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The Fountains of Za’atari. Margherita Moscardini in Conversation with Marcello Smarrelli

2 months ago

Marcello Smarrelli: How was the project “Inventory. The Fountains of Za’atari” conceived?

Margherita Moscardini: In January 2015 in New York. In Felicity D. Scott’s class, Architecture. Human Rights. Spatial Politics of the GSAPP at Columbia, we read Arendt, Agamben, Agier, the literature on the camps, the condition of the refugee as a paradigm of our time, the architecture of emergency, the camps as cities that last decades although they are only conceived as temporary. It is the appalling era of orange overalls, in which Palmyra disappears, the United Nations fail, we all fail, and millions of people start making their way towards Europe. The Decline of Nation States and the End of Human Rights. The myth breaks apart. Civilization, the first cities were born there, in that patch of land created by a stroke of Churchill’s pen. A little further to the west however, around the Dead Sea, three great religions were born that retain their importance. The massacre in Syria lasted for at least four years before anybody realized and Syria became the sad paradigm of this era, incapable of defending man, the built environment, the arts.
I follow the work of Kilian Kelinschmidt, ex-official of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and major of the Za’atari camp between 2013 and 2014. Lilian stresses the need to reconsider the camps as realities destined to last, beyond the brief length of the humanitarian emergency they were created for, able to produce good examples of cities that produce value, are of benefit to the countries hosting them and could even be examples to be exported. He says that Za’atari is so much a city that it is full of fountains. I write to her, starting to suggest some ideas that with time becomes a project. Only in 2017, with your invitation and that of Flavio Misciattelli, and thanks to the Italian Council Grant, the project becomes a reality and I manage to begin. I had never been to the Middle East, I had never been in a camp and I had a problem with the word “humanitarian”.

MS: Tell me more about Za’atari and of your experience living in the camp.

MM: Za’atari is a refugee camp created in 2012 in Jordan, in the Mafraq Governorate, in a semi-desert area on the Syrian border to welcome Syrians escaping from the war. In 2014 its population reached 150,000 residents, it is the second biggest camp in the world and by size is the fourth largest city in Jordan. Today, around 80,000 Syrian refugees live in Za’atari, most coming from the areas of Dar’a, Sweida and the Eastern Ghouta. From the desert a tent city is quickly born. Then the tents are replaced by containers. Finally, the containers (which were houses) become rooms in houses, every family based around a courtyard with a fountain. It is the model of the Arab house. In the camp, one house in ten follows this model. The cement courtyard is the only private element that speaks of permanence. Because the built environment in Za’atari can only be temporary.

MS: How do people live in the camp?

MM: In Za’atari every family has a voucher  enabled to take out cash from mobile ATMs in order to facilitate the development of the internal economy. Two souqs, more than three hundred shops, restaurants, barbers, wedding gown stores, butchers, confectioners, electronic shops. And also schools, hospitals, mosques, soccer fields, and recreation centres where residents are employed as teachers or workers.
The camp is militarised and governed by the Jordan authorities and the UNHCR. Visitors can only enter with special permission, for only a few hours each day. Residents can leave the camp only to study and work. Many are employed as workers in the fields of nearby farms, irrigated thanks to an advanced treatment plant that purifies the grey waters of the camp.
A solar power system was recently inaugurated, the largest of its kind ever created in a camp, and in a few months the entire water network will be completed, conforming to national standards. All this speaks of a city. Yet the built environment at Za’atari remains informal because it must not last.
There are camps that last generations, such as Daab in Kenya or the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, in Amman. You are born you grow up and you die inside a camp. How many talents have we lost? And who gives them back to us?

MS: How have you worked in the camp? Who has helped you?

MM: With the help of the embassy and the AICS office in Amman, I have twice managed to obtain very long permits to visit. The journalist Marta Bellingreri accompanied me on the first trip. Marta had already worked at Za’atari, she knows the Middle East very well and takes notes in Arabic. Marta’s empathy prevented me from making mistakes. I was afraid of making mistakes. Those weeks were for observation. The first person we met was the artist Tammam Al Nabilsi, with whom, the next day, we created a working party and above all relationships: for a resident it is an exceptional thing to have the time to build relationships with a visitor. We went house to house. The fountains were an excuse to listen. In order to have an extensive map of the courtyards, however, required more time and we didn’t have it, so we suggested to our group they they finalise the research by themselves, in the form of a commission. They accepted and we have worked long distance for about two months, by Messenger.
Then I returned to Jordan to check over the work and to get an understanding of the camp from the perspective of the officials, of the coordinators, of the managers that lead and the engineers that build. I had lots of meetings and interviews. I looked for a vision. Like the one that Collier and Betts had, I wanted to know more about the Jordan Compact, if it really was in motion and if it was working. Before departing, I sent a container of basalt and dirt and sand that I had bought in Mafraq. They arrived a month later to Fantiscritti, in Carrara, in front of Michelangelo’s quarries.

MS: Which works did you create for the show at the Fondazione Pastificio Cerere?

MM: The core is made up of two sculptures headed to the collection of the MADRE museum in Naples. The first one is a book that brings together the inventory of the courtyards and their fountains. There are 126 pictures with pure pigments and gold leaf on Magnani 1404 paper. The book contains my research undertaken in collaboration with Marta Bellingreri, Tammam and Tasneem Al Nabilsi, Eyyad Sabbagh led by the engineer Abu Tammam Al Nabilsi. The illustrations are in reality plans for large scale sculptures, imagined to be purchased and disseminated internationally in public spaces.
The second sculpture is the 1:1 reproduction of one of the inventoried courtyards. The first prototype. It is blademade of earth, done by mixing resins with sand imported from Jordan and that, in the camp, is used for making cement. The location and the name of the creator are shown on one side. It is ready to be used as a fountain, but this will only happen when the laws of extra-territoriality come into being.
There will also be a video document filmed in Jordan that tells the story of the project and a wall drawing: the map of Za’atari reproduced on a wall with the technique of spolvero using dirt from the Mafraq Governorate as a pigment.
This show is not the final aspect of the project, only its beginning.

MS: What future developments have you thought about for your project?

MM: As I said, our show is only the beginning of the project. It is a device whose purpose is to generate a virtuous circle of acquisitions of the models of a courtyard with fountain, one that we hope can be spread internationally as sculptures, occupying public spaces and acquiring over time the special legal status of places for which the norm is suspended.
To this end, the inventory of the courtyards will be published as a catalogue to be distributed to cities and institutions that support the arts as long as they acquire and produce a model. In a traditional Arab house, the courtyard acts as a connection between the world (the city, the road) and the private dimension of the house. If the courtyard from the Middle East is moved to Europe where the fountain is mostly public and monumental, the private aspect (and the condition of the person who owns it) becomes a public thing.

MS: How will the distribution of the fountains be organised?

MM: Everything will be coordinated by an agency, in the process of being set up, that will ensure that the benefits derived from the purchase go to the original designer. The catalogue will also be a guide to the camp, illustrated by its private monuments. A proposal will be issued to the owner of the courtyard, created by a team of lawyers, that describes the process of conversion, in spaces in which the norm is suspended, so that the sculptures enjoy special jurisdiction, with elements of extra-territoriality that qualifies them as a power vacuum, black holes on national ground, without rights or citizenship.
In 1993 Agamben quotes Arendt who, speaking of the condition of the stateless as a paradigm of their time, identifies in the fall of the great empires (before the first world war) and in the minority treaties, the institution of the nation states of Europe destined to fail. And here we are. The Decline of Nation States and the End of Human Rights. Agamben imagined Europe topographically pierced, made of extra-territorial cities. City as refuge? Could a topographically pierced Europe perhaps start from sculptures?

My Art Guides Editorial Team

  • Margherita Moscardini and Marcello Smarrelli Margherita Moscardini and Marcello Smarrelli
  • Margherita Moscardini, photo by Teresa Sartore Margherita Moscardini, photo by Teresa Sartore
  • Inventory. The Fountains of Za’atari, Margherita Moscardini, Installation View, photo by Andrea Veneri, Courtesy Fondazione Pastificio Cerere and the artist Inventory. The Fountains of Za’atari, Margherita Moscardini, Installation View, photo by Andrea Veneri, Courtesy Fondazione Pastificio Cerere and the artist
  • Inventory. The Fountains of Za’atari, Margherita Moscardini, Installation View, photo by Andrea Veneri, Courtesy Fondazione Pastificio Cerere and the artist Inventory. The Fountains of Za’atari, Margherita Moscardini, Installation View, photo by Andrea Veneri, Courtesy Fondazione Pastificio Cerere and the artist