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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

5. Academia, Palestinians and Identity

Texte intégral

The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified… The checkpoint and the crossing point proves that they are a people if nothing else does.

- Khalidi ([1997] 2010): 1/5

1Looking at the troubled history of the first three refugee generations of Palestinians in Lebanon (and elsewhere) as outlined above, it has already been shown how the Palestinian national identity became the essential identity for Palestinian refugees. For six decades now, the Palestinians have found themselves in a protracted refugee situation, or under Israeli occupation; throughout this entire period they have been in a situation of conflict and struggle for statehood. It comes as no surprise then that to them, and to others, their national identity and their refugee status has become their “imperative status” (Barth, 1969) and monolithic identity. On the one hand they are categorised as Palestinian refugees by others, from the first days of refugeehood as beneficiaries of aid agencies (Peteet, 2005) and later as a label for unwanted guests, as a category of intervention and as a subject for political discourse and negotiation. On the other hand, their identity as Palestinian refugees is a self-ascribed status that is linked to perceived rights to land and the right and determination to return to that land. Until now, only a little has been said about where this identity came from, how it has changed throughout the period of exile, and how it has been treated by various scholars of different disciplines. This is important background knowledge in order to understand why patterns of social identification are changing among a fourth refugee generation which finds itself in a quite different social and political context to the former refugee generations in Lebanon. Therefore, a short overview will be given here of the existing literature on how the self-ascribed aspect of the Palestinian identity emerged and transformed among the first three refugee generations. The subject has been of great interest to various scholars who wrote about how a Palestinian national identity has emerged, how it was maintained and how it has changed over the years in exile. Among the most prominent authors who wrote on the question of Palestinian identity, relevant to the Palestinians in Lebanon, are Bowker (2003), Brynen (1989, 1990), Doraï (2006), Khalidi ([1997] 2010), Peteet (2005), Sayigh ([1979] 2007) and Rougier (2007).

5.1. Palestinian Identity

2Khalidi ([1997] 2010) goes far back in history when he looks at how a distinct Palestinian identity has emerged. In his book “Palestinian Identity” he examines the development of a distinct Palestinian national identity starting in the Ottoman period until the mid 1990s. Khalidi argues that even though the Arab communities of Palestine have always had several overlapping identities, such as family affiliations, transnational identities, local patriotism, and village, regional and religious identities, there has always been a sense of Palestinianness. He traces the beginning of a modern national consciousness back to the early 20th century. According to him, the idea of Palestine as a political entity emerged in 1908-09 when also a newspaper called al-Falastin came into view. Al-Falastin promulgated nationalist ideas over the following decades. Khalidi believes that this modern form of national consciousness has its roots in the 18th century, when Palestine was seen as a holy land under threat, something that sharpened the focus of identity. In the light of severe external threats, and borders imposed by the British, the attachment to Palestine as a political entity was reinforced and became the lynchpin on which modern Palestinian nationalism was based in the early 20th century. Yet due to the fact that the Palestinians have always been deprived of statehood and sovereignty, they lacked the tools and institutions required to spread and impose the uniform national criteria for identity. Khalidi identifies Zionism as one factor in the shaping of a Palestinian national identity, but he insists that Palestinian identity is not solely a response to Zionism. Contrary to Khalidi, Bowker (2003) is less concerned with the beginnings of a distinct Palestinian identity but rather with its development after 1948. In his book “Palestinian Refugees: Mythology, Identity and the Search for Peace”, he argues that the essence of Palestinian identity is the collective memory and mythologies of perceived rights (return and compensation), flight and dispossession, and the narratives of Palestine before the war. He further argues that it is ongoing conflict that has created much of the distinctive Palestinian identity, and attributes a great deal of importance to UNRWA in the construction of this identity, due to the Palestinian’s dependence on UNRWA relief and welfare services. According to him, the role of UNRWA goes far beyond its humanitarian responsibility; he argues that it has contributed to the Palestinians’ sense of an imagined community through the embodiment of mythologies vital to their aspirations regarding identity. Al-Husseini (2000) even argues that the ration card issued by UNRWA “has constituted an official - and often unique - piece of documentary evidence attesting to a physical link with Palestine, thereby becoming a symbol of Palestinian identity” (Al-Husseini, 2000: 52). He also observes that “while the nonpolitical character of UNRWA's mandate remains unchanged on paper, its assistance has progressively acquired an eminently political dimension that has gradually become embedded in the Palestinian nation-building process” (Al-Husseini, 2000: 51) and attributes a great importance to UNRWA schools in this development. Shabaneh (2012) makes the same observation regarding UNRWA schools when he argues that these institutions have provided an important basis for the continuation and evolution not only of a personal Palestinian identity, but also for the reconstruction of a national identity. He illustrates how UNRWA teachers have used the educational facilities to reconstruct national identity and to awaken a national consciousness through extracurricular activities.

3Brynen’s (1989 and 1990) analysis also focuses on the role of an institution in the Palestinians’ process of identity formation. He examines the development of a Palestinian national consciousness and identity in Lebanon due to the essential role played by the PLO between 1970 and 1982. In his article “PLO Policy in Lebanon: Legacies and Lessons”(1989) he wrote:

[Through the strong presence of the PLO] Palestinians were able to institutionalize their own national consciousness, to solidify the sense of resurgent Palestinianism which had accompanied the rise of the modern Palestinian resistance movement after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. (Brynen, 1989: 52)

4He argues that the initiation of guerrilla actions by the Palestinian fedda’yyin fighters from Lebanese soil revitalised a Palestinian identity in Lebanon. Hanafi and Long (2010) argue in a similar direction, writing that: “From 1969 to 1982, the PLO played a key role in promoting a collective political and national identity among the exiled Palestinians, who until then had seen themselves ‘merely’ as refugees” (Hanafi and Long, 2010: 138).

5Contrary to the aforementioned authors, Peteet (2005) presents a more anthropological perspective on Palestinian identity in her work “Landscape of Hope and Despair”. Her focus is on the construction of a Palestinian identity in the diaspora and how the refugees have created a sense of place “and meaning in new spaces, using the tools of culture, memory, and militancy” (Peteet, 2005: 1). She argues that “the construction of the Palestinian refugee as a category of person and object of intervention both constrained and enabled the refugees’ practice of crafting new worlds” (Peteet, 2005: 1). Peteet puts great importance on places in the formation and reformation of the Palestinian identity, especially the refugee camps, where people from all of Palestine have met and shared their identities and experiences. Moreover, Peteet (2005) considers specific historical events as essential to the formation of identity and the collective imagination of a community, and therefore suggests “periodising” identity with the denotation to jeel (generation) or ayyam (days). Just like Peteet, Doraï’s (2006) book “Les réfugiés palestiniens du Liban : une géographie de l’exil”places great importance on the camp in the lives and identity formation of the Palestinians. For Doraï, the camp has four main functions: it is a place to live, a space for economic activity, a place of memory and the affirmation of identity, as well as a field where political and military power can be developed and exercised.

  • 1  Tourné vers une construction identitaire où la mémoire joue un rôle important, mais tourné aussi v (...)

Turned towards a construction of identity in which memory plays an important role, but also turned towards the host society, as problematic as this contact may be, the camp as a living space is a “true laboratory for future Palestinian society”, according to Mohamed Kamel Doraï. Yet, the camp is also a laboratory for control and surveillance, with the presence of a variety of authorities, whether those of the hosts or those of the Palestinian political factions.
(Hanafi, 2007:6. Our own translation)1

6Among the most prominent authors writing about Palestinians in Lebnaon is Rosemary Sayigh. Sayigh’s many studies on the Palestinians focus mainly on their suffering (Knudsen and Hanafi, 2010). She wrote two pieces that are concerned with identity in particular: The book “From Peasants to Revolutionaries ([1979] 2007) and a more recent, unpublished article “Palestinian Refugee Identity/ies; Generation, Class, Region” (2011). Sayigh ([1979] 2007) writes that before expulsion, the Palestinian peasant (fellah) identified himself through his occupation, social status, way of life and his village; a way of identification that has now been overlaid by a Palestinian national consciousness. She shows how the Palestinian peasant identity has changed to become a refugee identity, which only became a national identity when Fatah launched the Palestinian revolution in 1965; the victim identity became an identity of struggle. According to Sayigh, the idea of the armed struggle and the fedda’yyin (the resistance fighters) became central to Palestinian self-identification. The Resistance has also overtaken the role of the old Palestinian elites in the definition of Palestinian identity.

7While all of the works and authors discussed above have focused on the national aspect of Palestinian identity, Rougier (2007) has shown in “Everyday Jihad” that the ground is laid for other forms of identification to emerge in the camps. He explores “how a new religious ideology took place in the camp environment - a salafist jihadist one based on the literal interpretation of the sacred texts and an emulation with the first Muslim communities al-Salaf” (Rougier, 2007: 2). He outlines the path along which a Salafist Jihadist identity that strips the Palestinians of a national identity and invites the Palestinians to identify with the greater Islamic Ulema, rather then solely with the Palestinian nation, has emerged among some camp dwellers in the Ain al-Hilwah camp. Rougier concludes that a re-socialisation towards a religious identity has changed the camp environment in Ain al-Hilwah, and suggests a great part of the responsibility for such trends lays in the aforementioned Salafist groups that emerged in the camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He makes a strong case for the Salafists having had a great influence in islamising the camp, and in recruiting new members, where nationalism has been replaced by islamism as a mobilizing ideology (Khalili, 2007).

5.2 Researching Young Palestinians of the Fourth Generation

The anthropology of youth is characterized by its attention to the agency of young people, its concern to document not just highly visible youth cultures but the entirety of youth cultural practice, and its interest in how identities emerge in new cultural formations that creatively combine elements of global capitalism, transnationalism, and local culture.

- Bucholtz, 2002: 525

8Looking at the existing literature on identity and Palestinians in Lebanon, authors have been very careful to stress that the Palestinian identity has been subject to change and that there are other foci of identity such as clan, village, Arabism and religion. Yet the centre of attention for these authors has been placed on the Palestinian identity. In my research among the young Palestinians of the fourth refugee generation in Burj al-Shamali, I experienced far more diversity, a fact that may be attributed to the specific political and socioeconomic environment and the young makeup of this refugee generation. Some researchers who have studied this age group and generation over the past decade came to similar conclusions, as will be shown in this paragraph.

9In academic literature, there has been an inclination to study war-affected and displaced children and young people from a psychological and psychiatric perspective, with a tendency to medicalise and pathologise the effects of the children’s living situations. Such studies leave only very little room to consider children’s voices and to look at them as agents, as anthropology of youth would suggest. This tendency has been very prominent in studies about Palestinian children and young people, be it in the Occupied Territories or in Arab host countries (Chatty and Hundt, 2005). Even though still modest, there is now a fairly well-established body of anthropological literature on Palestinian children and young people. Among the most important of these are the studies of Chatty (ex. 2009; 2010), who published various articles on the lives, experiences as well as agency and aspirations of children and young people in protracted refugee situations, Chatty and Hundt’s book “Children of Palestine” (2005), which is a collection of articles on the lives of children and their coping strategies in West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, as well as Mansour’s book “Des Enfants et des Pierres: Enquête en Palestine Occupée” (1993). Research on identity among Palestinian children and young people of the fourth refugee generation is quite scarce. Such research has been conducted in Jordan by Farah (1997, 1999, 2005) and Hart (2000, 2002, 2005), in the Occupied Territories by Bisharat (1997), Elbedour, Bastien and Center (1997) and in Lebanon by Fincham (2012) and Sayigh R. (2010) among others.

10Farah wrote her Ph.D thesis (1999) on the reconstruction of a Palestinian identity and popular memories in the al-Baq’a Camp in Jordan. In her article “Palestinian Children and Caregivers in Jordan” (2005) she not only shows how children have different and innovative mechanisms for coping with exile, but with regard to identity she argues that there is a discord between the former and the present refugee generations:

[T]hus children and young people are seeking a niche, a status and a role for themselves in society. This struggle for social and physical space involves the creative appropriation of multiple discourses form their milieu. Children and young people today are creatively reshaping a range of ideas, social practices and political and religious ideologies. These discourses cover Islam, nationalism and modernist visions of society. They critically engage ideas that flow from television, from NGOs, state activities and policies, as well as from their local network and their families and community. (Farah, 2005: 112)

11She concludes that this very fact makes the older generations uneasy because they fear the young generations have lost their morals. This fear inclines the older generations to hold the young Palestinians even closer. My own findings among young Palestinians in Lebanon are consistent with Farah’s (2005) observation. Hart was also concerned with children and young people in Jordan. Based on his research among refugee children and young people in the Jabal Hussein camp, Hart (2002, 2005) observed that children display multiple methods of social identification. He states that the identification of being Muslim was of significance for the children, but media consumption also shaped children’s imagination of lifestyles and aspirations. As we are going to see shortly, my own findings are also consistent with this. Hart (2005) makes very clear that he does not assume that the children solely identify with a global youth culture but that one has to acknowledge new information sources as one factor of shaping identity. With regard to plurality and multiple ways of identification, Hart (2000, 2002, 2005) argues that children in the Jabal Hussein camp in Jordan do not necessarily exclusively identify with their Palestinian identity. He writes: “In certain everyday contexts, the conformity of young people with the discourse of particular national communities is apparently achieved. However, as I show, the ‘imaginings’ of the children in Hussein camp are in no way confined to one single ‘community’” (Hart, 2002: 36). Hart shows that refugee children develop their own individual and collective identities despite the fact that their parents and grandparents, and also political leaders and journalists, would like to portray the children’s and young people’s accounts in a more singular and uniform way. He shows that even though some sentiments of belonging to the Palestinians as a political community were expressed, the children also had individual and collective aspirations going far beyond nationalism. He also detected that these children’s identities are very situational and dependent upon who is present. Hart (2002) also observes a very strong and institutionalised pressure towards nationalist determination; this manifests itself on the institutional, communal and domestic levels.

12Against the backdrop of Hart’s findings on how children develop individual identities in Jordan, it is interesting to consider a study conducted by Elbedour et al. (1997) in the Occupied Territories and Israel. In their article “Identity Formation in the Shadow of Conflict: Projective Drawings by Palestinian and Israeli Arab Children from the West Bank and Gaza”, they compared the drawings of Palestinian and Israeli Arab children, and found that children who are raised with the greatest external conflict, the Palestinian children under the Occupation, not only identify most with the conflict but also with the Palestinian we-group; while children raised in relative peace, such as Arab nomad children in Israel, have a greater tendency towards individualism and individual identifications. They write that in order “to protect themselves from […] the fear of anxiety about their personal futures, children identify with their larger social, ethnic and peer groups since it gives them more directness, similarity, predictability, and closeness” (Elbedour et al. 1997: 226). The authors contest that these processes of identity formation led to the impoverishment of individual identities, since personal accomplishments remain unrecognised by the we-group. Recognition is almost solely based on engagement in the conflict and heroic martyrdom. Finally, the children in the Occupied Territories have organised their definitions of the self around participation in the conflict. In his article “Transformations of Social Identities of Refugees in the West Bank”, Bisharat (1997) focuses his attention on the collective rather than the individual aspect of identification. He argues that through displacement, a community (the Palestinians) defines itself through shared experiences, and is united through the determination of a physical return. However, as refugeehood is prolonged over generations, the community defines itself through a specific experience of life and it is united through the commitment to an abstract return. He does not believe this abstract return to be the actual return to the homeland, but the imagination of a natural society free from Israeli occupation. Birsharat (1997) compellingly argues that even though the homeland continues to be romanticized, it is now the experience of a life under occupation that shapes social identification.

13With regard to Palestinian children in Lebanon, Chatty (2009) argues that, compared to other fields, Palestinian identity in Lebanon is more important for children and young people because the denial of the most basic rights serve to intensify the extreme othering of the Palestinians by the Lebanese. Serhan and Tabari (2005) argue that “although most children have a scent knowledge of the 1948 exodus of Palestinian people, all have a definite sense of their identity [as Palestinians], at an individual and collective level” (Serhan and Tabari, 2005: 48). They base this argument on the observation that all of the children know their village of origin and speak about Palestine in nostalgia. Moreover, they observe a certain pride in the Palestinian identity, which gives the children and young people a clear point of reference. Fincham (2012) shows how the young Palestinians in Southern Lebanon construct their identities even though Palestinian institutions are absent. She argues that identities are constructed through nationalist narratives, kinship, culture and religion, which are the source of notions of Palestinianness. According to her, these sources contribute to producing internal others within the Palestinian nation. Her main argument is that the social cohesion of the Palestinians is threatened through the essentialist way of constructing Palestinianness. In her recent work, Sayigh (2010) directed her focus away from the strong unifying aspects of the Palestinian revolution on the collective identity, towards looking at the various strands of self-identification of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon. Sayigh (2010) expounds that a strong national identity does not imply unity among the members of a nation, and that there are heterogeneities that were established before the exile, such as region or village, occupation, religion, etc. and new ones such as class, city or camp dwelling, party affiliation, and level of education. One of Sayigh’s main arguments is that that the self-identification as Palestinians among young Palestinians is still as strong now as it was in the 1970s. She bases this argument on interviews with refugee youth who responded to various questions she asked about how they would present themselves in certain situations. Replies always followed the same pattern: name, Palestinian, refugee camp. Interestingly, my findings are consistent with Farah’s, Hart’s, Bisharat’s and Elbedour’s et al. While their observations do not concern the young Palestinians in Lebanon, I find less concord between my findings and studies conducted in Lebanon by Serhan and Tabari, Fincham and Sayigh, as the following analysis will show.


1  Tourné vers une construction identitaire où la mémoire joue un rôle important, mais tourné aussi vers la société d’accueil si problématique que soit ce contact, le camp comme espace vivant est un « véritable laboratoire pour la société palestinienne à venir », selon Mohamed Kamel Doraï. Mais, le camp est aussi un laboratoire de contrôle et de surveillance avec la présence de différentes autorités, qu’elles soient celles d’accueil ou celles des fractions politiques palestiniennes. (Hanafi, 2007 : 6)


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