A strange and unexpected kind of waste fell across my path as I set out to research what I had neatly packaged for myself as “the politics of waste management in the West Bank.” It was late 2009 when an American friend introduced me to it on one of my first days in Jenin. “Oh, you are interested in trash? You’ll love this place, it is full of it!” And we were off. What struck me most when we finally made our way through an orgy of fresh fruits and vegetables, sold-off stands and carts in Jenin’s hisba market, was the scene of what my friend called the toilet bowl graveyard: rows and rows of porcelain bowls, no seats, out on the open concrete. Most were white, a couple were pastel blue and pink. Down an alley below a building with a bombed-out second floor we passed a mismatched set of electric hospital beds and lightweight metal room separators. They were lined up next to televisions and worn-out shoes laid out on sheets. Piles of clothes, also on sheets, punctuated every block or so of this central, if evidently separate, market.
I had thought that by investigating the everyday workings of waste (qua sanitation) I might be able to understand better the reshuffling of individual, community, and government ethics, rights, and responsibilities that has characterized the political landscape in post-Oslo Palestine. Upon arrival, it hit me fairly quickly that before deciding whom to interview, what archives to delve into and in what practices to become included—as a good anthropologist-in-training—I first had to decide what I meant by waste (another anthropology must). People’s suggestions provoked me: “What about the way the occupation is designed to waste our time?” “And the waste of international aid when the army stops projects or the donor hires German experts instead of local ones?”
I tried to keep my focus on sanitation. Sewage, of course, was sewage. Few would refute its trans-historical, universal demand to be managed, whatever the technologies of time and place. With the right access to archives, municipal councils, engineers, and talkative friends, tracing the genealogy of its management could be fairly straightforward. But why garbage (what today is called “solid waste”)? And how does the toilet bowl graveyard, each used bowl exchangeable for a few dozen shekels, fit into the story?
This essay aims to unravel elements of the dense mix of anxieties, assumptions, and social and material relations to which the circulation of used goods in Jenin has given rise over the past half-century. In doing so, it asks what it means for the politics of everyday life today that many Jenin residents went from receiving humanitarian hand-outs to buying colonial hand-me-downs. It also explores the particular forms of ambivalence with which each type of used good is spoken about today. Finally, it proposes some initial thoughts on how the post-Oslo amputation of the West Bank from Israel—which occurred in the decade of transition from hand-outs to hand-me-downs—has made it possible for Israeli discards to develop an afterlife in places like Jenin. It asks: What impacts, from Jenin’s perspective, has this massive transformation had on everyday rhythms, priorities, and expectations in people’s lives?
The Politics of Waste: The Birth of Zbaleh
Until about sixty years ago, garbage basically did not exist in Jenin. We all have certain notions of what trash is. We imagine plastic bags caked in dust, stuck in Qalandia’s barbed wire. We imagine grey construction debris peppered with colorful soda cans and candy wrappers; car carcasses on the way through Wadi Nar; the unmistakable smell of burning dumpsters. As someone focusing on Jenin in particular, I think of the West Bank’s very first Palestinian-run sanitary landfill, called Zahrat al-Finjan (flower cup)—built in 2007 on a ten million dollar World Bank loan that just came due. I also think of my twenty-year-old friend ‘Amer, in Jenin camp, who last year left acting school for a job as an United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) garbage collector. He had to, since his father lost his permit, and hence his job, inside Israel.
But had we all lived in Jenin sixty years ago, things would have looked, and smelled, very different. Seventy percent of us would have kept animals to which we would have fed food scraps. The thirty percent of us without animals would have given our household zibil to one of a handful of municipal workers who came around with a donkey-cart every few weeks. He, in turn, would have given it to farmers to use as fertilizer in Marj Ibn ‘Amer, now the location of Jenin’s used goods market. Farmers would not have worried about separating “organics” from “plastics” when using zibil instead of the chemical fertilizers that were just beginning to circulate.
Plastic bags, or most kinds of plastic, would not yet have existed. Refrigerators, plastic containers, cellophane, and the like would have been rare at best. When shopping for what we did not grow or raise at home, we would have carried goods in baskets or in folded sheets or blankets. We would have called the latter bukaj (singular bukji). We would have poured milk from glass bottles or from our animals directly. ‘Amer might not have found a job as a garbage collector in the camp. This is partly because women working at home would have been responsible not only for the spaces inside homes, but also for the hara as a whole. What is more, sixty years ago Jenin municipality would not have been paying hundreds of thousands of shekels per month to dump trash at Zahrat al-Finjan to help pay back the ten million dollars. That also means it would not have linked a monthly “waste management fee” (daribet al-nifayat) to the prepaid electricity cards that are today a major source of public resentment—not just in Palestine, but also across swaths of austerity-plagued countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
With the closure of the West Bank, local industries continued to decline and cheaply made goods proliferated. Buying more cheaply but from further afield, people came to feel change in the rhythms and quantities of purchases. The shelf lives of the everyday objects for which people were exchanging hard-earned cash were cut short.
This is where the birth of zbaleh occurs. A material history of the relatively small new market called the baleh helps us see, I think, that through the post-Oslo transformations in spatial, trade, and governance regimes, other transformations were catalyzed as well. Separation of the West Bank from—but with continued control by—Israel over the past two decades has had impacts of all kinds. Some are material, like unemployment, the destruction of infrastructure, and land theft. Others are less visible, like the defeatism that leads some, like Mustafa, to stop themselves from applying for permits to visit Jerusalem after countless rejections.
To these well-documented impacts I want to add one more. This one is visible. It is tangible, yet somehow still hard to articulate. It can be found in the conditions that have come to allow some materials—Israeli garbage, in this case—to have an afterlife, and others—Palestinian garbage—to become dead-end objects. Because, as my numerous hours at Jenin’s new landfill taught me, the deterioration of the material make-up of everyday goods in Jenin has coincided with a spike in the tons of garbage Jenin produces. As in the rest of the West Bank, this is linked to population growth. It is also linked to the fact that, with more women working outside the home, there is less time to repair things like clothes and household goods.
But that is a different story. Suffice it to say here that what we know today as garbage—or al-nifayat al-salbeh, among those who work with it—has a very short history in this part of Palestine. The significance of Jenin’s new market transformation thus lies in the fact that zbaleh is now not just a metaphor for low quality merchandise on sale in Palestinian markets. It is a prescient descriptor. With this in mind, I decided that if garbage as a category was in motion, the story of its management had to be flexible as well. It had to mimic the movements of the material itself between statuses as useful, valueless, and reusable. It also had to understand how those moves were being made, why, and when that mattered.
People in Jenin were certainly reusing materials sixty years ago, just without terms like “recycling” or “environment” as correlates to their practices. The thirty percent without animals, for example, had been expelling unwanted substances from within the walls of their homes or gardens, through the hands of municipal workers, as they do today. But that which was discarded had continued to circulate. That is, until it vanished, becoming a useful—quickly invisible—part of something new. It might have become soil in a wheat field, for instance, or fuel to heat the water at a public bath house. Not only has garbage been a changing category over time, it has also, necessarily, meant different sorts of materials at different moments.
In this sense it is not hard to imagine Jenin’s post-2000 baleh emergence as a continuation of these very same practices of reuse. But I wondered: had there ever before been another trade—involving a cash exchange—in used goods from further away? Or the practice of wearing the clothes and shoes of people to whom one could not trace a face-to-face relation, in living memory? In conversations with generations over the age of fifty in Jenin, this question soon brought me to the bukji. We remember from our short genealogy of garbage that in the first half of the twentieth century and in the absence of plastic, transporting goods from place to place meant stuffing them in baskets, wheeling them on carts or, as we see in old photographs of Palestine, carrying them on one’s head wrapped in a sheet. The composite bundle created by the sheet and goods was called a bukji. After the Nakba, the bukji acquired a new and painful meaning. The following lines from an al-Quds article by Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs ‘Issa Qaraqi’ offer one narrative from this year:
We have been waiting for the bukji for sixty-three years, wrapped in a blanket and offered to us by UNRWA from time to time…we are the small children around it, we open it, we search in it for a decent pair of shoes or one wool sweater even if it is worn out, and we wear our pants even if they are not our size. The smell of the clothes makes clear that they are from beyond the ocean, donated to us after others wore them for many, many years. They threw them at us. We wore them and we thanked the countries that colonized us and fed us and gave us fish oil to drink.
After the Nakba, bukji thus became the name given to the bundles of used clothes and shoes delivered to refugees throughout the Middle East. It was distributed, by the ton, according to the number of members in each family. It was folded into sheets tied together by their four corners or, in winter, oversized coats with tied arms. It was distributed twice annually (once in winter, once in summer) beginning around 1952, after the United Nations took over from the Red Cross.
Abu Ahmad, one of the first local West Bank UNRWA employees responsible for bukji distribution, remembers that rubber rain boots were a top priority in the first couple of years. These years were characterized by especially brutal winters, an added hardship for UNRWA’s sanitation workers (who were also refugees) responsible for cleaning the camps’ makeshift public bathrooms.
Over the phone from his retirement home in London, he speculated that the word “bukji” came from the English word “package.” Another local UNRWA employee in Ramallah, who oversaw the end of the bukji era in the early 1990s, was not sure of the word’s etymology. He did however know it was chosen for a reason. United Nations staff chose it, he remembered hearing, because the bukji was already culturally legible. They assumed it would be more palatable as a conduit for aid.
The exact origin of the shoes and clothes remains a mystery. Everyone I interviewed did agree, however, on two things: One, that the garments were always used, and two, that they must have originated in America or Europe. They came neither from the Arab states nor from the Israelis. There were other forms of aid, of course, whose origins were much closer to home in Palestinian community organizations and neighborliness. These too yielded assistance in the form of used garments, food, shelter, and even employment. But none of these was quite so pervasive or left quite the powerful symbolic legacy as did the bukji.
In Jenin, a city with a large refugee population, this is especially true. I learned that “bukji” is today a keyword for understanding how the material grit of exile is both remembered and produced. I started asking about it. Stories poured out, often with a mix of humor, pride and tragedy.
Abu Sami: I could not have gone to school without [the clothes I got from] the bukji. Once I ended up with a jacket from the bukji. It was just my size, it was good. And clean. I wore it and went to school. My English teacher came over to me and asked me about the inside of my jacket. “What’s written here in English? Made where? If it’s written here that your father is a donkey, would you even know?” So I hit him. I hit the teacher.
Abu Sami: The guy was telling me my father is a donkey! He was from the city (madani)…a property owner. And I’m a refugee. He’s a snob (shayif halo). He’s sitting in his chair wearing a suit and tie, he sees me wearing a bukji jacket…I said to him “Your father is a donkey, not mine.” And I slapped him in the face.
Some of the more tragic bukji stories have also become commemorative practices. This one, recounted to me by an older member of El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe in al-Bireh, tells of the moment in which the bukji was transformed from a way of carrying things into a symbol of exile:
Once the village nearby was attacked, people in your village would start leaving…So what would they take with them? Everything they had, they would throw it in a blanket, tie it up, put it on their heads and run. So if you notice in the photos of the hijra, most of the people have bukaj on their heads and they’re walking. They carried what they could carry. To the extent that it’s really entered our culture. For example there are some women who carried the bukji and left their homes, and one was so scared that she grabbed her son, for example, and put him in the bukji as she was fleeing. So they wouldn’t kill him. And when she arrived to a place where she felt kind of secure, she opened the bukji and found a doll instead of her son. Her son’s doll. She had left her son behind. She lost her mind and become the crazy woman of the camp (majnoonet al-mukheyam). Khalas, she went mad…I’ve heard these kinds of stories from people. Some people have taken this story and used it in films and TV series. And even we, El-Funoun, we put it into some of our performances about Haifa and Beirut. We had a woman with a bukji on her head, and then she went crazy and started dancing a mad dance (raqsa majnooneh). It’s present in our culture.
As a narrative trope, the bukji opens conversations the baleh doesn’t. Nevertheless, I found that bukji and baleh talk today can be understood as lenses through which particular sets of priorities and of changing affective approaches to Palestine’s colonial condition are made visible. That it was many of the same people who remembered the bukji in their lives—often as children in Jenin—who also offered incisive commentary on the baleh, a phenomenon in their present milieu, gave even further significance to their comparison.
The bukji was part of an international trade that reached much further back and farther afield than the Nakba or Palestine. What one UNRWA employee said to me (quoted at the beginning of this section) points to the fact that while the bukji was distributed to families free of charge, it was the World Lutheran Federation that, for much of the bukji’s existence, sold used garments to UNRWA. This would seem to make the bukji a “refugee version” of the more “democratically” distributed post-2000 baleh. But I think that a comparison between the kinds of talk around these two different sets of imported used goods is key to understanding important differences about the political, ethical, and aspirational climates in which these materials circulate.
Dependence, Choice, and ‘Ayb Aversion
One of the starkest differences between talk about the two types of used goods is the absence of an affect of ‘ayb (rudeness, shame, or embarrassment) in bukji talk, on the one hand, and its palpable presence in baleh talk, on the other. I should clarify. It is not so much that baleh talk necessarily or always provokes actual embarrassment in the speaker; rather, it is that even if shame is not felt, an effort not to be associated with the baleh is consciously and deliberately made (implying an aversion to the shame of association with it more than to the baleh itself). There is also a third degree of separation from, but association with, this ‘ayb affect. It comes from the speaker who claims not to be embarrassed or ashamed at shopping in the baleh. This speaker points out that, in shopping there, he or she is unlike most other people for whom it is ‘ayb to do so.
Stories like Abu Sami’s about hitting his teacher after being mocked in his bukji jacket manifest a latent sort of pride I found in most casual talk about the bukji. We can imagine that this is in part due to the sense that the bukji was a universal experience, one binding refugees together in common exile. The bukji existed within the broader framework of aid. And, for the first two or three decades, people’s dependence upon it seems to have been taken for granted. Another childhood story about being aid dependent from Abu Rania, who grew up in Jenin camp, is telling:
Abu Rania: Let me tell you a little anecdote. A bag of flour would come to us, and it would have written on it “Gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.” Written right on it. So our schools would ask us to wear sports shorts. But there were no such shorts to buy. And even if there had been, there was no money. So my mother would come, cut the bag [of flour] and sew a pair of shorts out of it. And on the back [he gives his behind a dramatic pat] it would be written: “Gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.” I wore this!
SSR: (laughing) Were there jokes at school?
Abu Rania: No! We were all wearing this kind of thing! It was a bag for flour, a white cloth bag. Ask anyone, they’ll know what I’m talking about.
Unlike the baleh, the bukji was not seen as a matter of choice. At least not for the first few decades. As Abu Rania does above with the flour, people speak of it as having literally “come down” or “come out” to them (kan btitl‘alak bukji). What you did with it from that point on was your business. Attesting to the visibility with which people’s relationship to the bukji was lived, almost everyone also described getting together with neighbors or extended family when UNRWA would distribute them. Rounds of exchange and trade ensured that, when possible, families with more boys got more male clothes, small children got smaller shoes, and people wore the colors they preferred—within the limits of what Europeans and Americans were discarding at the time. Recountings of the bukji’s time are told with an ambivalent pride in refugeehood, the ambivalence arising from the fact that bukji stories are often inflected with a sense of nostalgia for a lost time in which people, together, embraced a common politics of exile as well.
Talk about the baleh, conversely, mainly provoked uncomfortable laughter and hand-over-the-mouth hushed tones in urban Jenin. Younger women who admitted shopping there, for example, told me to lower my voice and took me aside. Some cut the conversation short. My baleh talk provoked downright disdain, disgust, or performative dissociation among other reactions, especially older people responsible for providing for their families. Abu Rania, for instance, so funny in his retelling of being an aid-dependent child in flour-sack shorts in the 1960s, spoke with revulsion when I implied that he could buy clothes for his wife and daughters from the baleh. Imm Nidal, aged sixty-five and also a refugee, at first feigned not hearing me when I mentioned the baleh. Next she claimed not to know of it at all. Finally, when I pressed her (her daughter’s store was a five minute walk from it, after all), she shut me up with a stern look in the eye: “I never shop there. Nor do my relatives. Nor would we ever. Khalas.”
Rude Luxuries, Clean Garbage
According to most shopkeepers in the baleh, this kind of dissociation from it seems to work a bit the way Victorian prohibitions on sex talk do in Michel Foucault’s writings. The more talk about it was prohibited, the more that which was the object of prohibited talk was probably going on. Shopkeepers, shoppers, and rejecters of the baleh alike were constantly telling me two apparently contradictory things. The first is that the baleh was for the poor. That was why I should not ask about it too loudly, ‘ayb! That was why people from surrounding villages were not embarrassed to be seen there—no one would know them. Hadn’t I seen the prices? Ten shekels for a pair of shoes that in the regular market would cost seventy. “We Arabs have lots of children, not like you in Europe. What do you have, one brother? How do you think we’re going to buy eight new pairs of shoes for all eight of our children at seventy shekels a pair?” Jenin’s unemployment rate, hovering between twenty-two and forty-five percent over the past decade, put that argument beyond doubt.
But what I also heard and came to understand over two years was that, in fact, people from Jenin’s entire socio-economic spectrum actually shop in the baleh. I discovered that the baleh is a place of rare, otherwise inaccessible finds, not just cheap ones. Mustafa sells Korean DVD players, thick oak grandfather clocks, and tea sets made in England. His blenders are Moulinex, from France. Abu Mahmoud sells real Nike sneakers and Italian leather boots—used, of course, but long-lasting enough for that not to matter.
I also heard the story of a man who, I was told by the Fatah-supporting shopkeepers who introduced me to him, was a member of Hamas. His leg had been destroyed by an Israeli missile that hit his house during the 2002 incursion into the camp. After undergoing twenty-four hours of torture, a hurried amputation—to which he had not agreed—at Afula Hospital (within Israel) and then a year of administrative detention, he had been released back into Jenin. One of the first things he did there was visit the baleh. He was looking for a prosthetic leg. He found one. He tapped on it with a long pinky-finger nail to show me it was plastic. The color was a remarkably good match for his dark skin. I guessed it had been made, or imported, for African immigrants to Israel.
As I sat for hours in this corner of the market, I was introduced to so-and-so min al-sulta (a Palestinian National Authority, or PA employee), so-and-so who was a well-known doctor trained in Russia, and so-and-so who had just come back from Holland and had built a villa in Kharoubeh. Ilham, who first introduced me to one of the founders of the baleh (Abu Mahmoud), explained the combined poverty and luxury of the market as follows:
It’s not that it’s ‘ayb (shameful), but that they want to say "I don’t buy from the baleh, I don’t go there, I wouldn’t buy anything used." But they do think that it’s ‘ayb. They want to say, "It’s not like I don’t have money, I don’t have that kind of need. I’m not so poor that I have to go to the baleh."…But then you find that they all know the baleh, and they go, but they go stealthily (tahreeb, secretly). But when I go to the baleh I don’t have a problem, I am not ashamed (ma bast’hi). People from all socio-economic levels (min kul altabaqat) go to the baleh. In fact, especially the richest people in the city go to the baleh. Why? Because they’re looking to buy fine things (shaghlat t’ileh) to put in their house. Things whose quality is really good. Not that they don’t have money, but they want to bring strange, rare things. If you come down to the regular market, you will probably see that all the stores have pretty much the same things. Exactly the same, all Chinese. But there are people who want to put special (mumayazeh) things in their houses. And that you won’t find except in the baleh.
The dissociation that at first glance might have seemed like an old-school anthropologist’s dream reaction to the fear of social stigma—or like the aversion to dirt Mary Douglas describes in Purity and Danger—was thus slightly more complicated. The “danger” side of purity and danger had something else, something pure, up its sleeve.
The Goods, the Visible, and the Vanishing Patina
I introduced this essay as a set of notes trying to understand what happens when the taken-for-grantedness of dependence on humanitarian hand-outs mutates into the choice of buying colonial hand-me-downs. Both represent conditions of dependence and both entail submission to colonial control. But as we see in Jenin, each is shaped by and helps produce distinct forms of affect and particular relationships among people and between people and their material surroundings.
Most telling from their comparison, I think, is the sense of choice to which the baleh lends itself. The sense of choice—whose permutations include fear of the ‘ayb of making that choice—is produced in three ways. One, the baleh requires cash to be exchanged for used objects. Two, the baleh is now a physical location to which people choose—or do not choose—to go. And three, the people who work there have also chosen that profession. They have created it, in fact, learning to become instant bricoleurs, cobbling together loans from family and friends and meticulously maintaining connections with Israelis who may once have employed them.
But choice thus produced obscures the relations of control and dependence, I would argue, that have made the market possible—even necessary—in the first place. Choice obscures the invisible patina that closure is encrusting onto people’s lives. It masks the reasons why Israeli garbage today circulates in Palestinian markets with greater ease than do Palestinian people in Israeli markets. Or the fact that the two areas on either side of the Green Line were once treated as one market, albeit unevenly. It elides the fact that post-Oslo "separation" meant not only that the PA would be answerable to Israel to build a landfill like Zahrat al-Finjan deep inside the West Bank in the mid-2000s, but also that the granting of so-called “autonomy” itself engendered new forms of dependence increasingly difficult to see.
The emergence of the baleh market is symptomatic of something happening in Palestine. The bukji is its past—but has not disappeared. Debates about Palestinian dependence on international aid abound. This history goes back to at least the aftermath of the Nakba. But the aid that once came in the form of bukji jackets and rain boots is packaged differently today. For one, “gifts” like roads and salaries don’t bear the same material signs, the patina, of the used things that first arrived from across the oceans. Flour sack shorts once did the work of reminding people who wore them, and who saw them worn, of common exile. In their abstract exchangeability for things like four-by-fours and private educations, salaries have the power to erase their source. (Unless, of course, they are not paid.) Even roads, like the many recently built and aggressively sign-posted by USAID, have a way of becoming abstract, utilitarian. Once paved, they are quick to give off the sense of having always-already been there. Publicly wearing what were legible in bukji times as the tangible signs of expulsion and liminality, on the other hand, meant that an awareness of aid dependence—for individuals but also for entire communities—was inescapable.
That aid patina did a certain kind of political work. Today, aid is more ubiquitous than ever. Its patina, however, seems to be vanishing. The visible is no longer a reliable source of what is there. Direct imports are not direct. Palestinian police uniforms mean Israeli coordination. And a new “Palestinian” road probably means more settlers. In light of a growing sense that things here are not exactly what they seem, it is no wonder, then, that the certainty of the bought, the used, and the discarded there gives some reprieve.
[This article was originally published in a longer form in Jerusalem Quarterly.]