Ask The Expert – Muneer Elbaz
Ask The Expert – Muneer Elbaz
05 July 2021
Dear Muneer, I hope that you and your family are safe and well. Like so many others, I was shocked to learn of colossal loss in Gaza. Which included cultural assets such as Samir Mansour’s library containing around 100,000 books were demolished. How do you and the people of Gaza plan to re-build these cultural assets? And are you getting any help from the international community?
Gaza has witnessed numerous successive onslaughts on its cultural heritage of the ages – including the taking of many manuscripts during the French occupation of Palestine, and the burning of others in WWI, which damaged Gaza quite badly, destroying many historic buildings as well. During more recent years, there was no interest in preserving Gaza’s cultural assets: on the contrary, there were some initiatives to obliterate Gaza’s history. In the conflicts in Gaza between 2012 and 2021 many historic buildings were damaged, including al-Umary and al Mahkama Mosques, as well as cultural institutions such as Al Uyun Centre for Historic Studies, the Iwan Centre for Heritage and Cultural Preservation, Mishal Culture Centre and the library of Samir Mansour. In answer to your question, because of the dire economic circumstances and heavy loss of life and buildings cultural heritage is not one of the current government’s top strategic priorities, however there are numerous non government entities including universities and community associations working in partnership with funding bodies to save what can be saved of Gaza’s heritage assets. In short there are many different initiatives however as yet, there isn’t a unified, structured government policy for dealing with heritage preservation.
With regards the second part of the question: Is there support from the international community? In general most of the support comes from international organisations whose mandate it is to preserve cultural heritage, rather than from international governments. For example we have been able to work on the preservation of the archive of the great Umary Mosque through the support of the Prince Claus Fund, The Whiting Foundation, The British Library and The Barakat Trust. Similarly, the restoration of the old Qaysareya building has been possible through the support of The Barakat Trust and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. In addition to financial support we have also received inkind support from a range of institutions including the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Egypt and the Recanati e Restauro School in Italy. Despite all of this, we are still in search of substantial financial support to enable a large scale scheme to preserve Gaza’s heritage that would enable the city to shine as an example of a significant Arab historic city with an important and distinctive historic urban fabric.
What do you think the most important priorities are for the preservation of heritage in Gaza?
Gaza old city needs a specific body (planning unit) preferably a non-governmental unit working under supervision of Palestinian universities or cultural heritage experts. The first role of this unit is to control all efforts needed for a risk preparedness scheme. This scheme needs to consist of a culture risk fund, a training scheme, an information management scheme, first aid squads and an awareness programme, the second role is post-conflict development and preparing urgent intervention plans.
Taking into account the problems that threaten Gaza old city and the unstable political/security situations I suggest three stages for development in Gaza old city:
- The first stage is upgrading commercial routes with traders’ participation (even if these routes do not contain any monuments); this will help rapidly upgrade the physical, ecological and socio-economic environments.
- The second stage is upgrading open spaces, building surroundings, infrastructural systems and traffic and accessibility for the existing urban fabric; this will solve many ecological problems and also improve the social and economic situation.
- The third stage is to propose a methodology for restoring monuments, rehabilitating traditional buildings and remodeling facades of new buildings, this methodology has to encourage community participation, save natural resources, create new job opportunities, …etc.
What is the public response to the projects you are working on? How do people feel about them?
Work with the community is not as easy as assumed. Here, I am thinking about the project to restore the historic Qaisareya building (the old market) in Gaza City. Building trust with shop owners is a very important part of the process of delivering a project like this one. Even though the benefits of projects like these are clear, one of the things that needs to be negotiated with shop owners is patience, as the work takes time and in some instance shop owners are required to shut their shops when the work takes place in front of them. As such, the project team needs to be in constant communication with the local community about the project details.
In some cases, shop owners complain about the project – usually because they are not as well informed as perhaps they should be about the work process.
The team also needs to be prepared that in the initial stages the local community might not respond positively to the project. As the project progresses and the outcomes become more evident, the local community tends to warm to the project and is now expressing thanks – seeing its benefits in different ways.