Palestine House Open to Share Culture and Traditions with San Diego

From the tiles on the floor, to the backlit mural on the ceiling, to the artifacts hung on the walls, every aspect of the Palestine House in Balboa Park tells the story of its people and culture.

It was in the summer of 2002 that a group of volunteers first applied to the House of Pacific Relations to one day be able to build a home in the park’s international chalets.

Two decades later, Palestine House now sits with 29 other national group cottages in the park, inviting the public each weekend to learn about their nation’s culture and traditions.

“It took many years of hard work, work, volunteer hours and financial support to accomplish this monumental milestone,” said Palestinian Yousef Ghandour, president of the house.

Moreover, it is the first physical house to represent the handful of Arab countries included in the House of Pacific Relations, as some still do not yet have their own chalets.

“The kind of discrimination and history that Arab Americans have suffered is one of invisibility – no one knows; our voices are not heard; our stories are not being told,” said Doris Bittar, California organizer of the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee.

San Diego has one of the largest Arab-American communities in the country, Bittar added, but many people feel unrepresented.

Now, Palestine House can be a destination where visitors can discover these untold stories, Ghandour added.

“It’s not just about representing the Palestinians, it’s about representing every (Arab American) in our culture,” he said. “We want everyone to feel part of it in some way.”

From concept to creation

After Palestine House was officially accepted into the Pacific Relations House in 2003, the Palestinian flag began flying in Balboa Park, as volunteers began exposing San Diegan residents to their culture the weekend in the Hall of Nations.

Visitors were introduced to Palestinian cuisines – such as falafel, shwarma and mujadara – as well as cultural dances and songs and traditional arts and crafts, such as Tatreez, a traditional Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery.

Despite this, the house dreamed of one day having its own chalet, and the first board was created to work on building a permanent house which would eventually be built in the next phase of chalets.

However, things weren’t that simple, as they first had to raise enough funds – over $500,000 – to make this possible.

Palestine House joined the New International Cottages Committee, a steering committee of nine cottages who all wanted to build their own homes in the park. In December 2016, the Maison de la Palestine was finally able to emerge from the ground, and after a new series of setbacks, the cottages were able to begin construction in June 2019.

Palestinian Karem Elhams, a civil engineer who represented the committee, took the lead in construction and helped not only with the Palestine House but with the nine cottages.

“It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything else,” Elhams said. “It was like giving back to the community through my engineering experience.”

Pictures and an instrument called an oud hang on the wall.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Although they had no concrete structure, over the years the Palestine House community continued to grow, and by the time the cottages finally celebrated their grand opening five years later, some 1,500 people came out to celebrate with a flag-raising ceremony in September.

“It was an indescribable feeling to see such a huge crowd coming together for Palestine,” said Palestinian Suzan Hamideh, Culture and Events Director of House of Palestine. “It still brings tears to my eyes.”

Palestinians came from all over to witness this momentous event, Ghandour said, adding, “People wanted something like this that they could be proud to belong to, just to feel part of their heritage.

In April, the house officially made its public debut and is now open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

Highlight cultural traditions, stories

The tile layout in the house depicts a floor pattern used in Jerusalem, the ceiling features an illuminated photo of the “Holy Land” in Jerusalem, and each artifact shares a part of the area’s history.

The Palestine House in Balboa Park opened in April after more than two decades of planning

The Palestine House in Balboa Park opened in April after more than two decades of planning.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We wanted to use the floor-to-ceiling space…in keeping with the culture,” said Bittar, who helped design the displays with Hamideh.

Some of the rich culture and heritage of the Palestinian territories is visible through woodcarvings, mosaics and handmade embroidery.

Each woman’s dress, for example, has a specific type of stitching that would tell viewers which village they came from.

Among the artifacts is a photo of Widad Salah in Ramallah wearing a commemorative Palestinian dress when she was 19 in 1939.

“This photo has an incredible response – it keeps popping up all over the world,” Salah’s daughter Sylvia Khuri said. “It was used as an expression of traditional Palestine.”

Although Salah died a year and a half ago at the age of 100 while living in San Diego, Khuri says she knows her mother would be proud to see her picture as part of a performance local to the Palestinian territories.

“It is important to stay true to our roots. This is what shapes us and makes us unique in our own way,” Hamideh added. “It’s also very important to me to be able to share the cultural heritage and history of Palestine with everyone who visits.”

Hamideh is developing cultural classes for visitors that will use art, literature, dance, music, cuisine, clothing and storytelling to help showcase Palestinian identity. Private lessons are also available for schools and colleges.

“You would be surprised, a lot of people don’t know where Palestine is,” Hamideh said.

A dress is on display in The House of Palestine at Balboa Park

A dress is on display in the Palestine House. The stitching was unique to the villages of Palestine and each village had its own design.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“This house actually brings this community together, especially the younger generation who benefit from this exposure and knowledge of the culture,” added Palestinian Hany el-Saidany.

This includes her 12-year-old daughter, Yafa, who was born in the United States and has never been to the West Bank.

“It’s really cool to see the artifacts that represent Palestine…and to learn more about my origins,” Yafa added. “A lot of people don’t really know Palestine…and I think the house is a really cool representation of that.”

After the 1948 Palestinian exodus, known as al-Nakba, Palestinians left the region and dispersed across the world, Ghandour said.

Even so, the Palestinian diaspora, or dispersed population, still shares the same passion and deep connection to their homeland and culture.

“Little by little, we are reconnecting,” Ghandour added. “And that’s where we thrive.”

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