The Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem doesn’t look much like your usual Unesco World Heritage site. For starters, there are no souvenir stalls or swarms of trinket hawkers. Instead, cracked concrete walls covered in Arabic graffiti frame the entrance to a corner store, where an old copier sits next to a few meager shelves of groceries. A taxi prowls a rutted street between piles of broken cinder blocks, while electric cables and telephone wires hang overhead.
But a new exhibit at London’s Mosaic Rooms claims that this dilapidated site of massive displacement should be considered worthy of the same protected status as Machu Picchu, Venice or the Taj Mahal. “We want to destabilize conventional Western notions of heritage,” explains 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 worked with Sandi Hilal, head of DAAR, the Decolonizing Architecture Art Research collective, navigating with agility between the worlds of architecture, politics and development. For the past seven years, they have worked with Palestinian refugees in Dheisheh camp to put together an unlikely dossier to submit to Unesco, asserting the “outstanding universal value” of the place as a site of the longest and the largest living displacement in the world.
In a process they describe as ‘playing it serious’, they have used the United Nations heritage agency’s own mysterious nomination criteria to overturn the idea of international heritage protection and challenge assumptions about it. status of this supposedly temporary camp. “Is the camp just a site of misery,” they ask, “or does it produce values that must be recognized and protected? “
The exhibition begins by setting the scene with a group of large autonomous light boxes in the gallery on the ground floor, shining with atmospheric shots of Dheisheh camp. They were taken by Luca Capuano, an Italian photographer who had previously been commissioned by Unesco to document Italy’s famous World Heritage sites. Petti and Hilal’s goal was to bring some of the artful romance of his carefully composed night shots of Venetian lanes and Tuscan hill plazas to the makeshift mess of the refugee camp. The scenes have an alluring film quality, with puddles of light pouring out from doors left ajar and alluring alleys waving to you around the corner. Squint and you could be in Venice – a photo of which is included for comparison, reminiscent of this city’s beginnings as a place of refuge. It is a world far removed from the usual images of refugee camps, forever portrayed as desperate places of sunburned despair.
Created in 1949 to house more than 3,000 Palestinians expelled from their villages by Jewish militias during the Arab-Israeli war, Dheisheh has since grown to accommodate 15,000 people. It began as a tent camp, set up on a military grid on a hilly 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, when the conflict showed no signs of abating, UNRWA began building small concrete shelter rooms for each family, with a rule of one square meter per person, and a bathroom. shared bath between all 15 shelters. Over time, families added other rooms and the plots were aggregated, enlarged and built, ad hoc.
Over 70 years later, Dheisheh looks very unlike what one might imagine in a refugee camp. During my visit in 2018, I found not rows of tents or shelters, but winding streets of multi-story concrete houses, a dense urban place of self-built structures that had evolved over decades. . There are shops and schools, mosques and a community center, all clustered in an area of less than half a square kilometer. The only telltale sign of its status is the occasional UN-branded garbage truck patrolling the narrow lanes.
The walls remain bare and steel rebar protrudes from most roofs, but there’s a good reason it all feels so unfinished. Dheisheh is the product of being forced to live in perpetual limbo, with the eternal hope of ever leaving, creating what Petti and Hilal call a state of “permanent temporality”. Neighborhoods are still loosely arranged according to the villages the refugees come from, and families cling to dreams of returning home to their ancestral lands – which lie just a few miles beyond the impenetrable concrete wall of the Israeli security fence.
“There is a widespread feeling among Palestinian refugees that if you regard the camp as your home, you will jeopardize the right of return,” says Hilal, who grew up in the nearby town of Beit Sahour, a hotbed of activism. Politics. “People are trying to improve their buildings and their living conditions, but at the same time, they are ashamed to appropriate their homes. She describes meeting a man digging a small pool in her backyard. When asked what he was doing, he immediately became defensive, assuming she would accuse him of making the camp his permanent home. “There is a stigma around being seen to set in too much.”
It is not helped by international perceptions. Hilal describes the ‘Tours of Misery’ that are organized around Dheisheh for foreign visitors, part of the disaster tourism industry that has spawned unlikely local attractions such as Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem , offering views of the graffiti covered concrete security wall from each room. “The only recognized story is that of violence, suffering and humiliation,” she says. “How can we re-start the camp in a more positive tone?” “
For the London exhibition, they transformed a room in the gallery into a living room, or ‘madafeh’, where Palestinian community organizer Omar Hmidat will convene weekly gatherings on Sundays, in connection with a space parallel to Dheisheh, linked via Zoom. It’s filled with items donated by local Palestinian expatriates, from a collection of musical tapes, to a woven Gaza rug and Hmidat’s own oud. “It’s a way of contaminating the idea of the white cube,” explains Petti. “We want the exhibition to be an active place of gathering and production.
A third room downstairs highlights the Palestinians’ right of return, with a powerful presentation of the 44 villages near Jerusalem and Hebron from which the residents of Dheisheh were forced to flee. Large-format booklets of Capuano’s photographs are opened on lighted plinths of varying heights, creating a landscape of exile in motion.
In the 70 years that Palestinian families have been displaced, their villages have become unrecognizable. Some are now Israeli national parks, with picnic benches where Palestinian homes once stood. Others have been turned into industrial sites, with concrete silos and steel sheds trampling fields and fruit trees. But the majority are simply overgrown, planted with pines and eucalyptus trees. As Hilal says, “Greenery is used to hide crimes. “
In their accompanying book, Refugee Heritage, which details the process of compiling the World Heritage nomination, the duo view the villages as a heritage site parallel to the camp, with the one existing as a direct product of the impossibility of access the other. Taking Unesco at its word, they recall that the Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage property depends on its ability to “transcend national borders”. What could be a more fitting example, they argue, than Dheisheh and its related villages, a dual-existence site, “which transcends these borders through its lived reality of statelessness, refugee status and exile”?
Their work is made all the more poignant by the political impossibility of its goal. Of course, their nomination could never reach Unesco – as an extraterritorial place, carved out of state sovereignty, home to a stateless people, no State Party would ever present it.