Architectural Review’s “View from Ramallah”

“View from Ramallah” by Tom Kay was published in the May 2002 Architectural Review (See article below). The 4 page item appeared two months ago, but the reaction to Kay’s offensive and uninformed commentary continues. Numerous letters were submitted by Israelis, and the editor replied online. The letters and editor’s reply are in the current online Forum section.

CAMERA has written a letter of protest to the Architectural Review, and we hope you will too. Please don’t let the Israelis stand virtually alone in opposition to Kay’s offensive distortions.

Talking points

* Kay’s anti-Israel “view from Ramallah” has hardly any discernible link to architecture, and when it does, it is entirely one-sided. Kay described damage to some structures in Ramallah by Israeli soldiers, but makes no mention of the damage caused by Palestinian terrorists to a Jerusalem supermarket, Tel Aviv cafe, or Haifa restaurant.

* Kay writes:

The invasion has exacerbated the problems but will not stop the Palestinians fighting in the only way they can. Arafat is not in control of the factions, and probably never has been. So the current invasion of the compound is stupid and pointless.

Kay misses the key point — the Palestinians never needed to fight the Israelis. They could have easily achieved statehood through negotiations. As for Arafat not having “control of the factions,” evidence proves otherwise. When Arafat has demanded a temporary time of quiet, for strategic purposes, the violence plummeted.

* Kay’s twisted view of reality is exposed by his grotesque comparison between Israel’s justified military response to terrorism and the Nazi murder of innocents in Auschwitz. In a breathtaking example of offensive distortion, Kay writes that the unpurchased eyeglasses scattered on the floor of a damaged eye clinic “invite comparison” to the piles of eyeglasses taken from soon-to-be murdered Jews (and others) at Auschwitz. He writes:

In the eye testing/fitting room, we found hundreds of pairs of metal and plastic framed spectacles in piles on the floor. I don’t have to be an extremist to remember our visit 25 years ago to Southern Poland and the little museum of Auchswitz [sic]. There, there were thousands of pairs, sanitized and dimly lit behind a glass wall. The violence is not of the same order, but the imagery does invite comparison.

A photo caption for the eyeglasses contains another offensive comparison to Auschwitz, “MedicalAid Ophthalmic Centre: echoes of Auschwitz.”

* There is total lack of context for Israel’s military actions. Kay’s diary documenting his experiences in Ramallah corresponded with Israel’s incursion into the area following the worst string of terrorist attacks to strike the country, but Kay fails even to mention the six terrorist attacks that occurred during the days of his “diary” (March 31 – April 17). The attacks killed 33 civilians and injured 224 people who were doing nothing more than going to a supermarket, cafe, restaurant or a bus stop.

* Far from placing Israel’s actions in context, Kay further distorts the situation by writing:

Destruction of the town is deliberate and has nothing to do with fighting the enemy. These young soldiers want the Palestinians out of Palestine.

Kay appears to be suffering from total amnesia regarding Israel’s generous offer of statehood to Arafat and the Palestinians. And he also appears to be unaware of the wave of terrorism against Israel supported by the Palestinian Authority and the majority of the Palestinian population.

Many Israelis have written to the magazine. But they should not be left to stand alone against the vile distortions in this article. Please add your letters of protest to theirs. In response to the many letters written by Israelis, the editor of AR wrote:

“View from Ramallah” reaction

The editor replies:

We are not in the least biased. We do indeed publish Israeli architecture. The Architectural Review is about the creation of the human-made environment, and so it must also be concerned with its destruction. Rarely do we have an architectural correspondent able to comment on such destruction from personal experience. We have carried articles on destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It should also be emphasized that View From is a personal account from a particular place. We hope to be able to publish shortly letters from correspondents in Israel, Kabul and Iraq about conditions in those countries. P. D.

[In the original alert, action items and contact information were listed here.]


May 2002 Architectural Review
“View from Ramallah” by Tom Kay

Three months ago, Tom Kay, a British architect (a Jew who describes himself as such ‘only if questioned by an antisemite’), and his wife Adah Kay, a social policy analyst from London, moved to the West Bank town of Ramallah in Palestine with plans to work and teach at the local university. Extracts from Tom Kay’s diary in Ramallah record their experiences and impressions of the Israeli invasion of Palestine, the siege and destruction of the city.

[2 Photographs]
Caption: ‘Young Israelis’ sense of fun seems to be target practice …
Caption: … from the heavy machine gun mounted on top of a tank.’

Towards the end of the first week of the invasion
From the front steps, I watched a student being shot through the leg and then his companion shot through the stomach, as he tried to drag the man into the hostel. They were standing on a terrace, quite still and unarmed about 35 metres away. The building had already been searched on the second day. There is an Israeli sniper position at the top of a tall building in Radio Street with a good view of the side of the house and our rear balcony. There is another in the top flat immediately across the road.

During the second week
From our bedroom balcony we have a panoramic view over the North of Ramallah and of the houses and buildings built in the gorge immediately below. Two shots; we went out on the balcony. Later we learned that our neighbour, who was standing in her living room, was killed by the first shot, the second breaking the window above her head. The five soldiers were still aiming, seemingly, at us. There was no gun battle going on. Seeing the soldiers, she was calling in her husband Sami and little boy from the garden.

29 March, 1.00 pm
A continuous roar of tanks, but not able to drown out the machine guns and tank shells. Now there are many more going up and down the hills behind us. The Israelis still don’t seem to realize that, although it is frightening, more inconvenient and even more deadly, there is little further deterrent effect unless they go in for wholesale carpet bombing. The invasion has exacerbated the problems but will not stop the Palestinians fighting in the only way they can.

Arafat is not in control of the factions, and probably never has been. So the current invasion of the compound (we can see the top of the building only) is stupid and pointless.

I watch the tanks, armoured cars and APCs [armoured personnel carriers] from the bedroom window. Three tanks shell directly into the centre and there is continuous automatic weapons fire. On the south side of the flat in the glazed-in balcony, I watch colourful birds of all sorts in the little fruit tree outside the window. A single shot hit one of the branches. The birds have been ignoring the noise generally, but now they have flown away. Very indignant.

Back in the flat
In mid afternoon, tank cannon and heavy machine gun fire continued for about half an hour. Only later did we discover that they were the tanks breaking into Arafat’s headquarters, the Mukata. The sound was deafening, but by then we had become so used to it. We have had no electricity all day – nor for the next two days.

Two Japanese photographers have arrived, walking the last three kilometres with their hands high in the air, shouting ‘Japanese’ every minute or so. They admit to being very frightened. On a number of occasions they had to walk up to the APCs and tanks and hope that they were recognized as foreigners. They will stay with us until life is less dangerous or until they get their nerve back and take more photographs. (They stayed two weeks.)

30 March
I’m woken by the noise of five tanks carving up the road in front of the house. Armoured jeeps arrived and the soldiers smashed through the building next door, a five-storey new atrium shopping centre. Instead of breaking the main gate lock, they rammed it until the 8 metre high gates came off their hinges. I walked up to the soldiers with a journalist. They tried to take his camera, but he showed his press card. I sheltered behind the press card and watched the soldier breaking into every shop all the way up the building, A totally pointless destruction which, I am told, is being repeated all over the centre.

The soldier I spoke to looked about 16, but I assume must have been 18. Looking for cigarettes, we were invited in for a coffee by a family of about three generations. There were some 20 people gathered on the terrace; the kids entertained us. The family had stockpiled cigarettes so we were able to buy a few packets.

The atmosphere is extraordinary and since I got here two and a half months ago, there has been a change of mood. Anger is by far the strongest emotion. Hourly we hear of people bleeding to death because the ambulances are either fired on or turned back. There is no conceivable way that Sharon can win here. The Palestinians have had enough and no amount of violence here will make them back off.

We are part of a community of two Palestinian families, beside and below us, and two flats of internationals. Sixteen of us. We swap food, cook for each other and generally provide support. There are huge explosions as I write. Last night, I mused about the tanks. Inappropriately perhaps, I think that they are wonderful objects. They lumber about like rhinos and roar like angry elephants. Like octopii, their various appendages move independently. They belch different colours of smoke when starting, turning and accelerating. But there is a sort of massive elegance.

31 March
I write this, knowing that you will have the news from the centre itself, which is worse than anything we are seeing only 150 metres away, being in a ‘quiet’ street, albeit aurally more noisy than I can describe.There has been an unofficial full curfew for three days. I gather it is now official and a 24 hour one. One or two whole families still run up the road, looking for a shop which will open its shutters. Palestinian men on their own really cannot move, for fear of being shot without question or picked up and taken in for questioning. Early this morning, it seemed quiet enough for me to go out to find a shop.

At the road junction two doors away, a group of about eight young men were sheltering at the side of the building. Most, if not all, I recognized as living in the building which was a student hostel for Birzeit University. They asked me to tell them if I could get the shop to unlock and let me in. Eventually with a lot of banging we did get in and the steel shutter was locked again. When I left, the shutter was unlocked for all of three seconds while I slipped out. Once in the road, I found a set of tanks and APCs coming down the road from Al Manara. The second APC stopped about 15 metres from me; the tank and APC having passed me and swivelled round at the corner blocking both roads about 40 metres down the road. I held up the two shopping bags and 5 kilos of rice and waited.

Nothing happened. After a minute it occurred to me that I could be holding two bombs, so I put the bags on the ground and moved away from them. Still nothing. So I sat on the pavement. Two soldiers came out of the APC and ran up to me. The conversation was unpleasant with some gun waving and they told me to go home. I started down towards the tank. Some soldiers, not having seen the first encounter, came round the corner and I went through the same little performance in front of the tank.

When I got onto the terrace, I only then realized that I had not been the centre of attraction. They were after the young men who they had probably spotted going into the shop with me. For another hour or so there was a lot of tanks and shouting and breaking of doors, again in the atrium building. I could not see the shop front or rear of the house from our place, but I think the men did get back to the hostel safely.

1 April
Power has been cut again. Quiet night relatively. In spite of some sporadic shooting, the tanks were not continuously on the move. They were in all the streets, including in front of us. The troops came back, still searching.

2 April
Some areas of Ramallah are without water. We have been filling every conceivable container. This afternon Omar said that he was sure there would be a well under the front yard. We found it. I was going to break it with a hammer, but was dissuaded because it might sound like a gunshot. I levered off the padlock with a mason’s chisel and, lo and behold, we had huge quantities of water. We ran out of gas for the heater last night. Freak cold weather seems to be lasting. The sun makes a difference. Every few hours the sun comes out for 10 minutes. We all rush outside, snipers or no snipers. The living room is very dark and gloomy, which must be great in summer, but rather oppressive now. The temperature has dropped sharply. It is really like winter.

4 April
We are now on well water and the power has been off for 36 hours. It is two days since the curfew was last lifted for two hours. The four households, in the two buildings around our yard, plan meals together and it is as if we have have all known each for years. Mahmood, Omar’s father brings over anything he thinks we are short of: hurricane lamp, tomatoes, a sweater for one of the young Japanese photographers (who i s bored and frozen). Another gross act by some troops in the hospital.

Adah was leaving by the convoy which was supposed to have been organized for today but decided to stay. Some of you may not understand. With foreigners leaving when they can, guaranteed ‘safe passage’, the people here feel that the world has/will forget them. True, there is lots of news emerging in spite of the Israeli instruction to journalists, at the end of last week, to leave. But journalists and TV crews move around in bullet-proof vehicles, and are not connected to the street

5 April
Guns awake, but the sun has come out and our spirits are lifted. About 10 of us are eating on the front steps. Sater, pitta and baked egg in pitta (no pan to wash). In spite of the curfew the sun has clearly made people optimistic. Very peculiar, because as we sit here the tanks are still blasting their way into buildings and soldiers are continuing the house searches. I have photographed our little breakfast party. It looks like a leisurely breakfast on our terrace in France … not a care in the world. Two women walk up the road to empty their rubbish in the bins. The sun affects moods and maybe even calms fear.

8 April
I have just spent an hour with Adah walking through the ruins of the Medical Aid Ophthalmic Centre. This is a five-storey building, partly offices and partly examination and treatment rooms. Every floor is vandalized. The sheer scale of the wreckage means that an IDF [Israeli Defence Force] officer must have sanctioned or ordered it. Inside soldiers had wrecked everything, the equipment, the computers, the bookshop, The target was clearly the Medical Centre. They had broken through to the neighbouring building. In the latter they found a beauty parlour. They did not touch it.

I will not forget this for the rest of my life. Destruction of the town is deliberate and has nothing to do with fighting an enemy. These young soldiers want the Palestinians out of Palestine.

In the Centre, the Director is wandering around the debris; touching things and saying nothing. In the eye testing/fitting room, we found hundreds of pairs of metal and plastic framed spectacles in piles on the floor. I don’t have to be an extremist to remember our visit 25 years ago to Southern Poland and the little museum of Auchswitz. There, there were thousands of pairs, sanitized and dimly lit behind a glass wall. The violence is not of the same order, but the imagery does invite comparison. What has become of a Jewish collective memory?

The rumour is that the IDF have finished their job here and might pull out in the next few days. As I close this, three tank shells are fired. No gunfire.

Caption: Medical Aid Ophthalmic Centre: echoes of Auschwitz?

10 April
Manar Sofren, our neighbour, was killed this morning. Our first information was that she was shot hanging out the washing. This afternoon another neighbour said that she was shot having breakfast on her front terrace. Whichever, it was within her own property. She was not violating the curfew and even if she had been …

Journalists are holed up in the City Inn on the outskirts. Neither they nor the photographers can get anywhere near us. The explosions became more frequent and violent this afternoon, some either so close or so big that they rattle all the windows.

Supper this evening was of beautiful salads. We sat eating in near silence. We see footage from Algezera of one building after another being dynamited. The Arab news says that this is because the IDF are facing such resistance that they can’t get into these houses. This is almost certainly without warning and the inhabitants are still inside.

11 April
The big rubbish containers on the road are overflowing, with rubbish in bags all around them. We are lucky that it is warm, but not hot yet. Smoking for 50 years has dulled my sense of smell. Rehab, Omar’s mother, stands behind her fly screen and asks me if I can see snipers. From a top floor window above Nahid, the old lady, whose entrance is on the street and thus can’t get into the compound, throws down a bag. After being assured that the soldiers are not among the trees across the road, Rehab goes nervously down our terrace steps and across the yard to retrieve the bag.

Borrowing from neighbours has taken on a different meaning here. It happens countless times a day. Scissors, tools, kitchen stuff, staples, luxury goods, candles. Coffee, tea and other goodies are served to whoever is within sight.

The computer sits in a very central exposed place on our glazed-in patio. It is as if we all have been here together for months.

The machine guns are again very active. We hear that the IDF have entered Birzeit village and the tanks have surrounded the university campus, but have not entered it. There are hundreds of students living in the village with families and my guess is 1000 to 2000 live in hostels, built on the hills on the edge of the village.

The British Council rang. The curfew is due to be lifted for 3 hours this afternoon. I arranged to meet Barbara Plett of the BBC in Al Manara at 2.30pm. [Plett’s interview with Tom Kay was subsequently broadcast on the Today programe, BBC Radio 4, on Friday 12 April].

1.15 p.m
Adah and I up into Al Manara. Already there is traffic and people. There was a small gathering in front of the barbed wire fencing of the soldiers with their APCs at the entrance to Roukab Street. Adah made for the barbed wire and started shout-talking to the soldiers in Hebrew. They were 25 metres behind the wire and conversation over the background noise was a little difficult. Reactions to her questions – ‘Can’t you understand what you are doing here? How will you live with yourself after all this is over? never satisfy her, so she continues until they clam up. This time it took about 5 minutes. A little more of a crowd gathered to listen. As we turned to go, something must have frightened one of the soldiers. I heard a shout, turned around in time to see the soldier throw a stone at us. It landed very close and exploded. A sound or blast bomb. We walked away with ringing in our ears. We passed a church, the railing and front gate f lattened by a tank. Inside, the place was probably already in need of repair, before the window glazing had been shot out. The glass had been plain frosted and now the effect was strange because, between the stone tracery, there was a chaotic mixture of jagged shapes in clear coloured and frosted glass. The clear coloured parts were the images from outside. It was very ‘modern’ like something from the old Stained Glass department (now closed down) at the Royal College of Art in London.

16 April
Don’t let anyone tell you that Ramallah is quiet now. The IDF is still blowing up buildings and at times there are hours of machine gun and tank fire, with flares at night lighting up the hills and terraces of the city. It is very depressing.

17 April
Colin Powell left at midday and the explosions, halted while he was seeing Arafat, have started again.

Tom Kay
Ramallah, Palestine

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