Rooftops in occupied East Jerusalem are being used by Palestinian women for innovative beekeeping and gardening to combat the challenges of life in the cramped, cobbled neighbourhoods of the Old City. With unemployment and poverty rates surging due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Sinsila Project, founded by Tariq Nassar, is providing women with hydroponic rooftop gardening systems which offer more than the potential for a badly-needed source of income. For Palestinians, agriculture plays a unique role in their life, being tied to their history, identity and self-expression; it drives the struggle against Israel's Separation ("Apartheid") Wall.
"As I'd take walks around the neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, I observed straight away the lack of green open spaces and at the same time I noticed a lot of empty roofs," explained Nassar. "It was during the lockdown; people made use of their roofs to go for a walk because the streets here are overcrowded and so it was unsafe."
This observation led the 37-year-old architect to brainstorm how the unused or underused roofs of thousands of buildings in East Jerusalem could be used for well-planned gardening. This would not only be decorative, but also play a vital role in the preservation of nature.
Keeping in mind the demand as well as likes and dislikes, he listed how families could together create a vegetable garden, a fruit garden, a flower garden or mixed gardens on their rooftops. However, the challenges were many.
"Sinsila means 'agricultural terraces' in Arabic," Nassar told me. "The plan to establish such projects in these areas is almost impossible to carry out because to make rooftop gardens as effective as possible, we would have to demolish whole areas and rebuild them, and nobody is going to fund that."
He noted that the local Palestinians were sceptical initially at the idea of creating green spaces. Their main concerns were economic.
"Their priority is to provide an income. It's difficult for the Palestinians because unemployment is a real problem here for both men and women, especially with the pandemic. If it's not making money, they're not interested."
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 40,000 Palestinians graduate from higher education institutes every year. However, most are unemployed due to limited employment opportunities. Earlier this year, the World Bank confirmed that more than 66,000 Palestinian employees lost their jobs in 2020 due to Covid-19, leading to an increase in the unemployment rate up to 27.8 per cent.
It wasn't until Tariq Nassar met Matan Israeli, an artist and co-founder of Muslala, during a tour for community activists from all over Jerusalem, that he realised his plans were achievable. Israeli organises community activities on desolate rooftops in West Jerusalem for the development of urban agriculture in open spaces.
"I met Matan four years ago and he happened to be doing exactly what I envisioned for the rooftops in East Jerusalem," said Nassar. "When I visited his rooftop projects, I realised that he was doing a lot but I needed an entry point to launch what would become the Sinsila Project. That entry point was beekeeping."
Palestinian beekeeping is a traditional hobby about seven millennia old, and it is something that, perhaps, transcends the politics and realities of their situation. "Palestinians love honey! One kilogram of honey can be sold for $50." The growing interest in honey among Palestinians, he added, is due to its use as a substitute for chemical treatments for symptoms of various illnesses, such as cold, coughs and infections, as well as facial masks to get rid of pimples and dark spots.
Nassar was then introduced to an Israeli biodynamic beekeeping expert called Yossi Aud. He it was who finally helped him to launch the Sinsila Project at the Wadi Joz library in East Jerusalem. Around 100 women applied to participate within the first two weeks.
"We selected just 15 people at the beginning because we didn't have the budget, but the municipality of Jerusalem welcomed this project, acknowledged its economic benefits, and donated some resources and a small amount of money."
The following few weeks saw the team distributing bee hives to each woman. "That sounds simple, but it was very hard work and stressful. However, this is a project about which I'm very passionate so I was determined to do everything I could to get it done."
Nassar studied architecture at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank and then completed a dual master's degree in integrated urbanisation and sustainable design at Stuttgart University in Germany. That's where he "learnt to be a doer rather than a dreamer."
He is adamant that Palestinian women are a powerful force in their communities. "They are mothers and caretakers and also role models for young people. When women have access to educational and economic opportunities, they invest in their communities and improve the lives of everyone around them. I wanted to be able to provide an opportunity for the local women here."
He noted that the husbands of the women were initially reluctant to cultivate bees on their rooftops until they realised the benefits such as saving money on groceries and even getting some extra income. Now, he added, they even help to maintain the bees and the gardens.
Having officially opened in April, the new organisation has expanded successfully and now has two full-time staff and five community roof gardens. Moreover, more women have been enrolling for the beekeeping courses, and three were hired by local schools to teach about bees and sustainability.
"This work with bees and gardens gives the women, most of whom are married and unemployed, courage and an abundance of professional, interactive skills," concluded Tariq Nassar. "They find solace here. Women in their 50s are finally getting the chance to experience employment and independence for the first time. This is the vision of the Sinsila Project."