Sufi Shrines as Village Playgrounds

Sufis, the mystics who came from the east and brought Islam to the Palestinian highlands in the 9th century, began their lives as ascetics, living a contemplative life in the hills around Jerusalem, apart from people.  By the 12th century many of these solitary men had moved into villages where they built lodges and guest houses, and provided the local population with social services in addition to spiritual leadership.

When the Sufis died, their graves often became shrines, places where pilgrims would pray, perhaps for rain, a cure for an illness, or for women, for fertility.  Eventually these pilgrimages were organized into folk festivals, combining prayer with music, dancing and feasting.  The shrine, thus, became a center for communal life in the village.

One thousand years later, the shrines have fallen into disrepair.  They are empty, no longer places for gatherings.  Yet the tradition for communal use and their locations – at the edge of a village, or beside a natural spring, often with breathtaking views – make them ideal sites for re-use to benefit the village.  Rozana is developing plans to convert the lands surrounding shrines into children’s playgrounds, while restoring the shrine itself and its historic status in Palestinian history.  A millennium ago “Sufism moved from the margins to the heart of Islamic culture” (Sufi Trails).  Now Rozana hopes to make the physical remains of Sufism – the shrines — a central part of village life.  The beautifully restored al-Qatrawani Shrine at Atara, with its adjacent and much-enjoyed playground, has shown the communal importance and practical value of such re-use.

Museum of the Picture

At a spot In Birzeit’s Old City, adjacent to the bustling Tea House and Mosaic Workshop, the Museum of the Picture will eventually be located. From this central site in the Old City, a joint management committee will manage the three Community Interpretation Centers in the Ramallah, Salfit and Jenin Governates, as part of the Rural Democracy initiative begun by Rozana in 2017.  The Joint Committee will consist of representatives from the three Centers and will reflect the democratic values of gender balance and equal rights instilled at the local levels during the initiative.  (See “Rural Democracy” for further information on the Democracy project.)

In Planning the Museum, Rozana brought together three entities:  Birzeit University which did a survey and research study of the site, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture which has provided some funding from the Turkish government, and Rozana which provides the local administrative expertise.  Additional funding is being sought to finish rehabilitating the building and its surrounding space.  Birzeit University’s Department of Architecture will assist in planning the final design for the restoration.  When restoration is completed, the building will house Birzeit’s Community Interpretation Center in addition to serving as the headquarters for directing the multiple activities of the Interpretation Centers of the three Governates, adding one more component to Rozana’s visions of creating a living center of culture and an institution in which democratic values have been established and are being carried out on a daily basis.