Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile

Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile

by Diana Allan


View All Available Formats & Editions
Use Standard Shipping. For guaranteed delivery by December 24, use Express or Expedited Shipping.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804774925
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/13/2013
Series: Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Diana Allan is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Development Studies at McGill University. She is founder and co-director of the Nakba Archive, a testimonial project that has recorded over 500 interviews on film with first generation Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.

Read an Excerpt

Refugees of the Revolution


By Diana Allan

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7491-8



ONE MORNING IN EARLY MAY 2004, at the start of what some residents of Shatila jokingly refer to as "the tourist season," I stopped by Najdeh, a women's NGO, to see Samar, a friend who worked there. During the summer months Najdeh becomes home to a steady flow of foreigners, principally activist delegations and volunteers working with children. On this particular day, a battered minibus was parked outside the entrance, and I could hear foreign voices over the early-morning din of the camp. Inside, a group of middle-aged Americans, mainly women, were seated around a small table littered with pamphlets about Najdeh's work. Mazen, a young Palestinian American man working with a US-based right-of-return organization, was midway through a presentation on the history of the 1948 expulsion. I found a chair at the back of the room and sat with Umm Qasim, one of the center's coordinators. She explained that the group was part of a New York coalition that had come to Shatila to learn about the problems Palestinians faced in the Lebanese camps.

After coffee was served, Mazen recounted to the group a story my friend Samar had just told him about her father. "I want to share with you Samar's story," Mazen began:

When her family first came to the camp in the early 1950s from Tripoli, where they had been living since they were forced out of Palestine in 1948, her father planted the same trees and plants they had in Palestine.... He also planted a grape vine that he tended every day. During the 1982 Israeli invasion his house was destroyed and so were the plants and the vine.... Afterwards he rebuilt his house and planted another vine that he calls the symbol of his future and of his hope.

This narrative, as related by Mazen, sought to highlight the continuity of Palestinian culture, the tenacity of peasant traditions, and localized structures of belonging in exile. The hope alluded to is, implicitly, that of return. Mazen's peroration made this explicit: "The right of return and the desire to go back to Palestine, to our villages, is at the center of every refugee's identity. The real Nakba was not just the loss of our land but the total destruction of the social fabric" The director of Najdeh, who had chaperoned the group, then added, "It is very important that you tell your communities in America how refugees in Shatila are suffering and how we still remember our villages in Palestine and want to return to them." Deeply moved, a member of the group responded: "Please tell Samar and your colleagues here that we haven't given up on them."

For the next few hours I accompanied the delegation as they were escorted by Samar through the camp, first to the mosque to see the tombs of refugees buried during the sieges of the War of the Camps, and then to the burial ground for the victims of the 1982 massacre, just south of the camp. The group wandered around the memorial site, taking photos and looking at the graphic images erected on large billboards around the periphery: montages of black and bloated bodies piled in the streets and in the foreground a woman screaming. The display was framed by a quote: "What is ... the Guilt She Committed to be Murdered?" As we stood in the shade of one of the trees near the entrance, Samar recalled her own memories of the massacre for the visitors. About half an hour later the same dusty minibus pulled up outside the gate of the grounds to take the group back to their hotel.

As I reflected on the day's events, I was struck by the almost total absence of any discussion of the quotidian concerns of camp residents. Shatila, when it was discussed at all, was presented as the negation of everything believed to constitute an authentic Palestinian community. The discussion had been thematically dominated by an idealized pre–1948 Palestine, a backdrop of cultural and political wholeness against which the camp—temporary, fragmentary, defined by abnormality and lack, without cultural integrity or intrinsic worth—figured as a pathological foil. Mazen's talk, structured as it was around nostalgic descriptions of life in Palestine, interwoven with accounts of refugee steadfastness in Lebanon, presented identity as a function of memory and a relation to the past, animated by what had been lost rather than what has been created. Mazen had effectively glossed over the history of the camp itself, the material conditions shaping the lives of Palestinians in Shatila today, and the fraught relations that refugees have with their host society. It was as if attending to the complex support structures that have kept the community going, or local forms of affiliation that have taken root after generations in exile, would somehow compromise or contaminate a continuity of attachment to a Palestinian homeland.

Commemorative activities such as these are increasingly important for NGOs and other local institutions, and I attended a great many of them in the course of living and working in Shatila. After the 1993 Oslo Accords revealed the Palestinian Authority's willingness to sign away the right of return, commemorating 1948 became a way for refugees to counter their political marginalization, resist normalization of the expulsion, and underscore that they were not willing to concede the right of return. The Palestinian scholar Lena Jayyusi noted that foregrounding the Nakba was understood to be central to the preservation of Palestinian identity: "Our narrative of dispossession, so fundamental to our moral condition, and to our national and collective claims, and to the possibility of genuine restitution, still needs to be spoken and insisted upon" (quoted in Sayigh 2006, 134). As Palestinians in Lebanon found themselves marginalized and excluded from negotiations, the political and institutional value placed on Nakba commemoration increased. Nakba-themed plays, films, art exhibits, oral history projects, and memorial books documenting personal histories of villages and cities in Palestine proliferated.

The 1998 celebrations of Israeli independence further raised the historical stakes. In stark contrast to previous years, the fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the Nakba were accompanied by demonstrations in downtown Beirut, widely circulated right-of-return petitions, and public debates. Such events, supported by local and international right-of-return groups, NGOs, and political factions in the camps, focused discussion of the "refugee problem" and the suffering of Palestinians in Lebanon around the issue of historical responsibility, foregrounding that of Israel and deflecting that of the Lebanese government and its discriminatory policies (al-Hout 1998; Khalili 2007; Sayigh 1998b). Both explicitly and implicitly, these commemorative events also reinforced the nationalist argument that when refugees reject naturalization in Lebanon, they are not acquiescing to a Lebanese caste system tantamount to a second, contemporary phase of their dispossession but rather are adopting a position of principled agency regarding their historical dispossession by Israel.

That this campaign of commemoration was at its height when I began working in Shatila in 2002 has had profound implications for the original conception and final argument of this book. Just as the moral imperative to bear witness to 1948 felt by camp institutions representing refugee interests—as well as by academic and international activist networks—was decisively shaped by a particular political moment, so, too, is my analysis of the politics of commemoration. And, if anything, this interest of NGOs, activists, and scholars in documenting and publicly commemorating the 1948 expulsion has gained momentum over the past decade.

The growing prominence of camp NGOs and solidarity networks as mediators of national claims and cultivators of nationalist sensibility, moreover, is representative of a broader shift in the nature of Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. After the PLO departed in 1982, marking the end of the military struggle for national liberation among Palestinians in Lebanon, refugees increasingly addressed their claims to the international community, framing their struggle in terms of human rights and international law (Allen 2009; Khalili 2007). A consequence of this shift has been the evolution of a rights-based approach to activism, promoted in large part by civil institutions in the camps. Like Najdeh, many Palestinian NGOs have turned to commemoration and testimonial as a way of attracting attention and support from the international human rights community. While institutional investment in commemoration remains strong, the last few years have witnessed a sharp fall in communal participation; refugees increasingly see these events and practices as directed at an international audience and motivated by the funding considerations of NGOs.

In Shatila, this cottage industry of commemoration has cropped up around not only the Nakba but also the other instantly recognizable symbol of collective Palestinian victimization, the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Demonstrations and rallies are organized on May 15 to mark the anniversary of the Nakba, to which foreign donor organizations are invited, and a committee of local and foreign activists now organizes an annual march to the Sabra and Shatila memorial site. In the course of these events, foreign visitors are often taken to the homes of camp elders to hear personal accounts of the 1948 expulsion or to visit survivors of the 1982 massacre. Those with firsthand knowledge of these events are increasingly called upon to inhabit the valued roles of victim or survivor because their narratives merge individual recollection with a collective memory of persecution in a way that resonates with the moral and political goals of Palestinian nationalism.

Though elegiac in tone, elders' narratives invoke a form of reminiscence in which evidentiary claims and causal explanations take precedence over more ephemeral, idiosyncratic, or trace elements of memory and experience. It often seems as if the rhetorical power of these types of narrative, which have become synecdochic of the Palestinian struggle, has subsumed a plurality of memories and stories into a singular narrative of loss, erasing less starkly political strata of experience. This politics of commemoration has also created a hierarchy of experiences deemed worthy of retention and fostered the belief that daily life in Palestinian communities—in all its minutiae—is always a direct reflection of larger political forces. The net result is that macrohistories masquerade as microhistories.


During the early years of exile, the term Nakba had not yet acquired symbolic currency, and the expulsion more often represented a moment of weakness and humiliation to be exorcized than an event to be actively commemorated. Refugees expected that their exile would be temporary; they referred to themselves as "returnees" and actively resisted using the term Nakba, fearing that it lent permanency to their situation. In the 1950s and early 1960s other, more euphemistic terms were employed to describe the events of 1948, including "the rape" (al-ightisab), "the events" (al-ahdath), "the exodus" (al-hijra), and "when we blackened our faces and left" (lamma tsakhamna wa tla'na). While Palestinian nationalism thrived in Lebanon in the 1970s under the leadership of the PLO, the focus was on revolution and renewal, making the invocation of 1948 memory neither desirable nor appropriate. It was not until the 1990s, largely in response to the perception that Yasser Arafat was on the point of signing away the right of return in exchange for Palestinian statehood, that a renewed interest in commemorating the Nakba developed among institutions representing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, in large part as a signal to the international community that this right was not negotiable.

Narratives about the Nakba have since emerged as the symbolic linchpin of collective identity and the bedrock of nationalism. Personal histories that memorialize villages and cities and lay claim to the land are both an assertion of ownership in the face of dispossession and a challenge to the erasures of a hegemonic Israeli narrative. Rashid Khalidi notes that "an attachment to place, a love of country and a local patriotism"—in short, parochial loyalties—constituted "the crucial elements in the construction of nation-state nationalism" among Palestinians (1997, 21). Mass displacement and the creation of a diaspora were key to Palestinian nation formation, and Palestinian nationalism continues to draw on idioms of home and homelessness. Alienation and exile deepen the need to reconstruct a homeland; they generate acts of imagination believed to be essential to the forging of national identity. Edward Said described the Palestinian diaspora's impulse to cultural creativity as deriving from this "perilous territory of not-belonging" (1984a, 50). Indeed, the very absence of a state and national institutions has increased the prestige of Palestinian intellectuals, activists, and scholars in the field of Palestine studies, whose work has collectively consolidated this nationalist discourse and helped to fashion a vocabulary of cultural authenticity and belonging.

The writings of Mahmoud Darwish—Palestine's most beloved poet—are the best example of this phenomenon, transforming Palestine and the collective suffering of its people into lyrical archetypes of sumud. In his classic prose poem Memory for Forgetfulness (Dhakira li-l-nisyan) Darwish addresses an imagined Israeli reader: "The true homeland is not that which is known or proved.... Your insistent need to demonstrate the history of stones and your ability to invent proofs does not give you prior membership over him who knows the time of the rain from the smell of the stone. The stone for you is an intellectual effort. For its owner it is a roof and walls" (1995, 72). The image of the Palestinian as viscerally attached to—even synonymous with—the land is set against the abstract, intellectual, or archeological claims of Zionism. The struggle is framed in terms of two kinds of knowledge, one ontic and the other epistemic, with the former lived and the latter learned. While the poem's narrator claims to remember in order to forget and to reconcile, the work is clearly about the need not to forget. Underwriting this need is a perception that for Palestinians, individual forgetting is tantamount to an erasure of self; collective forgetting, in the words of the Palestinian psychologist George Awad, to "psychic genocide."

The power of collective memory and the existential threat posed by forgetting are indeed pervasive themes in much Palestinian scholarship and literature. The continued existence of Palestine and its people, it is assumed, now depends on a consciously remembered history and cultural tradition. By extension of this logic, it is thanks to their mnemonic tenacity that Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, despite the long years of exile, have defied all predictions that they would eventually become Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, or other nationalities. This refusal to forget or disappear symbolically imparts to their suffering and marginality a "latent form of power" (Sayigh 2006, 134).

By a further extension of this logic, nowhere is memory claimed to be—or rhetorically constructed to be—more authentic or vital than in the camps. The camps are where, in spite of the poverty and powerlessness of refugees—or perhaps because of it—"the Palestinian national spirit was, and still is, burning. They are the real Palestinians" (Klaus 2003, 129, emphasis added). The memorializing consciousness believed to structure refugee experience in exile is often characterized as a compulsive desire to map, through narrative, "every tree, every stone fence, every grave, house, mosque, every street and village square [the refugees] had left behind." Cartographic naming practices and the creation of intimate records of a lost past "make the absent present."

Palestinian historian Elias Sanbar goes one step further, describing this experience in terms of radical substitution and synecdoche: "To rescue their land," he writes, "the refugees would gamble everything on taking it with them, gradually becoming the temporary replacement of their homeland.... They would live as if they were everything—Palestine and Palestinians, a people and its land" (2001, 90). Tellingly, Sanbar collapses the distinctions between memory as recollection and memory as cultural reproduction, making it almost indistinguishable from culture or identity. In other words, for refugees, the memory of 1948 is presented as the essence of their identity and humanity.

The rhetorical power of memory and cultural transmission in the context of the camps also draws upon the belief that disempowered communities are preternaturally oriented toward remembering and have a rich, spontaneous oral tradition—the "social glue" of identity politics—through which they record the injustices and suffering of the past. The claim that Sanbar and others appear to be making—that the identity of refugees from different generations, with different experiences, remains an enduring constant—does not account for the passage of time, for the disparateness of individual memory, or, most controversially, for the fact that new avenues of aspiration and belonging may be decoupling the nationalist dyad of territory and home.

Excerpted from Refugees of the Revolution by Diana Allan. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Transliteration and Translations xiii

Introduction 1

1 Commemorative Economies 37

2 Economic Subjectivity and Everyday Solidarities 69

3 Stealing Power 101

4 Dream Talk, Futurity, and Hope 137

5 Futures Elsewhere 161

6 Many Returns 191

Conclusion: The Roots of Exile 213

Notes 229

References 269

Index 293

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews