Sandi Hilal, Founding member of DAAR, Beit Sahour, Palestine (Part 1/4)

Sandi Hilal foto okIn the first part of the conversation she talks about the Palestinian Refugee Camps and DAAR’s attempt to work with them to reimagine a reality blocked by politics. DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art and Residency) entire attempt is, first of all, to understand how we could reimagine a reality that is blocked by politics. Politics that are no more able to see any kind of hope in the future of any place. We try to understand how art and architecture can give another vision and other ways of looking at things. Especially in a place like Palestine which is very much under the lights of all the news. It is a place which is absolutely overwhelmed by images. So what we are trying to understand is how, in a place like this, we can manage to not perpetuate the politics. We absolutely do not want to just stand still and wait for the second war in Gaza or for the new disaster to happen in order to describe it to the world. We do not want our work to be only descriptive. We rather prefer to understand how we could engage with the reality and change it.


A Skype conversation with Sandi Hilal on Palestinian Refugee Camps’ project

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Palestinian Refugee Camps
Our last project is done in collaboration with the refugee camps. Palestinian refugee camps are the oldest, worldwide. So if we want to look at the refugees of the world (we are in a world where there are more and more refugees), the Palestinians ones are a perfect laboratory to understand how will it be for other refugees after so many years. Let’s turn back to the to the history of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in 1948 and they found themselves suddenly in a tent. They were looking back in order to return back home. The all idea was: “We will stay in a tent for one or two weeks, one or two months and then we will return back home”. This did not happen and they found themselves in a tent for a year. A year in the harsh winter, as it was described in the Palestine literature. Thus, Palestinians were forced to replace those tents with concrete walls in order to protect themselves from the very cold winter. They built these 4 walls, but after they finished the walls they arrive to the point that they had to do the roof. This is when there were huge Palestinian assemblies everywhere, they were wondering: “Should we or should we not build the roof?” “If we will build the roof, people would not look at us as refugees anymore, if we have the roof it means that we are stable and we might risk that this becomes our home.” So they decided not to build the roof; and they also decided that this is the image through which they will reprint themselves to the world.

Sticking to the international image of refugees to return back home
So far the world has always used to see the refugees as vulnerable people that they are in a need of a shelter, in a need of food, that they are poor. Even from the image point of view, we all have this picture in mind when we refer to the refugees. And Palestinian decided to stick to this universal image of refugees. They try, as much as they can, to keep this image in the imaginary of the entire world. Because they think that this is the only way to manage to return back home. This sis their strategy and the way that helps them to return back home. But then what happened in reality? Life passed, and 63 years of exile passed, and refugees begun to have a life and to build a very strong culture of exile. But the problem is that, they did build the culture of exile but at the same time they decided not to improve the camp, this was their strategy to return back home.

Ngos in Palestinian camps
So you will go in any camp, I will take now the case of the Dehisce Camp in Bethlehem with more 20 ngos in less than half square kilometer. I all the time say, it is a kind of parallel Rome. In Rome what astonishes you is that wherever you look you see churches. In Dheisheh Camp wherever you look you see ngos. They are really everywhere. Ngos are everywhere. You walk in the street and you see only ngos. They built all this culture of exile through ngos, through their work, and through many things that are happening in the camp. But in the same time, if you go there and ask them, “Why did you build 7 floors of this ngos with the Edward Said library, conferences hall, university, this and that. First of all they would feel accused, and secondly they would tell you ‘we will destroy everything in order to return back home”. You see, in order to stick to the universal image that the world has for the refugees, these refugees cannot have their culture of exile, they cannot build it. If you have culture, if you build your place, than people will not look at you as a refugee. In order to return back home, you have to erase 63 years of culture of exile. The all concept of the right to return was built on the fact that exile needs to be a tabula rasa. If you do not destroy your home, you will not be able to return back to the other home. Because this is how we see you. So refugees, since years, kind of live this total contradiction between building their life, their culture, being part of the camp, and at the same time wanting to fight for their right to return back home.

What is the role of art and architecture into creating a different image?
Now the main question is, what is the role of art and architecture into challenging this universal image of the right to return? And this is the issue we are really involved in. There is one story that I tell all the time. I was once sitting with some women in the Dheisheh camp and one of the leaders passed through. He is also a number of the Palestinian legislative council. So those women asked him: “When do you think we will be able to return back home?” And his answer was: “We will take you back home, but we are still looking for enough transportation.” Then a woman said that an ngos called Ibdaa’ bought a bus that we call the ‘bus to return’, and that we could use it. “We do not need to return back home all together in the same moment, we can wait one after the other and this bus could make many trips and finally take us home.” One of the woman that was siting apart, looked at us and asked: “Would it be possible to take also the Dheisheh refugees camp with us in the bus, because it includes 60 years of life and we cannot simply erase it in order to return back home.” So, what we are trying to understand is how to change the all image of refugees according to all of this. In architecture especially, because normally architects are used to look at one place and one building, but here in the Dheisheh or others camps we have to look at two places and one building. Whatever you would built at exile it would be virtually what you already had in your place of origin, it is like wearing special glasses that allow us to look at two places in the same time.