Inspired by the destruction of Palestine’s Cremisan Valley, stone tower While We Wait has arrived in Dubai ahead of its final destination

Located at the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the steep Cremisan Valley sits between the West Bank Palestinian community of Beit Jala and the newer Israeli settlement of Gilo.

Excavations among its terraces and nearby communities reveal a history of human occupation and olive growing since at least the Roman period, and in the 19th century, the valley became famous for wine production and for the Catholic monastery that still sits on one of its peaks.

Construction of While We Wait installation, a new architectural pavilion designed by the Palestinian architects and designers Elias and Yousef Anastas
Construction of While We Wait installation, a new architectural pavilion designed by the Palestinian architects and designers Elias and Yousef Anastas © The National

Now, most of the Cremisan’s ancient terraces lie untended. Since 2015, the valley has become the site of a new stretch of Israel’s separation barrier, a 12-metre-high concrete wall that bisects the valley, separating communities and effectively annexing land that was once deemed part of Bethlehem but now falls within Jerusalem’s orbit.

In 2015, the valley appeared to have been spared; after campaigns by local groups, international lobbying by the Vatican and visits by EU delegations and bishops from the episcopal conferences of Europe and North America, Israel’s top court blocked the controversial extension.

Only months later however, construction started. Many of the Cremisan’s ancient olive groves were destroyed and the wall began to make its way down the valley’s slopes, forming a physical barrier not only dividing communities but separating 58 Palestinian families from their land.

Israeli authorities claim the purpose of the wall is to stop and prevent acts of terrorism – sniper fire and mortar shells were fired from Beit Jala towards Gilo during the early years of the Intifada – but critics claim the wall is designed to accelerate the expropriation of Palestinian land. Either way, life in the Cremisan is in the process of changing forever and the future for the ancient landscape looks bleak. 

However, thanks to a unique installation that has opened at Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete exhibition space in Dubai, visitors now have a chance to experience the Cremisan. While We Wait is a collaborative installation that combines experimental architecture with words, sounds and images to startling effect.

It consists of stills and a film by Mikaela Burstow, a soundscape by the Palestinian musician Tareq Abboushi and a text by Karim Kattan, founder and director of the el-Atlal artist and writers’ residency in Jericho, all of which respond to the Cremisan and to a stone tower, the latest work by the Bethlehem and Paris-based architectural practice AAU Anastas. Originally constructed for the 2017 London Design Festival in September, While We Wait was commissioned by Salma Tuqan, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s curator of Middle Eastern contemporary art and design.

“The Middle East is a region where design is constantly trying to clamour for understanding, where there are very few opportunities for designers to work with the public and to have the public engage with their work in more of a public setting on a more conceptual level, free from the commercial pressures that many designers in the region face,” says the curator. “We still have a way to go in terms of reinserting Arab art and design into the canon, but what I’ve noticed with Arab designers is that there are far fewer opportunities in terms of exhibiting but also in terms of patronage.”

As with earlier AAU Anastas projects, While We Wait combines limestone, the archetypal Palestinian building material, with computer-controlled design and construction techniques, to produce a pavilion that explores new possibilities for stone’s use as a structural element in contemporary architecture, while also reflecting on Palestine’s history and heritage.