Issue No.
143, March 2010 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Children flying a kite. Photo by Alaa Badarneh.
Child playing in al-hara. Photo by Alaa Badarneh.

Neighbours, Children, and Space
By Dr. Zuhair Sabbagh
Palestinian cities enjoyed a number of urban, public, and green spaces in the not-so-distant past. Nowadays, these spaces are either shrinking or being annihilated due to a number of factors. Consequently, the vanishing spaces are affecting the Palestinian social reality and have transformed some traditions, norms, and relations.

Space and architecture mutually affect each other. Architecture, in turn, has a stronger impact on social reality, and its change of style can restructure social relations and lead to radical transformation of existing norms and traditions.

Changing architecture
Lack of urban space, improper urban planning, demographic growth, and an ongoing ferocious Israeli colonial onslaught on Palestinian land have all led to the shrinking of green and public zones that existed in the past inside Palestinian cities and villages. Israeli colonial settlements are simply eating up the land reserves of Palestinian cities and villages, thus depriving them of the possibility to develop and expand. Palestinian urban and social space within cities has been enormously influenced by the impact of Zionist settler colonialism. This, in turn, has led to unbalanced urban expansion, which has eaten up almost all empty land inside city neighbourhoods. As a result, empty public space has shrunk enormously in front of the concrete onslaught of urban expansion.

Due to urban population growth and scarcity of empty land, vertical urban expansion in Palestinian cities became a solution to this problem. High-rise buildings were constructed on hills, inside valleys, and in city centres. As a result, Palestinian cities have become over-crowded with buildings, people, and vehicles.

Compression of space and urban deformation are two factors that, nowadays, can be noticed inside Palestinian cities. Despite the fact that these cities are not considered large, they contain some of the social maladies of large cities.

Changes in architecture and improper urban expansion have affected some of our traditions, norms, and social relations. They have changed the social nature of our neighbours as well as our children.
Neighbours, social norms, and traditions
In the not-so-distant past, neighbours inside Palestinian cities interacted socially with each other in face-to-face relations. People built their houses in close proximity to their neighbours, and interpersonal human social contact was direct and daily. Children were socialised to respect their neighbours. Social occasions such as weddings were a collective social interaction in which all neighbours took part. Neighbours shared their happiness and also their sadness. They lent a hand to each other in many fields. New residents who moved into the neighbourhood were welcomed by the old residents, who would visit them and bring them some fruits grown in their hakoora - garden.

As a reflection of the positive human relations that existed among neighbours, we find a collection of Palestinian and Arab proverbs that speak positively about the importance of neighbours. One proverb urges the individual to search for the neighbour prior to searching for a house while another praises close neighbours and values them as more important than distant relatives.

Although human sympathy was dominant, some disagreements and tensions would occasionally arise among neighbours. The elders, though, would immediately intervene to resolve them peacefully.

Transformation of landscape has led to changes in social norms and traditions. Neighbours inside high-rise apartments have physically disappeared and human contact among them has become scarce, any interaction occurring only on formal occasions. As a result, neighbours have become alienated from each other.

Neighbours meet today in the stairway, the lift, or the parking lot. They chat and engage in small talk, but they seldom visit each other. Social relations among the neighbours inside an apartment building are minimal. Some newly arrived young neighbours might pass each other in the stairway or parking lot without even greeting each other. The elders, however, would often greet their new neighbours even before they were acquainted.

Such lukewarm social relations might temporarily change and become stronger during national emergencies. During the Israeli onslaught of 2002 against the colonised West Bank, neighbours in apartment buildings began to show human compassion and solidarity with each other. The devastated and besieged cities created an impact that led to the melting of social ice and the revitalisation of human relations. While neighbourhoods were still under curfew, neighbours began to share food, water, electricity, and shelter. They visited each other and began to socialise.

But a month later, as soon as the emergency came to an end, a sense of social alienation returned. Apparently, social alienation has been deeply entrenched within their collective consciousness and cannot be easily eradicated.

Children and public space
A number of years ago Palestinian children interacted socially with each other inside schools as well as inside their neighbourhoods. In comparison to the strict rules of school, the neighbourhood (al-hara) offered Palestinian children an open, easy-going, and enjoyable social milieu. Kids played their games according to the season. They even manufactured their own games. Each season had its specific games. Kites and scooters were made by children and played with during the summer months. Marbles were among the winter games, while collective tours of nature were left to springtime.

There were many other games that children used to play throughout the seasons. What is striking is the fact that these games were collective, played by groups not by individuals.

Modernisation and children
In the recent past, personal relationships among children were originally realised outdoors in face-to-face interaction. Most of the time kids socialised inside al-hara. They played and chatted inside the public space and each child was a member of a peer group. However, as a result of the "modernisation" trend, al-hara disappeared.

Social relationships among children are nowadays facilitated through technical devices such as mobile technology, telephones, and Internet. The previous meeting space of direct social interaction has been replaced by technical networks. Social interaction among kids is transmitted, in part, through text messages or telephone calls. As a result, electronic solo-played games, Internet chat programmes, and modern architecture have all combined, thus leading to the minimisation of proper social relations among children, who have withdrawn from the vanishing public space into their apartments.

The social situation of children deteriorated further when they retreated to their rooms and were forced to sink more deeply inside their secluded and isolated existence. In place of direct human contact, kids began to rely more on indirect contact through the Internet and chat programmes. They even invented their own language that uses the English alphabet for writing Arabic colloquial text.

As a result of this deformed social existence, children have forgotten how to talk to each other face-to-face. One notices that when children meet in reality they behave as strangers and it takes them some time to start socialising and talking.

This deteriorating human condition of social relations among neighbours and among kids might entice someone to comment: Aren't we becoming modernised? Don't we have to pay a price for this modernisation? In response, I would say: Yes, we are, in fact, becoming modernised; but also alienated and unhappy. Modern architecture has not only transformed our landscape. It has also transformed our traditions, customs, and social relations. In short, it has transformed us.

Dr. Zuhair Sabbagh is an academic and a researcher on Palestinian and Israeli issues. He teaches sociology at Birzeit University.
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