“The Campus in Camps programme activates critical communal learning within the Palestinian refugee camps of the West Bank. It was founded in 2012 by the architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti as a continuation of their efforts to reclaim public space for and by people. Isshaq Al-Barbary has been a participant in CiC since its inception. Neither an architect nor with any specific educational qualification, Al-Barbary introduces himself as a Palestinian refugee with his interests centred around his community in the camps. At a time when there is a global focus on a new refugee crisis, Merve Bedir spoke to him about the programme, its aims – and the politics of impermanence in some of the oldest refugee camps in the world.
Can you explain what Campus in Camps is?
It translates as Jamm'a fi al mukhayyam: a university in the camp. Jamm'a means university. But it also means a place for assembly, public space, space for gathering. This is the core of CiC, a place for communal learning. Being an active community with no hierarchy, everything here is decided collectively.
There is a big emphasis on language at CiC, but not in the conventional sense of broadening vocabulary. Can you explain why?
Palestinians have been subjected to different kinds of occupation. The physical colonisation, and the hidden occupation of knowledge, imposed on us. Therefore, each participant of CiC has a different understandings of things. When we started, the most important thing was to create a common language and understanding to enable us to communicate amongst ourselves: which we call mujawara, which means communication in old Arabic. Creating this common language meant unlearning and relearning. Eventually, we came up with the idea of a collective dictionary based on the principle that every person is a source of knowledge and has the right to define their individual experience in the camp. This is the true knowledge.
The “Tree School” is one Campus in Camps initiative aiming to make new forms of knowledge production possible. It also bridges two worlds that share similar issues in terms of social justice and equality: Palestine, where it’s run by Campus in Camps and Brazil, where it’s run by the arts collective Contrafilé. The symbolism of the tree makes me think of the destruction of trees which helped spark the Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2013. Why did you decide to use the tree as a symbol for the school?
Meanings of the tree are very rich: life, roots, existence, being. While orange trees in Jaffa are of the coloniser, who came and planted them in abundance, olive trees are for the people. The olive tree is a message to the coloniser: you can’t remove us.
Trees also imply permanence. For instance, planting trees is not allowed in UNHCR camps.
The political discourse around the right to return has meant maintaining the temporariness of the camp, preventing people from improving the spaces in which they live, so conditions are often miserable. Refugees first planted trees in camps in the West Bank, because they were farmers. Today they uproot trees, since space is so limited. Similarly, when UNRWA proposed building houses for us, people perceived this as conflicting with the idea of return and questioned the notion of a settlement and normalisation: fearing the camp would then be blended with the city, and lose its temporary status. But today there are huge buildings of concrete or bricks in the camps. We build concrete ceilings ourselves, but in our minds they still don’t exist.
In an initiative I'm involved with, with refugees in Turkey, we explore the idea of “city” that’s common to everyone and work on the definition of “city-zenship” instead of “citizenship”. Political communities beyond the nation state are an intriguing thought.
Is it the destiny of refugees to become citizens? How do you define the idea of city from refugee-hood? It's an important discussion: what does citizenship and nation state mean? What does it mean to be born a Palestinian? My generation in Palestine perceives Europe as heaven. I cannot imagine how a person from the camps here would live in Sweden, moving from a society based on a very strong community to a very individualistic one. What are the choices you have to make to live in another place?
Let’s talk about “Concrete Tent”: an idea initiated this summer. Concrete Tent is a gathering space for communal learning. It hosts cultural activities, a working area and an open space for social meetings. How did it start?
In 2014 we worked on mapping the open empty spaces in the camp, to evaluate what kind of new activities, uses and projects could be realised within it. We found this site with three shelters and one toilet. We negotiated with the owner to use the shelters for a CiC programme discussing the history of camps, recognising how refugee camps have a history of being politically and socially active, developing a new culture: the culture of exile. A year later, the owner destroyed the shelters to build a new house for his sons. We were depressed.
But based on these discussions, and with the need for a new venue, the idea of the “concrete tent” emerged, giving architectural form to narrations and representations of camps and refugees beyond the idea of poverty, marginalisation and victimisation.
I can’t help but think about these questions of permanence and temporariness again: of the tree, of the tent in a camp. Making a tent out of concrete in relation to the history of the camp and its culture: I can appreciate the irony. How do people react?
We don't want Concrete Tent to become a simple, dead, unchanging symbol. We already have a history of symbols, such as the key of return. But we want to embrace the contradictions in the meanings of symbols.
Take the key. It represents the right to return for us, each key is for a house. A key mostly refers to private property, but it throws up questions: “where is the right to the city?”, “where is the right to public spaces?”, “why should I go back to the village?”, “why should I live on the memories of my grandfather?”, “my father was a farmer, I was born in a refugee camp. What does it mean to be from a refugee camp, where you haven’t ever lived the farmer’s life?”
Concrete Tent embraces the land as common property, as the core for all sorts of social relationships and local networks, whilst challenging the contradictions of “tent” and “concrete”, and the meaning of symbols. The intention is to define new relationships through the tent, by embracing the culture of the camp: being not something you leave behind, but something you carry with you... even if you were to return.
What is return? What does the right of return mean? Why should the camp be destroyed then? That would be no different than the NAKBA: the forced exodus of Palestinians from their land in 1948, which meant the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. To me, the right to return means the freedom of movement. Some people might want to stay in the camp, others to leave, everyone should be free. If returning means going back to luxury and individual private properties, I don’t want this Zionist, colonial discourse. We can’t live without our community.
My last question and comment relates to design. I’m interested in the work of Campus in Camps in terms of how designers can establish a different kind of relationship with design and object, which is a very important question for me. The designs of Tree School and Concrete Tent relate to solidarity, to active communities, to investing in supporting people’s capacity and capability.
Your comment can be applied to camps. They were designed for aid and control, not for daily life, for people to exercise politics. This is a clear message for me about CiC: people make something out of the space. Look at the pedestrian bridge which was the only connection of the city of Deishah to the camp, crossing over a busy road. People from the city built this bridge themselves, for children from Deishah to go to the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] school in the camp. But the building of the bridges was against the Oslo accords and UNRWA boundaries. So people decided to build the bridge first and then to deal with any problems arising later. And the bridge was later closed. My research into its history made us use the area around the bridge differently: as a space of possibilities and potentialities. I hope the concrete tent will have the same effect.
Regarding people’s capability, this is exactly how we see it in CiC. We’re all participants, not employees, or students. We have initiatives, Mubadarat in Arabic. We start things, the idea comes from within, and through people participing we achieve something.
– Merve Bedir is an architect based between Rotterdam and Istanbul. She is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Architecture, Delft University of Technology and partner of Land and Civilization Compositions.