Abandoning politics for the mantra of 'return'

May 28, 2014
Sarah Benton

key of return
Palestinians display ‘the Key of Return,’ in the West Bank refugee camp of Aida near Bethlehem, Aug. 29 2012. Photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

Revolution and Return: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the End of Politics

Review of Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile by Diana Allan Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.

By Max Ajl, Jadaliyya
May 28 2014

For some reason while reading Diana Allan’s wonderful new book, Refugees of the Revolution, I had the idea that its title was Ghosts of the Revolution. I am not sure why. It may be because that revolution, in its silences and absences, so insistently haunts the pages of this study, its traces scattered and lingering in the lives of those who lived it and created it and were left behind by it. And how else could it be? For it is of the past, and it is the past that has brought the Palestinians living in Shatila to where they are today.

A revolution is built [on] a shared life experience and a shared political project. If the shared Palestinian experience was the Nakba, the shared project was liberation and return. Liberation is often now absent from the rhetoric of the Palestinian struggle. But return is far from absent—indeed, it is front and center. But to what end? What, now, is the meaning of return? The accomplishment and service of Allan’s book is not that she provides a certain answer to this question. Quite the opposite: for a researcher to have delivered certainty at this moment would be no accomplishment, since certainty with respect to such a question must be the fruit of political process, not research. Rather, the author’s service is to have asked so many Palestinians what it is that return means to them, and to have listened to and dutifully recorded their many, mercurial, provisional, and fragmented answers.

While doing so, Allan also has surveyed the struggles and daily conditions of life in Shatila, describing the lives, dreams, memories, visions, hopes, nightmares, and ghosts of the Palestinian exiles living in that beleaguered, brutalized, struggling, and resisting camp in south Beirut. Indeed, she has done this so very well that the book that comes most to mind while reading this study is Rosemary Sayigh’s Too Many Enemies. It is in Sayigh’s important tradition, that of close, detailed, poignant, grounded observation, that Allan works.

The first chapter focuses on how commemoration of 1948 became an ever-more-important way for Palestinians to resist depoliticization and marginalization in the Oslo Accord’s aftermath. Given the way those agreements attempted to remove the Palestinian exile community in Lebanon from the nation, defending return became central to asserting national belonging. Allan then explains how in the early 2000s these projects took another less positive turn. In the aftermath of the Israeli-American attack on the PLO, politics had begun to evaporate, and the camp and the struggle saw a

Growing prominence of camp NGOs and solidarity networks as mediators of national claims and cultivators of nationalist sensibility [with refugees increasingly addressing] their claims to the international community, framing their struggle in terms of human rights and international law.

Communal celebrations partially lapsed, replaced by activities which “refugees…see…as directed at an international audience and motivated by the funding considerations of NGOs.”

This change is also visible in a discursive shift she traces, from return as part of a political project to return as part of remembering “the Nakba…as the symbolic linchpin of collective identity and bedrock of nationalism.” But that event, too, acquires different meanings amidst generational shifts. In part, she writes that often the memory serves as the mortar for exilic communities—“existential bonds of suffering,” rather than the fire animating a liberation project. Institutionalized engagement with the refugees as people who can only demand return may create “an economy of victimhood,” one that relies on keeping that victimhood preserved in amber. Meanwhile “everyday suffering linked to poverty, political disenfranchisement, and social exclusion” receives comparatively little attention. In making this point, Allan makes clear that this process was not inevitable, but a symptom of the NGO-ization of camp life as not-for-profits entered the gap left by debilitated Palestinian institutions.

Allan then discusses how pressing material needs and the difficulty of meeting them increasingly constitute camp life, as new forms of social reproduction bring with them new kinds of association and belonging. On either side of this process lies a historical backdrop. First, there is the decline of the village associations, which provided one source of succor in times of need. Second, there is the decline of the national project and the PLO “state within a state” as a wellspring of social support. Amidst those dual declines, provisional modes of securing needs increasingly dominate. For some, for example those engaged in commerce, such trade can be embedded in a network of trust and—to some degree—mutual aid, with shopkeepers altering prices and allowing for credit based on others’ personal capacities and personal needs. In this context, Allan also discusses the rise of informal credit associations, linked to moral economies and trust-based repayment policies, encouraging “fair dealing while helping to forge new networks of solidarity.” Through this analysis, Allan makes a crucial contribution, as she starts to plug a tremendous gap in political economic research on Palestinian life in exile.

A third chapter looks at electricity as a prism through which Lebanese and Palestinian power relations are refracted. Here, Allan does an outstanding job of historicizing what the Revolution and its loss has meant for Shatila, offering an important intervention on the neglected research topic of camp infrastructure. After the 1969 arrival of the PLO, generators provided plenty of free electricity. Especially amidst the post-1973 oil boom, the PLO, coffers full of petrodollars, was able to fund a great deal of development in the camps. But the War of the Camps razed Shatila. And with the departure of the PLO, electricity supply devolved to a chronically underfunded UNRWA, and power lines that it had installed failed to keep up with a swelling population. With the deterioration of the Popular Committee (PC) from its previous role as the guarantor of rights and resolver of problems, people do what they can, which means simply siphoning electricity from surrounding power lines.

The familiar sight of a tangled mass of live power lines photographed by Dana Seider on her tour round Beirut’s Sabra, Chatilla and Bourj el Bourajneh camps. 

As illegal power lines multiplied amidst a worsening Lebanese energy crisis, which often left Beirut’s southern suburbs without power, the ministry responsible for overseeing electricity came to the camp to harry its people into paying chronically overdue bills. Here Allan neatly illustrates multiple forms of social power in Lebanon, which determine who is able to have access to electricity and at what price. For example, Hezbollah was able to prevent any harassment of its constituents in the Dahiyya for their unpaid bills, while, as was to be expected, wealthy neighborhoods had uninterrupted electricity. Meanwhile, Shatila was reduced to an hour or two a day. In this way, Allan brings together the ways in which the presence of a powerful organization is able to shield people from the effects of poverty, while the absence of such an organization—here, clearly, the PLO—leads to the state slamming down upon the most vulnerable of Lebanon’s residents. The desiccated PC worsened the situation. Controlled by pro-Syrian factions and lacking sufficient resources, it expressly symbolized the deterioration of politics in the camp and the way the absence of vibrant political representation forecloses the possibility of securing even the most mundane of daily needs. It was the election of a democratic People’s Committee which “allowed the community to redefine the terms of political engagement in the camp” to partially solve the electricity crisis. But this did not solve the problem of politics, or rather its crisis and the descent of the Revolution into factionalist clientelism. It is in this chapter that what was lost with the departure of the PLO is made nakedly clear: politics as the ability and means to take collective control over the direction and meaning of one’s life.

This question takes on a different form in Allan’s reflections on the meaning of return. This is the segment of the book that will surely prove most challenging to many prevailing conceptions. She writes that her chapter is “a modest attempt to examine how [return] is discussed locally,” and to use this attempt to critically examine “the practice and politics of solidarity” around the question of return. What this chapter is not a panorama of how all Palestinians, everywhere, think of return. To have entered such a terrain would have been to commit the error Allan highlights at the outset. “Discussion about return,” she writes, “is often striking for the absence of voices of camp refugees.” In that way, she continues, “ideological positions… [have] smoothed over differences between the ways justice is defined by the language of policy and international law and by refugees in communities like Shatila.”

There are at least two places and two ways return is central: first, in “nationalist discourse” and in the “collective imaginary,” and second, “as both a political and existential demand unifying Palestinian society.” The nebulousness of both demands, of course, invites a careful examination of what lies behind them, for neither nationalism nor society are ever simply anything. The classic fault-line both cover up is that of class, and that is one part, but hardly all, of the testimony and lived experience that Allan has condensed into this chapter. Some testimonials she reproduces turn return into a matter of dignity. ”When we talk about return, this is what we are talking about—the return of our dignity,” as one of her informants relates in a fantastical vignette about a future in which she goes to her family’s former home in Haifa and demands and receives acknowledgement that its inhabitants are living in a stolen residence.

Allan contrasts these many returns with the “zero-sum logic of political factions and activists…who are unanimous in their rejection of resettlement.” In contrast to such positions, Allan writes that it is “when others are seen to be making compromises on behalf of refugees… [that] staunchly nationalist positions resurge.” Yet she also cautions that positions themselves are like quicksilver, “shifting dramatically as…political initiatives kindled and dashed hopes for imminent solutions.” As one of her interviewees notes, many “want to return, but let’s be realistic: it’s not likely.” Perhaps this small phrase crystallizes the entire question of return—the tension between desire and possibility, likelihood and realism, accepting the pragmatic and demanding the impossible. These questions cannot be reduced to one or another individual’s desires and wishes in a moment of darkness. They can and must and will be resolved only in the domain of collective politics.

shatila camp
Palestinian refugees living in the the Shatila refugee camp in the Lebanese capital Beirut, walk under a banner of the late president Yasser Arafat on January 11, 2014. Photo by Anwar Amro / AFP

As Allan finally notes, return is bound not merely to the failure of politics but also to the rejection of those who carry the banners of one or another political project while failing to deliver on its promises at every turn. Allan highlights the example of one refugee rebuking Democratic Front and Popular Front activists for the way they use return to rip into Fateh’s and the PA’s accommodationism and anti-liberation negotiation strategy. At the same time, they fail to deliver anything meaningful themselves—whether in terms of the broader liberation project or in terms of meaningful improvement in the lives of the camp people. This is the bread-and-butter class politics that nationalism, Allan suggests, has been so unable to meaningfully accommodate in the post-Oslo era. What these examples highlight is that return is bound with incredible tightness to politics, and that return and the discourses and demands surrounding it are unintelligible without confronting the way politics shapes and restricts the imagination of what return is or can be.

And when those horizons crack open, as they did so powerfully on 15 May 2011, return can suddenly mean just that: not resettlement or symbolic compensation but a return to Palestine, full stop. And so it is worth noting here that those same young generations who often reported to Allan a connection to Palestine only through memory, knowing the name and little else of their families’ villages, are also the ones who participated in those brave marches to the Israeli armistice lines on that day in May.

This leads me to my main unease with this crucial contribution to our knowledge of camp life in Shatila. Allan’s theoretical approach is phenomenological. More explicitly, she cites Pierre Bourdieu—noted for his own deeply pessimistic approach to politics—as a significant theoretical influence. Although she seldom cites him, Allan’s study also recalls James Scott’s work on everyday resistance: the ways regular people resist and subvert oppression through and in their day-to-day activity, how micro-resistance suffuses even the smallest interactions between power and the powerless.

Such approaches, for all their impressive results, have faltered when faced with the question of why peoples’ struggles take the form they do. Why do some demands, and the smaller and daily acts of resistance that accompany them, dominate over larger demands? How has the possibility of return been tempered? How and why does that undeniable—for Allan never once denies it—attachment to the land and to return come again and again to acquire political relevance, to emerge as a political possibility? The author is far from unaware of this potential pitfall. As she writes, “focusing on everyday experience…to the exclusion of historical and political contexts can disguise the role these larger forces play in setting the parameters of individual agency and subjectivity.” Indeed, it is a credit to the meticulous care with which she has carried out her fieldwork and presented her results that she rises above some of the issues linked with such theoretical influences. Most strikingly, the case study on electricity in Shatila perfectly places the contemporary struggle for adequate power supplies in its historical context, underscoring how the destruction of politics has reconfigured the path of struggle.


Still, sometimes her approach may not give the question of politics its due—if politics is understood exactly as a collective effort to determine aspirations, and the means needed to reach them. For the path of struggle is etched out by past victories and defeats. It is historically produced. And ideology’s most powerful effect is not in confusing people about their oppression, but in the way it sets limits on what is possible, in establishing some politics as possible and others as impossible. Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to the question of return.

Now I must be clear here, as clear as Allan and as clear as her informants, because the ethnography itself leaves little doubt. There is no question here about either them or her—on their behalf, as their interpreter or messenger—rejecting return. Rather, the question is how to understand return. It is also to suggest some of the ways some forces in Lebanon may turn return into a political weapon to be used against the desperate daily material needs of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: a way to avoid offering them citizenship, a way to avoid giving them the right to work, a way to avoid incorporating them into the confessional system, and a way of maintaining them as an “apart” national community. Such a strategy may serve to avoid cross-sect alliances between the poor living within Lebanon’s borders, as intermittently happened during the early periods of the Revolution itself.

It is here that the Revolution haunts Allan’s account most chillingly. For with its departure came, perhaps, not merely the death of that stage of the liberation struggle but the temporary end of politics as such. Is the struggle for material needs all that is left? I do not think that is what Allan is arguing, although some may apprehensively dismiss this book on account of such an interpretation. It is my feeling that she has written with enough care to ward off such misuses. Never does she or her interviewees call for abandoning return. Rather, the book’s fundamental argument is that Palestinian needs and demands in the camps cannot be reduced to return. Indeed, such a static and absolute demand leaves scant space for the day-to-day economic demands that not only deserve fulfillment on their own terms but which could, perhaps, form the common ground for political projects between the poor citizens of Lebanon and the poor Palestinians of Lebanon alike.

It also suggests that any political project ought to start with listening, not schematics. And so to the extent that solidarity activists focus solely on return—or worse, their own ideas of what the appropriate “solution” to the conflict is—they may not support solutions to the very real and constant problems that afflict the residents of Shatila in the here-and-now. They may also fail to see how, instead of harping about their preferred solution, they could instead support those building a national project, which could through its very architecture began to incorporate the voices Allan has decanted into this book.

Indeed, at base, what Allan is suggesting is not replacing one vision with another, but engaging in listening. This is not listening as a performance, or merely to include, but to determine together. Whether or not one agrees with all that she has to say, this book is mandatory reading, not merely for specialists in the field, but in fact for anyone at all who concerns themselves with understanding the Palestinian struggle in all its desperate complexity.

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