Abstract

My visit to the Stateless Heritage exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms, London, led me to reexamine how the concept of “heritage” is used to create and preserve particular narratives of the state, in this case by proposing Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Palestine as a World Heritage Site. Central to the exhibition was the madafeh, seen as a space of openness and hospitality. I am not a refugee and do not speak for refugees. I interpret the Decolonizing Art and Architecture Research (DAAR) collective's decolonizing project in the context of attempts to make room for people seeking asylum within “asylum dispersal areas” such as Doncaster, where I live—attempts in which the madafeh could play an important role.

Last November, I traveled from Doncaster, a postindustrial town in the north of England, to visit an exhibition in London about a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, about eight miles south of Jerusalem. Dheisheh was established as a temporary place of refuge following the Nakba. It has expanded over the last 70 years, and, according to UNRWA, is now home to approximately fifteen thousand people. Doncaster is a town that has lost its industrial base in coal mining. Like other towns with similar socioeconomic profiles, it was designated an “asylum dispersal area” 20 years ago by the UK Home Office to relieve the “burden” on London. Currently, around three hundred people in the British asylum system, typically from former colonies or quasi-colonies of European powers such as Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, and Iraq, live here as they await decisions on their cases for state protection.

Dheisheh is the subject of the Stateless Heritage exhibition and installation assembled by the Decolonizing Art and Architecture Research (DAAR) collective. I have never seen Dheisheh itself, though from brief visits to Jalazone and Balata, I do at least understand that refugee camps are no longer tented villages, as residents, despite their temporary status, have constructed more permanent shelters. I knew of the exhibition only through Oliver Wainwright's (2021) review in the Guardian. I approached it with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, unsure what Dheisheh had to do with Doncaster. I felt out of place in the unfamiliar setting of west London, as a Scot living in England who is becoming more alert to the impacts of colonialism, yet a British citizen, not a refugee, and a resident within an asylum dispersal area who is disconcerted by the language of “dispersal” and the representation of people seeking asylum, and who seeks a better understanding of heritage and the politics of remembering and forgetting. I came with a particular interest in the ways in which people who are currently seeking asylum in the UK, wherever they are from, experience the asylum system.

“Stateless heritage” offers a provocative juxtaposition of terms, for the definition of what counts as “heritage” depends closely on the state's power to define that heritage, and the story that the state—any state—tells of its own history. No one has proposed, as far as I know, that the coal mines that encircle Doncaster be considered not merely the heritage of the locality, or the heritage of the UK, but a World Heritage Site. When I think of “World Heritage Sites,” the first image that comes to my mind is the cluster of locations on Orkney, including Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, and the Standing Stones of Stenness, that bear witness to a sophisticated neolithic culture, and that I consider myself fortunate to have visited. Whatever their purpose, they were not built to be monuments, even if they have come to be “something that reminds.” I wonder if anyone today can claim that culture as part of their identity, so remote are these buildings in time from modern state formation and in place from modern centers of power. Stonehenge was influenced by Orcadian culture, rather than vice versa, yet continues to play a role in British identity and national myth-making that Orkney does not.

My second image is of a place I have not seen, much as I long to: the modernist architecture of Asmara, promoted by Mussolini as a showcase for the expression of fascist ideals, in churches, garages, cinemas, and the promise offered by modern technology. This may be an uncomfortable example, but a case can be made that both Orkney and Asmara conform to UNESCO's selection criteria for World Heritage status. These require a building to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, to exhibit an important interchange of human values, to bear an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization that is living or has disappeared, or to be an outstanding example of a type of building or landscape that illustrates significant stages in human history, or of a traditional human settlement, especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.1

The DAAR collective have deployed these criteria to present me with a third, enticing image for a World Heritage Site: a Palestinian refugee camp. The architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti have curated this exhibition in the Mosaic Rooms in west London to propose that Dheisheh Refugee Camp should be nominated as a World Heritage Site. Their nomination is intentionally provocative, to expose how the definition of “heritage” is subject to the control of the nation state, with its colonial foundations, and not a neutral or universal category through which the achievement of civilization is adjudicated. They make their case in a series of binary oppositions that are perhaps more rhetorical and contestable: between the state control of “heritage” and the absence of a Palestinian state; between buildings that are intended to be permanent and others that are temporary, like a camp; between lachrymose histories of violence and humiliation and histories of rich and vital cultures; and between history and no history, sites of erasure—for if the past is forgotten, what future can be built? The camp is an enduring sign of the exclusion and lack of voice of those who are reduced to refugee status. Hilal and Petti's specific aim is to challenge the conventional narratives of “the refugee”—humanitarian crises, victimhood, and suffering—by presenting the story of Dheisheh camp through its urban fabric, and as a story that can be accommodated under the rubric of “World Heritage.”

The exhibition did not disappoint. There are three rooms. In the first, a series of lightbox installations depict the architecture of the camp. The photographs were taken by Luca Capuano, here commissioned to document Dheisheh as a site of “permanent temporariness.” As an experienced architectural photographer, he has photographed Italian heritage sites for UNESCO, a task in which he fulfilled that duty of the heritage industry “to preserve and to understand.” In photographing Dheisheh, he captured a hint of the dignity and integrity of the buildings in his brightly lit, nighttime shots of what could be traces of Italian architecture, but turn out to be empty alleys within the camp. “Integrity” and “dignity” may be strange words to use: there is a thin line between glamorizing the intolerable and communicating the presence of human meaning amid the graffiti, pitted roads, martyrs’ memorials, and multistorey concrete houses—a dense urban environment of improvised structures that were added to piecemeal over seventy years. But these are places where people have been forced to “create masterpieces” of “testimony to a cultural tradition” that is “vulnerable to irreversible change.”

The second room displays photo-books that document the 44 villages of origin of the residents of Dheisheh. Each book documents one village, again photographed by Capuano. Is it a coincidence that there were 44 villages, while there were 44 Italian heritage sites in his earlier work? I don't know. Here, the books are displayed on plinths of varying heights, to create an undulating landscape of ruin and exile. The documentation records the date of Israeli occupation, the cause of exodus, what remains of the village after destruction by the Israelis, land ownership by ethnic group before the occupation, the populations in 1596, 1922, 1931, and 1948, and whether there are contemporary Israeli colonies on the village land. Seventy years later, most of the land is overgrown with pine trees and eucalyptus, while some villages have become industrial sites.

I spent much of my visit in the third room: al-madafeh, the Living Room, a welcoming space with items donated by Palestinians in London, including music tapes, an oud, and a woven rug from Gaza. It is offered as a place to gather, to converse, and to reflect, a place where everyone is welcome, where tea and coffee are always available, a communal space where people can talk and be silent together, and where the boundaries between public and private become porous. A liminal space that is a gathering place, in the spirit of the culture of a refugee camp. When I visited, I met people from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Glasgow.

As a non-speaker of Arabic, al-madafeh was a new concept to me. My visit led me to make my own enquiries about its meaning among people from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Sudan, all of whom gave me slightly different answers. Some, especially those interested in football, emphasized a perhaps mistaken link with defence. Others presented it as a separate guest room, and others as a communal space of welcome, perhaps under the direction of a host, the patriarchal head of the household. DAAR's own film of Syrian refugees in snowbound northern Sweden enabled me to understand better their practice of hospitality: “The door to the madafeh should never be closed. It should always be open for guests. A guest should come and stay and you're not supposed to ask them why they have come. You can only ask after you have hosted them for three days. The madafeh was a reference point in society where people knew they could come any time, to talk about their problems, where conflicts could be resolved.”2

Part of DAAR's claim is that al-madafeh activates both the right of “temporary people” to be hosts and not eternally the guest, and their separate right to belong in a new place without revoking the desire to belong “back home.”

I greatly enjoyed my time in al-madafeh. The conversations there intersected with other conversations I have had during research among people in Doncaster who are seeking asylum. I heard people say, as I have heard said in Doncaster, that in Syria, as in Eritrea, they never drank coffee alone. They did not know what it meant to be lonely until they came to the UK. In the UK, we appear to lack the cultural resources to offer welcome and hospitality. Hospitality has become a branch of the entertainment industry and something that we offer to friends rather than to strangers. What a contrast between the welcome in the madafeh and the experience of living in the impersonal hotels that the UK government regards as suitable for people seeking asylum. In Doncaster, and across the UK, traditional institutions where people can meet and explore ideas, whether these are libraries, trade unions, working men's clubs, churches, or pubs, have either disappeared or lost that function. The Kurdish barber shops in Doncaster have not yet established the same vitality. “They like private,” said one of my friends, referring to the lack of engagement of the wider community with people seeking asylum. In the course of five years, he had never been inside a neighbor's house. Communal spaces like parks and buses have ceased to be places where citizens from different walks of life can encounter one another, much less noncitizens. Rich and poor lead increasingly separate lives, as the affluent have abandoned public places and the quality of publicly provided facilities has declined. For “the affluent,” here read “the settled.” As I wandered around Doncaster town center during the pandemic, it often seemed that the empty streets were left to the homeless and to people whom I knew as refugees, as if the settled constituted a gated community, outside which the refugee could roam freely.

Another said, “a lot of people think of the rest of the world as holiday destinations and not really cultures and people that live there.” The idea of “heritage” as “pertaining to the preservation or exploitation of local and national features of historical, cultural, or scenic interest, especially as tourist attractions” dates in British usage from the 1970s, as opposed to an older sense that is so closely tied up with the legal ownership and possession of property, especially of land.3 “Heritage” comes from the same root as “heir,” which in turn, according to the online Etymological Dictionary, comes from the proto-Indo-European root*ghe- meaning “to be empty, left behind,” which is also the source of the Greek khēra, meaning “widow.”4 These shifts in meaning are significant. Ownership of the land goes to the heart of Dheisheh refugees’ case and is carefully documented by DAAR. World Heritage status means that Orkney's neolithic heritage is now promoted as a tourist destination, and Asmara potentially awaits the same fate, without attention to the political context of present-day Eritrea. What then of Dheisheh? The exhibition succeeded in challenging me to think about the meaning of “heritage,” even as I wonder whether pursuing heritage status is the best way to achieve the desired goals. What would it profit Dheisheh to enjoy the tourist gaze as “heritage,” yet fail to achieve the necessary political change?

What, then, does Dheisheh have to do with Doncaster? And what would it take for us Britons to admit that we may have something to learn from other cultural traditions? Without seeking to idealize and thus objectify those cultures within which the madafeh is rooted, my visit to the madafeh impressed upon me the need for UK organizations that exist to “support” people seeking asylum to decolonize their thinking, their language, and their practices. We need to challenge the claim, which continues to be issued unreflectively as the preamble to a Home Office statement announcing the latest restriction of asylum policy, that Britain has “a long history of welcome toward refugees.” We need to respect the cultures of the people who seek asylum. We must not turn “them” into “us.” Instead, let us reconfigure sites of welcome in the UK as madayif. And let more people be present and more voices be heard therein, including those in Doncaster who think of people seeking asylum as the cause of their woes.

Notes

1

See UNESCO (n.d.). Sites must fulfill at least one of ten selection criteria.

2

See DAAR (2018) “The right to be a host”. YouTube video: https://youtu.be/6KVVYwf_O2U.

3

See OED (n.d.) “heritage”. Accessed 18 December 2021.

4

See Online Etymological Dictionary (n.d.) ‘heredity’. Accessed 22 February 2022.

References

Contributor Notes

PAUL FITZPATRICK is a retired student of classics, philosophy, and theology who is active in Doncaster Conversation Club, which is currently reimagining its roles and its language as the sole organization in a small town charged explicitly with “standing alongside” refugees and people seeking asylum. Paul is a PhD candidate with a particular interest in the reception in Doncaster of people seeking asylum, local attempts to build “stronger communities,” and the possibilities of transconfessional theology in analyzing both these processes. Email: Paulfitzp@aol.com ORCID: 0000-0002-1454-5779

Migration and Society

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