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Artists nominate Palestinian refugee camp for UNESCO world heritage status

November 1, 2021 at 2:58 pm

Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti [Siegrun Salmanian, courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms]

During the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe), the nascent Israeli army occupied more than 40 Palestinian villages to the west of Jerusalem. The residents were driven out of their homes and took refuge in what is now known as the occupied West Bank.

Up to 15,000 of these refugees settled in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, built-in 1949, just southwest of the city of Bethlehem. There, despite the daytime misery, a vibrant Arab nightlife still lives up to its reputation.

We catch a rare glimpse of this in a new art exhibition, “Stateless Heritage”, at the Mosaic Rooms in London. The exhibition has been put together as part of a campaign to get the UN’s top cultural body, UNESCO, to grant the Dheisheh Refugee Camp World Heritage status. The photographs were taken by Luca Capuano, an Italian photographer who was commissioned previously by UNESCO to document Italy’s famous World Heritage sites.

“What makes Dheisheh different is the Palestinian community refusing to be understood only as victimised targets,” explained artist Alessandro Petti. “Also, they’re very engaged in cultural and political activities with several organisations and we’ve found that their political influence goes beyond the camp itself, whether it’s local municipality or national elections, despite the fact that they cannot vote.”

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The exhibition is spread over three rooms: the first is on the ground floor with large freestanding lightboxes displaying simple, yet instructive images of streets and alleyways featuring graffiti-covered walls and brightly-lit windows. Electricity cables and water pipes form a web-like structure the length and breadth of the alleyways. With great framing providing a sense of community and a brilliant, buzzing atmosphere, the carefully composed night-time pictures challenge the viewer’s stereotypical concept of a refugee camp.

Architect Sandi Hilal heads the Decolonising Architecture Art Research (DAAR) collective. She wanted the images to cast a detached eye on the leisure pursuits of the Palestinian community in the camps: gatherings, singing, dinners, art, and even gardening, all of which seem to be happening in a parallel universe to the violence and upheaval. That such things happen at all, though, is Hilal’s point. Normal life carries on despite the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation.

“The decision to focus on the nightlife of the camp was very important to us because most refugee camps are photographed during the day with kids in places without proper sewage facilities; the miserable part of camps. This feeds the very stereotypical image that everybody seems to have about them,” Hilal pointed out. “When we walked around the streets of the camp at night, we noticed a lot of what hasn’t been captured before such as the chit-chat, people sitting outdoors with their big families eating and drinking, enjoying each other’s company. People need to see this and acknowledge it.”

The second room of the exhibition contains large-format booklets documenting the villages where Dheisheh’s residents came from originally. The impression given is that of a landscape or ruin.

The short trip from one room to the other is arranged in such a way as to highlight the difficulties faced by those who live in the camp when they want or need to travel elsewhere. Not only is travel very difficult within the occupied territories — with Israeli military checkpoints, fixed and flying, to negotiate — but the Israeli authorities also refuse to allow the Palestinians to exercise their legitimate right of return to the villages from which they were expelled decades ago.

“This exhibition is a chance to question why the Palestinian refugees cannot return to their villages,” said Petti. “It’s a place so close yet so far. The simple trip that the visitors of the exhibition can make from the lightbox room to the photobook room reminds us about what the Palestinian refugees cannot do.”

Moreover, he pointed out, “It is important to show the public these villages because there are many other villages — more than 500 — that Israel has demolished and turned into national parks and industrial sites to cover up its crimes. We want these images of standing villages to prompt the viewers to imagine the return of the Palestinians to their lands and homes.”

Palestinian's culture and heritage is the best weapon against the Occupation - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestinian’s culture and heritage is the best weapon against the Occupation – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Petti and Hilal have been working with Palestinian refugees for the past seven years to put together a dossier of Refugee Heritage, and argue that the camp is of “outstanding universal value”. That, in their view, makes it eligible for World Heritage status. The DAAR collective presented its proposal to UNESCO earlier this year at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

The goal of the process, explained Petti, is to prove that the definition of “heritage” is not as universal as is claimed, but is instead based on colonial foundations. “For us, the nomination is more about provoking and starting conversations around the history and the value of the refugee camp, as well as trying to challenge the criteria in which the world heritage nominations are established.”

However, nominations must always be channelled through UNESCO member states and the camp exists as an extra-territorial space beyond any state sovereignty, so whether or not it has “universal value” is open to question.

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“Our ultimate goal is not necessarily the nomination per se, but through the nomination we aim to challenge stereotypical conversations about the camps and refugees, as well as challenge the foundations of what constitutes ‘world heritage’. How can the heritage of stateless populations be valued?” he asked rhetorically.

It is striking to note that nobody was required to be featured in the collection of images in the exhibition. Nevertheless, their presence and spirit are strong and illuminating, making it all the more intriguing.

Ultimately, the images in the exhibition humanise the refugees and their struggles to build new homes and peaceful lives and demonstrate to the world that they have every intention of surviving and enduring. They aren’t going anywhere else. Uprooted by the conflict, the Palestinians of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp resist the Israeli occupation by their very existence.