Filmmaker: Shuchen Tan
High on a hill in the West Bank, between Ramallah and Nablus, an extraordinary Palestinian city is being built: Rawabi - meaning hills. It will be the first planned city in the history of Palestine and will become home to some 40,000 Palestinians by the end of 2013, or so it is planned.
This project is the brainchild and passion of Palestinian businessman and multibillionaire Bashar Masri.
Concerned about the shortage of affordable housing for a new generation of middle class Palestinians, Masri came up with the idea for a totally new 'green' city with a host of the latest green technologies and a design to mimic the old cities of Jerusalem and Nablus. If Rawabi proves to be successful, he thinks it could be a template for other cities in the West Bank, Gaza and maybe even for the rest of the region.
While Masri faces objections from what he calls "radicals on both sides", he sees the building of this city as the first steps towards creating "facts on the ground". In his view, it is one way of building the Palestinian state.
Masri is clearly a man on a mission and, although not everyone supports it, Rawabi is slowly becoming a 'fact on the ground'.
By Shuchen Tan
I first met Bashar Masri in his flashy office in Ramallah in December 2011. We had heard about a Palestinian businessman who had taken up the challenge to develop a totally new city in the occupied West Bank, some 40km from Jerusalem. This was a challenge, to say the least, because the plot of land where he wanted to create his dream city 'Rawabi' was surrounded by land controlled by the Israeli Authority.
As soon as we sat down for coffee at his office to discuss the possibility of making a film about this daring process, we saw his vibrant personality and immediately knew that our film would not be a reportage style documentary about the building process itself, but would rather be a filmed portrait about a man with a mission.
For weeks we followed Bashar around with our cameras, documenting his daily routine and how he dealt with the countless obstacles that came in his way. In observing him we soon understood that if anyone would be able to face the mammoth challenge of building Rawabi, Bashar would be the one.
As you grow, you understand things better and you learn things. I believe since we have signed a peace agreement, that all our resistance should be peaceful.
His way of responding to the billions of problems he had to face on a daily basis was both pragmatic and business-like but never dogmatic. He would work with Palestinian and Israeli subcontractors because, according to his view, whoever delivered the best work would get the deal. However, Bashar’s approach is not shared by everyone.
Subsequently, he has had to face a lot of criticism from Palestinians and Israelis. "Ironically, I take on the radicals from both sides of the conflict over the same issues, which I am very happy about," Bashar explains, "That tells me I am doing something right."
As a filmmaker, I am interested presenting people who have travelled a long and interesting life journey to eventually reach a certain kind of wisdom. In the case of Bashar Masri, I was fascinated by a man with a mission. When I asked him about his past he shared his personal history; he, like most men of his generation, started out as a student activist in the 70’s. Coming from a well–to-do Nablus business family, he joined the youth activist movement as a student leader, where he spent several stints in an Israeli jail.
When Bashar left Palestine to study engineering in Washington DC, he continued his political activism overseas. As a boy Masri had been to many demonstrations throwing stones at the occupier. Now, as man, he continues the Palestinian struggle in his own way.
"As you grow, you understand things better and you learn things. I believe since we have signed a peace agreement, that all our resistance should be a peaceful. Even when the occupier quells us, I believe - although I was a rock thrower myself - we should not respond. We need to become more sophisticated by using smart ways of fighting the occupation. Building a city is, in a way, fighting the occupation. It is the more progressive way, it is the professional way, it is the human way, it is the modern way," he says.
Some people are still sceptical about the mission that Bashar Masri has embarked upon. In the film, a Palestinian grandmother who has seen it all remarks, "The Israeli’s will never allow [Rawabi]". However, I am convinced that as long as we have people like Bashar, there is still hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is what my film, The Promised City, tries to communicate.