Palestine’s leading university town preserves its passion for astronomy, architecture and great falafel
When Nabiha Nasir founded the Birzeit School for Girls in 1924, it was nothing more than a small, family-run private school among Birzeit’s rolling hills and olive tree terraces. The town is geographically centred in Palestine – seven kilometres north of Ramallah and 20 kilometres north of Jerusalem. ‘Nabiha is really the woman behind the history of Birzeit,’ says her nephew Hanna Nasser, the former president of Birzeit University. ‘She was typical of many Palestinian women – resilient and very, very tough.’
The Birzeit School for Girls eventually became Birzeit University – the first university in Palestine – in 1975. Today, the town is synonymous with the school, its founding family and its alumni, which include writers like Ibtisam Barakat and Kamal Nasser, as well as artist Amer Shomali. Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said hold honorary doctorates from the university, too.
The school grew from Nabiha’s family home in the old city to an institution of nearly 1,800 students, sparking a relocation from the city centre to a new hilltop location, encircled by thick, spiralling rows of olive trees on the outskirts of the village. The first building of the new campus was completed in 1981.
In many ways, Birzeit University has shaped Palestine’s educational system, providing many with various reasons to visit the humble town of nearly 8,000 inhabitants. This past September, for example, the university opened the Michael and Saniyah Hakim Astronomical Observatory to the public – Palestine’s largest astronomical observatory. It’s also the first to open within a Palestinian university.
The observatory opened more than a year after the university’s astronomy club formed. Its members sought out and restored a 1980s telescope found in the university’s museum. The club’s growth can be gleaned from the popularity of its – sometimes attracting up to 180 attendees, like at the recent total lunar eclipse viewing. Though, Rami Masri, the club’s chairman, says his main priority is promoting astronomy in Palestine – rather than the size of the club.
As well as the observatory, Birzeit is set to host the largest museum in the West Bank – the Palestinian Museum, slated to open next spring. Celebrating and exploring the history, culture and identity of historic and modern Palestinian societies, the Palestinian Museum will also provide a contemporary architectural art form for the public. Designed by Irish architecture firm Heneghan Peng and led by director and curator Jack Persekian, the museum will sit nearby to Birzeit University.
‘There was an agreement that felt mutually beneficial to both institutions,’ says Persekian. ‘The museum is located close to one of the most prestigious universities in Palestine and they had land that they could share with us. Financially, it was a good arrangement, and it also benefits the university’s staff and students – they can be involved in projects. It was a win-win.’
Located on the periphery of Birzeit’s historic centre, the museum’s modern architecture will both contrast and compliment the cluster of Ottoman-era buildings that once formed the town’s heart. Built from stone and glass façades inspired by Birzeit’s terraced landscape, these elements echo the simplicity of the old town.
After decades of migration, the old town was estimated to house only 183 inhabitants in its limestone buildings in 2008. ‘Businesses fled due to economic hardships, families either joined the diaspora and immigrated, or relocated because they outgrew these existing spaces,’ says Raed Saadeh, founder and chairman of the Rozana Association, an NGO focused on architectural heritage and promoting rural development in Birzeit.
Other organisations have also worked to restore and protect certain buildings throughout the town, like Riwaq. Such organisations are dedicated to the architectural conservation of Palestine, and have led projects that convert historic buildings into community spaces.
‘What we are trying to do is protect these neglected places – homes, attics, alleys and courtyards and convert them back into living spaces,’ Saadeh explains of the collective effort. ‘We want Birzeit to become the capital of rural Palestine. When we speak of Birzeit, at least in our minds, we speak of a cluster of villages that can actually work very closely together to promote their resources and capacities.’
Beside preserving the town’s architectural heritage, the Rozana Association also focuses on rehabilitating shrines and converting these places into public parks that benefit both locals and visitors. To further encourage tourism and understanding of Palestinian history, Rozana has created a network of Sufi trails that explore Sufi shrines, Byzantine and Crusader churches, Roman sites and prehistoric caves.
‘We wanted to shed light on 800 years of Sufi history in Palestine, which is very much connected to the current local community. It has also forged a lot of the traditions and heritage that resemble or identify with the current communities in Palestine,’ says Saadeh.
Visitors to Birzeit can find home-cooked meals at Falafel Republic. Not limited to hummus and falafel, the family-run restaurant dishes out recipes passed down by grandparents for traditional meals such as musakhan, makloubeh and molokhia.
When Falafel Republic opened three years ago, it was the first restaurant in the old city. Today it’s accompanied by Leyalina, a mezze-style restaurant and café that caters to students and locals. Within the proximity of the heavy stone walls of the old city, coloured in hues of grey and brown, these restaurants offer students and locals a quality, traditional alternative to the fast food style restaurants consuming the town’s outskirts.
‘We care about the old city – the streets, the walls – everything is oriented,’ says Peter Zanayed, the son of Falafel Republic’s owners. At the restaurant, Zanayed cooks side by side with his mother. ‘We cook everything the same way we cook at home – it’s special. Anything that a mother makes is special, and that’s us.’
For many, Birzeit is a picturesque college town, sitting quietly on a hilltop with views of the Mediterranean Sea. The coffee shops and venues fill it out, providing many with a place to relax.
‘The recently renovated old town is absolutely charming,’ adds Persekian. ‘There are several restaurants and small parlours that are lovely to visit and wander. It’s a place where it still maintains that rural charm of the country.’
This article appears in Brownbook’s November/December 2015 issue.
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