RIGHT OF RETURN: The Quagmire of Improving without Normalizing Palestinian Refugee Camps |
An interview with Alessandro Petti
As a PhD candidate interested in investigating the nature of settlements that behave like archipelagos and enclaves in a densely populated urban world, Alessandro travelled during the summer of 2002 from Venice to Palestine. Slowly, the latter became the epicenter of his interests and investigations –a territorial obsession. Palestine provided an “extreme laboratory” of liberal conditions within the tightest of constraints. It offered the possibility of understanding, on the edge, the working mechanisms that produced the model of archipelagos and enclaves, epitomized by the gated communities of the West, whose basic pattern has been adapted and assimilated by most cultures throughout the globe. Refugee camps and gated communities, according to Alessandro, share the same “state of exception and suspension from the rest of the city.” When he embarked towards Palestine, his objective was to name what he would experience, to unveil the forces at work in the transformation of customary modes of inhabitation, and to draw connections between refugee camps and gated communities (as they relate to resort villages in the Middle East, residential enclaves in Dubai, or other isolated, yet interconnected, settlement patterns).
Since 2006, Alessandro directs Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, DAAR, a collective whose work lies at the cross roads of art, architecture, visual culture, urbanism, activism, geopolitics and cultural criticism, as it evinces the political construction of a territory. In one of his numerous projects, DAAR concerns itself “with the fundamental question of how to reuse, recycle or re-inhabit abandoned Israeli colonies and military bases –the architectures of Israel’s process of territorial colonization- through Palestinian re-appropriation.” In a nutshell, “it speculates on the use of colonial architecture for purposes other than those they were designed to perform, at the moment it is unplugged from the military/political power that charges it.” This is the case of Oush Grab (the crow’s nest) military base, an “abandoned structure of domination.“ In April 2006, the Israeli army abandoned the base for tactical reasons, and the Palestinians gained access to it. This raised issues of return.
Ana María Durán: Alessandro, I was fascinated by the way in which DAAR tackles the tricky issue of Palestinian Refugees’ Right of Return. To migrate outwards is complex enough, but to migrate inwards seems to pose an even harsher condition that forces individuals and societies to face a reality that sharply differs from the expected image of the past, an image that has been effaced by the colonizer. Could you elaborate on how DAAR addresses this issue?
Alessandro Petti: The issue of return is highly complex. Let me first introduce you to the historical context within which we are working. By international law, Palestinians have a right to return. Nevertheless, since 1948, Israel has prevented refugees from returning to their homes. The latter have been living in exile for more than 60 years. The majority of Palestinian refugees still live around Palestine, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. They refer to their exile as Nakba (Day of the Catastrophe), which also connotes an annual commemoration of the moment in which they were displaced. Three out of four Palestinians living in what we know as Israel today were forced into exile. There have been a series of expulsions. In 1967, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in Gaza triggered a second wave of refugees. Therefore, some have been expelled twice in their lifetime. Today there are more than fifty refugee camps throughout the Middle East, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. More than 4 million Palestinians are registered in UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Since 1948 until now, several attempts have been made to transform political relations in order to fulfill the right of return. Israel and the Palestinian Authority engaged in several negotiations during the 90s. But even though the right of return is recognized by international and humanitarian laws and by UN resolutions, negotiations have more and more marginalized the right of return. It is, therefore, urgent to relocate the right of return at the center of the political discussion in Palestine and we tried to do this by tracing and understanding the radical political and social transformations that occur in refugee camps.
AMD: How has temporality influenced their construction?
AP: For decades, Palestinian camps have been conceptualized as temporary places. Initially, refugees built only tents. Throughout the years, the latter have been substituted with shelters. As “temporary camps” congeal, they were perceived as politically dangerous: giving up temporality means giving up the right of return. Palestinian refugees were forced into a “suspended life” in order to preserve their right to return to their land. The Palestinian leadership has to rely on the dramatic conditions of refugee camps in order to argue for the urgency of return to the place of origin. This decades-long approach is central to reestablish the right, but has forced refugees to live in an unbearable condition.
AMD: How can architectural design find a role within such a complex, fluid situation?
AP: Proposing any architectural transformation in camps within this state of affairs has deep political implications, for it would contribute towards normalization. Therefore, any intervention within a refugee camp involves thinking about how to achieve a seemingly impossible change without giving up the right of return. And it is in this complex intersection where we locate our interventions. The context inevitably leads to a radical conceptual shift. We felt that we had to challenge the notion that improvements should be treated merely as humanitarian. Refugees are important political subjects. We had to face the complexities of normalizing the situation, acknowledging that the camp is not simply a humanitarian space, but a political space. We started investigating refugee camps in the West Bank, propelled by the idea that it was possible to transform life conditions by transforming the camp. We dwelt upon the possibility of establishing a university within it. Several organizations have built different kinds of infrastructure, but we were convinced that we had to go beyond the provision of basic services. Refugees themselves were already articulating these new relationships in very interesting ways. We learned from them how to be inside and outside the camp simultaneously, how to transgress its borders without normalizing the camp condition.