Issue No.
173, September 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Lina building a chair. Photo by Danna Masad.

A Meditation on Trash
By Danna Masad
Know your roots, know yourself
Immediately following my return to Palestine two and a-half years ago, I started a midlife-crisis-style journey of discovery. I packed six years worth of my life into two suitcases, a carry-on, and a head full of questions: Was I starting from scratch? Where would I fit in? How much did I know about my country? It was a crisis no doubt, but also, perhaps, an opportunity for a new start. And being the sucker for challenges that I am, I took this one head on.

I started with the last question, since it was the only one I knew an answer to, and I quickly put together a plan of attack. If I wanted to learn about my country, I needed time. Being unhindered by a job meant free time to explore. Therefore I would only take on a job when I absolutely needed to, preferably on a part-time basis, and only a job that would not hamper my plan. And so the iref baladak tour began. For the next two and a-half years, I would tour as much of Palestine as I possibly could: Jenin, Qalqilya, Salfeet, Hebron, the Jordan Valley, Akka, Haifa, Jaffa, and Al-Naqab, just to name a few of the places that I had never been to before.

When I wasn’t touring, I was living and working on farms, learning from farmers. I joined Sharaka, a volunteer-based initiative that supports small-scale farmers, and touring farms became a regular part of my weekly schedule. I learned what food Palestinians grow and what we don’t grow and why. I learned how dependent our farmers have become on pesticides and chemicals, and how the soil has become depleted in our breadbasket, the Jordan Valley (or whatever is left of the Jordan Valley anyway). Conversely, I met farmers in Halhoul who were the saviours and protectors of heirloom baladi seeds, like the women of Deir Baloot and Deir Ammar, who have been guarding traditional farming methods and seeds and refusing to jump on the chemical and hybrid seed bandwagon.

To the bottom and back
During this time, I saw destruction juxtaposed with beauty. Olive and oak trees dotted rolling hills next to a stone quarry. In Wadi Ramallah, a running stream ran through the green valley, but it was slowly being covered by man-made hills of construction rubble. I became disillusioned with architecture, a profession I had dedicated much of my life to and had loved with conviction since early childhood. I was taught that architecture should create solutions and solve problems, but why was it contributing to so much destruction? And perhaps the bigger question was, how could we Palestinians claim to want independence when we couldn’t grow our own food or build our own homes using the resources we had? Had we repeated the word independence so many times that we had forgotten what it meant?
Enter Lina, Rami, and Ghaith into my life, three young architects equally excited about a search for alternatives in architecture and equally frustrated with the status quo. The four of us met either by fate or because Ramallah is too small to miss others who are interested in the same issues. Or maybe both. We met a couple of times and danced around what to do about our frustrations. By the third meeting, the idea was clear. It was a dream we all shared, and this was the time for it to happen. We would create a design studio that researched alternatives for construction and tested them. One week later, we had found a small studio space and decided on our first project: a furniture line made from local material or reclaimed waste. The goal was to research materials available locally and their potential as alternatives that could replace Israeli or imported (mainly Chinese) products. In our cold and empty new studio, we all gathered around the only desk we had and started drawing.

I’m sorry yakhty, I don’t work in trash
An old door, paper tubes, a metal drum, tires, and water pipes transformed in front of our eyes from trash to treasures. There was no need to go to a landfill since trash was everywhere, and, soon enough, people were bringing their trash/treasures and leaving them at our studio’s door. Free delivery is a good deal. We realised quickly that collecting the raw material was the easiest part of the process, designing the pieces was the most fun, and implementation was our biggest challenge.

Not knowing where to start with implementation, we divided into two teams. The men in the group decided to work with a local handyman in Birzeit, while the women went to the industrial zones of Ramallah and Al-Bireh. Amused by the gender-role switch, Lina and I would spend most of our days in the industrial zone. Half of the time went to finding stores, cutting metal, welding, and painting. The other half was spent trying to explain to shocked, yet slightly entertained, craftsmen what we were attempting to do. We were worried they wouldn’t take us seriously and worried we weren’t taking ourselves seriously.

Some craftsmen quickly developed a reputation as the most difficult to work with. Carpenters and upholsterers were among this group, as you could not pay them enough to work with material that wasn’t new.  After a few months of this, we learned both industrial zones, Ramallah and Al-Bireh, inside and out. We also learned that, in some cases, it was easier and faster to do some of the work ourselves. So we taught ourselves, first with the wrong tools, and then finally with the right ones.

Great neighbours
We were lucky, Mohammad Amous of Al-Mahatta Gallery was our neighbour in the studio and was one of the most supportive, kind, and giving souls we could have ever wished for. Mohammad was excited and very encouraging. After seeing some of the finished pieces, he kindly offered to show the finished line at Al-Mahatta. We were thrilled. On June 18th, we had our first public exhibition, which opened with 42 pieces of lighting fixtures and furniture made from trash. Our worries about the reactions of people or the lack of attendance vanished as the gallery doors opened to crowds of excited faces. The event was a hit.

Where next?
The success of the exhibition brought with it a sense of relief. With a supportive community around us, we now have the confidence to take on a larger challenge: the search for alternative building materials. We realise we will not be able to single-handedly change a seemingly booming industry that is set in its ways. However, our goal is a small step in the direction of change. We are merely starting the search for real alternatives that are made locally, sustainably produced, and able to compare in strength, endurance, and price to conventional materials. Hey, if a discarded old door tossed out on a street in Ramallah can find itself a few months later as a loved piece of furniture in its new home in the mountains of Geneva, anything is possible. Challenge accepted.

Danna Masad is one of four architects who make up the team of ShamsArd Design Studio. Find out more about them by looking up ShamsArd on Facebook.

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