The Palestinian city of Nablus sprawls between Mount Ebal (Mountain of Curse), and Mount Gerizim (Mountain of Mercy) in the northern West Bank. At the top of Mount Gerizim, and impossible to miss, is the home of Palestinian businessman and philanthropist Munib R al-Masri. Beit Falasteen (Home of Palestine), was inspired by Palladio’s Rotonda in Vicenza, Italy and its elegant limestone form is in sharp contrast to the dusty city below.
In April 2002, during the second intifada, the valley was intensely fought over by Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters. The city was badly damaged by Israeli tanks and shelling. In the past five years, however, Nablus has rebuilt itself: universities have opened, and unemployment levels are at a record low of 4.8 per cent.
Al-Masri, 77, began constructing Beit Falasteen two years prior to the outbreak of the second intifada that began in late September 2000. Israeli forces entered and occupied the house for three weeks during the building process, halting progress, but over the past decade Beit Falasteen has established itself as an important venue for cultural and political events, in addition to being the al-Masri family home.
Bypassing extensive gardens, we enter the palace through a modest entrance at its rear and join al-Masri at a long wooden table laden with fresh bread, bean salad and goat yoghurt. “All of this, we have made on this hill,” he says. “We grow corn for flour, we have poultry. In fact, we grow everything we eat except dates and tropical fruit.”
The design of Beit Falasteen was first conceived in the US when al-Masri was 19 years old. “Back in 1953, I was working 16-hour shifts in Chicago to pay for my next semester at the University of Texas. I used to visit a dance hall called the Palladium. It was 15 cents a ticket. I was an avid dancer and I fell in love with that place. I promised myself: if I go back to Palestine, I will build something of this nature”.
Al-Masri returned to Palestine in 1956 having completed his degree in petroleum geology, but it was not until 1998 that the plans for Beit Felasteen came together. Al-Masri made his fortune as the founder of EDGO, an oil and gas contracting company in Jordan, later becoming co-founder and chairman of the Palestinian Development and Investment Company. The latter launched many of the building blocks of the Palestinian economy, such as the telecoms company, stock exchange, manufacturing and agriculture companies. And it is now one of the largest listed companies on the Palestine Exchange.
Finally in a position to start the Beit Falasteen project, al-Masri asked his son, Rabih, who studied architecture at Berkeley, US, to draw plans for a replica of Villa Capra (known as “La Rotonda”), Andrea Palladio’s Renaissance masterpiece outside Vicenza in northern Italy. Interior designers Joseph Achkar and Michel Charriere were responsible for the interior design of Beit Falasteen.
After lunch, al-Masri takes the 25 steps of a winding internal staircase to enter the large rotunda. Four saloons branch out from the 120 sq m hall, each named after sacred locations: “Jerusalem”, “Jaffa and Haifa”, “Bethlehem and Nazareth”, and “Nablus and Jenin”.
Al-Masri leads us east into “Jerusalem”, a study-cum-library, where wooden bookshelves rise to the ceiling. This room reflects his personal history: photographs illustrate a close friendship with the late president Yasser Arafat, as well as his relationship with Nelson Mandela. (During Mandela’s imprisonment, al-Masri sent money to him via a contact in the African National Congress.)
The room is filled with artefacts, including a 6ft camera bought in Turkey in 1998 and a huge Mediterranean fossil shell, but the centrepiece is a 17th-century desk. Al-Masri’s “mad habit of collecting – endless and costly, but enjoyable” – started in the 1970s, when he began storing antique furniture and building materials in warehouses across France, where he had purchased many of the items.
In the 1990s the collection was transported to Beit Falasteen in 240 containers, each 40 sq ft, entering the West Bank through Jordan. “Almost every piece could be in a museum,” says al-Masri. “But I want people to feel and touch this house. I enjoy people using things and breaking the rules of a conventional museum.”
He returns to the rotunda, which is dominated by a statue of Hercules bathed in the light of a sundial’s opening in the “Dome of Tolerance” above. “I bought it from a guy in Paris. To me, Hercules represents Palestinian qualities – humility, strength and perseverance,” says al-Masri, “Hercules stands here, at 6ft tall, while I’m 6ft 2ins, but he is the real master of the house.”
A house with two masters is an apt metaphor, for Beit Falasteen is at once a personal and national project. “This house is a small dream,” explains al-Masri. “It’s become real despite the fact it looked impossible at times. But the real dream is creating a free, independent Palestinian state. If we had not built the house here, there would likely be a Jewish settlement in its place.”
We step outside. Al-Masri points out Jupiter Temple, an Israeli army base 200m east. We walk around the house to view the two other surrounding settlements. These are illegal under international law. The settlements of Itamar and Bracha stretch out over the horizon and, according to al-Masri, are home to approximately 6,000 settlers. Up-to-date statistics are hard to come by but figures published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010 documented 2,792 settlers.
In an attempt to prevent further settler expansion across Nablus, al-Masri continued to buy the land surrounding his home. He has now acquired a total of 300 donums (300,000 sq m) on which he has planted 8,000 olive trees. These trees have personal and national importance, cultivated “for this centre to have independent means of subsidising itself ... from olives, oil and soap”, as well as their symbolic role as the Palestinian sacred tree. They too are part of al-Masri’s life project: to establish a free and recognised state of Palestine.
Affectionately called the Godfather of Palestine, al-Masri is recognised across the Arab world, and on June 11 this year he was honoured for his philanthropic work during the unveiling of the Arabian Business Power 500 list. At home, al-Masri has worked as a facilitator between Palestinian factions, describing himself as “a common denominator” between rival parties Hamas and Fatah. His work initiating a rapprochement between these two fractions culminated in an agreement in May 2011, which focused on ending the political division and the achievement of national unity. Many of these meetings took place behind the large wooden doors of Beit Falasteen.
Al-Masri also plays an active role in mediating between Arab and Israeli parties, often hosting Israeli political and business leaders. “I’ve been working for the past 40 years to create peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I must say that so far I have failed, but that does not deter me from continuing. In my lifetime, I would like to see an independent Palestine, at peace and harmony with Israel. But I am no longer a young man and the days are limited.”
Is the house an indulgence, given the occupation? “Under normal circumstances people may think this home is extravagant but they know I am dedicated to Palestine and this is a home for Palestine. Of the 18 hours of a working day, I spend 12 working for Palestine.”
Al-Masri found it hard to select a favourite object from his “live-in museum without any rules” but he chooses three fragments of pottery encased in the basement museum. “When we laid the foundations for the house, my son and I found these three piece of pottery,” he explains. “We stopped building that day, and decided to dig down. Soon we found a piece of coloured mosaic – part of a whole 5th-century Byzantine chapel with beautiful mosaics. Perhaps it’s an ancient village. Though whatever it is, it’s fantastic. It’s preserved below the house. I still go down there two to three times a day and it gives me the goose bumps every time.”