As important as the Taj Mahal? The Palestinian refugee camp seeking Unesco world heritage status

·7-min read

The Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem doesn’t look much like your usual Unesco world heritage site. For a start, there are no souvenir stalls or swarms of trinket hawkers. Instead, cracked concrete walls covered with Arabic graffiti frame the entrance to a corner shop, where an old photocopier stands next to a few meagre shelves of provisions. A taxi loiters on a potholed street between piles of broken breeze blocks, while electricity cables and phone wires dangle precariously overhead.

But a new exhibition at London’s Mosaic Rooms sets out to argue that this ramshackle site of mass displacement should be considered worthy of the same protected status as Machu Picchu, Venice or the Taj Mahal. “We want to destabilise conventional western notions of heritage,” says Alessandro Petti. “How do you record the heritage of a culture of exile? When world heritage sites can only be nominated by nation states, how do you value the heritage of a stateless population?”

Since 2007, Petti has been working with Sandi Hilal, leading DAAR, the Decolonising Architecture Art Research collective, treading nimbly between the worlds of architecture, politics and development. For the last seven years, they have been working with Palestinian refugees in the Dheisheh camp to compile an unlikely dossier to submit to Unesco, arguing for the location’s “outstanding universal value” as the site of the longest and largest living displacement in the world.

In a process they describe as “playing seriously”, they have used the UN heritage agency’s own arcane nomination criteria to subvert the idea of international heritage protection and question assumptions about the status of this supposedly temporary camp. “Is the camp just a site of misery,” they ask, “or does it produce values that need to be acknowledged and protected?”

The exhibition begins by setting the scene with a cluster of large, freestanding light boxes in the ground floor gallery, glowing with atmospheric shots of the Dheisheh camp. They were taken by Luca Capuano, an Italian photographer who was previously commissioned by Unesco to document Italy’s famous world heritage sites. Petti and Hilal’s aim was to bring some of the artful romance of his carefully composed night-time shots of Venetian alleyways and Tuscan hill-town piazzas to the makeshift jumble of the refugee camp. The scenes have a seductive filmic quality, with pools of light spilling from doorways left ajar, and alluring alleyways beckoning you around the corner. Squint and you could be in Venice – a shot of which is included for comparison, recalling that city’s own beginnings as a place of refuge. It is a world away from the usual images of refugee camps, forever depicted as hopeless places of sun-scorched desperation.

Established in 1949 to house more than 3,000 Palestinians expelled from their villages by Jewish militias in the Arab-Israeli war, Dheisheh has since swelled to accommodate 15,000 people. It began as a tent encampment, laid out on a military grid across an undulating stretch of land leased to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by the Jordanian government (which still technically owns the land). In the 1950s, as the conflict showed no signs of abating, the UNRWA began building small concrete shelter rooms for each family, with a rule of one square metre per person, and a bathroom shared between every 15 shelters. As time went on, families added further rooms and plots were aggregated, expanded and built up, ad hoc.

More than 70 years on, Dheisheh looks very little like how you might picture a refugee camp. When I visited in 2018, I found not rows of tents or shelters, but winding streets of multistorey concrete houses, a dense urban place of self-built structures that had evolved piecemeal over the decades. There are shops and schools, mosques and a community centre, all packed into an area of less than half a square kilometre. The only giveaway of its status is the occasional UN-branded garbage truck patrolling the narrow lanes.

Walls remain bare and steel reinforcement bars poke from most rooftops, but there is a good reason why it all looks so unfinished. Dheisheh is the product of being forced to live in perpetual limbo, with the eternal hope of one day leaving, creating what Petti and Hilal call a state of “permanent temporariness”. The neighbourhoods are still loosely arranged according to the villages where the refugees came from, and the families cling to the dream of returning home to their ancestral lands – which lie just a few kilometres away, beyond the impenetrable concrete wall of the Israeli security barrier.

“There is a widespread feeling among Palestinian refugees that if you consider the camp your home, you will jeopardise the right of return,” says Hilal, who grew up in the nearby town of Beit Sahour, a hotbed of political activism. “People try to improve their buildings and living conditions, but at the same time they are ashamed of making the home their own.” She describes encountering one man digging a small swimming pool in his garden. When she asked what he was doing, he became immediately defensive, assuming she would accuse him of making the camp his permanent home. “There is a stigma around being seen to settle too much.”

It’s not helped by international perceptions. Hilal describes the “tours of misery” that are conducted around Dheisheh for foreign visitors, part of the disaster tourism industry that has spawned such unlikely local attractions as Banksy’s Walled Off hotel in Bethlehem, boasting views of the graffiti-covered concrete security wall from every bedroom. “The only recognised history is one of violence, suffering and humiliation,” she says. “How can we renarrate the camp in a more positive tone?”

For the London exhibition, they have converted one room of the gallery into a living room, or “madafeh”, where Palestinian community organiser Omar Hmidat will convene weekly Sunday gatherings, in connection with a parallel space in Dheisheh, linked via Zoom. It is filled with items donated by local Palestinian expats, from a collection of music tapes, to a woven rug from Gaza, and Hmidat’s own oud . “It’s a way to contaminate the idea of the white cube,” says Petti. “We want the exhibition to be an active site of gathering and production.”

A third room downstairs brings the Palestinian right of return into sharp focus, with a powerful display of the 44 villages near Jerusalem and Hebron from which Dheisheh’s residents were forced to flee. Large-format booklets of Capuano’s photographs lie open on spotlit plinths of different heights, creating a moving landscape of exile.

In the 70 years since the Palestinian families were displaced, their villages have become unrecognisable. Some are now Israeli national parks, complete with picnic benches where Palestinian homes once stood. Others have been turned into industrial sites, with concrete silos and steel sheds trampling the fields and fruit trees. But the majority are simply overgrown, planted with pine trees and eucalyptus. As Hilal puts it: “Greenery is used to hide the crimes.”

In their accompanying book, Refugee Heritage, which details the process of compiling the world heritage nomination, the duo consider the villages as a parallel heritage site to the camp, one existing as a direct product of the inability to access the other. Taking Unesco at its word, they point out that the outstanding universal value of a world heritage property depends on its ability to “transcend national boundaries”. What could be a more fitting example, they argue, than Dheisheh and its related villages, a site with a double existence, “which transcends these boundaries through its lived reality of statelessness, refugeehood and exile”?

Their work is made all the more poignant by the political impossibility of its goal. Of course their nomination can never reach Unesco – as an extraterritorial place, carved out from a state sovereignty, home to a stateless people, there is no state party that would ever present it.

• Stateless Heritage is at The Mosaic Rooms, London, until 30 January.

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