Laura van Rij (LR): What is your connection to Lifta?
Ahmad Kharouf (AK): In the last year of my study in architecture I did a project with ShmuelGroag, documenting the houses in Lifta. After my degree I became the head of one group to document the buildings.We didn´t want to document in a mainstream way, but also to document how vegetation was growing on the buildings, how it is connected to its surroundings, also to the people.
LR: Was there a special reason why you participated in this project?
AK: I started to develop feelings for Lifta in these weeks I did the documenting workshop. I understood that there is a really big potential for this village. It´s almost the only village that survived 1948 and when you look at it you can still see the whole structure of the village. It is as if it was frozen in time, that doesn´t occur in other villages inside Israel.
LR: Did you hear of Lifta already before you started the project?
AK: Some things, I heard about the program to destroy the village and to build a new neighbourhood there, but that´s it. I always passed it when returning home from Jerusalem, in the bus. It was clear to me what it was; I knew the name of the village, it´s fascinating how it looks. Usually when Palestinians look at ruins of villages they have emotions that they cannot express because it was part of their life and their community and now it´s gone. Not just gone, but erased. So as a Palestinian, it was always emotional to see it.
LR: Do you think Lifta could be a symbol for all the villages that were destroyed?
AK: I´m not sure if it´s a symbol. I see it as a symbol now because I know it, but I think the average person doesn´t see it like this. From a lot of villages you can still find the stones, they become holy places to the people that came from that village. They come there for the weekend to picnic, but it´s more than a picnic, it´s about reviving the place itself and teaching the children about their history.
LR: Did you see a lot of people coming to Lifta?
AK: A lot of Palestinians from Lifta live in the West Bank so it´s not easy for them to come here. Also, just like a lot of NGO´s, some of them don´t recognize Israel and so they don´t want to be in Israeli territory and don´t want to interact with the Israeli authority, or with NGO´s. There were some organisations from the West Bank interested in our work though, there was some unofficial interaction, but without saying so in the media.
LR: Did you speak to the Orthodox Jews at the pool?
AK: They asked us what we were doing when they saw us measuring the houses. Usually the Orthodox Jews are not interested in politics. It´s not something they discuss, they don´t like the state of Israel for religious reasons. Usually when we reached the point of telling them this used to be an Arab village they didn´t want to hear more. They started to ask us more general questions.
LR: Is there a place that you find particularly interesting in Lifta?
AK: When we documented the Beit al-Muhtar (the house of the village elder), I understood that this house represents the history of the village. The house was built in three stages, you can see the developments in society, you can understand how people lived there. The first part that was built was a house with only one room, all the things people needed were in this room. Sometimes the animals would sleep there as well. Later they built more floors on top. In the twenties the Muhtar left his house and built a much bigger one uphill. After 1948 this house became a school for the Yemenite Jews that came to Lifta.
LR: Did your image of Lifta change a lot over time?
AK: Yes, and not only how I see Lifta. I learned a lot from this village that I can use in other places. Lifta opened a new world that I´m very interested in. It is interesting to look at history site-specific.
LR: What do you think will happen in the village?
AK: I´m not very optimistic about the general situation in Israel, especially in Jerusalem people are becoming more right wing. Either they will built new houses and leave only one or two houses from Lifta integrated in the public garden. Or it will just vanish by itself, destroyed by the years. Every winter some houses collapse. People make fires and sometimes parts of the village are on fire. It is giving me a feeling of hope that Jews and Arabs are joining forces to save Lifta. There are very few attempts like this. I think if Jewish people wouldn´t have lived in this place after 1948 it would already have been destroyed. It has not been destroyed because there is also some history of Jews living here, this is why it works, and why we have the coalition.
LR: What would you like to happen in Lifta?
AK: First start preserving the place, but I would also like to see more research that leads to understanding the society that lived there. The houses should be preserved like they are now, stop them from falling apart. The people who use the village should not damage it and leave waste, but it is good that there are people all the time, it should be preserved and used at the same time but not like an open air museum. I prefer Lifta to be destroyed if it becomes like a nice tourist place with restaurants like EinKarem. It is preserved then, but the people that visit don´t really understand the meaning of the place, they just sit in a coffee shop.
LR: What if they would create a history museum, with signs about what used to be there?
AK: This is what we are working on now, that it will be some kind of living museum, with signs next to the houses. It should include information about vegetation, architecture, and the people who lived there and what their background and connections were.
The interview is for the project "It's all about people - Narratives from Lifta" done by Laura van Rij as part of her M.A. in public history at The University of Amsterdam.
Interview location: Rozette restaurant, Jaffa.
May 19, 2013.