Tree School, Dubai (2022)

Presented by Alserkal Arts Foundation in Dubai, the tree school gathered in different locations around the city over four consecutive evenings, from Monday 27 February to Thursday 2 March 2023.

The Tree School Chronicles is a day-by-day written response to Tree school sessions written by Reem Farah, a researcher and writer.

Monday, 27 February, Creek Park

Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti’s work together through Decolonizing Architecture Art Research (DAAR) can be understood as a series of propositions about the humanity of spaces. The work of reinterpretation is evident in the oxymoronic formulations of their project titles such as ‘Commoning the Private’ (2021-), ‘Refugee Heritage’ (2015-2021), or ‘Concrete Tent’ (2015-16).

In 2012, Sandi and Alessandro began to explore spaces of knowledge creation in relation to the refugee camp through ‘Campus in Camps’ with the intention of highlighting refugee camps as a source of knowledge creation rather than as subject of humanitarianism and other forms of imposition.

In 2014, Sandi and Alessandro were invited to Bahia for the 31st Bienal de São Paulo. Coming from Palestine, preoccupied with the political notion of return, they posed the question of return to a collective of artist participants composed of the Quilombos people, a community of slavery descendants who continue to resist occupation today. In response to the prompt, Sandi recounts that Quilombos representatives expressed: ‘We return each time we plant a Baobab tree’.

This occasion marked the beginning of Tree School and DAAR’s continuing commitment to notions of non-hierarchy and unlearning in knowledge creation. Nine years later, in the midst of a horizontally sprawling Baobab tree in an indiscriminate corner of Creek Park, Dubai, Sandi and Alessandro hosted the latest edition of Tree School.

Tree School is a project about pedagogy, yet it begins with the prompt: ‘What is Home to you?’ At first, the question seems like an icebreaker rather than an investigation into the project itself, but as spaces of confluence, ‘home’ and ‘school’ are indeed interlinked.

The question ‘where are you from?’ or ‘where do you call home?’ is loaded. When Sandi and Alessandro asked the question last night, they invited us to articulate a feeling of home and to share our struggles around home, presupposing the physical and emotional conflicts that come with it.

An Iraqi participant described the feeling of putting up a painting on the wall for the first time after becoming a naturalised citizen of another country and taking it for granted years down the line. Another described the feeling of neither here nor there and the rejection of dual-nationality. Another raised the irony of feeling at home under difficult and precarious circumstances, but discomfort under idyllic ones. One participant described herself as simply nomad. Many participants echoed that after searching, they found home within themselves particularly within their body as a vessel that moves through the world.

As one participant noted, we inhabit a time where displacement is more normal than not. But I was not expecting this readiness to accept home as physically unbound and elusive. Is it an unfulfilled acquiescence, or true liberation? I worried that this is complacency in the face of our hard-fought anti-colonial struggles. That is until a participant reminded me of my own experience of finding a superior sense of belonging among communities that share struggle with one another irrespective of geography or language. I began to ask myself how the struggle for the land is different than the struggle for home? What are the boundaries of home-land?

I looked at birds circling above us and the baobab tree and thought, perhaps we are now more like migratory birds than like trees; for us home is someplace to return to.

Tuesday, 28 February, Alserkal Arts Foundation Project Space, Warehouse 50

The second session of Tree school was hosted in a majlis setting at Alserkal Avenue, a slight departure from the shade of a literal tree. The majlis represents the traditional setting of hosting in the Gulf, and our gathering there was intended to complicate traditional hosting spaces through notions of non-hierarchy. While the environment affects the shape that the gathering takes, nothing– or rather no-one is more determinant of Tree School conversations and learnings than the participants themselves. We are the sources of knowledge in the room and our contributions begin to form collective threads of thought and in many instances, to tangle and untangle them.

We speak together in the English language, but our linguistic, cultural, and political histories are significant. Certain words from languages that Sandi and Alessandro inhabit have endured with them across multiple tree schools, including the Italian word Ritrovo meaning joy in togetherness and the Arabic word Mujawara for an indigenous neighbouring practice connoting non-hierarchy.

While DAAR has resisted institutionalising a methodology for Tree School, they lean on keywords as ‘ingredients’ to constitute a sort of glossary. They stress that they are only offering ingredients— and not the recipe— leaving each participant to taste and cook as they like. They invite us to propose words to the list in an effort to expand or reinforce our collective knowledge frames.

One word proposed by Sandi following the thread surrounding home, is the word Ghurba. Coming from the root Gharb, or West, (referring to where the sun sets, rather than the geopolitical identifier of the ‘Western world’) the Arabic word Ghurba speaks to the feeling of estrangement. Urdu speaking participants noted how it may have travelled to mean loss or impoverishment. Persians emphasised the inflections of nostalgia in the Farsi term, and a Turkish speaker explained that it is used as a way of identifying the state of living abroad rather than an emotional condition.

It matters where words come from and how they travel. Defining words and unearthing their roots is like asking words the same questions we have so thoughtfully and carefully been asking ourselves: ‘where do you call home?’. But to some, the return to this question seemed superfluous, the complication of language seemed unnecessary and they argued that human connection should transcend all that.

Yes, the question “where are you from” may not always be friendly or welcome, but as a participant pointed out, it matters who asks it, and why. Unfortunately human connection is not class- nor colour-blind and we all fall within layered global and local power structures that— whether we acknowledge or not— we navigate everyday with varying degrees of privilege.

I noticed alongside the practice of definition, we were practising another epistemology: that of differentiation, or signifying slight differences between similar words, objects, positions, and experiences in an effort to understand ourselves and each other better.

To differentiate between two Arabic words for home: Bayt, coming from the space where one sleeps, and Dar, coming from drawing a circle surrounding oneself, denotes the active verb in dar that distinguishes it from bayt.

The reason that Sandi and Alessandro define words in multiple languages, differentiate across them, and encourage the generation of new words to be applied across contexts, is because the Tree School is an opportunity to generate collective knowledge that does not depart from imposed frames, but rather from within us. Perhaps the reason we keep returning home is to return to the basics of where subaltern knowledge lies.

In response to the effort to develop the Tree School glossary of words, one participant problematized the initiative, saying that power dynamics do not only exist among people but across languages: not only with English as the dominant language with pervasive colonial impact but in the relation between Arabic and South-Asian languages in the Gulf. It is these worthwhile questions that Tree School generates and grapples with.


Wednesday, 1 March, Desert Campfire

When we arrived at the desert for the third session of Tree School, a few of us took our shoes and socks off, dug our feet in the sand, and went to climb up the dunes. We returned to a small campfire, karak tea, and a oud player who had infused the atmosphere with familiar medlies from across the region, which conjured home for me.

You could sense that strangers had broken a threshold, and return-participants had formed a repertoire and familiarity. I may still not know someone’s name, but I sense that like me they struggled when moving to Dubai or that we both hesitate before public speaking.

By the time we formed a circle there was a warmth that did not come from the campfire. People riffed off of each others’ stories, told jokes, and laughed freely. Those who had stayed silent in past sessions were sharing with ease. I noticed I was making more eye contact, something had dissipated. The oud player sat among us, and Sandi— who had in a previous session confessed that her experience of ghurbah made listening to Arabic music at length difficult— willed the oud player to play in frequent intervals.

Not much later, it started to rain! When does it rain just like that here? and in the middle of the desert? Someone reminded me of cloud seeding which slightly dampened my enthusiasm, but not my imagination that in some way this was the watering of Tree School seeds that seemed to be now setting fruit.

We broke out for grilled corn and the music lured us back to a makeshift tent we huddled closer together under in a disfigured L-shape. This worked well as we avoided campfire smoke blowing in the direction of empty seats.

The seats produced by Alserkal Foundation for this Tree School edition were canvas and wood stools with keywords and brief definitions printed on each one. The stools intentionally opened to look like book easels where we would sit as sources of knowledge, or open books. So many of the words we had been discussing in the abstract came to life, making themselves felt and understood.


It was in the rain, but also in the impact of sensorial experiences we didn’t expect, in friendships forming and new voices that joined, accumulating meaning upon words we exchanged across languages that shared unlikely meanings across distances. Unpredictability actually felt like serendipity.

Transgression or Tajawoz:

Sandi invoked the word transgression once again, but it took on a new meaning in this moment. She explained how Tajawoz (transgressing) and Ijaza (vacation) share the root ‘Jaza’ in Arabic, meaning ‘you can’ or ‘you are permitted’ verging on ‘you should’. Going to a place of rest, comfort, fun, and freedom, is transgressive and indeed transformative. This spoke to what I was witnessing in the ease with which the conversation flowed when people were not taking it so seriously.


Perhaps we wouldn’t have understood the significance of unpredictability and transgression if we did not dislocate, if we did not come to the desert. In the first session, Alessandro had noted the importance of our bodies in generating thoughts and feelings about home and other personal inquiries. I had struggled with this in the majlis, but it was more immediate barefoot on the sand, moving across the circle, disfiguring the circle, and even standing up to be heard when we talk.

A few stools were left blank for participants to introduce new words to, and our conversation revolved around this.

A Somali participant proposed the word Liver:

She explained that in Somalia the liver is an organ housing love. For her home was visceral. Whether it came with ache, angst, or relief, the feeling lived in the body and not the mind.


Despite degrees of anxiety that we all may feel in public and/or intimate settings, so many participants have been forthcoming. Modern standards of knowledge are meant to be scientific, objective, logical, but it fails the test of time if it is not honest and vulnerable. Last night, rather than talking about the intellectual or generalised condition of ghurbrah, one participant who was shy to speak confounded me with his bravery by saying that he was feeling plain loneliness. Spaces of gathering like Tree School could achieve intellectual interventions but they create spaces of reprieve which is more urgent and rewarding, even necessary.


At least two participants introduced the word friendship in different languages. ‘Walii’ specifically from the Quran for a friend that provides a protective presence, and ‘khairkhwah dost’ in Urdu for a friend that takes care of you.


A Mexican participant put forth the Nahuatl word Apachocho meaning ‘hug from the soul’ and even if we didn’t break out in a physical group hug, it felt like the word, in all its simplicity, touched each of us with its invocation.

I don’t want to liken this session of Tree School to recess or a field trip, but social connection is a core part of even the most authoritative of schools, and a common denominator in the ways we feel home. Although what happened yesterday felt accidental, it may have been the point all along.

Thursday, 2 March, Perfume House at Al Shindagha Museum and Mazmi Cafe, Dubai Creek

The closing session of Tree School began in Perfume House at Al Shindagha Museum and ended in a creek-side cafe overlooking docked and sailing dhows. These locations were meant to invoke a large but unspoken part of Tree School; the roles of hosting and hospitality in the spaces we’ve created over the past few days.

We have spoken about non-hierarchy and mujawara / neighbouring as social and learning relations throughout Tree School, but Sandi and Alessandro were central facilitators, and Alserkal Foundation organised settings and prepared food. Now that the hosts roll up the mats, and pack away the food, as Tree School comes to a close, how do we make sense of these roles?

The Perfume House is a sensorial exhibit of Emirati rituals and traditions through fragrance. There, Alessandro invited us to reflect on what we consider knowledge and how we overlook forms of knowledge when the bulk of our heritage, like bakhour, is invisible.

Hospitality is a ritual-based practice across the region. In Emirati culture, incense is lit in anticipation of guests’ arrival to welcome them, and turnt off to signal the end of a gathering.

Think about how people from across the region fight— oftentimes tooth and nail— to pay the bill. This practice is dumbfounding to Western onlookers. However, Sandi argues, it is because hosting is a way of holding power. Although the host is gracious, they control the space.

According to Islam – الضيافة ٣ أيام وما بعد صدقة translating into “Hospitality is for 3 days, and thereafter it is charity”. This is not only to say that hosts should not overstay their welcome, but also that if we do not hand over power and let others host, that we inevitably begin to exploit our power.

It was now the fourth day of Tree School, so three days of hospitality had elapsed. Sandi and Alessandro invited us to move to a cafe where neither DAAR, nor Alserkal Arts Foundation, nor the participants— but a neutral third party would host. It was there that we were to say our goodbyes. In my experience of Arab culture, goodbyes can take longer than the initial gathering, and Sandi and Alessandro seemed to have accounted for this.

In our last hour together that Sandi termed ‘closure’, gratitude was the defining characteristic. One participant described how Tree School transformed her, and that over the past four days, she had found confidence in public speaking. Another acknowledged the kinship and community they found among others. Another explained the rarity of a conversational setting formed around doubtful and personal knowledge rather than regurgitating the news and name dropping. One participant gave gifts, handwritten words she noted, handing one to each participant. DAAR and the Foundation reciprocated thanks for the faith they shared in each other upon collaborating.

Then we asked what next? When will the next Tree School take place? Can we replicate it within our communities? How do we put our newfound learnings to practise? The questions continue to ring in my head as they were left unanswered.

Before I left, I hugged Sandi goodbye, and she asked me to deliver hugs, kisses and new educational rituals that I’ve learnt (including all I am actively unlearning) to my baby daughter. I smiled. I am most grateful for Tree School for introducing me to methods of subverting traditional educational systems and parenting inclinations that will enhance our— her and my own learning journeys together.