Critical Speculation

Re:LIFTA, Within the Right to Plan is the Right to Imagine Return

By Mahdi Sabbagh

Lifta digital art exhibition poster (Collective MIP)

A picturesque ascent overlooking Wadi el-Shami greets every car driving from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem. The valley is dotted with trees and shrubbery, adorned with a family of stone houses. Those familiar with Palestine’s history instantly recognize the ghostly presence of the deserted village of Lifta, one of the more than 400 Palestinian towns obliterated during the 1947 – 1949 Nakba.

Lifta, in collective Palestinian memory, is not just a destroyed village: it symbolizes Palestinian resilience and Palestinians’ relationship to their ancestral land.

In July of 2012, a group of architects and planners from Jerusalem and Bethlehem (مجموعة التخطيط الجماعي or COLLECTIVE Memory | Imaginaries | Planning) met at the Ma’mal LAB in Jerusalem’s old city to discuss a comprehensive response to Israel’s Plan No. 6036 for Lifta, which aimed to develop the remains of the historic village into an Israeli high end residential neighborhood and retail. None of us present at the inaugural meeting questioned the relevance of Lifta to contemporary planning in Israel and Palestine. It was clear to us, as it is to any planner who goes through a foundational understanding of political landscapes in Palestine, that Lifta is a battleground of narratives.

Postard from Lifta, 2028 (Emily Mourad Hanna / Dima Khoury)

Our initiative named Re:Lifta became an exercise in critical cartography and foraging into the memory and testimonies of Lifta’s dispossessed community. Our goal at Re:Lifta was to respond to plan No. 6036 by conceptualizing Liftawis in a post-return Lifta rather than finding an immediate solution to the remains of the village. We were interested in collaborative work that would re-imagine Lifta as a narrated typology of return, a landscape of memories and ideas.

Lifta on one hand had to be treated as a “conventional” site which we see as growing, expanding, changing, in very much the way architects consider a site in say Brooklyn, London or Paris. To have focused solely on Lifta’s current political landscapes would have prevented our minds from wondering beyond the physical and psychological barriers that define the majority of Palestinian visual culture: always in relation and reaction to its Israeli oppressor.

After a series of workshops and meetings it also became clear to us that our initiative had to expand to become truly collaborative. We expanded into a socio-cognitive process to include scholars, artists, graphic designers and Liftawis whom we could reach. This generated many conversations and culminated into a body of work that had to be returned and presented to Palestinian society.

Re:Occupy Lifta, poster (el Warsheh, Jordan)

Between November 15th and 18th, we transformed the Yabous Cultural Centre into “Lifta Cultural Week” with a series of talks, film screenings, and an exhibition. This was organized with the Cultural Heritage Protection Committee and the Yabous Cultural Centre.

Our work presented in the exhibition was divided into 4 parts: Infographics, Planning Return, Media-Morphosis and The Return Campaign. Infographics dealt with a visual articulation of the Palestinian narrative on Lifta. Planning Return imagined urban and infrastructural organizations that would facilitate the practice of return. Media-Morphosis experimented with the notion of “pre-serving collective imaginaries of the future” by displaying “ideal imagined scenarios” through fake media. The Return Campaign, a “post-return” effort to create images, postcards and posters that present a thriving decolonized Lifta.

The exhibition space, filled with locals, Liftawis and curious passerbys, became an interactive place in which to discuss return. A type of place rarely found in today’s Jerusalem.

Re-mapping Lifta (Collective MIP)

Greetings from Lifta (Jorge Lopez, Chile/France)

COLLECTIVE Memory | Imaginaries | Planning
Nora Akawi, Elias Anastas, Youssef Anastas, Victoria Dabdoub, Dima Khoury, Inas Moussa Wa’ary, Mahdi Sabbagh, Ahmad Wa’ary.

Mahdi Sabbagh is an architect and activist from East Jerusalem. He is currently an M. Arch. candidate at the Yale School of Architecture. Mahdi has previously worked with the UNRWA Camp Development Unit in Bethlehem, L.E.FT. Architects and Robert A.M. Stern Architects in New York.