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Refugee Heritage conversations: Ismae'l Sheikh Hassan, "Illusions and Wizardry"


Illusions and Wizardry

Ismae’l Sheikh Hassan

View of a courtyard, Reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared Refugee Camp, Tripoli, Lebanon, by AKAA. Photo: Ismael Sheikh Hassan

Since their inception, Palestinian camps have evoked powerful and contradictory emotions. For the Palestinians who have had to suffer the consequences of living in the camp, it is a mixture of trauma from their violent displacement with a pride in their ability to rebuild their communities and survive, despite their seven decades of forced exile. For those who bear the responsibility of their formation and maintenance, the stubborn endurance of camps produce emotions of fear, anger and embarrassment.

Naturally then, the act of nominating Dheisheh as a UNESCO world heritage site is quite controversial. Despite it being unconventional, it is nevertheless both a very timely and important gesture. On a basic level, the idea of such a nomination appears to makes a lot of sense, for Palestinian camps are indeed remarkable spaces which narrate an important chapter in the history of indigenous people’s struggles for preserving memory, returning to their land and ultimately striving for liberation. Meanwhile, Palestinian camps are also extremely vulnerable, given the current and historical patterns of discrimination, war, destruction, expulsion, massacres and sieges that have continuously been part of camp life.

But can such a UNESCO nomination help protect Palestinian camps? Can it prevent future Israeli military operations and destruction in camps such as those witnessed in Jiftlik, Ajajra and the Jericho area (1967), camps in the Gaza strip (1970s), Nabatieh Camp (1972), camps in southern Lebanon (1982), Jenin (2002), etc…? Can it help prevent the kind of violence we have seen in Yarmouk camp in Syria that caused the displacement of its refugee population? Could such a nomination have helped prevent the destruction of a camp like Nahr el Bared that was completely destroyed in 2007 during a war between the Lebanese army and a fundamentalist militia, more than half of which remains unbuilt today? Can it help prevent the potential destruction of Ein el Hilweh camp in Lebanon that appears to face a very similar fate as Nahr el Bared as proxy wars amongst regional powers are being fought by various armed militias in the camp’s alleys?

These questions are quite important today. On the one hand, we have witnessed the fragmentation of the Palestinian liberation movement that had traditionally played important roles in protecting the camps. On the other, it has become clear that the “protection” mandate of the various humanitarian agencies have predominantly failed in their capacities to protect the Palestinian camps. In fact, no real physical protection is offered. Instead, their activities have been limited to either the provision of emergency relief to a bereaved population or human rights reports that often fail in preventing the re-occurrence of large-scale destruction and violence towards Palestinian camps. We should become even more troubled with the role of some humanitarian practices when we realize that the same governments that are waging and financing some of the most catastrophic wars today are also funding and leading the humanitarian efforts in these now war-torn areas.

The role of such a nomination—as a strategy that can help in protecting camps—is clarified when we realize that what preceded most of the acts of extreme violence that has occurred in Palestinian camps was their systematic vilification. This vilification is based on a variety of themes that change across the various host countries, where they are problematically represented as hot-beds of terrorism, a fortress for the “other” which threatens local national/sectarian identities, or a dangerous slum housing a poor population posing existential threats to economic-political elites in the surrounding city. In this sense, the nomination of a Palestinian camp as an UNESCO world heritage site becomes part of a broader set of cultural, academic and political initiatives to represent the camp on different terms.

These representations often focus on the humanity of the camp as a space that houses real people instead of “the poor” or “armed terrorists.” More importantly, they seek to remind us of the miracles of these sites. One struggles to fathom how fifty-five camps separated by thousands of kilometers and multiple impermeable borders (for the refugees) were able to host and lead a trans-national liberation movement. And while Palestine metaphorically disappeared in 1948, it was to be reborn in the camps where a modern Palestinian identity was forged.

Indeed, the Palestinian camp embodied the idea of the Palestinian city of exile, where Palestinians from Palestine’s occupied cities and demolished villages, no matter rich or poor, created together a new form of Palestinian urbanity. In that context, Palestinian camps are the icons of Palestine’s modern architecture and urbanism. Liberation and emancipation have been central themes of this modern project and have inspired a new, rich tradition of Palestinian literature, poetry, music and various artistic productions.

But Palestinian camps are not only about Palestine and the Palestinians. On one hand the history and story of Palestinian camps and refugees speak to all cultures facing insurmountable odds and the challenge of perseverance. On the other, the spaces of Palestinian camps often play very strategic roles in providing sites of refuge and residence to a variety of non-Palestinian communities, including migrants and other Arab, Asian, and African refugees. Palestinian camps offer a critique of contemporary politics, current political systems and the increased securitization of the modern city.

Still, it would not be surprising if most official and state actors would be very uncomfortable with this nomination. Official Palestinian discourse insists on the definition of camps as temporary spaces that house refugees awaiting their return to Palestine. At the same time, Israelis call for their dismantling, an embarrassing reminder of the state’s role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Meanwhile, Arab nation-states have always been uncomfortable with the presence of extraterritorial spaces within their territory that host a politically mobilized and non-citizen population. While the policies of each of these official and state actors are different and often inconsistent with each other, they have all been similarly obsessed with how to control the camp.

This is precisely why this nomination is so important. For it is not about making governments comfortable, nor is it about actually receiving the designation. It is about bringing the discussion back to where it should be, where it all started: Palestinian refugees and its camps. As Jean Paul Sartre claimed, “the time for illusionists and wizardry is over: either you fight or rot in the camps.”

Ismae’l Sheikh Hassan is an urbanist, researcher and activist working with the Lil-Madina Initiative in Saida (Lebanon) and holds a Phd in Urban Planning from department of architecture, urbanism and strategic planning at the Catholic University of Leuven (2015). Over the past years Ismael has been active in the context of Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle-East and various reconstruction projects in Lebanon.

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