine."

"RIWAQ is a very strong institution in our community as it focuses on the rehabilitation of Palestinian heritage both in terms of the people and the buildings they use," says Palestinian Culture Minister Siham Barghothi.

While work such as fixing up a community center has practical value, it is also "vital because renovating these buildings keeps our history alive," Ms. Issa says.

Bshara, born and raised in the village of Tubas near Nablus, says his dedication to Palestinian cultural heritage stems from a sense of social responsibility. "I believe that everyone has to give back to the community that helped him to flourish," he says, citing his mother as the inspiration for this desire to help other people in this way.

RIWAQ is mainly funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, along with other foundations such as the European Union's EUROMED Heritage program, several Arab organizations, and wealthy individuals.

• For more, visit: www.RIWAQ.org

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