REFUGEE HERITAGE CONVERSATIONS
Camps as Heritage
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland, 2017. Photo: Khaldun Bshara
The seminar on the heritage of refugee camps that initiated the writing of the world heritage nomination file for Dheisheh took place within the framework of the 5th Riwaq Biennale, Palestine. The Biennale curatorial premise was to “think ‘through’ the structures at our disposal. Thinking through structures is not the same as thinking ‘about’ or ‘against’ them. This project does not see structures as topics, or as objects of critique necessarily. It aims to exemplify the agency of structures per se, and to help shape the audiences these structures produce.”¹ Looking at and engaging with the refugee camps through the discursive lens of heritage performs the Biennale’s premise without embodying or becoming subsumed by the structures or institutions of heritage and their rhetoric. Refugee Heritage stands in between—and keeps distance from—the contradictory concepts and discourses of both heritage and camps in order to reshape public imagination about structures and spaces that have long conditioned their relation to Palestine and more broadly to the world.
The nomination file for a refugee camp works through the institutions of UNESCO, the structure of the World Heritage List, the format for nomination, and the criteria for nomination in three primary ways:
Firstly, the nomination needs to take place within the structures and conventions of UNESCO, which has in the past been accused of Euro-centrism, power asymmetry, unjust resource distribution, and uneven contribution to knowledge production. Thinking through, not about or against, such heavily criticized structures can, we argue, open up new pathways towards justice for such delicate and intimate issue.
Secondly, heritage discourses have been masked by discourses on economic wellbeing and sustainability of societies. The treatment of camps as universal heritage would, in a sense, normalize their unjust conditions by reframing the issue of refugee camps in developmentalist discourse rather than political. Furthermore, how can we think of the sustainability and development of camps when UNESCO state members in the region are themselves unsustainable, especially in the light of the recent events in the Middle East that left its marks on refugee camps?²
Thirdly, UNESCO’s aesthetics and representations, such as the World Heritage criteria, are rigid and do not by default respond to shifting paradigms, evolved meanings, and changing frameworks. What does it mean, then, to think unconventionally of a refugee camp, not to mention one that is actively lived in, through conventional institutions and discourses of heritage such as UNESCO and its List?
More than the heritage of camps and the camps themselves, these inquiries—all of which are both pronounced and addressed by Refugee Heritage—are about UNESCO. Can UNESCO accommodate such discursive transformations? Can UNESCO allow for changing forms and paradigms? Can UNESCO change through cumulative and incremental micro-processes such as the one at hand? The recent history of UNESCO has seen changes take place concerning questions of inclusiveness and the democratic representation of universal heritage. We need to see these changes as the product of tensions between the structures—the language—of UNESCO and the on-the-ground practices of people—their speech—in utilizing these structures. The results have been the creation of new languages and the utterance of statements never heard or experienced before, such as the inscription of the ancient Battir terraces on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2014.³ Such inscription not only successfully protected the landscape—one that has been continuously irrigated for over 4,000 years—from being destroyed by Israel’s separation wall, but also contributed to the steadfastness of its inhabitants in the face of on-the-ground colonial practices.
The format for the nomination of properties for inscription on the World Heritage List indirectly allows for a critique of UNESCO by showing that one size does not fit all. Language has to change to allow other contents to be accounted for. Critical processes such as the Refugee Heritage project therefore contribute to the indefinite and continuous change of these institutions, these structures—like Palestinian camps, if I may say. A UNESCO nomination file serves, at the very least, as a documentation of the camp at a particular moment. The camp, we know, will change. The nomination file will need to be re-written. Its discursive (rather than dialectical) relation to heritage thus opens the possibilities of engaging with heritage as a medium for knowledge production beyond commodification, the market, and sustainability in simply an economic sense.
But the goal for completing the nomination form and making the process more responsive to local values and criteria was never truly the goal of Refugee Heritage. Rather, it has always been more about the failure of fulfilling this process. Failure, in this sense, is guaranteed, not only due to the pre-existing formats and institutional processes, but also because of political considerations both more widely and locally regarding the conception of camps as heritage. The failure exposed by Refugee Heritage is thus not of the form, but rather of the politics that brought camps into being for such a long time, and thus into the discourses of heritage, in the first place.
In the entry lobby of building number seven at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, the very first station, visitors are faced with writing on a blackboard that says: “THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT.” We know evils have been committed all over the world, and my intention is neither to make comparisons nor to undermine the possibility of learning from history. But it is imperative to highlight what is at the core of this site: knowledge production and the shaping of people’s imagination about certain events in the past. How, then, could Palestinian refugee camps serve in this role?
Those who work on refugee issues are always caught in a Catch 22: on the one hand, camps should be kept as a living reminder about atrocities that have been committed, but on the other, the oppressive living conditions of refugees need to be eased. Palestinian refugee camps are the living testimony of suspended dreams and the lives of millions of Palestinians. They also stand as a testimony to the failure of institutional structures such as UN resolutions, humanitarian paradigms, and states. They constitute a book of history written by the lives of grandmothers who still provoke and shape the imaginations of generations to come about a new world: a world without refugee camps. From seven decades of experience, the elderly authoritatively declare: “The refugee camp is the universal paradigm of the present. Who, in the end, is not at risk of displacement?”
1 See ➝.
2 The Arab Spring events have negatively impacted the Palestinian refugee camps such as al Yarmouk in Syria and Ein El Hilweh and Burj el Barajneh in Lebanon. The Israeli destruction of large segments of refugee camps, during the 2014, 2012, 2008 wars on Gaza, is also indicative of the uncertainty the refugee camps have endured.
3 “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines - Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir”, ➝.
Khaldun Bshara is an architect, restorer, and anthropologist, and director of Riwaq Center in Ramallah, Palestine. He received a BSc in Architectural Engineering from Birzeit University, an MA in Conservation of Historic Towns and Buildings from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and an MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine.