In the third part of the conversation she discusses about building different models of “plaza”. Can a “plaza” be considered a closed space? What is the meaning of “agorà” in the refugee camps? Can the collectivity take place in the refugee camps?
A Skype conversation with Sandi Hilal on building a “closed plaza”
Tiziana Casapietra: How can you visualize the projects you are working on at the moment?
Sandi Hilal: Our previous projects had a lot of visual materials. Now it is very hard for us, and this was my issue in Berlin. They were asking me, “How then would you describe another image of the refugees?” Our first project will be the issuing of this dictionary of exile that we are making in the camp together with the refugees, we are already writing the dictionary. There are lots of projects that we already did and that go into this direction. I will tell you the story of the plaza that we did in the Fawwar camp which is very much into this new way of representation.
The Fawwar Plaza
This plaza in Fawwar is the very first expression of “public” and “common” in the camp. So far the refugees were all the time looked at as relieved subjects, as individuals that need immediate support and help, as numbers in the need of tents, food, etc. The only thing that was not looked at seriously in the past 60 years was the refugees’ collectivity.
The collectivity in the camp
So what we are trying to understand is, where is the collectivity taking place? Should we contribute into actually developing this concept of collectivity? We went to the Fawwar camp, one of the most conservative camps in the West Bank. And we begun to understand with the people what their needs are. One of the things that came out is that they would have liked to have a place inside the camp where kids could play.
We interpreted it as architects. Thus our immediate reaction was to interpret this need as a need for a plaza. But when they heard the word “plaza” they became so anxious. They thought that we would have built a plaza in terms of the western way of looking at the plaza which means a place where men, women and everybody can casually happen to be together. But this is not part of their culture. So we went there and we begun to say, “Okay if this is not the model, what is your model for a plaza in a conservative refugee camp?” We begun to discuss with the people, first we tried to understand what would have been the activity that they would be doing there. I remember having a conversation with some ladies, “Would you go out and drink some coffee or tea in the plaza?” And they were absolutely opposing this idea, it would be impossible in their culture to go out. “If some cultural activities are proposed in the plaza, we will certainly be going there. If there is a film that you will be doing in the plaza we will go, but going just for leisure or in order have coffee or tee this is something that is unacceptable.”
Building a closed plaza
The second thing that they were discussing was the possibility to have a closed plaza. And I said, “What do you mean by closed plaza, if it is a plaza it needs to be open, it is collectivity, it is open, for everybody.” The all idea there, is that they need a plaza where, this is for them most crucial, not everybody would happen to be there by chance. The surprise moment is not there, you cannot just arrive and find yourself suddenly in the plaza; this is what they did not want. They wanted people to do the action of entering in the plaza, which means that they would take the responsibility to enter this plaza. For them this was the only way to have a plaza in the absence of a State and in the absence of anyone who would administrate this plaza. This is the only way that you have to take the ‘self-reasonability’ of being part of this place. If they loose this, then they cannot anymore control the plaza.
What happened then, was that all the neighbors, each one of them, begun to design how high the wall of the plaza should have been in front of his or her home. Finally, looking at the design was really amazing. At the end what we did was another “house without the roof.” Again, returning back to the Palestinian idea of not building the roof of the plaza.
In the Fawwar camp there is now a 4 wall plaza without the roof and with 4 doors that would permit you to take the decision to enter and get out. Working at the plaza took 6 years and this was the longest project that we ever did. It might seem banal, 4 walls and the plaza, but this took years of discussions with the refugees about how a plaza could be represented in Fawwar, what is the meaning of agora in the refugee camps, how this might work, in which way collectivity might take place, where people would stay and seat.
After some years, I went back to the same woman I discussed with at the very beginning, because I have heard from many people that there were now lots of activities going on there, and tea and coffee and other things.
So I went there to try to understand, but at the beginning they felt accused. ‘I was asking, how come that you told me that you will never use the plaza to have coffee or tea and for leisure purposes? And one of the women admitted that the day before she was out in the plaza to have dinner with her husband. I told them that I was there only to try to elaborate what happened, that I was so happy that they were doing that. I said, let’s elaborate what happened together. This was the main point.
Their explanation was that maybe the fact that they had such strict alleys in the camp did not allowed them to do such practices. If you want to seat in the street with your chair then nobody would be able to pass. Our seating there would close the street. And then they started to remember that, before, in their former villages this was actually one of their main practices, and that they stop to have it because the structure of the camp doesn’t allowed it and that it has became their culture. But by having a place that would permit again the collectivity to take place, they will use this place to discuss together and think how they would like to use the collective place.
It is all still very difficult and very problematic in such a conservative camp. For me it the crucial question is, “How would you think about the collectivity?” By creating a collective common in the camp, they would find the possibility to reflect together upon themselves about who they are.
Reshaping the all idea and imaginary of the camp
What we are doing with them is not my project, it is a project where many people from the camp are involved. So if you want to ask who is the architect of this plaza, you have to look at all the people of the camp that took part in the designing of it. One of the most surprising thing for them, is that they never thought that something like this could exist in the world, because the only model they had for a plaza was the western model. They never imagined that they would have been able to create their own model of collectivity. Create our own model is part of the all imagination activity that we encourage as artists and architects. It is about looking at the camp and understand what the camp is, and then to understand how can we all reshape the all idea and imaginary of the camp together with the refugees.
The school in Shu’fat camp
We also did a school in Shu’fat camp, again returning back to this idea about the people that would look at the school and see it as normalization. In our mind this school is representing a new way to understand the camp. Each classroom has an indoor and an outdoor garden and is looked at as the camp and the exile together.