Lab Project

Structures of Displacement


I will try to build up from the previous presentation, which in fact asked: What is a camp? What is our mental image of one? Most people have this image in mind: an assemblage of tents, very fragile and ready to be dismantled.

What you see here is the Dheisheh refugee camp which was established in 1953, close to Bethlehem. This camp has been the core of our research, life and learning environment as DAAR.

The most difficult question is: What has happened between 1953 and today? No one would dare to ask this question because first of all, from the point of view of national states and humanitarian agencies, it undermines the idea that the camp is a temporary space. It is also a question that refugees don’t want to ask themselves because this would mean that they would not be going back to their place of origin. It’s a very tough question and this is one of the questions that started some of the work that we, as DAAR, have been doing for years in Palestine, trying to investigate what refugee camps don’t have: history.

In the case of the Dheisheh refugee camp, which was built in 1953, the paradox is that part of the structure in the refugee camp needs to be preserved by the Palestinian Center for Architectural Preservation since they are responsible for restoring buildings and many of Dheisheh’s ones fit their criteria. This situation brought up conversations with the refugee community in Dheisheh, the popular committee, and several different organisations. Dheisheh is specific among the Palestinian camps – if a camp in itself is a special, extraterritorial site, Dheisheh is the most special of the special. That may be why we are somehow stuck with the camp, because the camp creates extreme situations.

The experiment of the camp actually influences one’s own very “normal” life”. That is the condition of both permanent and temporary that we have tried to capture, that feeling of precarity: What does that kind of feeling do in terms of engagement with the present reality? There is a sense of postponement: I’m always in constant movement. I’m always in a precarious state in this situation.

In our work, especially more recently, when we moved out of Palestine, it became important for us to make these connections in order not to think about the refugee crisis as something outside of normality – it will affect all of us at one point but everything will still work, and then that will be normality – but rather to try to understand our normality as something which itself is not normal. The camp still remains an interesting site simply because it’s extreme, therefore it makes things clearer. It’s a similar situation to when Israel started to build the wall in Palestine and people were shocked and were suddenly asking “How come? The wall…” But it was already there in effect, the system of control and separation had already been put in place. Building the wall – which, by the way, is still not finished – is just a physical manifestation, an architectural object that somehow catalysed a political statement and suddenly people were saying, “My God, they really have a terrible regime there!”

When an Israeli friend suddenly had the courage to drive over from Tel Aviv, I went to pick him up at the checkpoint. When he found himself facing the wall, he said, “My God, we’re really terrible people.” In some ways, what this situation actually does is make something evident that was already there. There was no reason for Israel to build the wall. What has been effective is this fact that I am doing that, this is my politics, this is the politics of separation, this is the image. This is why it’s always important to create a framework that shows the separation between the production of images and reality.

Now, to go back to our camp question. The image of Dheisheh today. As an artist, you can ask questions: What is this? Is this still a camp? Some people say: No, it’s not a camp anymore, it’s a city. But it’s not a city. Why? Because in this space, there is no municipality, there is no idea of public and private. Refugees that build cities cannot legally own their homes. There might be three-, four-storey buildings, but legally, they cannot own them because the land is leased from a private owner or a power estate, and therefore they are living in a precarious situation.

At the same time, the space in between the homes – which is usually called “the public” by people who live in the city – is not public, because there is no municipality, there is no organisation to manage them. The United Nations always says: “We are not managing the camp. We are assisting refugees wherever they are – in the camp, outside the camp. We’re just assisting refugees. We are not managing the camp.”

We have worked on different projects over the last two decades in order to establish and look at the camp as a site of knowledge production. But, I’m still an architect at heart, somehow we are constantly caught intervening in this situation, not just studying it. We are not happy to just criticize, we also want to engage in the situation that we are interested in. Going back to the question: Do refugee camps have a history? Three years ago, we started, as a provocation, to discuss nominating the Dheisheh refugee camp as a World Heritage Site. We took this very seriously, so we went to the UNESCO website and downloaded the Annex 5, which lists all the UNESCO criteria, and we started to think about the application. We know that UNESCO itself was established according to the universalistic idea of heritage that comes from specific Western, imperial, and colonial understandings of what constitutes heritage.

Maybe the ultimate goal of having the Dheisheh refugee camp be recognised is not necessary, it’s more about actually posing these questions and then, if somehow the refugee community themselves wanted to do it, they could. We want to challenge what we consider as heritage. Who can define what constitutes heritage? Why is the Dheisheh refugee camp not heritage, despite it having such an important role in the history of Palestine? I would even say, in the entire world history of displacement, because Palestinians are the oldest displaced refugee community in the world.

All the architecture in a camp has a political dimension. The camp destabilises the notion of heritage, the notion of what architecture is. That is also the other way you have to turn the tables. We don’t have to normalise the camp. We have to make sure that life outside of it is changed and becomes shaped by what is actually happening within these camps.

When do you ever see a camp at night? It’s like it exists in an endless day, right? We commissioned an Italian photographer, Luca Capuano, who was the photographer of the World Heritage Sites for UNESCO, to simply photograph Dheisheh in the same way, the same respect, the same idea of monumentality that he used when photographing heritage sites in Italy. At that time, we wanted to nominate Dheisheh as a World Heritage Site and he took the work very seriously.

There is another dimension of our work that occurs through public debate, through physical intervention within the camp, but also through art installations, as well as art exhibitions as a way in which you can physically experience a certain dimension. In this case, there is the exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum. We had always dreamed of being in close proximity to the Dheisheh camp and working in the villages of origin. For us, it was important to use the exhibition as a space in which one could finally experience the return, to finally have this idea of confronting the site of displacement and the site of return.

This was one of the discussions that we had with the Campus in Camps participants: the paradox of the camp, of being temporary but then being permanent at the same time. In architecture, that is this consolidation? Merging? of the archetype of a tent that is made of very fragile materials and the concrete homes that I showed you before. We asked ourselves how we could embody this paradox and that resulted in the idea of the concrete tent. At that time, we wanted to build a gardening site for the students of Campus in Camps and we wanted to have a site that you would walk into and have these questions in front of you: the question of what this object, which is made up of both these elements, is. It looks temporary because it looks like a tent but then you sit in it and touch it and discover that it’s actually made of concrete.

Somehow, the idea inhabits these contradictions: not being forced to choose, not being stuck in temporality or forced to normalise your life and become a citizen, which is also another kind of illusion – and this is how the camp then links to, for example, broader issues regarding migrations. I don’t know how many of you are already living in a place where you were not born or a place that is not yours. You are familiar with this feeling that you will never be one of “them”. So how to challenge this idea of integration that there is only one way to exist? How are we able to imagine a society in which you don’t have to give up your multiplicity of belonging? We live in a very strange time, during which we think we’re so advanced, but what is imposed on us is that we have to decide on one nationality. We are incapable of thinking that a person can move between different places and belong to all of them at the same time, without wanting to decide which one is better. I think those of us who have more privileged passports can actually do that, but most people are not allowed to have the kind of life that their very existence actually demands.

The concrete tent project was in Abu Dhabi and we were really terrified by the idea. The beauty of this project was that in a way, it was really speaking to the 80% of the people in the Emirates that actually don’t have the right to stay. Here you have an entire country that lives in a concrete tent because if they lose their jobs, they have to leave the country. That is their status. They don’t live in a camp, but can you imagine how it feels to lose your job and then have to leave the country? Imagine an entire generation of people who actually live there and now have to retire and have no place to go back to? What is going to happen to them? We are working to portray this radicality of the camp and to present these questions in front of everyone. For us, it was very moving, because it was the first time that they had had a public discussion about this issue. An artist from Palestine had to build a concrete tent in order to facilitate a public discussion about the fact that 80% of the population in the Emirates cannot actually stay there. Going to bed with that feeling of precarity, which is another way that politics manipulates us: the fact that we have to solve our problems individually. We are not able to solve them collectively. This is where I think the camp, paradoxically, after so many years, is actually an interesting place, because when people stay in one place, they might become a community. If they become a community, they start to see themselves not only as individual people whom external agents will take care of just to feed them. They become political subjects, and if they can become political subjects, states, organisations, and institutions are in trouble.