Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A Glimpse of Ramallah’s Past at “Dar Zahran”

By PM collaborators - October 10, 2016
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [culture]

The map of Ramallah claims this street as part of the 'Old Town.’ But across the road is a petrol station, with a 24/7 ATM attached. Shared taxis lumber up the hill towards the city centre. A man is cooking shawarma in front of a cheap café. Next to him, a huge blue gas canister, feeding his stove, hisses.

Despite its name, Ramallah’s 'Old Town’ does not feel very old. This changes when you visit Dar Zahran. The house was built in the mid-18th century. The stone bricks, stylishly carved into alcoves above the windows, are originals.

A fountain sparkles in the courtyard

This elegance is not accidental, explains Zahran Jagheb, the owner: “Dar Zahran was where important meetings and gatherings” used to happen, when Ramallah was still a village. The house also served as the home of the local mukhtar – or village chief – when Palestine formed part of the Ottoman Empire.

This deep knowledge of Dar Zahran is unsurprising: Jagheb’s family have owned the house since it was built, and his father was the last mukhtar of Ramallah, during the Jordanian occupation in the 1950s. His ancestors first came to Ramallah in the 16th century.

Zahran Jagheb, the owner sitting in Dar Zahran

Indeed, 'Dar Zahran’ means either 'the house of Zahran’ or the 'family of Zahran.’ In this case, both interpretations work. In fact, Jagheb emphasised that he is not just an employee here. He grew in Dar Zahran, and still lives there now: “I wanted to bring back life and family to this house.”

By any measure, he has succeeded. Over twenty years, Jagheb has immaculately restored the building to its original state. This is especially impressive given the building was slated for demolition.

The basement, which once served as a stable, is now an art gallery.

A fountain sparkles in the courtyard, below a sagging Palestinian flag. The basement, which once served as a stable, is now an art gallery. Guests can buy local pottery and jewellery. Jagheb plans to add a café to the building. Meanwhile, an archive of stunning photographs, detailing Palestinian life during the 19th century, will be collated into a museum.

As these projects suggest, Jagheb is not willing to simply turn Dar Zahran into a shabby tourist joint. “When I brought friends to Ramallah,” he explains, “I had nothing to show them about the history of Ramallah and Palestine. In Germany and France, there are museums. They have history. Not in Ramallah.”

A map, pins marking the home of each visitor, is testament to Dar Zahran’s international popularity.

Things are different now. During my visit, Jagheb explained the history of Ramallah, and the problems facing the town, to a rapt group of European backpackers. Dar Zahran sometimes get hundreds of visitors every week. A map, pins marking the home of each visitor, is testament to Dar Zahran’s international popularity.

But if Dar Zahran has succeeded in luring foreigners to Ramallah, Jagheb is still struggling to convince his own people about the importance of their heritage.

Many Palestinians “don’t care about their history,” he begins. “This is dangerous and sad: if you have no history, it is bad for the future. It disconnects you from your own land.” Without history, he asks rhetorically, “can you be sure that this land belongs to you?”

Before, when he was young, Ramallah was full of smart old houses like Dar Zahran. But 450 such buildings have been destroyed in the past fifteen years. Concrete apartment blocks and roads are lumped in their place. Jagheb has been fighting the municipality to save historical houses in Ramallah for years. The Old Town has been battered. Jagheb’s gentle eyes flicker slightly. “I feel like a stranger in my own city.”

Nonetheless, groups of school kids visit Dar Zahran: it creates an “amazing, positive energy,” says Jagheb.
And some Palestinians still appreciate how vibrant their history is. Jawad Rar left Palestine in 1966, and settled in the United States. Now retired, with a slight American drawl, he is back in Ramallah. “In order to know where you’re from, you have to know where you’ve been,” he says.

Rar and Jagheb are cousins. They chuckle over about an ancient photograph of a shared relative. A sign says not to take photographs, but Rar is allowed to: “he’s family, so it’s fine.”

“I am not old fashioned,” Jagheb maintains. “We can make a modern city. But we must also respect our heritage. We must be proud of our history, not change it.”  

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