Response by Khaldun Bshara
Camps as Heritage
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 a 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 the 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 declares: “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 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 Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine.
The Dheisheh Style
Ilana Feldman is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67 (Duke University Press, 2008) and Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule (Stanford University Press, 2015); and co-editor (with Miriam Ticktin) of In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (Duke University Press, 2010). Her current book project, Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics, explores the Palestinian humanitarian condition in the years since 1948.
In response to my grant proposal for a multi-sited research project on the experiences of Palestinian refugees living with humanitarianism since 1948, one reviewer argued that the “pathological” character of the Palestinian case made it a poor instance through which to study humanitarian dynamics. Among the reviewer’s objections was that “after 60 years, the Palestinians are simply not ‘refugees’” (so said because they are not likely to return home) and that “the various Palestinian refugee ‘camps’ are actually towns, with buildings, not tents, and in many cases, municipal services at least at the level of the favelas of Brazil, or the townships of South Africa, to say nothing of large sections of major South Asian cities.” I will refrain here from ascribing specific political intent to these comments, but I can say that they indicate a fundamental misconception of refugee camp conditions.
Although this reviewer failed to block my application, this instance of academic refusal to recognize the historicity and variability of Palestinian refugee camps is a reflection of the problem that Refugee Heritageaddresses. It is incorrect to say that a refugee camp is essentially defined by people living in tents, but this is indeed the common image of such camps. It is also incorrect to suggest that camps are un-serviced spaces, though the service providers may be humanitarian agencies rather than governmental bodies. Refusing the effort to impose a singular and limited meaning on camps and their inhabitants is just a first step in addressing the question: What is a camp? And, especially crucial in the Palestinian case, what is a camp over the long-term?
Across seventy years of displacement, only about half of the Palestinian refugee population has ever lived in on camps, and today the percentage is considerably less (an exception being in Lebanon where UNRWA figures suggest that 58% do). But camps have always loomed large in refugee identity and Palestinian politics. One obvious reason for this importance is their symbolic value in representing Palestinian loss (of land, home, and sovereignty) and Palestinian claims (to return, restoration, and liberation). But this representative function is not the whole of the camps’ significance. Far from being frozen symbols of Palestinian demands, camps are living, transforming spaces of refugee lives. What a refugee camp can and should be is very closely tied to arguments about who, and how, refugees can and should be.
The life of the camp and its inhabitants is always caught in competing demands not only of national politics, but of humanitarian imperatives and claims by the host country. Service providers tend to view camps through the lens of protection, and sometimes development. For humanitarian actors, legitimate refugee life is often defined in the seemingly contradictory nexus of the apolitical victim and the improving subject. From that perspective, the right way to be a refugee can be to prepare for not being a refugee. This transformation is often understood as requiring work towards resettlement, becoming an object of development, and achieving self-reliance. The host countries where Palestinians have resided in exile for seventy years have often viewed camps as potential threats as much as sites of protection. Camps have indeed been spaces for political organizing and launching sites for multiple kinds of resistance. And they have been, variously, closely surveilled, tightly policed, assaulted, and sometimes demolished by host governments and other armed actors.
Camp inhabitants cannot escape the contradictory pressures to be quiescent and defiant, to be settling into exile and preparing to return home, to maintain the camp as it was and to collaborate in its improvement. But they do find a distinct path through this terrain. Part one of the Refugee Heritage UNESCO dossier recounts a conversation between two refugees from Dheisheh that is revealing. Qussay, from the camp, but now living outside (“I am not living in Dheisheh, but I am from Dheisheh”) summed it up as “the Dheisheh style—the way things move.” Qussay was speaking to the political and social dominance of Dheisheh in the Bethlehem area, contrasting the energy of the camp to surrounding municipalities where both refugees and natives reside. But what is this Dheisheh style? And can it be preserved under the rubric of “refugee heritage?” In part this style refers precisely to the political and social energy of the camp—the many NGOs, cultural organizations, and political activities that are located in and emerge from this space—but not just. It also refers to a way of living: the forms of relations with neighbors, the means of organizing commerce, and the manner of walking in the streets. All these things, this style, are part of why he also said: “when I leave home I come to Dheisheh … My relationship network is in the camp.”
The matter of style points to a possible fifth form of conservation to add to the four presented in the nomination dossier. In addition to conservation through demolition, reversal, resistance, and reconstruction, we might also think about conservation through inhabiting. Dwelling in the camp—making one’s home and family there—is one obvious means of inhabiting it, but as Qussay’s comments confirm, one can also inhabit the camp by continuing to live with it, wherever one resides. Walking the streets, doing one’s shopping in its stores, spending time with friends who live there are all forms of habitation. So too are artistic and political engagements with the range of ways that camps have been inhabited over seventy years. In my research, conducted in multiple Palestinian camps located in different countries, I frequently heard about such forms of inhabiting camps where one may no longer reside.
As a final note, I want to reference what would be the fifth required part of a UNESCO nomination package: “Protection and Management of the Property.” Across the landscape of Palestinian displacement and throughout the seventy years of exile, refugee camps have been regular targets of state and militia violence. Israeli forces attacked the Bureij camp in Gaza in 1953, the Jenin camp in the West Bank in 2002, and destroyed the Nabatiyeh camp in Lebanon in 1974. They demolished large parts of camps in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. Jordanian forces engaged Palestinian guerillas in fighting in Wihdat and Jerash camps in 1970–71, causing significant damage. Syrian supported forces destroyed Tal al Zaatar camp in Beirut in 1976. Israeli supported Phalangists massacred thousands of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut in 1982. The Lebanese army destroyed most of the Nahr el Bared camp in 2007. Nahr el Bared is being reconstructed, but many destroyed camps never were. The case made in the Refugee Heritage dossier that refugee camps are sites worthy of acknowledgment and preservation is strong. These histories of destruction confirm how many obstacles there are to their protection.
Establishing a state of permanent conflict
Naji Odeh is a veteran activist living in Dheisheh refugee Camp and among the more influential political leaders in the camp. He is also the founder of Leilak, a grassroots organization engaged in social and political initiatives addressing refugee rights.
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
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.
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.”
Camps as Trans-Local Commons
Documentation of existing tent settlement in Çınar camp, Diyarbakir, by Ashraf Nassab. Produced within Architecture Master Studio, MAU Architecture Faculty, 2016.
Pelin Tan is Associate Professor at the Architecture Faculty, Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey.
What trans-local commoning practices could exist between urbanized camps such as Dheisheh or Al-Fawar in Palestine and those recently established in Turkey? How can we redefine and experience the infrastructure of thresholds, commoning practices and methods of experimental heritage that emerge within them? And how might architectural and design pedagogies provide a common base for such understandings? Distinct geographical conditions, socio-political forces and uncommon histories make cumulative interpretation and analysis difficult. This uncommon knowledge is, however, exactly the way in which methodologies can be expanded and concepts redefined. The anachronistic forms of refugee camps lead us towards a new understanding of dwelling, one that is not grounded in practices of “empathy,” but rather of knitting the commons.
Highly secured tent and container camps first started being built in Turkey by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD)—a Turkish state administrative body operating with UN support—in 2013 to house refugees from the Syrian civil war. At the same time, many self-organized or NGO organized camps began appearing, such as in occupied bus terminals building or vacant spaces in between towns or urban neighborhoods. In both types, refugees have reorganized and adapted these spatial environments according to their everyday needs and respective backgrounds. Since 2013 I have run postgraduate design studios at the Architecture Faculty, Artuklu University, Mardin, in which we have documented and archived processes of self-organization and design in various camps, such as Calais, on the English Channel in France, to Al-Fawar and Pikpa in Lesvos, a Greek island 4km from the Turkish coast, and Midyat in Mardin, just 25km from the Syrian border in southwest Turkey. We have focused on the question of autonomous, interdependent infrastructures and commoning practices from an architectural perspective, which has led us to the camps’ heritage, both tangible and intangible.
Accompanied by a group of postgraduate students and David Harvey, I visited Dheisheh Refugee Camp in 2015 to run a workshop with Campus in Camps on the idea of “autonomous infrastructure.” Instead of basic forms of infrastructure like water or electricity, we focused primarily on solidarity, which we found to be closely linked to those more basic, material forms. One master’s student, urbanist Yildiz Tahtaci, drew a parallel between the Women’s Center and Square in Al-Fawar Refugee Camp and the women’s laundry center in Benusen, a neighborhood in Diyarbakir populated by Kurds who were forced to migrate from their villages in the 1990s and due to state-led urban development, might be forced to move again.¹ Tahtaci’s thesis was that despite their geopolitical difference, a comparison between structures of the commons can be made between recent Greek and Turkish camps and more urbanized and established ones in Palestine and Jordan.² Women from shared backgrounds like eviction and exile in both Al-Fawar and Benusen were creating threshold spaces where commons are practiced. Similarly, the kitchens, bathrooms and shared vegetable gardens we witnessed families organizing and designing during our two-year survey of Çınar camp in Diyarbakir had a parallel in Al-Fawar’s rooftop gardens.³ Thresholds function as a space of passage, a bridge that creates potentialities.⁴ Within threshold spaces such as refugee camps, detention centers or safe passages, localities are reproduced and commons are practiced through diverse social solidarities and imaginations in situations of supposedly temporary precariousness.⁵
According to Silvia Federici, commoning practices require community, which in itself is based on relations with the principles of cooperation and responsibility to one another.⁶ Examples like Pikpa camp in Lesvos—which serves more a space for safe passage rather than one of confinement—or City Plaza Hotel in Athens—an occupied space where refugee families and Greek activists together act as one—are thresholds evolving within co-existing communities. But in many refugee camps, ethnic identity and religion often act as the basis for community networks and formative relations. While this can result in social structures that leave certain inhabitants vulnerable, design can be used to ameliorate, or even subvert such conditions. Ezidi women in Çınar camp, for instance, are prohibited by their husbands to sit in front of their tents. As a response, they have built semi-public extensions to their tents from found materials like wood, blankets and humanitarian-grade plastic sheeting. While in different and at times conflicting ways, each of these cases demonstrate Federici’s claim that commoning practices not only have the ability to overcome vulnerability and precariousness, but also highlight the role of women in their becoming.
The effects of war and the active renegotiation of borders demands a transformation in the way infrastructure is approached and working with, not just as the functional and scalar threshold of architecture, but also as mechanisms that form part of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls geontologies of landscape. According to Povinelli, both “geos” (non-life) and “being” (ontology) are “currently in play in the late liberal governance of difference and markets,” in response to which she outlines new figures, tactics and discourses of power by proposing a definition of biopolitics with no separation between elements of Life and Non-life.⁷ How then can we approach infrastructural landscapes that have been shaped by war and migration, such as camps? Within such a framework I see both conflict and possibility in connecting “infrastructure” with commoning practices. Towards these ends, design and architectural pedagogy can be used as tools to understand infrastructure as empirical facts of how heterogeneous forms of the commons are rooted in daily life.⁸
The camp is a vulnerable space. It is constituted by its thresholds and the exchanges that take place across it. It is a space of small economic initiatives and heterogenous commoning practices that subvert established concepts of heritage, urban, neighborhood and citizenship. It is thus something that should be not only physically protected but also institutionally valued. The documentation and archiving of temporary heritage, that which might not be recognized by a modernist approach to preservation, is therefore essential. Çınar camp was decommissioned and all of its inhabitants were transferred to Midyat, an official, AFAD, state-run camp in December 2016. The material we collected during our two-year survey is the only lasting documentation of the heterogenous commons that took place there.⁹ Producing a collective body of knowledge about refugee camps and the representation of their commoning practices is a vital part of heritage so that it may be shared and passed on to future generations.¹⁰
1 Yildiz Tahtaci, Masters Thesis. Al-Fawar Refugee Camp Women Center survey by Yildiz Tahtaci, Isshaq Elbarbary, Ayat Al -Thursan, Pelin Tan (2016–2017)
2 Further notes forthcoming in Turkish: Pelin Tan & Ömer Faruk Günenç, “Camp: Decolonizing Architecture” in: Yapi Mimarlik Dergisi, (Yapi Endustri Merkezi, Istanbul: 2017).
3 See ➝.
4 For a more expanded discussion on the topic, see: Pelin Tan, “Architecture in Crisis: Exception as a Form of Decay”, ARQ, 92, 2016: pp. 118-125.
5 Pelin Tan, “The Unconditional Experience of Space,” in: The Unexpected Guest – Art, Writing, Thinking of Hospitality, eds. Sally Tallant & Paul Domela, (Art Books Publishing Ltd, London: 2012).
6 Silvia Federici, “Feminism And the Politics of the Commons,” The Commoner, ➝.
7 Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies (Duke University Press: 2016), 5.
8 Cyrille Hanappe, an architect who has worked with students in Calais, is another example of how architectural methodologies can be pushed beyond a humanitarian approach and deployed as a form of research. See ➝.
9 With Advanced Architecture Studio, Autumn, 2016, Mardin. Students: Ashraf Nassab, Tugba Yasar, Selim Batı,
Berat Celebioğlu, Derya Dağ, Hülya Irmak, Ferda Ocakhanoglu, Elif E.Yilmaz.
10 See, for example, the Campus in Camps publications “Common II,” “The Square” and “The Bridge,” ➝.
The Coming of Heritage: Shimelba in Time
Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi
Shimelba refugee camp, Ethiopia, 2011. Photos: Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi.
Can I ask why you came to Ethiopia? … A lot of men are being conscripted into the army.
I was not in the army. I was a member of the Ministry of Education. But … in the National Service … there is no salary. Unless you are a fighter. Those who fought for Eritrean liberation … those are eligible for something.
—interview with a Tigrinya refugee in Shimelba camp, Ethiopia, January 17, 2011_
Shimelba refugee camp, Ethiopia, 2011. Photos: Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi.
In Kunama [culture] … the community works together, builds everybody’s house in turns. They built it [her house] that way. For that she had to invite them for meals and drinks, when they were working.
—interview with a Kunama refugee in Shimelba camp, Ethiopia, January 18, 2011 (in translation)
It seems as though the culture hasn’t changed … even though they had a massive displacement.
The Kunama are very stable. They assume it is their homeland. They are economically self-sufficient. Their spirituality is very strong.
—interview with an aid worker in Shimelba camp, Ethiopia, January 17, 2011
Heritage wants narrative. The speech act of narrative implies the disciplining of time: through chronology, pace, periodization, historical consciousness. Conventional notions of heritage demand stable frames of historicity and temporal regimes. Refugee conditions breed plural orders of time and historical frameworks, each with multiplicities of fixity and unsettlement.
Within this paradox, I would like to think the Refugee Heritage proposal in relation to the Shimelba refugee camp: a constructed environment that calls into question the relationship between history and heritage from the temporal vantages of mobility and immobility and concomitant lifeworlds of going and staying. Located on the border of Eritrea some two hundred kilometers from the ruins of the city of Aksum, the seat of an ancient kingdom and a World Heritage site in the Tigray region of Ethiopia— a country that has successfully inscribed nine properties to the UNESCO World Heritage List—this camp meets none of the ten selection criteria for World Heritage. Or, thought differently, it fulfills them all.
I visited the camp in 2011, and would like to consider its constructed environment from the perspective of that moment. In January 2011, Shimelba was on pause: a place of waiting, staying, holding. Its architectural actualization was uncanny amid this temporal dispossession. The camp was all but decommissioned. The UNHCR administrative core had moved on and refugees were being resettled en masse to third countries or to new settlements in Ethiopia, but a few remained, seeing in the economics, traditions, and constructed environments of forced displacement something possible, or emergent.
In spite of its establishment in response to a contemporary war, with access to the humanitarian technologies in wide-scale use since the 1990s, Shimelba was never a tent-city. Its vernacular architecture suggested a defined historical and social order, clear visual and cultural frameworks, and common aesthetic narratives. This is to say: the heritage of Shimelba may be understood as derived from its history of disconnection from external temporal and historical flows—a type of stasis—as well as an acute formal realization of built structures and environmental relationships no longer scheduled to evolve but only to hold still—a mummification of another sort. Shimelba’s architecture—and from that, its heritage—could be said to live in relation to a narrative stillness, the extraction of time from its performance of linearity.
In 2011, the architectural heritage of Shimelba camp could be experienced through an arresting suture of two built fabrics. The first was composed of urbane thoroughfares, street cafes, and cinema houses populated by the highly literate Tigrinya majority—men who fled Asmara to avoid conscription into the war with Ethiopia. These abutted the second: villages of clay granaries, itasena (grass houses), and farms belonging the agrarian Kunama minority who cultivated and greened land that they saw as belonging to them, as part of a contiguous home territory in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. These two cultural and architectural realizations appeared distinctly in a site too remote for other forms of development, only to be abandoned after a few years, ostensibly because of political promise elsewhere. Such rupture between the urban and the bucolic has been exploited in a century of garden city movements around the world, and is a legible element in modern architectural heritage—but for an environment putatively constructed under the terms of political foreclosure?
For this question, I wish to consider the problem posed by Refugee Heritage: that the refugee camp must be understood as a “paradigmatic representation of political failure,” to which the “attempt to imagine and practice refugeeness beyond humanitarianism” must attend. While this paradigm and its response may describe conceptual factors for a heritage of the Palestinian camp—and not only Dheisheh—I would argue that they adhere precisely to Palestinian histories and representations, rather than those of all refugee camps, or of Shimelba. They are paradigmatic for the camp that, as “camp,” enacts the refugee right of return, rather than the camp that may become other things—other towns, other villages, other homes. Having said that, I would further argue that the conditions have been foreclosed under which Shimelba, a camp that perhaps need not endure politically as a “camp,” may be understood as a heritage site (even as explicitly fulfilling the universalizing contentions of the World Heritage List). This foreclosure was not engineered by its politics or form, but rather by the conceptual link between heritage, and the universalism it implies, to the camp in Palestine, at the root of the provocation here. A heritage of the Palestinian camp—a camp that cannot not be a camp—must be acknowledged within the heritage of all refugee camps. As the extremity, it contours the body; that is, the histories and representations of a Dheisheh become meaningful to a Shimelba. Following this, I argue that thinking heritage through the paradigm of the camp today—in Africa or elsewhere—demands moving through Palestine, in order to arrive at any other practice of refugeeness beyond humanitarianism.
Shimelba would not exist but for refugees. Nevertheless, a heritage for Shimelba would trace its aesthetic growth and infrastructural evolution quickly from camp to village, beyond refugees and refugeeness. This different refugee heritage was distinguished here in 2011 by the lightened touch of an elsewhere heavy international humanitarian apparatus, and heard in the quiet narratives of the Tigrinya and the Kunama suggested in the excerpts from my interviews above. These do not offer the camp as a representation of political failure, but as a nest for the incubation of other politics and economics, intellectual, pastoral, and liminal.
The promise of an alternative history offered by Shimelba may have been overdetermined by the emergence and persistence of a camp, but not necessarily by the colonial paradigm of occupation. However, in my argument, in order to pose the question of camp as heritage, because Shimelba was a camp during a historical period that included the Palestinian camp means that it is burdened to meet requirements external to its self-conceptualization. It must address the Palestinian referent. Refugee Heritage poses a universal argument. Instead, I would use the example of Shimelba in time to suggest that Dheisheh, as historically and architecturally grounded in the Palestinian colonial, produces a universal standard not for the camp but for the historical narrative of camps—and thus, the attendant understanding of refugee heritage. Put another way: ironically, but necessarily, to get to the refugee heritage of Shimelba, one must pass through that of Dheisheh.
In one sense, this problem would contribute to the ever-eclipsing of the African narrative, reinforcing that it must only exist in relation to others. Moreover, it veils the real possibility that at the time of my visit, Shimelba may no longer have been a refugee camp, and that by then, conceptually, it may have moved on to the forms from which another heritage—refugee or not—might derive. To know this, however, would be to move through and beyond Palestine, in order to move beyond the refugeeness of today’s camps, to the forms of time that, in Shimelba, occasioned going or staying as forms of speech: representing politics, history, and cultural heritage. I would like to offer Shimelba as a heritage site with the understanding that, if its heritage is to be linked to its character as a refugee camp, its history must take into account the terms of colonial occupation, and a history of Palestine’s camps, including the narratives its buildings have represented.
The buildings of Shimelba in 2011 represent narratives, whether or not they were or would be inhabited or abandoned. In camps, buildings may endure, but people wait. Heritage comes both ways.
Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi is a historian of architecture and Fellow at the Harvard University Mahindra Center for the Humanities, and will be joining the faculty of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her research draws from two book projects, Architecture of Humanitarianism: The Dadaab Refugee Camps and Emergency Urbanism in History andVocal Instruments: Minnette De Silva and an Asian Modern Architecture.
Map of the restrictions on Palestinian Movement in Hebron, August, 2011. Source: B’Tselem.
To have future for Palestinian refugee camps, we need to undo what I call “spatio-cidal” Israeli colonial project in the Palestinian territories. “Spatio-cidal” (as opposed to genocidal) targets land for the purpose of rendering the “voluntary” transfer of the Palestinian population inevitable. Spatio-cide is a deliberate ideology with unified, albeit dynamic rationale because it is in constant interaction with the emergent contexts and actions of Palestinian resistance.
Spatio-cide can be understood primarily as the confiscation of lands in order to construct Jewish settlements, house demolitions and population transfers. Spatio-cide involves a mix between three strategies. Firstly, to paraphrase Kenneth Hewitt, spatio-cide involves “space annihilation,” or a mass destruction of the space, similar to that witnessed in Europe during World War Two with the destruction of Dresden, Hiroshima, or settlements in north-west France, though obviously the execution is different in Israel’s case, such as the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp in 2001.¹ The second strategy of spatio-side is ethnic cleansing, Ilan Pappé has demonstrated was, historically, not a circumstance or consequence of war, but rather a purported goal of combat for early Israeli military units led by David Ben-Gurion.² Since 1967, this strategy has prepared the grounds for dispossession by creating Jewish settlements within Palestinian territory. The third strategy, deployed in the face of resistance to space annihilation and ethnic cleansing, consists of what Oren Yiftachel calls “creeping apartheid.”³ Creeping apartheid manipulates increasingly impregnable ethnic, geographic, and economic barriers between groups vying for recognition, power, and resources.
Spatio-cide does not therefore entail a “postmortem city,” as Chris Hables Gray described an aerial “damage assessment” map of Tokyo after US firebombing devastated the city and killed over 130,000 civilians in a few hours on March 9, 1945.⁴ Spatio-cide is a rather spectacular kind of destruction either without or with very little death. In the December 2008 War on Gaza, 1,334 Palestinians were killed, compared with 18 Israelis, but what was most spectacular about the war was the destruction: 4,100 housing units were completely destroyed and 17,000 partially damaged.⁵ Since 1967 until 2017, over 14,500 Palestinians from Jerusalem have lost their right to live in the city.⁶
In 1993, during the Yugoslav wars, architect and former mayor of Belgrade Bogdan Bogdanović coined the term “urbicide” to describe the destruction of Balkan cities. Serbian nationalism romanticized rural villages, where a single community spirit could predominate. Conversely, the city, was a symbol of communal and cultural multiplicity; the antithesis of the Serbian ideal. In the Palestinian occupied territories, the entire landscape has been targeted. The weapons of mass destruction used against it are not so much tanks as they are bulldozers, destroying streets, houses, cars, and dunam after dunam of olive trees. This is war in the age of agoraphobia—the fear of space—seeking not the division of territory but its abolition. A trail of devastation stretches as far as the eye can see: a jumble of demolished buildings, leveled hillsides and flattened wild and cultivated vegetation. This barrage of concentrated damage has been wrought not only by bombs and tanks but by more industrious forms, toppling properties like a violent tax assessor.
The Israeli project currently has “demographic transfer” as its objective, or what one Israeli minister has called a “voluntary transfer” of the Palestinian population by transforming Palestinian topos into atopia; turning territory into mere land. It is by means of spatio-cide that Israel is preparing such a population transfer. Already, since the beginning of the Intifada in 2000 until 2007, around 180,000 Palestinians have left the country; some 5.3 percent of the population. During the same time, 77,759 housing units were damaged by the tactic of house demolitions, of which 8,103 were destroyed completely in the Palestinian Territory.⁷ Destruction has taken place mainly in Rafah, Jenin, Nablus, Hebron and Jerusalem. Many of the refugees of these demolitions are already refugees from 1948 or 1967.
Transfer is also brought about with the “de-naturalization” of some 200,000 Palestinians who have found themselves trapped between Israel’s West Bank barriers and are now neither in Palestinian nor Israeli space, but are rather de facto stateless and space-less. People have been forced to migrate internally as well. In Hebron, for instance, some 5,000 people (850 families) have left the Old City to neighboring villages because of Jewish settler vigilantism, harassment, and violence, as well as Israeli army imposed curfews.
This “spatio-cide” has been rendered possible by the Israeli division of Palestinian territory into zones A, B, B-, B+, C, H1 and H2. These areas are themselves fragmented by the bypass routes system, dividing the West Bank into sixty-four small Cantons. With such a scheme, national infrastructural development is almost impossible, not just due to the fragmentation of space, but also to the fragmentation of the Palestinian political system. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) cannot, for example, implement water reservoir projects for a set of villages if the pipeline passes through zone C. Paving of the new road between Bethlehem and Hebron was halted in 1999 because Israel did not grant authorization to pass through zone C. There has been urban development in zones A and B, but these are always surrounded by Israeli zones, curtailing the possibilities for industrial or residential urban expansion.
Israeli Power Matrix
The normalization of the state of exception in the Palestinian territories is a facilitating framework that is moderated, legitimized, and reproduced by the logic of humanitarian concern that is driven by an inverse moral aspiration, yet assumes an analogous structure of exception. For Palestinian refugee camp dwellers, humanitarian organizations fall into the trap of the Israeli sovereign power that have disqualified the life of this population from political meaning. Why are they there? Why are they not able to return? Palestinian humanitarianism is a new form, a new conception of humanity, stripped of its political meaning. The involvement of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the reconstruction of the Jenin refugee camp after its partial destruction by the IDF in 2001 is revealing in this sense. Instead of alleviating the crowdedness of the camps by advocating for the return of refugees to their place of origin (a third of Jenin’s refugees come from the village of Zaraan, located just seventeen kilometers west of the city), UNRWA pursued two options: rebuilding the camp while respecting its boundaries, and asking the Jenin municipality to allocate a piece of land to allow for its expansion.
This form of humanitarianism is spread throughout not only the Palestinian territories but Lebanon as well. In 2005, the Swiss embassy mobilized a Swiss humanitarian agency to fund a workshop with Palestinian and Lebanese experts to assess the need for Palestinians to receive more vocational training. The agency argued that with this, refugees would be able to work as qualified workers without the need to change the existing legal framework that bars them from work, denying them access to any profession and even to the formal labor market. I was a participant in this workshop and spoke vehemently against its rationale and against working within the framework of existing rights. Tensions rose, and there were many clashes between the Palestinian and the Lebanese participants. The Swiss agency then called for two ad hoc meetings: one with Palestinian experts and another with Lebanese experts. A representative of the Swiss agency told me that I was politicizing the process; she argued that her agency is a humanitarian one, and therefore cannot address the right to work for Palestinian refugees. After heated arguments, she threatened to withdraw funding. I cynically replied that there were many refugee communities in Africa that deserve more attention than Palestinian refugees, and we would be glad to divert the funding to them. One member of the Palestinian delegation was unhappy with what I had said and asked me to use “I” instead of “we.” My comments criticized the donor community for their dichotomous thinking: relief vs. development and humanitarianism vs. politics.
Humanitarian organizations deprive refugees of their political existence by treating them as bodies to be fed and sheltered. Humanitarian law refers to “protected people,” but current humanitarian practices either focus on “victims” or, to appear more positive, they refer to them as “survivors.” By classifying people as victims or even as survivors, the basis of humanitarian action is shifted from rights to welfare. In disaster areas—spaces of exception—values of generosity and pragmatism obscure the rights and responsibilities of refugees that would endow them with their own agency. The consequence of this is that, denied a work permit, Palestinian refugees are forced to work in the black market under conditions of severe precarity, vulnerability, and exploitation. Indeed, the majority of Palestinian refugees of Lebanon live in poverty, which can be observed across a number of socio-economic spectra such as low income, few assets, poor housing, educational achievements, health, and others.
I have been very interested in demystifying the depoliticization of humanitarianism since the beginning of the Second Intifada. When I became research director of the program “Policy and Governance in Palestinian Refugee Camps” at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), I helped to organize lectures with practitioners from international and local organizations, further contributing to the debate on humanitarianism. When Karen Abu Zeid, the former Commissioner General of UNRWA, was invited to IFI as a guest, she too, recognized the tension between the political and the humanitarian. For her, “This tension is manifested in a variety of ways. One of its most striking manifestations is the contrast between the readiness of states to fund emergency responses, compared to their failure to address the questions of international law and politics that cause these emergencies.” That tension is clear in the way in which the urgency to resolve underlying questions of justice and peace for Palestinians is somehow divorced from the challenge of providing for their human needs.
1 Kenneth Hewitt, “Place annihilation: Area bombing and the fate of urban places,” in: Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 73, no. 2, 1983: pp. 257-284.
2 Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publication, 2006).
3 Oren Yiftachel Ethnocracy: land and identity politics in Israel/Palestine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
4 Stephen Graham, “Postmortem City: Towards an Urban Geopolitics” City, vol. 8, no. 2, 2004.
5 See PCBS release preliminary estimated for the Economic Losses in Gaza Strip caused by Israeli Aggression, ➝.
6 See ➝.
7 Source: ➝. These figures are quite similar to those calculated by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, with more details distinguishing between demolition of houses as punishment, demolition of houses built without permits and demolition for alleged military purposes. See ➝.
Sari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology and chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (Arabic), Vice President of both the International Sociological Association and the Arab Council of Social Science, and author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on the political and economic sociology of the Palestinian diaspora and refugees; sociology of migration; transnationalism; politics of scientific research; civil society and elite formation and transitional justice.
Ayat Al Turshan, Coordinator of the Women’s Centre in Al Fuwwar Refugee Camp