By Maher Abukhater
Each one of Ramallah’s squares reveals a fascinating history.
Mahmoud Darwish Square
When the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was told that the West Bank city of Ramallah was planning to build a square named after him, he objected.
On the one hand, Darwish’s objection was a result of his modesty. But on the other, he believed squares or streets are usually named after dead people and dedicating a square named after him in his lifetime would be like a eulogy.
That changed when Darwish saw the blueprint for the square, subsequently giving his approval and support for the project.
Ironically, Darwish died on August 9, 2008, shortly after approving the construction of the square dedicated to his name, before getting a chance to inaugurate it or even see how it would turn out. Mahmoud Darwish Square was completed in 2011 and the delay was mainly due to its high construction cost.
The city of Ramallah had initially allocated a budget of $100,000 for the project. However, the final cost according to Khalil Abu Arafeh, the architect who designed it, was closing in on $600,000.
For a country that depends on foreign aid for development, the Palestinians felt that this money should be spent on projects that require urgent attention, such as building a sewage system in a village, rather than on building a square.
But the beloved Darwish was ill and had undergone an open heart surgery at the time of approving the proposal for the square, and people did not want to disappoint.
Abu Arafeh worked hard to cut costs without taking away from the original plan. Instead of using imported white marble, which would have taken up most of the budget, he used locally made stone. Meanwhile, Palestinians scrambled to find the money.
Finally, then Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad took it upon himself to finance the project mainly for Darwish’s sake. But there was an ulterior motive as well. The elegant square’s location was right outside his office – the new premiership’s building in the affluent Masyoun neighborhood in Ramallah.
When completed, the square with its seven two-meter wide, 30-centimeter thick glass panels held together by stainless steel, and water fountains flowing on the glass looked dazzling. People from everywhere came to behold the grand structure.
“I wanted to build a square that reflects the spirit of Mahmoud Darwish, mainly his strong feelings toward transparency. For this reason, I used three elements he often used in his poems that manifest transparency: water, glass and white marble,” Abu Arafeh tells Newsweek Middle East.
Nelson Mandela Square
The Mahmoud Darwish Square is one of 13 squares in Ramallah, and it was the most prominent one until recently, when Ramallah built a square at the new Al Tireh neighborhood this year, named after the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
And the story behind Mandela Square is rather interesting. South Africa’s Johannesburg city wanted to present Ramallah with a gift to crown its twinning relationship with the Palestinian city.
The gift was a 6-meter high bronze statue of Mandela stretching his arm in a power sign presented “as a symbol of liberty and solidarity with the Palestinian people,” according to Ramallah Mayor Mousa Hadid.
“Mandela was a strong supporter of the Palestinian people and for our struggle for freedom,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
“For this reason, hosting this monument in Ramallah had a special meaning to the Palestinian people,” he adds.
The monument is the first for Mandela outside of South Africa, and symbolizes the South African people’s struggle for their freedom as well as the Palestinian people’s fight for their liberation, said Hadid.
Perhaps because of what the Mandela Square symbolizes, Israel, which continues to occupy the West Bank since 1967, held the statue at the port for a month and refused to release it.
The only condition for handing over the statue was if the Palestinians paid a hefty tax first.
“The Israeli customs authority asked for an exorbitant amount of money to release the statue, more than 10 times its cost,” said Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau during a visit to Ramallah in April to inaugurate the square.
After intense diplomatic pressure, the Israeli authorities released the statue without remuneration.
“The trip of the Mandela monument from South Africa to Ramallah was not easy,” says Hadid. “As if 28 years of imprisonment under the apartheid regime was not enough, Israel had to also keep his statue in detention for over a month before agreeing to release it.”
Today, the new square is decorated with flowers and a stone platform, and has become one of Ramallah’s biggest attractions.
Al Manara Square
Amid all the construction, Ramallah’s oldest and most popular square remains Al Manara Square, located in the center of the city. It is set in the same place where the British mandate had set a light pole in 1935 to light the city of Ramallah and neighboring Al Bireh when they were connected to the electricity grid. That is where the name Al Manara came from.
Manara is the Arabic word for lighthouse. The monument, surrounded by five lions carved from stone, is four meters high and has a light bulb on top. During the Israeli occupation, the square was removed, allegedly to facilitate traffic. The sculptures were stored away, and it wasn’t until the 1990s with the rise of the Palestinian Authority that Al Manara Square was restored.
The five lions surrounding the monument represent the families who founded today’s Ramallah: Haddad, Ibrahim, Jiries, Shqair and Hassan. All of them were descendants of Rashid Haddadin, a Christian family that had lived in Shoubak, East Jordan, in the 16th century prior to moving to today’s Ramallah.
The Haddadin family had a beautiful daughter. A local Muslim tribal leader wanted to marry her against her wishes. Fearing for their daughter’s life, the family fled Shoubak and moved to today’s Al Bireh village, and from there to Ramallah, a small village at the time.
Ramallah wanted to commemorate Rashid Haddadin, the father of the city. It contracted the two most known Palestinian artists, Suleiman Mansour and Nabil Anani, to build a monument for him.
The idea later developed into making a monument for the entire family composed of the father, mother, five sons and the daughter because the daughter was the reason the family had fled from Jordan to Ramallah, Mansour tells Newsweek Middle East.
He adds that both him and Anani made a clay miniature of the planned monument and presented it to Mayor Hadid who approved it. A budget of $50,000 was allocated for the project.
“Because of the low budget, we had to look for local material to build it,” says Mansour.
The artists decided to use Styrofoam, a light plastic material used as insulation in buildings or in packing, to create the mold for the monument. The casting, however, could be done either in China, where it would be cheaper, or at a local shop in Akka (Akko), a more expensive process. The decision was to rely on Akka, but to reach there from Ramallah meant passing through Israeli military checkpoints.
“The truck carrying the monument got stopped by police, who wanted to inspect it thoroughly before allowing it through,” says Mansour. The truck was ordered to return to Ramallah on several occasions, until eventually the sculpture made it to Akka.
The Yasser Arafat Square
Designing and sculpting monuments for squares is part of Mansour’s work. He had also created a sculpture of a boy hanging on a long pole at Yasser Arafat Square, not far from Al Manara Square.
The Yasser Arafat Square, named after the late Palestinian leader, was originally known as Clock Square because of a clock that was sitting in the middle of a stone monument.
The square recently underwent an overhaul and the clock was replaced by a longer stone monument with a metal pole on top, where a boy is seen climbing to hang a Palestinian flag.
The idea originated from Arafat’s statements who often said, “A Palestinian youth is going to one day place a flag on the Wall of Jerusalem, its minarets and its churches.”
A Hard Task
Naming squares or streets in Ramallah in particular is not an easy matter.
“We select names for the squares carefully and after a lengthy study,” Hadid tells Newsweek Middle East.
At one point, Al Bireh had wanted to name a square after Palestinian guerrilla fighter Dalal Mughrabi, who was killed during a military operation in Israel in the 1970s. Israel objected and claimed that the Palestinians were naming their squares and streets after individuals it considered “terrorists.”
Usually, the Israeli outcry finds ears among its powerful western allies who in turn pressure the Palestinians to change the names.
“Ramallah is currently the official base of the Palestinian Authority and therefore we need to follow certain criteria when it comes to naming squares and public places,” says Hadid.
“We decide on the names and not anyone else. The Israelis are not the ones who can tell us what names to use or not to use,” he adds.