Malik Abu Salama, left, observes Ala'a Hilu in Hilu’s Beit Sahour workshop on June 24 as he sands an old silver spoon to be repurposed into earrings. (Judith Sudilovsky)

‘Upcycling’ in the West Bank: For the Environment… and Political Resistance

Palestinian uses his workshop to teach communal self-reliance and discourage consumerism

[Beit Sahour, West Bank] – The broken chairs, discarded glass bottles and collection of random antique silverware in Ala’a Hilu’s workshop in Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem, are a form of protest – a protest against consumerism; a protest against the trash strewn in the streets; a protest against what he called the Israeli occupation; and a protest in favor of more communal activity.

“In the past, there wasn’t so much consumerism,” Hilu, who in 2013 opened his Resign for Recycling Design workshop, where he takes waste and reshapes it into new usable products such as lamps, drinking glasses, tables, stools and jewelry, told The Media Line. “Now… all the media and advertising [make you feel] you need gadgets [and that] you always need to renew and update your gadgets. Whatever you don’t have, you need.”

In 2012, Hilu, now 37, was frustrated with what he felt was an NGO culture that had killed the spirit of initiative in Palestinian society and in its stead had created a dependency on foreign organizations and funding for projects not necessarily in sync with the needs of the local population. So he quit his day job as a trainer with an international NGO. He toyed with the idea of returning to school for a master’s degree, but faced with an unfurnished apartment in Ramallah and an empty wallet, he turned to a childhood hobby and built his own furniture from discarded waste he found in the city streets.

“When I was 15,” he told The Media Line, “I made my own desktop from a steel beam. My father worked in construction, so we had a lot of material around.”

But what began as an act of necessity soon took on a life of its own, and people began asking him to make things for them, too.

Hilu says his upcycling work is based on the communal cooperation and self-reliance he witnessed during the First Intifada, a lengthy uprising that started in 1987 and consisted of a series of mass boycotts by Palestinians who refused to work jobs in Israel, as well as rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on Israelis.

For two years during that time, schools were largely closed, he explained, and Palestinians resorted to collectively home-schooling their children, with teachers coming to give their lessons. Three rooms in his parents’ home were turned into classrooms, and he recalled how they built their own desks and blackboards to furnish the rooms.

Hilu has always looked at waste as a source for material, so while his work is partially fueled by a desire for social activism, it also has an environmental message.

“When other people look at trash bins, I see material,” he said.

“The concept of trash,” he continued, “does not exist in any other life form. We throw out a lot of material, and this material is worth something…. The Earth is much bigger than us and the environment moves in loops. I am trying to create a loop and bring back what we throw away.”

The small enclosed porch of Hilu’s workshop is built from wooden doors from an old Bethlehem hotel, and a much-used glass display table is surrounded by stools made from repurposed tires and suitcases. A sociology and media major for his undergraduate degree, he learned most of his techniques from the internet and YouTube videos, and his initial funding came through friends who supported his crowdfunding campaigns.

Anywhere there is a poor municipality there is waste in the street, Hilu notes, so while the triangle area of Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and Beit Jala has relatively good sanitation services, the neighboring Dheisheh refugee camp, which depends on services from the United Nations and has only four communal trash bins for its 13,000 residents, is a good source for material.

“I try to give people a new understanding and better skills to help them become more open-minded toward differences, and [to] understand that people are different,” he told The Media Line.

“We are living in a reality with so many stereotypes,” he went on, explaining that through upcycling, people can realize that the things they see are not always as they seem.

“My upcycling is not only artistic, it is political,” he said. “It shows people how they can live their daily lives differently. There is a lot of resistance in upcycling.”

By upcycling items, fewer things need to be purchased, he says, noting that the Palestinian economy is closely intertwined with that of Israel. Israeli products line shelves in Palestinian stores, meaning most purchases help finance the Israeli economy.

He hopes to reach the point where he can help people upcycle at home.

“At our house or at my neighbors’, we barely throw things away. If there is a broken fridge, we make it into a planter. If there is a broken table, we make it into a shelf,” he said.

Hilu is involved in several community projects that train women and children to reuse waste through NGOs he believes are effectively helping Palestinians resist what they term the Israeli occupation. His aim, he says, is to teach “resistance without being violent, to live for freedom and develop yourself to be useful to your community.”

One of the projects that gives him the greatest satisfaction is his work with a small group of women from the nearby rural village of Al-Walajeh, which he began three years ago. He trained the women to create and improve their home gardens by using discarded items in order to grow more vegetables and thus reduce their need to buy Israeli produce.

The project, Hilu says, has also helped the women move forward on a personal level. He has seen a change in how they now conduct themselves with more confidence, engaging their families in the upcycling gardening work and learning to explore their own creativity.

The women, he adds, recently opened their own workshop in the village. The work is being done with the support of their husbands, as in traditional Palestinian society, women generally do not work outside the home without their husband’s agreement.

Now he would like to see the women pass on their newly acquired upcycling skills to other women in the village.

“We are engaging with the community. There is so much support from their families. I know we are moving forward with the community and [that] the community is going in a different [direction],” he said. “In order to be positive, we need the group to grow positivity. People see what I produce and like it, and understand it is something positive.”

For 20-year-old Bethlehem University fine arts student Malik Abu Salama, Hilu has been a role model from childhood.

“He always looked different than the other people and I was interested in what he was doing,” Abu Salama told the Media Line.

Over the years, the two became friends, and Abu Salama now spends a lot of his free time at the workshop training with his mentor.

“Many people don’t understand what he is doing,” he said of Hilu. “But it is important to learn how to rethink how we use material. It gives people a sense of confidence. They realize that nobody can control them in their social or economic life. They can think more deeply about [the meaning] of being free.”

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