The Disposable People


Sreeram Chaulia


(A review of Julie Peteet’s Landscape of Hope and Despair. Palestinian Refugee Camps, Pennsylvania University Press, Philadelphia, 2005. ISBN: 0-8122-3893-1. Price: US$55. 260 Pages)


Whenever the intractability of protracted refugee situations pricks consciences, the case of the Palestinians bobs up as a painful metonym. As the largest set of forcibly displaced people for the longest duration, Palestinians reify calamity like no other group and grimly remind us of a shameful failure that blots post-World War II foreign and humanitarian policies.  


Julie Peteet’s masterpiece on the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon narrates the pathos of their extended suffering and the bravura of their attempts to construct selfhood in utterly hopeless conditions. Her methodology of ‘salvage anthropology’ documents a population and culture “disappearing with the advance of stronger, more technologically sophisticated, conquering societies.” (Preface p.xi) The marginalised and demonised are given a makeover in this ethnographic history- less through a nationalist lens than through one that understands human agency and identity-carving in the face of daunting obstacles.


Peteet’s participative fieldwork in the early nineties encountered dangers from local Lebanese militias and the Israeli army but not the Palestinians themselves, whose boundaries of belonging and acceptance were expansive. Brutal experiences of betrayal and assaults by Arab states made them less prone to simplistic “foreigner-as-enemy” syndromes, even if the foreigner happened to be an American professor.


Zionist production of knowledge denativised Palestinians. Between a Jewish presence in the Biblical era and modern Israel, Palestine was conceptualised as a wasteland. Peteet names this refugee-generating ideology “spatio-historical telescoping”, wherein the land was projected as “nearly unpopulated until the advent of twentieth-century Jewish settlement.” (p.39) In the Zionist racial coding, the Arab natives were primitive, incompetent and backward nomads, “at a standstill” for centuries, who could be rearranged into “foreigners” through conquest. The desert land would be redeemed by imposition of superior European Jewish technology and know-how- a feat that entitled the settlers to claim the status of deserving or ‘real’ native. Since Palestinians were believed to lack nationalism (the 1936-’39 revolt was written off as a “series of riots”), they were expected to find a home anywhere in the vast Arab homeland. “Depopulation pursued during the 1948 war aligned reality with this imagination.” (p.41)  


Palestinian camps in Lebanon were sites of defeat and despair but also sites from which a future could be dreamt. Refugee identities connected places of departure and new locales in intimate ways, reconfiguring the self creatively. Al-Nakbah, the mass expulsion of 1948, was a watershed event in cementing a modern form of Palestinian national identity that took off under the British Mandate. The new set of borders and power relations that followed flight to Lebanon forged an inflected transnational identity, combining elements of the past with current travails.


Palestinians challenged the sovereignty of Lebanon’s fragile multi-confessional state and triggered often murderous tensions with the host population by virtue of being a big pool of low-wage labour. Before 1968 and after 1982, the refugees were totally bereft of protection and flooded with waves of assault, harassment, insults, travel restrictions and discrimination by the Lebanese state, Syrian and Israeli armies and Christian militias. Excluded from the protection mechanisms of international refugee law, their cameo spell of security and social welfare came when militant Palestinian organisations ran the camps, ironically a period of fedayeen destabilisation of the Lebanese state in the civil war. 


The administrative-bureaucratic refugee relief apparatus set up in Lebanon exercised a modernist intervention and control that refashioned Palestinian subjectivities. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) played a contradictory role- an object of scorn for thwarting Palestinian national aspirations and of gratitude for essential services provision. UNRWA depoliticised the refugees by turning them into a neutral humanitarian concern, thus normalising the abnormal. As early as 1949, resettlement replaced repatriation as the goal of the UN. The logic of ‘income generation’ obscured the right to return. Refugees feared that accepting UNRWA rations was a devil’s bargain for acquiescence to coercive denativisation. Sensing a political content in aid, they resisted rehabilitation projects portending local integration in Lebanon. UNRWA’s Cold War framework centred around aid as an antidote to the spread of communism, echoing notions of the refugee as pathologically ripe for liberationist or revolutionary recruitment.   


UNRWA’s enumeration, classification and labelling of refugees by camp and state of current residence redirected Palestinian identities. Pre-1948 inequalities of class, literacy, gender, religion and urban-rural cleavages were reinforced, but in a new image. Diet patterns changed under the impact of the aid experts’ assumption that “refugees, stripped to a basic living organism, will eat anything.” (p.77) In defiance, Palestinians sold culturally inappropriate foodstuffs to foreigners and Lebanese to buy products they preferred. Another small-scale way of contesting their dependence on aid regimes was to use UNRWA’s apolitical education system to transmit a militant national identity and develop a new component of honour and cultural capital. Intended to maintain refugees at a docile and liminal level, aid paradoxically enabled practices and ideas of resistance.


Palestinians crafted their own native sense of spatiality in the camps through symbols. Four generations removed from direct experience of the homeland, Peteet observes, young children still locate themselves in a “transposed Galilean landscape.” (p.101) The camps re-territorialised Palestinian villages, however partially, “giving the displaced a deep visceral and everyday connection to past time, place and social relationships.” (p.112) Ancestral villages continue to figure prominently in refugees’ cognitive maps of the world at the turn of the century.


Cramped camps dramatically expanded daily interactions among refugees, engendering exogamous marriages, networks and friendships that were inconceivable in the old kin and clan-based world. Informal traditional gatherings, dawaween helped circulate stories of different villages and led to widening consciousness about the collective Palestinian fate. Acutely aware of humiliation and powerlessness as non-citizens, camp residents intensely disliked being called ‘refugees’ until the nineties. Yet, “their sense of themselves as ‘returnees’ was quite ambiguous” (p.125) as Palestine grew more and more distant and dangerously out of reach.


In the resistance era (1968-’82), a heterogeneous demographic shift occurred in the Beirut camps with the flocking of cadres from Jordan and in-migration from the Lebanese south. Hosting foreign solidarity activists and delegations converted camps into cosmopolitan arenas, with many non-Palestinians receiving honorary membership into the community. By a process of “spatial jumping”, camp borders melted and merged with adjacent Lebanese areas, paralleling close political ties between the PLO and progressive Lebanese movements.


It was fashionable to assert national rather than parochial identities in the heady days of the fedayeen. Facets of the domestic went public as political meetings and seminars were held in refugee homes. The PLO’s court and prison systems worked in tandem with, instead of supplanting, traditional legal procedures. The gun morphed into a potent symbol of agency and got incorporated into dance, poetry and the visual arts. The keffiyeh (head scarf) was saturated with meaning as an emblem of nationalism and peasant embroidery was reinvigorated to display national culture.


In the Camp Wars (1985-’87), Shia-Palestinian relations touched rock bottom as Amal militias laid siege to the camps. Mixed Lebanese-Palestinian families were put into dangerous relief for crossing sectarian lines and were targeted for belonging to “impure” categories. In spite of the open hostility and polarisation, many neighbourly relationships of refugees with the host population survived clandestinely.  


In the 1990s, the camps were places of defeat, abandonment, loss of regional stature and fear of refoulement. Out of strategic necessity of physical survival, residents began referring to themselves for the first time as ‘refugees’. As the centre of gravity in Palestinian politics shifted to the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in Lebanon felt they were sacrificial victims whose utility had lapsed for a leadership that was ready to negotiate away the right to return with Israel.


Bitterness with Yasser Arafat went hand in hand with rising social isolation of the refugees from Lebanon’s post-war consumerism. The Lebanese state was more resistant than ever to the permanent settlement of Palestinians and strictly regulated their mobility and freedom. Against the seemingly irrevocable sectarian barriers, refugee women discreetly sustained peaceful bonds with Shia neighbours, although with trepidation. Peteet notes a converse “regendering of public space” (p.194) to confine women in the last few years, as camp identities drew inward and essentialist.


In the absence of a state and official spaces for remembering, the refugees mourned victims of one place and time at another. For example, the black day of Dayr Yassin (1948) would be commemorated at the Sabra-Shatila (1982) massacre spot. Ubiquitous photographs of the killed dotted interiors of homes as a means of documentation of those forgotten by the world. “Land may be confiscated, places renamed and inhabited by settlers but memories remained Palestinian possessions inherited by successive generations.” (p.214)       


Peteet concludes with the assertion that if the refugees ever return to Palestine, they would go with identities fundamentally restructured by the agonising experience of exile. Their demand for return and statehood is more to gain protection, recognition and fair treatment and less to recreate a bucolic Palestine of pre-1948 vintage. The Palestinian self has not been static in the last 57 years.


Realistically, the defunct Middle East peace process and the impotent leadership of Mahmud Abbas convey that “the refugee issue will remain on the back burner.” (p.225) It is sheer day-dreaming to hope that people discarded as disposable by power brokers would suddenly wake up to a golden dawn. In the legal and political limbo that keeps dimming, Peteet’s message is that the refugees will plod on to eke out meaningful lives.