The Family Kufer Bir’im – Reconstruction Model, 2002-5, Mixed media, 70 * 100 * 400 cm, Collection of the artist.

Kufer Bir’im – Reconstruction Model
with Hanna Fouad Farah

By Ian Sternthal
Over five years ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Hanna Farah to talk about Kufer Bir’im – Reconstruction Model, 2008 – his architectural proposal for his fathers village, Kufer Birim, which was demolished by the Israeli army following the war of Independence/Naqba. Like many Palestinians, he has maintained a strong sense of memory and connection with a place that no longer exists. Kufer Bir’im – Reconstruction Model straddles the worlds of planning, art, and memory in the proposition of an alternative future – one that avoids monumentalizing the past, choosing instead to integrate it within the present, in the elaboration of a new and more just future. I wanted to share this conversation with you as it sheds light on many interesting ideas related to identity and social justice.

Hanna Fouad Farah
Kufer Bir’im, El-Jish, born 1960
Model development and production:
Hanna Farah, Tamir Hadadi, Wesam Akel, Hilla Lulu Lin

Stage One: A model for transforming the old village, destroyed in 1953, into a public center benefiting the village community and the inhabitants of the region.

Stage Two: A model for the development of a new village as a surrounding belt of living infrastructure – housing, industry, agriculture – around the reconstructed old village.

The two weeks promised by the authorities – from the villagers expulsion to their return – became longer and longer, and now stands at 57 years.

The community of Bir’im continues to grow, and has not lost hope to return home, while ceaselessly acting to acheive that goal.

This model proposes the possibility for a different present.

IS: You studied architecture originally. How did you begin working as an artist?

HF: I received my degree in architecture from Haifa University, but as for art, there is no beginning. For instance, I could also say that I am a farmer, or a builder as I’m always planting and building. All of my interests are interconnected, everything linked together…

IS: Where were you born?

HF: I was born in El Gish, my mother’s village. My father was from Kufer Birim, which was evacuated in 1948 and then demolished in 1953 by the Israeli Air Force. The residents were asked to evacuate the village for two weeks, in November 1948, after the declaration of the state of Israel. There were large scale preparations to move in Mizrachim (Arab Jewish refugees from other Countries). The official reason for the evacuation had to do with negotiations that were taking place over the border. After two weeks when the residents began to petition to go back, they were told that they would have to wait six more months. In the meantime they wanted some assurance that their homes were being guarded, as they had left everything in their homes. Six months went by and they were not allowed to return. After a year they already put “Olim Hadashim” in the homes who looted both the homes and there contents. Nothing was left.

The Family

In 1953 the army decided to tear down the village. There was a court session, and the judge asked why the army was preventing people from returning to their homes and their lands. This evidences that there was some legal recognition that land in fact belonged to these Arab residents. The government had to reply to that. In the meantime, not only was a reply never issued, the village was razed to the ground on September 16th, 1953. It was Bombarded from the air. Afterwards they dismantled all the iron, removed the remaining windows etc., and took off with any valuable remainders. Ben-Gurion gave an order to demolish the village but the court is still debating the case until today because people still want to go back. In principle, the whole village and its lands are still hanging in limbo. Legally it is forbidden to build on these lands or do anything. The Kibbutzim that have been constructed over these areas are thus also illegal, because the court procedure was never resolved. In Israel the government is above the law – It is the law. Until this day, it is the only area, along with Ekret, also a similar village, that are considered closed military areas. These are the only two places that have been closed military areas since 1948.

IS: I read somewhere that you had added the name of the village to your name?

HF: Yes, I mean I didn’t add it personally, but every person you ask, every child, will tell you that. That is something that made me laugh about two weeks ago, I have a cousin from the village El-Gish, from my mother’s side, she is a school teacher, and she told me how that kids are fighting amongst themselves when someone asks them where they are from. One will say El-Gish and the other will say Kuffer Birim. They will not say they are from Haifa or Gish, they will say Kufer Birim. Thought they never lived there, but they have the memory and the day to day connection. Emotionally this is where they are from. They go visit on holydays, and picnic over there. Also in Suffuri, Lifta, and Al-Gun. All of these places have yearly commemorations for their former villages.

IS: I went to shoot photographs at Lifta, and I saw there are new residents there, and they are renewing it and resettling the village.

HF: These are what you call invaders and looters. Both of the place itself and of other peoples homes. These settlers often have the backing of local law enforcement. I went to see a guy from Lifta who was trying to go back and renew his home. You know what will happen to him if he seriously tries…

The Family An Israeli reconfiguring the water system in Lifta, the ruins of an Arab village near Jerusalem, 2006.

A view of Lifta, 2006.

IS: Are there people from these villages that go to court about this now?

HF: Yes. Still. Six months ago, during the Sharon government, a year ago maybe, there was a court session about this. And Sharon asked the court to releive the government from it’s obligation to the Arab petitioners.

JA: Technically you are Israeli. How does does make you feel? Do you feel Israeli?

IS: Palestinian. What are Israeli’s?

JA: Jews.

HF: That’s right, you answered the question yourself. How come 20-30 years after the establishment of the state of Israel, when it is written into the proclamation of independence, that equality shall be granted to all its citizens, no matter what is their religion, race, color there is still a policy that any political party running for elections, has to recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state. Is the anthem (Hatikva) mine? Besides all that, I am a Palestinian….My Identity is quite clear to me, there are no complications.

IS: You don’t have an identity crisis per se, but ur identity is invariably enmeshed in complication…

HF: For Israelis my identity is complicated. They either define me as a Christian, or as someone from the Galilee, but they will not never accept me as a Palestinian because they have been taught that there is no such thing as Palestinians. Most Israeli’s are taught that we made up our identity, and that we can be broken down into all of these other smaller identities. The problem is that if they accept that there is such a thing as a ‘Palestinian’, there identity is called into question.

IS: Tell me about Kufer Bir’im – Reconstruction Model, 2002-5 that you exhibited in the Israel museum. The project seems to propose an alternative future, but one that seeks to integrate the traumas of the past into the present, by developing new houses throughout the ruins of what was destroyed. How did it come about? Did the curator come to you with the idea?

HF: I had been living with this idea for many years, but for my final project at University, I decided to a project about Kufer Birim, the village where I wasn’t born, where I didn’t have the possibility of being born. The concept was to explore memories of a place that I had never known, to explore the meaning of place I was denied. There was once a living place, and today it lies frozen. How do we deal with that place today? What are the meanings of the old and the new, of communal and individual memory… Also, what would I build in that place today?

IS: Did you build the place exactly as it was?

HF: The conclusion I came to is you can’t go back to the same personal place. Even the word we use when we are asked “where are you going to”, is to the village, not the home. We all say El Balad, which means the village. It has become a collective place.

IS: was it a mixed village of Christian and Muslims?

HF: That is a question that is asked very often, and I choose not to answer it. I decided it should be a collective place, not divided into sectarian affiliations. How can memories from the past co-exist alongside the new without becomiung a monument that imposing itself upon the people. I want the memory of the old to be integrated within lived life. That is why in this project you have traces of the “old” – ruins – on which the “new” was built and thus the meaning has became different. It’s a different understanding of space. You see, after the destruction, previously private spaces became conjoined. There is no longer a private home but a space that stretches from my grandfathers’ house, to his brothers’ house, to his neighbors’ house and so forth. Through their degeneration diverse places merged. A collective being came to be, and the place itself plays a part in it and reacts to it.

IS: Its interesting how the work encompasses the destruction of the village with this new plan. As you said, the private homes and the divisions of these homes were demolished, they have no windows, no doors, no roofs. I imagine a wind blowing through all of them, a unified waft of memory that becomes one for the whole place…

HF: Yes, the place takes on a new form that I didn’t want to ignore. Just like the form of the place changed, so did the people’s views. That is why they say, we’re going to the Balad, to the village, and not I’m going to my house. In Tel Aviv I say; I’m going home, to my house, that is on this or that street…

IS: You now live in Tel-Aviv?

HF: Yes, in Jaffa–Tel-Aviv.

IS: In Jaffa?

HF: No, in Jaffa–Tel Aviv.

IS: Do you long for the life in the village where you grew up?

HF: I live with the memory of El-Jish. Many things that are in me originate from that place. Many people say to me: What do you think you are living in a village? And I say, no, I live in Tel Aviv, but this rhythm, from the village, will always be my rythm. Some things have changed and, and yet I have not….

IS: Whenever I travel in Israel I see Arab villages and Jewish villages – they look so different, even in terms of the architecture, the structure, I think the notion of a ‘pop-up city’ is something that is quite specific to Israel. It has a deep connection that runs through Homa Umigdal, the Bauhuas, the settlement projects, and new cities such as Modi’in. They keep building new cities that are pop-up in the sense that they appear to just emerge from a void, constructed as relational spaces that emerge together. Take for instance Modi’in. As an architect, how do you feel about city’s that pop up, that do not develop organically.

HF: Many cities are built rapidly. The question is what was the meaning of that city. You brough tup Modi’in for example, when I look at Modi’in’s location, It’s between Jerusalem, Lod and Ramle. Lod and Ramle are cities with history, and infrastructure, that Israel keeps trying to stymie They established Modi’in in order to compete with the force of Ramle and Lod, which have strong Arab characters. The political motivation is transparent, and yet the forms of the buildings are quite peculiar…

This conversation took place one evening at Joz Ve Loz, a restaurant in Tel-Aviv, with the artist and Hila LuLu Lin, during the summer of 2006 while I was in Tel-Aviv conducting research for the upcoming edition ‘The Huleh Project.

The Family Hana Farah at Joz ve Loz, Jaffa-Tel-Aviv, 2006.