With the rich aroma of Arabic coffee and with classical music in the background, Basel Kittana describes what makes the Antique Café in Nablus a place of salvation.
A derelict 500-year-old warehouse dating back to the Mameluke era, the cafe has become a place for young Palestinians to hang out in a part of the city they had long abandoned.
The warehouse was restored by Basel and his brother, Abdalrahman Kittana, and since it opened in 2019 the cafe has inspired young people to explore the city’s forgotten historic alleyways and be inspired to create their own hospitality and cultural hubs out of other abandoned buildings.
Detained as a 20-year-old after protesting against the Israeli occupation in Nablus in the West Bank in 2004, Basel, 38, says he got through 15 years in prison by dreaming of renovating ancient parts of his home town, which had suffered years of neglect and attacks.
When released from prison in 2018, Basel, who had completed a degree in urban history while in jail, and his brother, who has an architecture PhD, started work.
“I did not want to be just a number, and refused to submit to the fait accompli and the stereotypical life that many liberated prisoners live,” he says, referring to ex-prisoners who rely on monthly allowances by the Palestinian Authority for a living. “Now I’m resisting, in my own way.”
The West Bank has seen many restoration projects launched in recent years after repeated Israeli attacks. However, these projects focus on locations of historic significance, and are largely funded by international institutions – funds the Palestinian brothers can’t access because they are regarded by some as “terrorists” because of the time they spent in jail. Abdalrahman has also served a sentence for protesting against the occupation.
In response, the brothers founded The Yalla Project (TYP) three years ago to bring together researchers, architects, designers, artists and investors to help local people reclaim their buildings and heritage.
Antique Café, which opened in May 2019, was restored with the $6,000 (£4,600) Basel received from the authority as an allowance while in prison.
Along with menus of modern food and drink, Antique’s visitors are served bites of Palestinian history through the original photography hung on its walls, and printouts of newspaper clippings from the time of the British mandate 100 years ago.
The revenue from Antique helped fund the brothers’ second restoration project: Turquoise hostel. The centuries-old house took three months to be transformed in early 2020 from what remained after an Israeli strike into a guesthouse.
“This house was abandoned for 14 years and was renovated from the same building elements that remained from the destruction caused during the 2005 Israeli invasion of Nablus, with the same stones and woodwork of the original building, to preserve the aesthetics. Even the old wooden arched windows that were burned, we reused some of it,” said Basel.
Abdalrahman says renovations of a building either happen at the behest of the municipality, or the property’s owners, or during TYP’s regular studies of the city. “After we choose the house we put [together] a plan and the budget needed. The funding is covered by the house owners, private investors whom we seek, or charity organizations interested in the work we do.”
Yasid El Rifai, assistant professor at the department of architectural engineering and urban design at Birzeit University, says TYP’s grassroots planning and simple affordable methods “makes the renovation process faster and affordable”.
Abdalrahman says the goal of TYP is “cultural and awareness-raising”, that engages the whole city. “Being in a context of military occupation, this is the way for us to invite and involve our community to take the future in their hands, and not to succumb to the shortcomings of institutions,” he says.
Ahmed Kotb’s centuries-old family house had not been used for as long as he remembers. It has now become a coffee shop, the Tree House, and another magnet for young visitors.
“I had an idea but didn’t know how to implement it in an old city that has an urban soul. Abdalrahman helped me combine my idea of theTree House cafe with the spirit of the old city,” says Kotb.
The restoration took five months with “every part of under TYP’s guidance”, says Kotb.
Nayef, a construction worker who needed to restore his 600-year-old family house but didn’t have the means to, benefited from TYP’s support. “’Do it yourself, and we will fund you,’ I told Nayef,” says Basel. TYP worked with the young man, guiding his construction expertise while revamping the house. Nayef, who asked to be referred to by his first name, said he never found out the cost of the maintenance.
Once an unpopular place for young Palestinians, the old part of Nablus now offers places to meet, study and enjoy culture.
Yana Qozah, a young artist, says displaying her artwork in Antique in 2019 was an opportunity of a lifetime. Norsan Ahmed, a 21-year-old university student, says these venues add a new dimension to the old city. Meanwhile, Farah Qozah, 24, said TYP has “revived domestic tourism”.
Em Ali, who has spent 67 years in this part of Nablus, says she had never seen the old city of Nablus so alive. “The traffic and life which TYP brought to this place is astonishing. It created jobs for young people, and strengthened people’s bond with the old city by reviving its stones and residents.”
“The old city of Nablus is a story of blood and resistance,” said Mais El-Shafi, a regular visitor to Antique. “With all the bloodshed in this city during the Israeli invasion, we are tired of living the story of loss, we want to tell the story of life. Basel and Abdalrahman didn’t just restore old buildings. They restored life in the old city.”
This article was written in collaboration with Egab.
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