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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation

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Abstract

Abstract: This chapter engages an emerging body of literature which explores the multidimensional connections between refugee camps and cities. In contrast with the existing literature, which is primarily written by external observers and analysts, this chapter centralises subjective experiences and perceptions of both camps and cities from diverse perspectives over time and space. It especially critiques the denomination of camps as ‘non-symbolized and abstract spaces’ and their supposed failure to integrate ‘sacrificial’ and ‘ritual moments’. [...] Far from an official historiography of the Palestinian or other camps, this chapter therefore invites further conversations between differently-situated individuals to explore the interconnectivities between diverse types of camps and forms of city-space. It centralises subjective accounts constituted and reconstituted at a critical distance and incorporating comparative experiences which facilitate a sharper and more multi-faceted understanding of these spaces and diverse dynamics. The nature of Palestinian refugee camps is thus addressed through a reflection on the position of the individual and the collectivity in relation to the construction and reconstruction of ‘the camp’ at home and away. The diverse traces and symbolisms embodied in such camp-like spaces are illuminated, as are the ways in which refugees, and those bearing the signs of ‘refugeeness’, negotiate their belonging to a medium which is both abstract and yet ever-present.
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RESCRIPTING RELIGION IN THE CITY
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Rescripting Religion in the City
Migration and Religious Identity in the
Modern Metropolis
Edited by
JANE GARNETT
Wadham College, University of Oxford, UK
ALANA HARRIS
Lincoln College, University of Oxford, UK
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© Jane Garnett and Alana Harris 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.
Jane Garnett and Alana Harris have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identied as the editors of this work.
Published by
Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate Publishing Company
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Union Road Suite 3-1
Farnham Burlington, VT 05401-3818
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England
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Rescripting religion in the city : migration and religious identity in the modern
metropolis/edited by Jane Garnett and Alana Harris.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4094-3774-1 – ISBN 978-1-4094-3775-8 (ebook) –
ISBN 978-1-4724-0352-0 (epub) 1. Cities and towns–Religious aspects. 2. Emigration
and immigration–Religious aspects. 3. Identication (Religion) 4. Identity (Psychology)–
Religious aspects. I. Garnett, Jane, editor of compilation.
BL65.C57R47 2013
200.9173ꞌ2–dc23
2013002712
ISBN 9781409437741 (hbk)
ISBN 9781409437758 (ebk – PDF)
ISBN 9781472403520 (ebk – ePUB)
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Chapter 10
Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh
Throughout my childhood, my mother would sporadically leave our refugee
camp, sometimes with us [my siblings and me] and at times with other women,
and walk through the Lebanese neighbourhood bordering our camp, to the
isolated mound which was home to the wali [holy man]. Reaching this annexed
space, neither camp nor city, exposed us to our Lebanese ‘neighbours’ en route
to the shrine. Walking with my mother and my siblings, the shrine’s green
exterior would appear; we knew to be silent as we approached the tomb. As
we started to read al-Fatiha,1 my mother sometimes cried, whispering her calls
to Heaven. I never questioned my mother’s intentions as she completed these
religious exercises in this secluded, private space – as if it were an extension of
the mosque we left behind in the camp, a spiritual correlative for my mother and
other women.2
This chapter engages an emerging body of literature which explores the
multi-dimensional connections between refugee camps and cities. Such literature
includes considerations of whether refugee camps ‘can be likened to virtual cities
in view of their population and demographic density’,3 assessing camps’ and
camp-dwellers’ positions vis-à-vis basic typologies of urban concentration and
processes of urbanization. Other studies explore ‘the phenomena of refugee camps
with the methodologies of architecture and urbanism’, identifying desert-based
camps as a ‘borderline case’ of urbanity4 or the military destruction of Palestinian
refugee camps such as Nahr el-Bared as a case of ‘urbicide’.5 More philosophical
1 Al-Fatiha is the rst chapter of the Qur’ān.
2 Very few women in the Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon referred to in
this extract attend the camp’s mosques, preferring to pray indoors. With only one mosque
in Baddawi camp (Masjid al-Sunna) having a female prayer room, women typically pray
at home. Although men as a collective are religiously obligated to attend the mosque
for jumu’ah prayers (Friday prayers), women are exempted from doing so and at times
individually visit the shrine to perform extra rituals beyond their required prayers.
3 Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos and Peter Mwangi Kagwanja, ‘Refugee Camps
or Cities? The Socio-Economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern
Kenya’, Journal of Refugee Studies 13/2 (2000): 205–22, at p. 205.
4 Manuel Herz, From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara
(Zurich, 2012).
5 Adam Ramadan, ‘Destroying Nahr el-Bared: Sovereignty and Urbicide in the Space
of Exception’, Political Geography 28/3 (2009): 153–63.
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Rescripting Religion in the City
132
reections in turn examine refugee camps as ‘non-places’ or ‘spaces of indistinction’
which ‘do not integrate other places, meanings, traditions and sacricial, ritual
moments but remain, due to a lack of characterization, non-symbolized and
abstract spaces’.6
In contrast with the existing literature, which is primarily written by external
observers and analysts, this chapter centralizes subjective experiences and
perceptions of both camps and cities from diverse perspectives over time and
space. It especially critiques the denomination of camps as ‘non-symbolized and
abstract spaces’ and their supposed failure to integrate ‘sacricial’ and ‘ritual
moments’. As noted by one of the authors of this piece:
My role here is not to talk about the historiography of ‘the camps’, but
rather to present my own perceptions and my own ghts with these places.
I was born in Baddawi camp on the outskirts of the Northern Lebanese city
of Tripoli. According to many Palestinians, Baddawi is an insignicant camp
in the sense that it is not as popular as other refugee camps such as Shatila
in Beirut and Ain el-Helwe in Sidon. We used to visit my mothers family in
Nahr el-Bared camp nearby, and we spent a very long time there, visiting and
staying in contact with my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, cousins, and of
course their respective families. We always perceived that their celebrations,
as well as their funerals, embodied the continuity of our common presence in
Lebanon. Hence, throughout my life, the journey itself to Nahr el-Bared has
embodied an unbreakable link between one camp and another through a non-
camp space. However, the unbreakable nature of this link was both amputated
and transmuted due to the Lebanese military’s destruction of Nahr el-Bared in
2007, which entailed the physical erasure of the camp and the relocation of
the entire camp population, including my relatives, to my own family camp –
Baddawi – and other camps across Lebanon. Despite the physical destruction of
the camp infrastructure, or what Ramadan refers to as an instance of ‘urbicide’,
this space, this land, still bears the traces of both the living and the deceased,
and my mother has continued to visit the cemetery where my grandparents and
relatives are buried in Nahr el-Bared. If the destruction of Nahr el-Bared in
and of itself embodied a nakba within the Nakba,7 the determination to return,
visit and revisit the cemetery there has become a central form of solidarity with
6 Bülent Diken, ‘From Refugee Camps to Gated Communities: Biopolitics and the
End of the City’, Citizenship Studies 8/1 (2004): 83–106, at p. 91 (referring to Marc Augé).
7 Nakba (catastrophe) is the Arabic term used to denote the mass exodus from Palestine
in 1948 (see Constantine Zureik, Ma’na al-Nakba [Beirut, 1948]). The notion of a nakba
within the Nakba therefore refers to an additional catastrophe (such as the destruction of the
camp and subsequent displacement from Nahr el-Bared) within the overarching national
catastrophe. As noted by Adonis, ‘place is not outside of a human being but rather inside
and so every spoilage of the place is damaging to human beings’ (‘Beirut Today: A Veritable
City or a Mere Historical Name?’, Home Works II [Oct.–Nov. 2003]: 14–23, at p. 15).
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 133
memory and history. Since leaving the camps to live in Beirut and later Oxford,
I have completed what I would refer to as a benign desertion of the camps – this
is a physical absence that allows you, or perhaps requires you, to reect on the
ways in which you perceive and understand camps and cities. It is as if I needed
that absence from the camp to be able to evaluate the situation from a different
location.
Far from an ofcial historiography of the Palestinian or other camps, this
chapter therefore invites further conversations between differently situated
individuals to explore the interconnectivities between diverse types of camps and
forms of city-space. It centralizes subjective accounts constituted and reconstituted
at a critical distance and incorporating comparative experiences which facilitate
a sharper and more multi-faceted understanding of these spaces and diverse
dynamics. The nature of Palestinian refugee camps is thus addressed through a
reection on the position of the individual and the collectivity in relation to the
construction and reconstruction of ‘the camp’ at home and away. The traces and
symbolisms embodied in such camp-like spaces are illuminated, as are the ways
in which refugees and those bearing the signs of ‘refugeeness’ negotiate their
belonging to a medium which is both abstract and yet ever-present.8
The chapter presents the outcome of an iterative process which has involved
the development of three rhetorical lenses which ultimately culminate in the
emergence of a joint voice.9 It derives from a preliminary informal conversation
held between, and subsequently transcribed by, the two authors: YMQ, a poet
and translator who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp and who lived and
worked in a variety of camps in Lebanon before arriving in the United Kingdom,
and EFQ, a scholar working within the eld of refugee studies with extensive
academic experience of conducting research in and about refugee camps and urban
hosting contexts in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than systematically
presenting these two voices as separate and distant interpretive positions, however,
it is precisely the long-standing shared and intimate connection and attachment
with each others’ experiences, interpretations and re-interpretations of such
matters which has led to the explicit development of a third voice. In spatial terms,
once could depict this as a multi-directional and uid movement between space A
and space B into the constitution of space C, a hybrid ‘Third Space of enunciation’
(following Bhabha).10 It is this intense personal and academic interconnectivity
8 This chapter can usefully be read in conjunction with Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s
multi-sited contribution regarding Muslim asylum-seekers’ and refugees’ inter-generational
negotiation of religious identity and practice in three key city-scapes in this volume.
9 We thank the editors of this volume for encouraging us to implement this rhetorical
device in our piece.
10 Bhabha refers to the Third Space as a ‘contradictory and ambivalent space of
enunciation’ arguing that ‘it is in this space that we will nd those words with which we
can speak of Ourselves and Others. And by exploring this hybridity, this “Third Space”, we
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Rescripting Religion in the City
134
and the recognition of the processes of mutual inuence underpinning both our
individual and conjoined perspectives, which has led to the development of this
third voice, which neither negates nor conrms our respective views. While
the original transcribed conversation which underpins this piece was formally
structured as YMQ and EFQ respectively posing and responding to one another’s
questions, ideal-typically from the position of insider and outsider,11 the third voice
aims neither to dilute nor to articially amplify the divergences and similarities of
our opinions. As a result, and perhaps as a direct reection of the increasingly uid
ways in which both camps/cities and normative and symbolic religious/spiritual
practices and identities are conceptualized, this chapter at times presents a clearly
identiable speaker whose lived experiences are immediately recognizable as
‘their own’, while at other times the authors’ voices and perspectives are blurred.
In addition to reecting on the tropes of cities and camps and focusing in
particular on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and camp-like spaces
constituted by Palestinians elsewhere, the chapter investigates selected religious
or sacred dimensions of experience within city/camp life and a range of ways
in which social and socio-cultural rituals and religious practices may overlap in
these contexts. In so doing, it transcends an explicit identication and analysis of
religious modes per se and rather develops an ‘alternative’ articulation of forms
of expression and identication which may, or may not, fall within the traditional
remit of ‘religious studies’.12
may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves’ (Homi K. Bhabha,
‘Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences’, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Grifths and Helen
Tifn [eds], The Post-Colonial Studies Reader [2nd edn, New York, 2006]), pp. 155–7, at
pp. 156, 157).
11 In earlier collaborative work, we addressed the researcher’s insider–outsider
position in more detail and presented ‘an invitation for future research to invite refugees
and asylum-seekers to become co-researchers rather than simply “participants” and
“interviewees”’ (Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, ‘Asylum-Seekers
and Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa: Negotiating Politics, Religion and
Identity in the UK’, Journal of Refugee Studies 23/3 [2010]: 294–314, at pp. 300–1). The
present chapter transcends this denomination of ‘co-researchers’ through the alternative
rhetorical voice and invocation of Bhabha’s Third Space of enunciation.
12 As argued by Talal Asad, ‘there cannot be a universal denition of religion’, as
its ‘constitutive elements and relationships are historically specic, [and] because that
denition itself is an historical by-product of discursive processes’ (Genealogies of Religion:
Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam [Baltimore, MD, 1993], p. 29).
In line with his argument, this piece is guided by the recognition that ‘religious symbols
cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with non-religious symbols
or their articulations in and of social life, in which work and power are always crucial’
(ibid., p. 53). As such, we draw upon and explore a range of symbols and practices which
can be seen as marking and being marked by temporality, permanence and/or transient
permanence in a specic historical and geopolitical context: that of the Palestinian refugee
camps in Lebanon.
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 135
At least two ontological religious modes emerge as being prevalent in
Palestinian camps such as Baddawi. The rst is intimately and inherently related
to religion as an organic power which sheds light on the individual’s beliefs as
well as his/her practices according to a clear set of principles and values governed
by faith itself. The second is the metaphorical condition which gives the camp
a central role in people’s lives as the all-encompassing sphere to which people
return in an attempt to seek validation of their identities as refugees.
In other words, camps themselves have become a key destination-point (both for
those of us who live in the camps and those of us who have been able to leave to live
elsewhere), which can only be accessed through a laborious process of identication
and understanding of the place itself. Palestinian refugees who live in camps, as
well as those of us who visit on a seasonal basis, can be understood to perceive their
journey, on a symbolic level, as a pilgrimage to a sacred space which attaches them
directly to their national dreams and pending state. The conceptualization of these
pilgrimages as a strategy of constant reconnection between the (current or former)
camp-resident and the camp itself not only problematizes the way we observe religion
and religiosity in general terms, but also challenges us to upgrade the status of camps
into that of, for instance, mosques, churches and altars: destination-points with key
metaphorical and ontological underpinnings. Such an aporia draws attention to the
simultaneous tension and attraction between permanence and transience, visibility
and invisibility, presence and absence, which pervades conceptualizations of
religious practices and performances, on the one hand, and the image of the refugee,
on the other, as the one who visits and then disappears and as the one who remains
omnipresent. Refugees return to that innate place which we call a camp because it
is there that the remnants of ourselves lie, and it is there that we believe in ourselves
as refugees whose status is still pending. Only there do religion and its metaphorical
interpretations lie equidistantly from each other.
Beginnings
Refugee camps are archetypally conceptualized as temporary and transient spaces,
with temporality or temporariness typically associated with the notion of the camp:
Refugee camps boast a new quality: a ‘frozen transience’, an on-going, lasting
state of temporariness, a duration patched together of moments none of which is
lived through as an element of, and a contribution to, perpetuity. The inmates of
refugee camps live, literally, from day to day.13
This conceptualization would suggest that it is paradoxical to consider a
refugee camp to be a home. Yet, qualifying such generic imaginations of the
camp, it is possible to propose that memories and politics of the home-land ‘are
13 Zygmunt Bauman, Society Under Siege (Malden, MA, 2002), pp. 114–15.
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Rescripting Religion in the City
136
complemented and at times superseded by the development of and longing for’
refugees’ home-camps. Such refugee camps themselves become ‘spaces to be
remembered, and equally spaces for political intervention and action’.14
Directly challenging the typical understanding of camps as spaces or structures
constructed a priori – for you rather than by you, by others rather than by yourself
– we can counterpoise elements of a self-constructed entity. Camps are not
merely places which have been imposed upon people; rather, at times they may
be chosen, despite the inherently limited array of options available, in order to
mark a personal inbetweenness and to highlight an inability to return to a place of
origin. Creating this temporary space may thus permit the accentuation of concrete
political and social injustices. Even following displacement, a refugee can still
pitch a tent and assert that this is her camp – this is her temporary address – and
this is an afrmation not directed by United Nations agencies such as UNRWA15
or UNHCR.16 This is a way of viewing a relationship with a place which is not
your own – which is not a place that you were given the chance to choose. The
lack of choice, from that perspective, creates ‘the camp’. There is no inherent
contradiction in structure and agency in such a context: we have no other option,
apart from creating or constructing that place, that camp, to mark our existence.
A tension exists, however, between the recognition that camps are not absolutely
constructed by UNRWA or UNHCR and the fact that it cannot simplistically be
stated that an individual can wholly create her or his own personal camp. The
camp ‘always already’ exists before that individual takes the decision to establish
a camp or to establish a home within a camp. Indeed, can one individual’s house
be a camp, or is there an inherent need for a collectivity and an a priori structure to
justify the construction of that particular space of inhabitation as a camp?
Whether individually or collectively established, these temporary places rarely
become permanent: what is accessed is a state which is beyond temporariness but
remains less than permanent – what Bauman refers to as ‘transient permanence’.17
Hence, it is somewhere, sometime, between temporary and permanent – it is beyond
temporary but is not yet permanent, as we know neither how this refugeeness
will end, nor who, or what, might have the capacity to transform this individual
and collective state of refugeeness: the UN, states, organizations or communities
themselves. We have yet to nd a new adjective or transitive verb to mark that
phase more precisely.
14 Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, ‘The Inter-Generational Politics of “Travelling
Memories”: Refugee Youth Remembering Home-Land and Home-Camp’, Journal of
Intercultural Studies (29 Jan. 2013), <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07256
868.2012.746170> (accessed 19 Apr. 2013).
15 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near
East.
16 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
17 Bauman, Society Under Siege.
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 137
The intention here has not been to create or enlarge a rupture between the
collective and the personal but to underline the force of subjectivity: the individual
is the one who determines whether a place is a camp or not. For example, there
are certain places in Lebanon not classied, either legally or logistically, as camps,
because they do not fall under UNRWA’s areas of operation: these are instead
ofcially labelled ‘gatherings’. The inhabitants of these so-called gatherings,
of which there are 39 in Lebanon,18 including the Qasmieh and Jal el-Baher
gatherings, nonetheless consider these places to be camps. It is not the institution
that denes the place but rather the individual who does so, the individual who
then forms a community or becomes part of a collective.19 Given the variety of
people’s depictions and conceptualizations of the term ‘camp’, such heterogeneity
must be recognized and explored further.
Transitions and Transpositions
A particularly relevant development in the way that people see themselves as refugees,
residents or citizens is conspicuous in the example of Palestinian refugees who have
successfully left the camps for Sweden and live as citizens, legally speaking, in what
might be called ‘estate-camps’ (in terms of their location in social housing estates)
or ‘tent-ative camps’. To visit a small neighbourhood in Sweden and discover a ‘new
Baddawi’ beyond Baddawi camp can be pleasantly disconcerting20 – to meet former
neighbours and school-friends living together in a Swedish estate, rather than in the
refugee camps of my childhood, is deeply suggestive of the signicance both of
channelling certain identity-markers and of re-creating certain spaces, to ensure that
your position as an individual who has a cause, who belongs to a loaded history –
that is your refugeeness – continues to be palpable.
These people, who decided or had to leave certain refugee camps in Lebanon
for Europe, initially attempted to distance themselves physically from the camp,
and yet, in so doing, they have ultimately reconstructed a camp in a new location:
the act of deconstructing the camp in Lebanon ironically produced another form
of camp in Sweden itself, in the urban spaces allocated by the Swedish authorities.
These spaces now have better conditions, and yet their inhabitants continue to
18 Danish Refugee Council, Needs Assessment of Palestinian Refugees in Gatherings
in Lebanon (Beirut, 2005).
19 The term ‘community’ is not used as such in this context given the presence of
multiple, fragmented and often contesting and contested communities within the camp.
Attempts to present the camp as a homogenous or homogenized place inhabited by a
refugee community must therefore be unsettled rather than reproduced.
20 The notion of a ‘new Baddawi’ emerging in Sweden was referred to by YMQ’s
brother following his visit to the city of Helsinborg in southern Sweden, where he
encountered dozens of acquaintances whom he had last seen over a decade earlier in the
original Baddawi in Lebanon.
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Rescripting Religion in the City
138
believe that they belong to something, to a state which takes them back to their
national identity, to their homeland and even to certain cultural, religious and
national(istic) rituals which are regularly observed both in Sweden, and during
seasonal visits to the camps. Indeed, collective celebrations such as iftar (breaking
the fast) during Ramadan, the establishment of Muslim burial sites and the annual
commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba in Swedish towns and cities are now
markers of permanence which are as institutionalized as the anticipation of those
who remain in the camps and who expect their family members to continue their
seasonal migration to the south (to paraphrase Tayib Salih)21 not only during the
summer holidays but also during Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
It could be argued that Palestinians’ seasonal visits to the camps have been made
both possible and necessary by the increasingly permanent migration of the camp
to the city, leading to blurred boundaries between these constructs. It is therefore
impossible to present a pure and monolithic understanding of specic places, as
if these were static and lacked the energy or the ability to change and evolve – as
if these places were devoid of residents. Rather, it has been a conscious decision
amongst Palestinians in Sweden to congregate around the same location and to
pursue a similar set of activities, rituals and commemorations as those which they
and their families pursued in the refugee camps and continue to re-enact during their
seasonal visits. In so doing, it is as if they have truly established their own camp for
the rst time in Sweden, having been constrained through diverse structures when
the camps in Lebanon were established for them and, ostensibly, on their behalf.
Is this conceptualization of the Swedish estate-camp or new Baddawi made
problematic by these inhabitants being citizens rather than refugees? Can one
have a refugee camp inhabited by citizens, just as we can have refugees and
asylum-seekers living in cities? To what extent does the legal denominator
‘refugee’ or ‘citizen’ mean that the designation ‘camp’ is not solely used from
inside but also recognized and is legible for outsiders? Once again, I would argue
that such a stance should be determined through these individuals’ lenses:
Reecting upon my own experience, becoming a [British] citizen does
not exclude or erase the fact that I was born a refugee. On the contrary, it
is particularly vital for me to remain in contact with my history, or perhaps
histories, of refugeeness, and the reality that the majority of my family are still
refugees, and are still inhabitants of different refugee camps in Lebanon. How
can a son or a brother be a citizen while the rest of his family are refugees
elsewhere? It is that personal, familial linkage which allows you to respond to
that history with knowledge and acceptance of the fact that you are part of a
group. It is not a tribalistic linkage, and yet as a result of being part of that place,
of that upbringing, your citizenship does not cancel out the refugeeness of the
other (which is simultaneously part of yourself).
21 Tayib Salih, Season of Migration to the North, trans. D. Johnson-Davies (Oxford,
1969).
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 139
That is why you can, of course, have refugees, citizens and asylum-seekers all
within the same place, all within a camp or, indeed, within a city. In effect, it
is possible to relate cities directly to diversity, to their ability to absorb people
with different cultural, religious, social and political backgrounds and who may
have different causes within that particular place. London as a city is rooted in
differentiation – the capacity to include or incorporate different nations within
its space, nations which ultimately function within an overarching nation but
continue to have other, transnational relationships.
In this regard, leaving Baddawi camp to work in Beirut was a highly signicant
transition for me, despite the apparent geographical proximity of these locations.
Relocating to live with my brother in Burj al-Barajneh camp on the outskirts
of Beirut and to work in the Sabra and Shatila camps and then to leave Burj
al-Barajneh and settle in Shatila camp offered me the opportunity to live and work
in different refugee camps. Revisiting the relationship between individual and
assigned spaces, I have been fully aware that the physical transposition, which in
some respects offers the opportunity to expand and ourish, is compromised by an
inability to feel settled. Sadly, we have never had this feeling: we have never felt
settled or at ease with the place. Indeed, leaving a camp does not necessarily mean
changing conditions – you are only changing geography, and yet these conditions
continue to haunt you, continue to accompany you. When moving between camps,
cities such as Tripoli and Beirut have only acted as transit stations, as the route
which you cannot inhabit, on which you cannot stay for long, which you have to
leave. It is about passing or crossing or moving from one camp to another – these
cities have always existed outside the camps rather than functioning as ‘real’ cities.
I have always had a problematic relationship with these places, and, tragically, I
have always felt relatively more comfortable in the camps: this attachment to a
space, despite its ostensible temporariness and transience, is validated through a
diversity of means, ranging from the intrinsic characteristics of the place and its
inhabitants, to the ambivalent relationship revolving around physical and spiritual
markers embodied in specic sites and signs therein.
Markers of (Im)permanence
Despite their size, some of the camps have acted like cities in their capacity to
include tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities – not only Palestinians,
but also Sudanese, Egyptians, Sri Lankans, Syrians and even Lebanese. These
individuals and groups have continuously permeated the camps, because they
correspond socially and economically within the parameters of the camps. In that
respect, the Palestinian camps in Lebanon act as small cities, developing their own
economies, their own shops, even if these do not exist as concrete architectural
additions. Such mechanisms are intimately attributed to survival and to the fact that
people may establish a shop to maintain their own precarious existence but also to
respond actively to, and within, a very passive environment. In light of all of the
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Rescripting Religion in the City
140
sanctions and restrictions placed upon the camps’ inhabitants, responding to such
enforced passivity in such a creative fashion is ingenious, inscribing their presence
and concurrently a sense of security and belonging, even if this is characterized
by investing in a place which is ultimately dead. Dead in the sense that camps
– if we personalize them – do not belong to the rest of Lebanon. Even if they
have been trying to be part of that landscape, they have failed to be accepted and
take on a life of their own. Whilst acting as independent spaces within a country,
they have nonetheless always maintained their own passivity, in the sense that
they are physically and psychologically besieged – feeling unable to expand, to
belong, to believe that their presence will be acknowledged in a way which might
show some human correspondence between Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese
government.22 Palestinian refugees remain ostracized within their refugee camps,
unable to exercise, to look after their bodies and ageing dramatically as a result.
Simultaneously, both architecturally and demographically, the population is
increasing, and yet the space is contracting – hence the term passivity, as these two
dimensions have not developed at the same rate, resulting in a sense of stagnancy:
despite the multiplication of the population, these places fail to grow in terms of
facilities, vision or acceptance by others.
In spite of the existence of permanent markers and markers of permanence in the
camps, important points of reference such as ration-centres, on the one hand, and
markers such as tombstones, on the other, paradoxically resist representing a stable
sense of place. Frequenting the former demonstrates the ambivalent bond which
exists between Palestinians and UNRWA, suggesting refugees’ reliance upon a god-
like entity which acts as the ultimate provider23 to which we pay homage in order
to ensure our survival, while visiting the latter centralizes a crucial but transcendent
bond between refugees, their history and the space of memory. The existential
attraction to these particular sites located within the camps, both by camp residents
and those undertaking seasonal visits to their home-camps, is often paralleled
by processes of individual and collective repulsion, rather than these spaces and
experiences necessarily being perceived as symbols of stability and belonging:
Visiting the camp and its constitutive sites, in particular our family home, the
market and the cemetery, acts as a unifying factor for those of us who live outside
of the camps. It is not the inherent characteristic of the camp which attracts us
22 Tragic incidents, including the Israeli invasion, the Camps War and the Civil
War, are amongst the numerous processes which have scarred the relationship between
Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese government.
23 The notion of UNRWA as a god-like entity implicitly relates to Turner’s research,
which explores Burundian refugees’ perceptions of UNHCR as ‘a better husband’ by virtue
of its power to provide for families which are unable to or prevented from providing for
themselves (Simon Turner, Angry Young Men in Camps: Gender, Age and Class Relations
among Burundian Refugees in Tanzania, UNHCR Working Paper No. 9, New Issues in
Refugee Research [Geneva, 1999]).
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 141
to return. Rather, it is an almost magnetic force that draws us towards our past
and present, a ‘placeless place’,24 in which we are positioned on ‘the inside of
the outside, or vice versa’,25 to which we travel in order to full our material
and symbolic duty towards our families and broader communities, to personally
sustain a continuity between refugees in the camps and those dispersed abroad.
When my sister, who is based in Sweden, my brother, based in Canada, and
I, direct our sights towards the camps from a distance, and when we return to
our home-camp and the camps of our relatives, we do so primarily to maintain
the pulse in our bond with our family and heritage, and, of course, to assist our
families materially. Comfort in this respect is related to being able to belong –
not to a xed identity or a xed place – but to an overarching community and its
major concerns and unfullled hopes.
If the camp itself is simultaneously a magnetic and yet repellent space, which one
is beholden to visit and revisit, despite the suffering which it entails, to which we
belong without belonging, particular spaces within the camp further demonstrate
the specicities of this ambivalent relationship.
In many respects, the regularity of queuing up at UNRWA distribution centres
could be interpreted as a ritualistic act in itself, mobilizing Palestinians in and
towards these pre-assigned places, effectively conditioning refugees to ow
towards these sites in the expectation of receiving a material reward: to prepare, to
travel, to arrive, to enter, to receive, to exit, to exist. To quote my mothers words
at each and every distribution ritual: ‘Let us all queue up so we can nd a place.’
The entire rule revolved around us and, for them, it was for our sake. I never
believed them. Hours of waiting at the UNRWA distribution centres for some
our, a few tins of tomato paste, sardines and corned beef never made us full or
patient enough to come to terms with a supercial reading of Machiavelli.26 My
mother would always get up very early to make sure that we received our rations
quickly. All of us would take part. My mother was the one whose ngerprints
were taken at every ration distribution. No signatures, since she is illiterate.27
24 See Peter Johnson, ‘Unravelling Foucault’s “Different Spaces”’, History of the
Human Sciences 19/4 (2006): 75–90, at p. 77.
25 Ibid., p. 81.
26 The notion of a ‘supercial reading of Machiavelli’ refers, simultaneously, to the
principles that ‘the end justies the means’ and that the ‘habituation to laws and gods
makes possible the institutional life of [refugee camps], in that cooperative habits solve
the collective-action problem faced by a multitude of self-ruling [refugees]’ (we have
substituted ‘refugee camps’ and ‘refugees’ for the original terms ‘republics’ and ‘citizens’
respectively) (Markus Fischer, ‘Machiavelli’s Political Psychology’, Review of Politics
59/4 [1997]: 789–829, at p. 789).
27 Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, ‘Rationing Time’, Critical Quarterly (forthcoming). ‘Let us
all queue up so we can nd a place’ is the opening line of this piece.
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Rescripting Religion in the City
142
Despite certain family members’ ambivalence or explicit refusal to believe, it is as
if Palestinians have come to perceive these distribution centres metaphorically as
shrines which they attend regularly to ensure their survival and well-being both as
individuals and as a collective.
Regular visits to the tombstones of people’s loved ones also conspicuously
and vividly mark the way in which the ritualistic connects with the religious,
and vice versa. Whilst such visits to the cemetery often take place in line with
particular institutionalized religious occasions (especially during Eid) and national
commemorations (such as visiting the tombstones of those martyrs killed during
specic wars and attacks),28 these enactments also represent a uid and highly
personal attempt to bond with one’s own history through the dead. I recall my
mother once saying that ‘tombstones are the only thing that we will not be able to
carry with us when we leave’.
Despite its tragic roots, her statement ironically represents a form of physical
permanence which is sadly embodied by the dead while the living continue
simultaneously to seek transience in the camps and permanence through a desired
return to Palestine. As such, while the living ‘desire’ transience and refuse their
permanent situatedness in the camps – wanting to move, migrate or return to the
Palestinian home-land – the inevitability of leaving physical and spiritual traces
through both bodies and shrines continues to force a never-ending bond with
this transience. It is as if neither transience nor permanence has in this context
succeeded in existing as a monolithic mode.
Renewed Beginnings
Demonstrating the extent to which this conversation is but starting, the centrality
of returning to visit and revisit the cemetery has become even more pertinent since
the destruction of the Nahr el-Bared camp by the Lebanese army in 2007: ‘The
old cemetery in the camp is off-limits to civilians because the army has classied
it as a military zone, thereby restricting cemetery visits to religious holidays or at
the times specied by the army.’29 Refugees have responded vehemently to the
interruption or explicit prohibition of their access to these spaces by demanding the
opening of the cemetery,30 not only as an embodiment of memory and history but
also as an intrinsically holy site within the camp. By reclaiming such burial sites
and demanding unmediated access to them, Palestinians have not only restated
28 Lala Khalili, ‘Palestinian Commemoration in the Refugee Camps of Lebanon’,
Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25/1 (2005): 30–45.
29 Qassem Qassem, ‘Palestinians in Lebanon Struggling for Neutrality’, Al-Akhbar
(20 June 2012), <http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/8702> (accessed 12 Aug. 2012).
30 Marcy Newman, ‘Free the Refugees of Nahr al-Bared’, Aljazeera (26 June 2012),
<http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012624122326485838.html>
(accessed 12 Aug. 2012).
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Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation 143
their desire to forge a strong connection with their past but also to ensure that
current and future generations continue to understand and validate their present
and presence through the centrality of that and those who have been lost: it is here,
in the camps as a whole and in our cemeteries more specically, that the remnants
of ourselves lie.
Through a purposefully subjective analysis, which has centralized personal
experiences of being physically absent from and yet intimately connected with
Baddawi camp, and through the invocation of a ‘third space’ and ‘third voice’, this
piece has explored the complex and at times paradoxical relationship which exists
between refugees, camps, cities and their respective markers of permanence and
impermanence. As key destination-points for residents and seasonal visitors alike,
the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and their constitutive parts, including
distribution centres, cemeteries and shrines, have been viewed from a distance and
from within, demonstrating the extent to which such spaces can be seen to be replete
with, rather than devoid of ‘meanings, traditions and sacricial, ritual moments’.31
Although not all of these locations would traditionally be conceptualized as
religious or spiritual in nature, the relationship between the ritualistic aspects of
refugees’ visits to distribution centres and those to cemeteries, tombstones and
shrines, have been explored in this chapter, in order to shed light on refugees’
relationships with UNRWA, their identity, their past and their precarious present.
Seasonal visits from urban contexts, which can themselves be characterized as
miniaturized camps (such as the Swedish estate-camps), in turn demonstrate the
diverse motivations for our on-going return to our home-camps, despite the harsh
conditions there. Such a return constitutes a means of substantiating both our
presence and absence, through pilgrimages to what can be considered to be ‘holy’
camps.
31 Marc Augé, cited in Diken, From Refugee Camps to Gated Communities, p. 91.
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During the summer of 2007, Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon was the scene of a fierce battle between the Lebanese Armed Forces and a militant Islamist group called Fateh al-Islam. When Palestinian evacuees returned after the conflict, they found Nahr el-Bared utterly destroyed, houses smashed first by shells and bombs, then by vandalism and arson, possessions stolen and broken, offensive graffiti daubed on walls. I argue in this paper that the battle of Nahr el-Bared, and particularly the month of looting and arson that followed the battle, was a case of urbicide in a space of exception. The seemingly unrestricted destruction of homes, the theft of possessions and arson, went beyond any possible military necessity and became the deliberate and systematic erasure of the camp. This urbicide was made more possible by the very nature of the political spaces of the camp, which are in Lebanon but not of Lebanon, in which Lebanese sovereignty and law are not fully enforced, in which a whole range of non-Lebanese actors exercise political power outside the control of the Lebanese state. In these spaces of exception in which the rule of law is suspended, the looting, arson and vandalism took place without sanction. Palestinian homes and lives had become sacred in the sense that they could be destroyed without sanction, without recourse to legal redress, because there was no law.