Hajja is a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank, located eighteen kilometers west of Nablus in the Qalqilya Governorate. Hajja is an Aramaic word, meaning "market." The village is surrounded by five neighboring villages and is renowned for having an ancient Mamluk mosque that dates to AD 1323.
Historically, Hajja was known for producing saddles used for riding camels and other animals. Today, the village is home to approximately 13,119 acres, which residents use to farm grains, olives, and fruit. Local farmers sell their produce in Hajja’s market and to neighboring villages, including Qalqilya’s market. The population of the village of Hajja is approximately 3,218.
The historic center of Hajja occupies the northern half of the village, where thirty-seven middle to lower income families live. Most of its 178 residents farm the land for agricultural production or work in the construction industry.
Over time, residents in the historic center who could afford to move away relocated to concrete houses in the southern part of the village, resulting in the abandonment of 139 (64 %) of the village’s historic buildings. Many of the buildings in the historic center are in functional condition, but a portion of the buildings remain in such a deteriorated state that they are no longer suitable for use.
Through the Hajja project, RIWAQ aimed to bring life back to the historic center of the village, returning it to its full capacity and population. Beginning in March 2011, RIWAQ took its first steps towards achieving this goal through surveys, documentation, and preparing a rehabilitation plan. In three short years, the rehabilitation plan was implemented, and sixty-five buildings and a number of public spaces were protected and restored. RIWAQ concluded its work in Hajja in January 2014.
RIWAQ’s initial visit in 2011 set the tone for the duration of our engagement in Hajja, and shed light on the significance of improving the general living conditions for residents, repopulating the area, and restoring its abandoned houses. Hajja’s residents were spirited, enthusiastic, and invested in the historic center’s public spaces and alleys: elder women sat at their doorsteps conversing with neighbors and passers-by while preparing meals; others swept the streets and alleys in front of their homes. Children returning from school playfully ran through the streets with ice cream and chips. Embracing what is referred to in Arabic as al Oneh (reciprocity)— a long-lived code of cooperative social interaction—RIWAQ and community members in Hajja engaged in a participatory approach for the vision, design, and implementation of the project. This approach was particularly salient due to the substantial number of people still residing within the historic center. To this end, RIWAQ’s planners and architects observed many of the already existing communal practices of the historic center, and in turn, designed projects around the use of pergolas, seating, and planting okra beans, passion fruit, and vineyards. Today, it is evident that this collaborative process has elevated the pride and sentiment of residents on both a local and national level.
Due to limited funding, our goal in Hajja’s historic center was to create a comprehensive rehabilitation model by condensing our resources to an area where a concentrated set of buildings and public spaces could be redefined and reused for the greatest impact on the community. In turn, the project area included the historic center’s al Madafah (the Guesthouse) and Old Mosque.
This project took an inside-out approach; working with residents to enhance their houses and use them, and working on enhancing the outer skin of the building and surrounding alleys. Public spaces were not created, but rather rediscovered and redefined according to where people were accustomed to gathering, such as in zarobet al hawa (the wind alley), which is a narrow alley opened at one side to the space in front of al Madafah. People historically gathered in these alleys and socialized over coffee or tea, sitting on long low stones. Through the restoration process, the space was paved and leveraged into an accessible and safe communal space, and continues to foster strong social interaction between community members. It is this work that we, at RIWAQ, are privileged to serve, as it remains the guiding vision for the restoration of our collective space and heritage across the entire region.
By 2013, our goal was realized, with approximately twelve units renovated as dwellings, three buildings as cultural and community centers, and a net of public spaces and small gardens opened to the community. To enhance the living environment and overall living conditions, the project also included work on public roads and alleys, and the connections of private dwellings to the public infrastructure and sewage network.
Before the Hajja project began, RIWAQ focused its efforts on surveying residents and economic/agricultural activities for mapping purposes. In 2010, RIWAQ began using its own resources to survey the historic center and update the Register of Historic Buildings (2006) through the identification and documentation of historic buildings, interviewing local residents and businesses, and surveying all stakeholders.
The physical implementation started in summer 2011 with the rehabilitation of a complex of buildings and a courtyard for the local Red Crescent organization; al Hilal activity center. The complex hosts activities for youth and has a gymnasium hall for women. This project set a rehabilitation model for years to come as the restoration of the village continues at the hand of local residents and Village Council members. In addition, the project continues to garner interest in the restoration process among visitors who see potential in conserving their homes.
Al Madafah is an important landmark for Hajja. It is the village’s first guesthouse and first school. A community volunteer program was organized to clean up the plaza of al Madafah to prepare it for future activities as well as introduce the historical significance of al Madafah to residents. Later on, a meeting was convened with village elders regarding an oral history project associated with al Madafah and its important role in shaping the social and cultural history of Hajja.
The conservation of al Madafah Public Plaza created the first shared space/garden that a local institution actively utilized while opening it to the community for local activities and celebrations.
In July 2011, in cooperation with Hajja’s Village Council and Red Crescent Society, Hajja hosted its first annual Bamyeh (Okra) Festival. Foreign tourists and visitors from across the region were in attendance. Hajja’s residents exhibited cultural crafts and traditions, and invited visitors to tour their restored spaces. An elder resident who is an expert in clay-making, presented mud oven models she made; others made zaa’tar (thyme spice mix) and olive oil, and provided demonstrations on how to dry emptied pumpkins for planting. Young people took pause in front of old buildings and ornamented doors and posted them to Facebook with quotes such as “Hajja, my old village.”
The second annual Bamyeh Festival focused on introducing and exploring Hajja’s architectural restoration projects. The festival concluded with a number of performances in al Madafah Plaza and the newly constructed children’s playground.
The third Bamyeh Festival took place in October 2013 and was led by Hajja’s Village Council in conjunction with several local organizations.
To reach out to residents, RIWAQ distributed application forms across the historic center to those interested in restoring their historic buildings as dwellings and shops. The first phase of the rehabilitation of the historic center included preliminary cleaning, pointing, and screeds and roof insulations in an area that included twenty-seven buildings. In addition, this phase included the renovation of the interior of al Madafah which was to be utilized by al Nawras Cultural Forum. It also included the renovation of a home in which labor was donated to the project by the homeowner.
In cooperation with the Palestinian artist Jawad Ibrahim, a workshop was held to explore the different types of stones in the area and the possibility of using stones for sculpting. The workshop also presented an opportunity to display the ancient inscriptions found in the village. Ten students from An-Najah National University in addition to local residents attended the workshop and many sculptures were produced in the shapes of the Old Mosque’s palm tree and minaret.
This phase of this project included the exterior renovation of eleven buildings, and interior renovation of three buildings; this was made possible, in part, through the contribution of building owners.
In addition, a public plaza was created, along with infrastructure for a children’s garden and extended infrastructure to mitigate wastewater.
In a later stage of the project, playground equipment was installed in cooperation with Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). This project improved the neighborhood, not just aesthetically, but provided a safe and constructive place for children and families to play and socially interact.
In the third phase of rehabilitation, the project focused on the exterior renovation of sixteen buildings in addition to the rehabilitation of Hajja’s Old Mosque.
Through coordination with the Palestine Writing Workshop, fifty children attended this event, which included several activities ranging from storytelling by Maya Abu Hayat and story writing by the children of Hajja about its historic center.
In partnership with al Ma’mal Foundation, the “Gestures in Time” exhibition came to life in several historic centers, including Hajja. Many artists took part in the exhibition, which toured historic centers across the region and in which villages became the artists’ canvas to create site-specific art directly related to the environment, culture, history and urban fabric of Palestine. An installation by Jumana Abbud of wind chimes was placed in Hajja, where specific artist’s work was affected by the wind resonance in the village due its high position on top of a hill.
This activity was planned for ninth graders from the village’s girls’ school, where the students prepared a questionnaire and toured the historic center to document the house gardens and explore local produce. This activity focused on environmental initiatives and emphasized the role of house gardens as beautification elements with the power to enrich public and private spaces across the village.
This project centered on the rehabilitation of the historic center’s public spaces for the greater good of community members across Hajja. Works included pointing, plastering, tiling, base course works, and carpentry works.
Through the help of private donations, RIWAQ was able to renovate a private home of an economically disadvantaged family in Hajja. Renovation work included cleaning and excavation, pointing, plastering, tiling, mechanical and electrical work, and the installation of doors and windows.