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Spring 2010 | ArteZine

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Interview with Ismael Sheikh Hassan

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The taxi driver and myself were circling around the deserted international fairgrounds in Tripoli, lost, in spite of instructions from Ismael Sheikh Hassan, a volunteer coordinating various initiatives within the Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies (or the NBRC). The NBRC was housed in the UNRWA’s offices, at the back edge of the fairgrounds, Ismael had explained. The fairgrounds were like an island at the mouth of Tripoli, its gateways were guarded by Lebanese army soldiers, even though there was nothing to protect except for the structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer; the soldiers seemed clueless as to where the UNRWA’s offices might be. They let our car inside the fairgrounds, so “we would look for ourselves”, and for the first time, I discovered the captivating beauty of the site. “Beware of snakes”, said the soldier with a wry smile. The garden was a little wild from neglect. The fairgrounds, a feat in design, have rarely, if ever, been used, an irrational but not surprising failing on behalf of the country’s officialdom. The beauty of the space was rapturous, serene, contemplative, ascetic in the way modern architecture can be at its finest. I did not want to leave. My driver grew impatient and turned back irritated with my flights of fancy and ineptitude. He sped out, circled the perimeter once more until we finally found a gateway tucked at the very back of the perimeter, guarded by a more brazen army checkpoint. We had finally reached our destination. As it seemed were entering high-security barracks, the contrast with the Niemeyer haven became more stark. The UNRWA and other UN-related agencies had set-up temporary offices behind the fairground, at the edge of the city, using the swift built makeshift architecture of post-crisis or post-emergency conflict. The structures were not unlike what the US army uses in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least as far as I had registered from media broadcasts and video art. Even though the space was physically detached from its surroundings, it was at the crux of its political wounds and contradictions.

It is very difficult to dispel the unsettling connotations of the architecture, but Ismael was so at ease, I was embarrassed with my unspoken self-righteousness. As he introduced me to the team, the NBRC and UNRWA Design Unit, I was furthermore overwhelmed with their friendliness and generosity of welcome. My apprehensions melted away as they pulled out drawings and maps, explained diagrams stuck on walls, spoke at the same time as one another, joked, made coffee and shared sweets.

By the time he finally could break away from the office and his team, it was sunset. He suggested we sit outside, we stepped out of the barrack-blocks, he dragged his tall tired gait to the boundary of the zone containing the compound with a metal fence. The sky was ablaze with a dizzying palette of orange hues ranging from the very yellow on top, to the very red, on the bottom. If I were a filmmaker, this is when I would have chosen to film an interview with Ismael Sheikh Hassan, and most likely where. He slouched slowly and sat on the concrete-set ground, his back against a makeshift wall, his head turned upward, exhaling a deep and long sigh. It came from the end of yet another long day, which he could not recall how it started. In spite of how much I regretted burdening him with my request for an interview, I was too curious by the story he had to tell.

Ismael Sheikh Hassan is, first and foremost, disconcerting. Upon meeting him for the first time, you cannot help thinking, he cannot possibly be as young as he seems. But he is indeed in his early thirties, gentle, soft-spoken, yet determined. He has also proved he is fearless. He leads a team of architects, planners and social workers that adjuncts the grassroots community volunteer base in the NBRC. Today the initiative has endorsed the role of ‘community partner’ in the “community, planning and design projects” within the UNRWA’s Design Unit – taking the lead on advocacy regarding the reconstruction of the camp and improvement of living conditions. The UNRWA has secured support for the NBRC’s team of architects and planners, but the two entities maintain their independence in partnering over the project of reconstruction.

The NBRC is a peculiar grass-roots entity, it comprises several groups, principally from Nahr el-Bared, that coalesced together spontaneously a few weeks after the military siege and combat activity broke out. Displaced residents of the camp came together in their semi-formal civic volunteer formations, such as neighborhood committees, committees of engineers, physicians, and such. In other words, agents that made up the network of civilian life in the camp, active prior to the outbreak of the crisis. None are officially registered NGOs, none can be, because of the stringent diktat over-ruling the civilian rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The NBRC also included a group of activists from outside the camp (Lebanese and Palestinian, such as Ismael), volunteers who had been involved in the reconstruction of some of the towns in south Lebanon after the Israeli assault in the summer of 2006, –most notably Aïta al-Sha‘b, a bordering village, the site of violent battles, that had suffered significant destruction.

(Please visit the gallery for full-size images.)

How did the group come about? What inspired you to form this ad hoc committee and start working with displaced families?

At the outset, we all thought the siege and military operation would end in a few days, no one expected it would last as long as it did. The Fateh el-Islam militants were trapped inside the camp, they were supposed to be a small group according to media reports. After the second week into the operation, we realized that combat operations might take more time, and that the camp was being reduced to rubble. Families fleeing the bombardment reported with a great deal of distress and shock the extent of destruction. Families were relocating to nearby Baddawi camp, makeshift shelters or moved in with kin in Beirut, Saida and other camps. Their dispersal was almost haphazard and complicated to map out. The Lebanese government was not proposing a plan for permanent relocation and instead, assurances were issued left, right and center that the camp would be rebuilt.

We had learned from the experience of Aïta al-Sha‘b that we had to have a plan before the battle was over. So we began to work with local activists from Nahr el-Bared, themselves displaced. We connected with several groups who were outside the camp’s known networks of political involvement. These were activists who were also not involved with emergency relief, and by the way, they did not all know each other, they became acquainted with one another during our meetings and work sessions. We began by holding conversations, discussions of how to prepare for the aftermath of the disaster. Thankfully, these various groups had each a different experience and expertise, they really complemented each other and inspired an organic synergy. Our approach was simple, the first goal we set for ourselves was to establish consensus on how to rebuild the camp. It took several workshops, some sixty volunteers and several drafts, but in the end we produced a document that formulated ‘principles for reconstruction’. [1]

The process was interesting, profoundly participatory and dynamic. We realized it was very difficult for people to imagine another kind of camp than what they had known. If the war had evidenced how fragile the physical structure of the camp was, its displaced residents had also come to value the positive aspects of living in that space, or at least what they deemed as virtues. For instance, while the fabric of thickly stacked homes creates a sense of intense crowding, does not allow for a healthy or comfortable circulation of air, and aggravates noise pollution, it does however hold heat in the cold months of winter and produce shade in the hot months of summer, and further, the tightly-knit social fabric it articulates promotes a sense of civic solidarity and close contact among generations and the transmission of memory. Obviously, it enables mobilization remarkably quickly as well.

What happened to these ‘principles of reconstruction’, how did they translate into a master-plan and how was it regarded by the Lebanese government?

As I said, it was clear that the camp’s residents did not want to imagine a camp other than the one they had known, with some improvements to basic standards of quality of life. People wanted to go back to the homes they had lived in (or to a plot size relative to what they had before the battles), neighbors and street. They also wanted the camp’s landmarks to be rebuilt as they had been and in the same sites. They wanted a camp, not a town. They did not want the standard model dwellings that prevails in Lebanon’s cities, they wanted the living structures they had fled, with open roofs and the possibility of vertical increase in levels, as per conventional practice in all camps. The changes proposed were strictly for the purpose of creating a more healthy living environment.

As soon as the battle was over, the Lebanese government contracted a private construction firm on consultancy basis to produce a master-plan. Official rhetoric promised distraught residents that not only a brand new camp would be built, but that would it would be specifically designed to provide a secure, modern and healthy environment. The firm produced proposals for a master-plan without visiting the camp once, or even engaging with its residents. They used data from studies and surveys, but the conception and design were entirely disconnected from engagement with those who were supposed to inhabit the space. The design reconfigured the camp’s fabric entirely; first, was a grid with straight intersecting streets, each fifteen meters wide; second, were stand-alone buildings separated by a distance from one another, and underground levels were prohibited. Movement in and out of the camp accommodated strict control by the Lebanese army. All these design elements stemmed from a single paradigm, or logic, namely, security. The army had effectively transformed entrance and exit points to checkpoints which design proposals consecrated, the fifteen meters width of streets was scaled to allow the unencumbered passage of a tank, the separation of buildings was intended to inhibit swift movement between buildings, the same for underground levels. In other words, while the army’s ‘demands’ informed the design process, the residents, community and micro-civil society of the camp had not been consulted once.

The private construction firm had in fact conceived a modern-day urban enclosure so carefully studied to enable military control of the entire space, it looked like a prison. Understandably, that approach roused the ire of the community. Furthermore, months later we learned, from sources unrelated to the private construction firm, that the Lebanese army planned to establish a naval base at the edge of the camp bordering the sea.

The government’s chief interlocutor on behalf of the camp was the UNRWA. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the community’s apprehensions, and on the other hand, they were aware of our committee’s discussions, workshop and final ‘principles of reconstruction’ outcome. In fact, by that time the partnership between the NBRC and UNRWA had been forged. Moreover, our initiative had earned a lot of press, its participatory nature struck tremendous positive resonance in a wide variety of circles. The community’s continuing distress in dispersal, and unambiguous reticence towards and suspicion of the master-plan and the government’s motivation, was also publicized in the press. The government fell under increasing pressure from different sides to move forward; European donors that had pledged financial assistance to the camp’s reconstruction, seemed particularly supportive of our initiative’s approach. Partnering with the UNRWA was instrumental in formalizing our initiative, we presented it to the cabinet of ministers and other principal interlocutors, primarily, the Lebanese army. Eventually, the proposals presented by the private construction firm were shelved and we (NBRC and UNRWA) were entrusted with the mission to produce a new master-plan.

 

This is utterly unprecedented in the history of the country and its relationship to Palestinian refugee camps! It is still unbelievable that you were able to pull this off. How were you able to counter the logic of security, after all, the Lebanese government’s chief and salient paradigm regarding the camps?

When we were mandated to produce a master-plan, the situation changed. We had to widen the range of interlocutors from the camp, bring in everyday folk we did not know and build a relationship of trust. And we had to bring the Lebanese army into our discussions. The process spanned over five months. I will not lie and say they were easy, discussions often escalated to strained confrontations. In the end, we have today a plan that barely complies to the conventions of a master-plan. You may not believe it, but we actually have a design for every single house, negotiated with each family.

It may sound counter-intuitive at first glance, but our strategy was not to reject or reverse the ‘logic’ of security in bulk, rather in the detail, to identify the ground for compromise between the wishes of the camp’s residents and the demands of the Lebanese army. The integrity of the camp’s fabric was not altered, the grid with orthogonal intersecting streets is no more, households’ plot sizes have been maintained in relation to one another and street improvement, so was the proximity of buildings. The design of each home was changed to improve circulation of air, and according to the dwellers’ needs or wishes. Streets are not uniformly fifteen meters wide, but the army knows it can deploy with a degree of rapidity should it need to. The master-plan is far from perfect, the army drew its own ‘red lines’, however, we can say with a degree of pride that the logic of security did not prevail exclusively over the conceptualization and design of the camp.

To be less abstract, we followed the camp’s mapping into neighborhoods and imagined the reconstruction to take place in phases. That was in part a decision we had to take because of the disheartening reality of availability of funds to cover the cost of reconstruction. Not all those who pledged (with much pomp and circumstance when the camp’s tragedy was wall-to-wall news on television broadcasts) have actually honored their word. Arab donors have yet to budge, by the way. Worse yet, the Arab donors, especially from the Emirates, that pledged numbers significantly higher than their European counterparts, decided a year into the reconstruction process that they would follow the example of Europeans and cut the amounts pledged significantly. And they have yet to disburse funds anyway. No numbers concrete numbers were pledged, in the Vienna conference they refused to pledge, but they informed informally that what the conference did not raise, they would support. That has not happened yet. They had provided some minimal funding. Till today the majority of the project is unfunded.

Is your plan more or less cost efficient than what the private construction firm proposed?

That’s complicated to answer because the private firm’s proposal standardized housing units. The reality of the situation is that whatever monies have been made available so far are being spent on housing and aiding the displaced. Remember, thousands of families were expelled from their homes and businesses in the summer of 2007! That’s more than two and the half ears ago now. Makeshift barracks were built in answer to the immediate and pressing threat of massive homelessness. The logic of emergency relief cannot be sustained over such a long period of time, the camp has to be rebuilt, life has to pick up again, displaced families have been held captive to a vicious and humiliating cycle of dependence on hand-outs, relief and charity, they are desperate to break out of it. The past two and the half years have been traumatizing. It is not common knowledge, but Nahr el-Bared was one of the most economically thriving camps in the country.

Their everyday lives are actually a lot more dire than one can imagine. The camp remains a ‘military zone’, movement in and out is very strictly policed by the Lebanese army. Camp residents have had to apply for permits to be able to go inside and see their homes, collect whatever was left of their wares. Those residents whose homes are still habitable have an equally hard time going in and out. Those not from the camp have to apply for permission to visit, from internal security, a week or ten days ahead. It is more difficult for the media to get permission. In other words, the camp is still a high security military zone. And that has overcast the everyday lives of all the camp’s residents, their economic livelihood, whether displaced or not. Culturally, the camps residents have been almost been demonized, regarded as a threat to national security.

Where do things stand today regarding reconstruction? If you have phased the process, what stage have you reached?

The phasing is very practical, totaling eight. We broke down each neighborhood in three smaller zones, each containing 600 housing units (200 buildings), which we referred to as a ‘package’, that require a year of construction, but the start of each package is three months offset from the other and a specific funding allocation. Today, there are enough funds to rebuild two packages. This phasing, as I said, was also determined to accommodate for the reality of donors disbursing monies.

Since we produced a master-plan, the process has actually endured several upheavals. First was the news in the fall of 2008 of the army’s plans to build that naval base bordering the camp’s seafront. Besides reinforcing the paradigm of security, fishing was an important economic activity for the camp’s residents, the location of the military base will obviously jeopardize that significantly. There was an outcry from various organizations against locating a military outpost at the edge of a refugee camp, but the Lebanese government and army lent deaf ears. Last year, after the master-plan received formal approval from the cabinet of ministers and an executive missive was issued to begin the actual process, we had to deal with another crisis. As digging was initiated sites to build foundations, archeological remains were found, a very common occurrence in Lebanon’s coast. We had to stop and wait for the various public entities to decide on how to deal with these findings. One of the political groups in the country leveled pressure to halt the entire process of reconstruction and transform the site of the camp into an archeological dig. Their proposal was purely political maneuvering, they neither bothered to evaluate whatever was there, nor did they pursue their passionate defense of archeology on construction sites owned by private real-estate developers throughout the country. But these are the petty paradoxes of Lebanon, its postwar and the tenuous relationship with Palestinian refugee camps and the Palestinian people’s struggle for statehood, return and a life with dignity.

Finally, today, construction has been set in motion. Daunting issues face all of us, but we construction is in motion. I know we are establishing a precedent, not only at the scale of refugee camps in Lebanon, but at the scale of refugee camps worldwide, the role of architecture in improving the lives of politically and economically marginalized communities, and urban configurations over-ruled by the principle of security. Nothing prepared us or trained us for this challenge, the circumstances change everyday, but it has been so thrilling to be part of the process and such a worthwhile fight.

 

[1] Principles of Reconstruction

 

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