Making Life Out of Ruin in Ramle: The Work of Sculptor Nihad Dabeet
by Janine Rayford, USC graduate journalism student
“This is the project of my life,” says sculptor Nihad Dabeet, 43, as he gives a tour of his unfinished home in Ramle, Israel. Built over 400 years ago, the house was in ruins until its newest tenant devoted himself to its renovation. Mr. Dabeet says he and his wife continue to excavate and build upon the land, without permission from the government.
Petite and jovial, Mr. Dabeet is an internationally known artist and sculptor who usually works with iron wire. From his dingy jeans and sweatshirt, it is hard to imagine a man whose art can cost thousands of dollars and is displayed and purchased throughout the world, including a recent exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Now Mr. Dabeet’s main masterpiece is his home. Renting from an Arab couple who have owned the property before the State of Israel declared independence in 1948, the Ramle native and his wife have excavated rooms buried under more than 10 feet of sand and rubble.
With an art education from Bulgaria, Mr. Dabeet says that “as a sculptor you understand materials.” This understanding is allowing the Arab citizen of Israel to reconstruct a home out of ruin. So far, Mr. Dabeet has only refurbished a small percentage of the original structure.
What was once rubble has become a modern home with an aged façade. There are flat-screen televisions and jetted hot tubs, with Mr. Dabeet’s sculptures of women and olive trees featured throughout. The new mortar ends towards the back of the house.
Unlike in Jerusalem and Nazareth, the Israeli government and local Ramle municipality have not invested in the architectural preservation of Ramle. It is up to individual residents and shop owners to restore and maintain the centuries-old structures of the biblical city, often without support from the current government.
“They want to clear the old part and to build something new,” says Buthaina Dabit, a Ramle native who is giving a tour of the local ruins. Ms. Dabit points out the remnants of a building from the Ottoman period, which has been partially cleared for a parking lot near local shops.
Today, many buildings in Ramle are dilapidated and unlivable. “It’s Arab culture, so it has to be erased,” says Mr. Dabeet, speculating on why he thinks the city abstains from preservation. Families move on as stones crumble from their properties’ arches and ceilings, burying architecture and artifacts in piles of beige rubble. Stray cats abound amongst relics and materials that could belong in the Smithsonian.
Past the bathroom and through an open quad, the sculptor shows one unfinished room at the back of the house, where the ceiling continues to deteriorate.
“If I am not here to repair this every few years, it will just fall in,” he says.
All of this work will be for not if the city decides to bulldoze the property due to the illegal expansion of the structure. It is difficult for Arab citizens to receive permits to build or expand on their land. If they build without permits, their structures are subject to demolition by the municipality.
Despite lacking a building permit, “he insists to pay the taxes,” said Ms. Dabit. The artist hopes that paying taxes regularly may spare his home from demolition.
One of Mr. Dabeet’s projects is to resurface an entire room using tiles gathered from demolished Arab homes in the area. The artist has no trouble finding these tiles, considering the large number of home demolitions that have occurred in the Arab communities of Ramle and neighboring Lod. In an open-air quad on the property, festive-looking ceramic squares, some broken, stand in piles along the stone wall.
Dabeet’s house sits in the Christian quarter of Ramle, in the shadow of the massive Terra Santa Franciscan monastery and a few blocks down the street from an 800-year-old Arab-Christian restaurant.
Mr. Dabeet is a self-proclaimed atheist. “I never believed in the b—- s—-,” says the artist, standing next to a small plastic Christmas tree atop his refrigerator. His wife is a Muslim Bedouin from Libya and the mother of his two young daughters. The Dabeets are the only Muslim family in the area.
When Mr. Dabeet’s wife comes home with their girls, he scoops up his eldest daughter Samira Landa. Despite the uncertain future, the father is proud of the home that he is creating for his family, as well as the benefit it brings to the community.
“I was the right person in the right time to come to this place.”
All photos by Bethany Firnharber.
Janine Rayford is a freelance writer and graduate student in journalism at the University of Southern California. Originally from San Francisco, Rayford obtained her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in 944 magazine, LAmag.com, and the Cape Times of South Africa.
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