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Blebel

A blebel is a top in Palestinian Arabic. One of those small wooden things you twirl between your thumb and your index finger to set it spinning. No image could express better what this group of young Palestinians is doing to the old town of Nazareth. They move into long-abandoned corners of the historic market, get them spinning and then move on. Alley by alley, square by square, they are revitalizing the dead heart of their city.

“Once our job is done, we move on. We clear the area of rubble and clean it up, but as soon as it becomes vibrant, animated and self-sustaining we hand it over to other users and start again somewhere else,” says Rawi Awayed, a main-stay of the group. “We know this idea is weird. We came up with it ourselves. But it is by constantly moving around that we can stay the same. Otherwise, we would end up as administrators or real estate investors – no thanks”.

Blebel started out as a group of young Palestinians who grew up in and around the old town of Nazareth, meeting together in the market area to “drink tea” – with all that entails in the Middle East.

Old town make-over

Blebel grew in an organic way from their first coffee shop where former residents were drawn back into the old town to talk and drink tea or to exchange second-hand odds and ends at the “give and take” corner. It worked.

Blebel is now a registered organization made up of a core group of 12 people responsible for the day-to-day management, around 120 volunteers who donate their time and skills to the renovation effort and 4,200 local residents who follow Blebel on social media and support their activities. Totally self-funded prior to the 2022 partnership with EED, much of the material needed for the refurbishing is donated by local businesses: from tiles and marble to electrical wiring and air conditioners.

A corner of the old market before and after Blebel

With EED support came also professionalization. Two members of the group are now paid staff. Blebel has a classy website (in Arabic only, for now, with an English version in the planning stages). Things are more formalized. There are work plans and log frames. But Blebel still holds on tenaciously to the horizontal structure it had at the start. With no hierarchy, decision-making is done in the group, but so is learning and training. “All of the core team have to use Excel sheets and read budgets as there is no “finance officer” to delegate this to. It is hard work and very time-consuming, but this joint decision-making is what defines us,” says Bana Haddad, Blebel’s communications officer.

“Blebel is more than a movement: Blebel IS movement”, says Rawi, who was one of the group’s founders. “We have clear long-term aims, but no fixed plan about how to get there. We know that our future is connected with this place. We also know that our “one-thing-leads-to-another” approach keeps us responsive to our community’s evolving needs.

Not surprisingly, pinning down Blebel to a list of projects is a challenge.

In terms of their primary activity, the revitalization of the old market, they are now reaching the end of the second cycle. The original coffee shop/office has been taken over and is operating as a vibrant art and crafts shop.

Their current premises, a small base for their burgeoning musical activities, and the large public space for events (in the photo above) are fully functioning and have drawn others into this area of the market: three coffee shops and a regional youth organization. “Mission accomplished and time to move on”, says Rawi.

Basta

Bana, a graphic designer, found her way to Blebel when looking to relocate her gallery to the old town. She grew up in and around this area of Nazareth and, for her, Blebel is very much about reconnecting with her roots.

“When we started, the old market had been effectively dead for nearly ten years”, she tells EED. “There were many factors in its demise, not least the depopulation of the historical centre and the global boom in supermarkets, but the final blow was a botched restoration project which rendered the area inaccessible for years, killing off the last signs of life.”

The challenge was to bring people back, but, after a decade of disuse, the old shop-houses were too dilapidated for commercial purposes. So Blebel came up with the idea of Basta – a stall market in the alleys of the old bazar. Basta is Arabic for street stall.

“In summer of 2021, we did the usual community flier campaign and invited vendors to come and sell their wares”, says Bana, “but after such a long hiatus, I had my doubts. I was sure we would only get the usual suspects: family and friends.”

It could not have been more different. The alleyways were packed with people. “I had never seen it like that before in my life”, says Bana. There were around 20 stalls operating and the day’s takings were well over 50,000 USD. After this first success, Basta market days have become a regular feature of summer in Nazareth.

“Everything starts with the Hanjala”

As the Palestinian saying goes, the first dance at any celebration is a circle dance. In other words, everything comes gradually, in small steps. Despite the name of this community music project, things did not go gradually at all.

When Blebel sent out invitations for people to come together to make music, they were expecting a response in single digits but got 35 applicants on day one. Auditions are not part of Blebel’s ethos, so everyone was invited to the first rehearsal and the group has not looked back since.

Together with performing, the group hosts workshops on Arabic music culture which are open to the general public. The aim is to build community through shared culture and there is no more immediate connection with the spirit of the old town than singing the songs that have echoed down those streets for hundreds of years.

Here too the spinning top logic comes into play. The community orchestra has already become an established part of the Nazareth scene and will soon be ready to move outside of Blebel and stand on its own feet.

Blebel’s starting point for community-building may be restoration work or music making, but it does not stop there. Everyone is brought into Blebel’s discussion groups on cultural issues, social and economic rights and just about everything else. “Clearly human rights is much too big a word for a few people cleaning up an old market, but that is the direction we are heading”, Bana tells EED. Thanks to Blebel, 12 women entrepreneurs have recently set up in the old town. In the face of strong opposition from parts of Nazareth society, women’s rights and empowerment are always at the forefront of what Blebel is and does.

Blebel is no longer just a movement and it is certainly not a run-of-the-mill civil society organization, but it is clearly much, much more than just a community group.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.