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Meanwhile: The forgotten palaces of Palestine

International Herald Tribune – 8 October 2003

Beit Fauzi Azar, my home for the past two years, is one of the “hidden palaces” of Palestine, according to the Israeli conservation expert Sharif Sharif. These mansions, built in the late 19th century, are one of the few windows left on Palestinian society from before the advent of modern Israel.

In the old quarters of Acre and Nazareth in the Galilee, in the Arab sections of Jaffa and Lod in east Jerusalem, in Gaza City and in the casbahs of the West Bank cities of Nablus and Bethlehem, there are still a smattering of these living museums. The most famous is Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem until it was shut down by Israel during the intifada.

My own palace, named after its last owner, a wealthy Christian Arab farmer, is located in the heart of Nazareth’s old market. Three 20-foot-high arched windows look out across the Jezreel Valley, where he once owned some of the most prized agricultural land in Palestine. The main reception room is tiled with marble.

But the full glory of all these palaces are only revealed by turning one’s face upward. Each boasts ceilings handpainted by some of the region’s most skilled artists of the day.

Landscapes are popular, from views of port cities like Haifa, Acre and Jaffa to the Hijaz railway line. There are Roman urns overflowing with flowers, hunting scenes and even depictions of biblical events. The style reflects the dominance of European influences and fashions in the Ottoman Empire at that time. But the artists also personalize each house, using motifs that draw on the social position, interests and religion of the owner.

In Beit Fauzi Azar, the three main ceilings were painted by an artist from Beirut, who alludes to the source of the family’s wealth: cherubs clutch sheafs of wheat in one hand and scythes in the other.

The palaces are evidence that before the upheaval of the 1948 war, which founded Israel, Palestine had a thriving Arab bourgeoisie and landowning class.

Sharif, who studied conservation in Rome and Venice, has been single-handedly documenting and conserving this overlooked part of the Palestinian inheritance. It is an uphill battle. In the West Bank, the old cities of Nablus and Bethlehem have taken a battering from Israeli military hardware – and with them the palaces.

But even outside the conflict zones, in Israel’s old Arab cities, the palaces face a significant threat, both from the neglect of an impecunious Arab population and from the long-standing hostility of the Israeli authorities. One of the biggest problems, Sharif says, is an Israeli law that offers protection only to buildings constructed before 1700. Anything later can be altered, amateurishly renovated or demolished. This has meant that palaces are dependent on the good will of the new owners.

Further, the impoverishment of the old quarters of Arab cities has made them unattractive places to live. “Wealthy families have moved out and now rent their former homes to much poorer families,” said Sharif.

Tenants usually repair these properties on the cheap. My neighbors have “‘modernized” their palace by bricking up most of the arched windows and dropping the ceiling to make the rooms easier to heat.

Sharif believes that the solution is convincing families who live in these mansions that there are economic benefits in preserving them. “If tourists pay to see these ceilings then the families start to understand that it is worth looking after them,” he said.

But the intifada, and the consequent hemorrhage of tourists, is putting pay even to that hope. Beit Fauzi Azar was a museum until the intifada: Now the only income it can generate for the late owner’s family is my rent.

Nevertheless, Sharif believes that there is still a chance for these grand homes. “For decades ordinary Israelis found these places discomfiting. Now Israelis want to find out about the country’s heritage, including its non-Jewish past. Local Jewish tourism may yet save the palaces.”

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