Elana Shap
September 18, 2022, Updated November 8, 2022

When architect and urban planner Tareq Nassar looks out over east Jerusalem, he doesn’t only see the dense sprawl.

His focus is on the thousands of unused rooftops and how they could be transformed into green spaces that provide a perfect environment for cultivating bees.

This vision led him to cofound the Sinsila Center for Urban Sustainability with Jewish Israeli cofounder Liel Maghen, a social educator who works at think tank The Forum for Regional Thinking (FORTH).

Nassar and Maghen met five years ago when Maghen was working in Jerusalem and looking for projects that could bring Jewish and Arab communities together in sustainable partnerships. They began with small learning programs and progressed to form working groups across the city.

The first step to setting up the project came four years ago when they started looking for a location that would attract the community and demonstrate what could be achieved on rooftops and courtyards in their own homes.

The empty terraces of east Jerusalem’s public Central Library seemed the perfect option and were soon transformed into a community garden with apiaries. Next, classrooms were set up in the building to teach biodynamic beekeeping.

A class at the Sinsila Center in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Sinsila Center

Named after the natural stone walls that prevent soil erosion on mountains where olive, grape, almond and seasonal plants are grown, Sinsila has trained 115 women who now each have at least two beehives up and running.

The Jerusalem Woman’s Beekeeping Cooperative remunerates them for their supply of honey. In return, the co-op does the harvesting, producing, marketing and selling of pure honey and honey-based cosmetics and candles.

Next year, 200 more women will begin the course. The target set for 2024 is 544 beekeepers with 1,000 hives.

Actualizing neglected corners

Nassar and Maghen were the recipients of this year’s IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, awarded annually to “recognize outstanding work being conducted jointly by two individuals, one Arab and one Israeli, working together to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.”

“We believe it is more important than ever to share stories of grassroots success so that they may encourage and inspire others,” said Goldberg. “While there is no magic solution, one positive force is to encourage people to live and work together toward mutual goals, learning to live and work together toward mutual goals, learning to trust and depend on one another for the common good.”

Nassar, 38, who has a degree in architecture from Bir Zeit University in Ramallah and an MA in urban planning from Stuttgart University, says he prefers to discuss action and not ideals.

“When you look at the master plan of east Jerusalem the challenges seem unsurmountable. Here every 10,000 inhabitants have access to one piece of green space within one kilometer of their home. In west Jerusalem it’s 500 people per green space. My aim is taking small steps at a time through place making – which means finding neglected corners and actualizing them.”

While living in Germany, Nassar first became aware of the growing popularity of rooftop beekeeping in cities.

On his return to Jerusalem, where he spent his childhood in the Ras al Amud neighborhood and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in a family of 10 children, Nassar felt sure that the idea could be used as a tool of economic development and to bring communities together.

He connected with biodynamic beekeeping specialist Yossi Aud, who has conducted courses for years through Muslala, the nonprofit organization established by artists, residents and community activists of the Musara neighborhood on the seam of west and east Jerusalem.

Nassar and Maghen, a cross-cultural strategist, then partnered with Aud and Matan Israeli from Muslala to establish Sinsila.

Screenshot of Tareq Nassar of Sinsila Center

Improving family life

Beekeeping is not a traditional occupation in Palestinian homes. But, Nassar points out, “rooftops were once an important part of family life, especially as a cool place to rest on hot summer nights.”

And with unemployment of women in east Jerusalem at around 80 percent, he felt confident that the idea of receiving an income for which they did not have to leave their homes, would be a big incentive.

“The women were desperate to find a source of income and bees are an easy proposition to sell. They don’t need much upkeep, around one hour each week. And from a small wooden hive it is possible to get 40-50 kilograms [88-110 lbs.] of honey a year. Bees work nearly all year round — except in winter — and in daytime hours.”

A beekeeper in the Sinsila project. Photo courtesy of Sinsila Center

At the start of the program in 2018, Nassar made a colorful flyer and distributed it all over east Jerusalem. Although many women later admitted that their husbands were not initially supportive, mostly as they were wary of bee stings, over 100 women applied for the pilot project, out of which 15 were chosen.

“For two months each evening we would take hives to homes all over east Jerusalem. We could only fit three hives at a time in our car,” Nassar says.

The beehives are small enough to fit on apartment terraces. Photo courtesy of Sinsila Center

“We saw many rooftops that didn’t even have a single chair or plant on them. Now we receive photographs of families enjoying being on the rooftop together and husbands helping wives too. We are not only changing rooftops, but giving the women economic empowerment and improving family life.”

Hope follows action

Meanwhile, Sinsila has grown into a real community center with a coffee shop, language exchange program, guitar lessons and even a permaculture course.

“The work with Tareq has been a great inspiration,” says Maghen. “He is dedicated to his work and put all of his effort into this greater cause of supporting the community. Partnering with him taught me to put the needs of the local community and the voice of my Palestinian partner at the center of the work.

A similar initiative is now taking off in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, with the addition of a carpentry workshop to make the wooden hives.

Having studied and worked in Europe, North Africa, the United States and the Middle East (including the traffic-congested, polluted and densely populated Cairo), Nassar says while parallels and inspiration can be found all over the world, it’s important to look at each community individually and not just apply “copy, paste.”

Living in the northeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina with his wife and children, aged two and six, Nassar is convinced more than ever that what his city needs is “action more than hope. Hope will follow action.”

Sinsila is proof of his philosophy.

For more information and to book a tour of Sinsila Center, click here.

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