Al-Mathaf a Proud Tribute to Gaza’s Past and Future
By Sami Abdel-Shafi
As he strolled with some friends through the spacious halls of his new creation, Al-Mathaf (Arabic for “The Museum,” pronounced as “Al-Mat-Haf”), Jawdat Al-Khoudary spoke of the great Palestinian poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish: how he thought Darwish transcended his personal life and emotions to address the life and collective emotions of Palestinians as a nation. Truth is, Al-Khoudary’s generosity in describing a man greatly admired by all unwittingly characterised his own daring undertaking. In a hint of similarity to a lifetime of inspiration by the great poet, Al-Khoudary rose above Gaza’s dire straits of desperation and loss of hope brought on by current circumstances. He irreversibly committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a project, grand as Gaza, which he started without necessarily knowing where it would end.
The result, one should say “so far,” is an impressive 1,200 square meter structure that stands on a 4,500 square meter plot of land, in testimony to Gaza’s past - a significant glimmer of hope for a brighter future. Peeking over Gaza’s sea, Al-Mathaf stands in witness to thousands of yet-undiscovered artefacts, columns, and capitals still immersed offshore. Sitting on the main terrace overlooking the sea, one cannot help but feel as though this is one spot where angels rise and rest along with the sun over Gaza’s overshadowed history of having once been a major gateway in the region.
Housing about 350 artefacts so far, Al-Mathaf offers only a hint of what remains undiscovered. Among the artefacts on display are ten marble capitals dating back to the Byzantine, Roman, and Islamic eras. Countless well-preserved pottery pieces cover Gaza’s historic periods from the early Bronze Age, about 3500 BC, until the Islamic Age, around the late sixth century AD. It is dimly lit and spacious, affording plenty of whatever empty space is left on its walls and floor to be made generously available to various types of explanatory and educational literature that documents the artefacts’ origins. Expanding the documentation effort, along with scientific research into Gaza’s archaeological findings, is one of the proprietor’s next endeavours.
It all started in 1986, when Al-Khoudary started collecting stones from Gaza’s old houses, which were brought down to make space for newer and larger buildings. He then found himself having to preserve artefacts and antiquities that construction workers stumbled upon while they dug foundations for the newer buildings. Almost invariably, coming across antiquities became a part of what a construction effort entailed in Gaza. He ended up buying whatever artefacts came in the way of his crews or those of other contracting companies in order to preserve what he believed could have otherwise been lost or damaged forever, as was the case on many other occasions. Anecdotal evidence supports the view that not even with the advent of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has the Ministry of Antiquities done the expected job of collecting antiquities or preserving what could be classified as newly discovered archaeological sites in Gaza.
Not at all a restaurateur by trade but a devout seeker of Gaza’s history, he made Al-Mathaf his open-air office where he received local and international visitors who were curious to see just what this man was up to during this “crazy time” in Gaza. Had it not been a feverish construction site during all this time, Al-Khoudary, a civil engineer and a contracting businessman, would have probably felt very out of place at Al-Mathaf.
A seasoned networker, Al-Khoudary sought to blend whatever knowledge and connections he has among Palestinians and internationals and leverage them in creating a place that is clearly cultural, potentially historic, and an attraction to a wide spectrum of people.
For this reason, and to ensure that the museum stands the test of one day becoming recognised as a national museum in Gaza, Al-Khoudary commissioned the expertise of some of the best in the business: French archaeologist Alain Champu, formerly of the Louvre in Paris, as well as specialists from the renowned Catholic archaeological institute, the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.
Al-Khoudary’s vision to instil a strong sense of belonging and hope in people is characterised by his decision to open his establishment to visits by school children, his first main clients. What promises to become an increasingly popular ritual begins with children visiting the museum, followed by recreational activities on Al-Mathaf’s grounds. They conclude their visit with a lunch from Al-Mathaf’s restaurant.
But this is not only a museum, a restaurant, a boutique hotel, and a business centre that could comfortably fit hundreds of clients. Al-Mathaf is a captivating experience in its own right. It is difficult to decide which terrace to sit on, which view to enjoy, or whether to visit the museum or walk through its beautiful but simple rustic architecture. The structure’s exterior is covered with old sandstone, whereas its floors are tiled with old limestone which Al-Khoudary collected many years ago. Most creative was the use of thick wood blocks that he collected from Gaza’s old railroad tracks, dismantled long ago, for Al-Mathaf’s windowsills and interior doors.
As of mid-August, Al-Mathaf awaits the reopening of Gaza’s crossing points, which continue to be closed. Its museum has yet to receive about 325 major articles to be shipped back from Geneva where they are on exhibit at the Museum of History and Art. The restaurant awaits all the equipment and silverware it needs in order to operate properly, and the entire establishment awaits several goods and services that have been held up by the continuing closure. However, in a way, Al-Khoudary’s diligent collection of materials and antiquities that were needed to build and fit Al-Mathaf enabled him to finish construction under crippling circumstances and, thus, circumvent the long-time siege of Gaza. Knowing Jawdat and how seriously he works, it will only be a short time before Al-Mathaf actually opens.
Between meetings as he sat next to a series of marble columns lining one garden outside, Al-Khoudary intently said of his project: “This is just the beginning.” Indeed it is; for it is efforts like his that engender not only a sense of pride but also a sense that Gaza’s story will not end.
Sami Abdel-Shafi is co-founder and senior partner at Emerge Consulting Group, LLC., a management consultancy in Gaza City. He can be reached at email@example.com.