Recreating the stateless heritage of Palestinian refugees
Visitors to London’s Mosaic Rooms downstairs gallery can walk through plinths of varying lengths and heights displaying large picture books with photographs by Luca Capuano which document the 44 Palestinian villages of origin of Dheisheh refugee camp’s residents.
Thikrin, Dayr al-Shaykh, Kunda, Al Dawayma, Islih, Al Qastiha, Tall Al Turmus, Al Tina… a sombre, mournful recorded voice reverently recites the names of some of the villages that were demolished by the Israelis to prevent the inhabitants from returning.
Visitors to the gallery can take the symbolic journey of return from Dheisheh camp to the villages – a journey which is impossible for the camp’s residents because the Israeli authorities refuse to permit Palestinian refugees the right of return despite the international recognition of this right.
"The aim of the exhibition by DAAR (Decolonize Architecture Art Research) an art and architecture collective is to challenge the usual narratives about the refugee experience"
The Stateless Heritage exhibition documents the experience of refugees with a cluster of large, freestanding lightboxes glowing with Capuano’s atmospheric shots of the Dheisheh camp established in 1949 to house more than 3,000 Palestinians expelled from their villages.
A tent encampment to house more than 3,000 Palestinians Dheisheh has since swelled to accommodate 15,000 people. In the 1950s, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) began building small concrete shelter rooms for each family, with a rule of one square metre per person.
Families subsequently added more rooms and today, more than 70 years later, the camp consists of winding streets of multi-storey concrete houses, a dense urban place of self-built structures that evolved piecemeal over the decades. There are shops and schools, mosques and a community centre, all packed into an area of less than half a square kilometre.
The aim of the exhibition by DAAR (Decolonize Architecture Art Research) an art and architecture collective is to challenge the usual narratives about the refugee experience. Its founders Sandi Hilal and Alexandro Petti have spent the past seven years working with the refugees in Dheisheh to compile a proposal that nominates the camp as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The dossier is on view at the exhibition. It is intended as a provocation to expose how the definition of heritage is not universal but subject to the control of nation-states with colonial foundations.
“Refugee camps are established with the intention of being demolished,” DAAR said in a statement. “As a representation of political failure, they are meant to have no history and no future; they are meant to be forgotten. The only history that is recognised is one of violence and humiliation. Yet the camp is also a place rich with stories, narrated through its urban fabric.”
By nominating a refugee camp, a territory outside the nation-state, DAAR opened up a new understanding of heritage, showing how architecture can be mobilised as an agent of political transformation.
UNESCO defines a World Heritage Site as one of outstanding universal value that transcends national boundaries. What could be a more fitting example than Dheisheh and its related villages – a site with a double existence which transcends these boundaries through its lived reality of statelessness, refugeehood and exile? DAAR argues.
Another poignant experience of the refugee experience is provided by the Living Room (Al-Madafeh) where visitors to the exhibition can read, relax and maybe even mobilise. It has been re-created by Omar Hmidat who used to gather people in Dheisheh when he lived there before moving to London to study for a post-graduate degree in Forensic Architecture.
Hmidat is a recent graduate of Al-Quds Bard College in East Jerusalem, where he majored in media studies. He taught himself English in order to enrol in Al-Quds Bard College where he received honours for his thesis documentary film, "Writing on Sidewalks," which explored political factions' use of public space in the refugee camp.
"They [the Palestinian refugees] have not been politically eliminated because they maintain a social and political fabric in the camp"
His dream is to become a researcher in the field of forensic architecture, in order to better understand how human rights abuses can be perpetuated through the control of public and private spaces. By studying forensic architecture, he hopes to improve the lives of his family and community members in his refugee camp and in the West Bank and Gaza. He has always lived in narrow, politicized spaces, and is very interested in how this reality shapes the mindset and horizons of other refugees.
Speaking in a weekly Sunday afternoon gathering in the Mosaic Rooms, Hmidat described a family in Dheisheh whose son was killed by the Israelis. “The living room of their house is always open - you can just walk in. The family put all of their son’s belongings in the room. People socialise and communicate there, share a space and the public and the private merge.”
Hmidat also spoke about how anybody can write on the walls in the camp. “When somebody is writing or drawing people gather. Somebody brings tea, somebody brings coffee, somebody makes dinner the children are there. It is there that conversations take place and problems are solved. This is Mudafeh.”
Elaborating on the Palestinians’ view of displacement Hmidat explained that Palestinian refugees do not want a permanent settlement. “They want to return home. The neighbourhoods in Dheisheh are named after the villages from which the refugees were expelled but they understand that they won’t be returning any time soon. They have not been politically eliminated because they maintain a social and political fabric in the camp. The Israeli military doctrine – what they call the Iron Wall – is about punishing the Palestinians collectively and individually until they give up their struggle for self-determination. But the Palestinians are defying the Israeli strategy.”
For Hmidat the question is not whether the return is possible. “It is a question of how to make it possible,” he explained. “Not being able to return and fighting for that right enables the Palestinians to make a powerful political statement.”
Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July.
Follow her on Twitter: @KarenDabrowska1