Drawing on the influential writing of Arendt, Foucault, and Agamben, much of the literature on refugees and refugee camps has generally emphasized the liminality and extraordinariness of the space of the camp. Camps have often been juxtaposed to the city. Whereas the latter has come to represent normality, the camp has been portrayed as the site of hardened national identities and political ideologies or, conversely, as a place of confinement for speechless victims. This approach might result in overlooking the intricate social relations that refugees develop with the city, and maintaining unchanged biased representations of them. In the field of Palestinian studies, this is particularly evident in analysis that have framed refugee camps as laboratories for the proliferation of radical Islamic movements and conservative religious forces. My reservation is that such readings continue to hold on to a notion of refugee camps as marginal spaces inhabited by unruly individuals incapable of integrating into Jordanian society.
If we want to understand the complexity of Palestinian refugees’ experience in Jordan, we should refrain from contrasting the city to the camp. More than that, we should move beyond the discussion of whether refugee camps are best defined in terms of closeness and openness, and examine how these dimensions are ultimately interconnected. A good place to explore this ambiguous relationship is al-Wihdat: a refugee camp fully integrated in the urban fabric of Amman, still administered as a temporary space almost sixty years after its establishment, and inhabited by refugees who enjoy full Jordanian citizenship.
My knowledge of the camp is based on my doctoral fieldwork, carried out from July 2009 to September 2010, and complemented by return trips in February to March 2011 and March 2012. During this time, I lived mostly in the camp. Though participant observation remained the most important part of my research, and field notes my main primary source, I have also conducted a number of semi-structured interviews, and devoted some time analyzing refugee narratives, textbooks, blog postings, and other published material.
Al Wihdat Refugee Camp
Al-Wihdat is within walking distance from downtown Amman. As drivers steer onto the busy thoroughfare of the camp and its outskirts, the landscape is visibly different from the fancy areas of West Amman. The nice villas and buildings in white stones of this well-off neighborhood swiftly give way to poorer constructions, dilapidated houses, and shabby buildings. The ubiquitous pollution of Amman is thicker here than in the residential area of West Amman, most likely due to the heavier car emissions and traffic jams that engulf Madaba Street, one of the main streets that borders the western side of the camp.
There are few other camps like al-Wihdat whose names reverberate with so much intensity the echo of a distinct Palestinian identity. As a whole, al-Wihdat is an integral part of Amman. There are distinguishing features though. Aside from a few large roads, al-Wihdat is a maze of narrow passageways and twisting alleys that gives the camp the feeling of a labyrinth. The shabbiness of the shelters (ma’wa/malja’)—often protected only with zinc roofs anchored by pieces of debris and heavy stones—and their height (rarely exceeding a second or third floor) set al-Wihdat apart from other comparable areas of the city.
[Al-Wihdat Refugee Camp. Image by Jihad Nijem]
Yet, the administrative and symbolic borders of the camp have not only served to set refugees apart, but also to connect and foster their integration into the city. Once separated from Amman, the camp is today completely incorporated into the southeastern side of the city, mainly through the urban expansion of Amman. Embedded in a tight cluster of dwellings, its densely populated space stretches out without any physical interruption toward the urban areas of Jabal Ashrafiyya (Ashrafiyya Hill).
[Al-Wihdat’s Official Map (source: UNRWA); Aerial View of Al-Wihdat Today (source: Google Earth)]
An occasional visitor would never guess where is and what actually constitutes “the camp” (al-mukhayyam in Arabic). No fences, walls, or barbed wire separate al-Wihdat from the rest of the city. The camp does not present itself as an impenetrable community, it is rather an open space and a thriving economic area. This is at odds with popular stereotypes in Jordan that represent refugee camps as big Palestinian enclaves, still not fully assimilated into Jordan: spaces of Palestinian national belonging and strong social cohesion, places inhabited by a “distinct” type of people. At the same time, many camp dwellers speak of this urban space in this manner, suggesting that they have internalized such an image. They refer to themselves with the general term awlād al-mukhayyam or mukhayyamjiyye—a word that can be roughly translated as "being from the camp." It is also a term that means much more than just living in the camp: it entails affinity, emotional attachment, and personal relationship with this space. Over the years, refugee camps have indeed become crucial reference points upon which Palestinians in Jordan (and elsewhere) have reconstructed their identity, their sense of history, and their social, cultural and political views.
The Evolution of Assistance
The first Palestinian refugee camps were established in the Middle East in the late 1940s following the establishment of Israel. When the Jewish Agency in Tel-Aviv announced the institution of the Provisional Government of Israel on 14 May 1948, the war that followed resulted in the destruction and mass evacuation of most Palestinian villages. Palestinians, who left their land and abandoned their houses to flee the mass persecution and atrocities perpetrated by the Hagganah and other Jewish forces, were hence prevented by the newly born state of Israel to return to their homes and lands.
In Jordan, refugee camps were originally set up in with the operational and very practical objective of gathering in one place those Palestinian refugees who could not afford alternative accommodation. It was thus refugees’ basic and immediate needs—rather than the attempt to discipline refugees as an anomaly in the national order of things—that determined their establishment.
In the camps, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (commonly known as UNRWA or the Agency) implemented a number of administrative practices intended at controlling the refugees and delivering aid. Julie Peteet notes how the thorough control of refugees through their classification, enumeration, medical screening and practices of rationing “aimed at the subjective transformation of the displaced from angry, potentially volatile refugees to docile recipients of food aid.”
However, these interventions had unexpected reverberations on camp dwellers’ political subjectivity. If such techniques of control aimed to generate a social unitary group—the “refugees”—without social, historical and political links with the past in order to facilitate its integration in the host country, the result was quite different. From the space that once came to represent the attempt of silencing the political predicament of Palestinians under the guise of a humanitarian issue, a culture of political resistance emerged.
Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East feature a long political history of resistance and national mobilization. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) arose out of the havoc of the “Six-Day War” in 1967, young Palestinians in exile streamed into the resistance movement. During this period of mass mobilization (1969–1982) which came to be popularly known as al-thawra (the revolution), a triumphant narrative of awakening valorized the men and women of the camps as the embodiment of Palestinian resilience and heroism. This was the heyday of al-Wihdat in Jordan, and Shatila in Lebanon, and of other refugee camps that, like the former, became powerful symbols of Palestinian nationalism. No longer a miserable abode for a mass of poor displaced, they came to be known as “liberated zones,” the furnaces of the “new men” of the revolution. The “sons of the camp,” the fedaiyyin (Arabic for militants/guerrillas), embodied the archetypal Palestinian. The chroniclers of the time portrayed them standing firmly against the overarching forces of their prior submission, no longer brought down by the suffocating impotence and fear of the first period of exile.
From the rise of the PLO in the 1960s until its expulsion by the Jordanian army in early 1970, al-Wihdat became a focal point for Palestinian nationalist activity. For almost a decade, it had attained a quasi-complete political autonomy from the Jordanian state. On the eve of the bloody events of Black September, al-Wihdat was not simply a militant base of Palestinian nationalism, but a veritable military and command centre. In September 1969, for example, the PLO launched the Lioncubs and Flowers Institutions (mu’assasat al-ashbal wa al-zahrat) in the camp: military training and additional schooling programmes for children and adolescents of both sexes. Here, the Palestinian Liberation movement—mostly members of Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—established its headquarters and renamed the camp “the Republic” in an overt challenge to the Jordanian monarchy.
Patterns of Integration
When camps became homes for Palestinians in exile, the transformation paved the way to the gradual integration of al-Wihdat into the urban and socio-economic fabric of Amman. The meaning of this change was revealed to me one day by Ghazi—a young man who I first met in a popular youth club of al-Wihdat, where he used to volunteer as youth worker. On our way to his house to watch a football match, I asked Ghazi where exactly he lived in the camp. I knew that he lived, along with his family, somewhere in the eastern part of the camp. He answered: “I don’t live in the camp, I live in al-Wihdat.” Noting the look of puzzlement on my face, Ghazi continued: “I live outside the camp, near al-Bashir Hospital, but it doesn’t make any difference. I mean… The camp is al-Wihdat, but al-Wihdat is not only the camp!” The explanation confused me even further. Ghazi gave me a long and contemplative look, and said: “if you make some money, once you get married, you want to move outside the camp. Many have built or rent a house just outside. So, the people that live in these areas are the same people of the camps. My father has done the same. That’s why the hara (Arabic for neighbourhood) where I live is still known as al-Wihdat. There is no difference!”
Ghazi’s clarification about the limits of the camp resonates within a shared understanding of the camp. Parental kinship, ethnic origin, class, and a common visual pattern have made al-Wihdat a Palestinian “city” that encompasses the camp and transcends its borders. New waves of generations have overflown periodically the administrative perimeter of the camp, flooding into the surrounding areas. Established as a consequence of the demographic pressure of the camp, these areas are now appendices to the camp, which increasingly diffuse the spatial limits of al-Wihdat from its surrounding neighbourhoods.
Faced with a density and rates of overcrowding higher than overpopulated cities like Mumbai and Kolkata in India, inhabitants from al-Wihdat have not only moved outside, but also breached camp rules. Over the years, housing units have changed owners, been sold and bought. Recently, houses have been rented to Iraqi refugees, Egyptian labourers, and other low-income immigrants who can only afford the relatively cheaper rents of the camp. After several changes of tenant, some units have lost any memory of the original owners, and real estate speculation has become one of the most tangible markers of refugee re-appropriation dynamics. The vertical expansion of buildings has also reached unpredictable levels. Fifteen years ago, a second floor on a building was permitted only in special cases. Today, for example, it is possible to build two additional floors (of less than six meters in height) on commercial buildings, and obtain authorisation from the Jordanian government to add one floor to a housing unit—though the request has to go through a specific official route before being issued. As a result, almost every unit in the camp has a second floor, and three and four-floor buildings are increasing. Now that the roads have been enlarged, and electricity installed, refugees inhabit al-Wihdat not just as a temporary or emergency space but as a place for living; what once were referred to as malaji’ (shelters) today are called buyut (homes).
So while al-Wihdat proudly and tragically exhibits its symbolic value as an icon of Palestinian nationalism, this enduring symbol of refugees’ determination to return is also a socio-economically and spatially ntegrated urban space. According to the words of a fifty-year-old Palestinian refugee previously employed in the camp’s UN Offices, this mixture of resilience and integration is what endows al-Wihdat with its characteristic family likeness:
For those who have never stepped a foot into it, it is difficult to distinguish the camp from any other poor neighborhood. But for us who have lived and worked in the camp, it is simple. You can distinguish the camp for its vegetable market, for the women who dress traditionally, for the accent of the people, and the way they shout when they sell their products.
Refugees have sought to preserve this space by challenging its socio-economic marginality, and fostering its integration into the larger space of the city, especially after the Oslo peace process when, even the already tenuous prospects of return succumbed to the PLO’s realpolitik. By pursuing the physical upgrading and spatial integration of the camp within the surrounding urban neighbourhoods, Palestinians have sought to challenge al-Wihdat’s marginality and, ultimately, to preserve its political dimension and significance.
Far from interpreting the physical precariousness of al-Wihdat as a token of their temporary stay in Jordan, many of the people I spoke with perceive the camp’s deteriorating infrastructure and its low environmental health standards as part of an international conspiracy—allegedly headed by the United States and Israel—aiming at liquidating the Palestinian issue, and sinking refugees into despair and oblivion. Camp dwellers often hold poverty and the lack of decent infrastructure to be the main sources of social problems and immorality among the young people—inherently negative situations that ultimately endanger refugees’ commitment to Palestinian nationalist struggles. It was a man from the camp, in his late sixties when I first met him, who first brought this to my attention. While sitting lethargically on a curb in the camp, he pointed out to me a bunch of children who were playing amidst a pile of garbage and debris tossed in the middle of a narrow alley. He commented:
I am afraid for the future! If you live in a bad environment, you grow wild. If you are poor, you don’t eat... and if you don’t eat, you can’t sleep. So what do you do? You think, and you get angry, more and more, until something bad happens. This [situation of ours] is still not the lowest point, but we are close to it. Once people get to the bottom, they will start making trouble, maybe kill each other. This is what they [Israel and the USA] want! They want us to kill each other!
[Al-Wihdat Refugee Camp. Image by Jihad Nijem]
Conclusion: Feels Like Home
Marginalised by the Oslo agreements of 1993 and faced with the gradual decay of their living conditions, camp dwellers saw the socio-economic rehabilitation and physical upgrading of al-Wihdat as a way to preserve their nationalist ideals in the context of a progressive assimilation. In other words, in the very process of integration, refugees have also drawn the energy to uphold their nationalist predicament.
What perhaps best exemplifies this seemingly ambivalent outcome is the souk of al-Wihdat. Cross-cut by al-Nadi Street, the souk can be roughly divided into two main sections: the northern part with food and kitchen-ware (suq al-khudra), and the southern part with clothing and other items (suq al-malabis). Anybody who steps into the market for the first time would be bewildered by the number of things and people in the street. The intense sociality of the souk is striking. A multitude of people stand, walk, sell, buy, play, hang around, shout, argue and fight. Many things draw the attention of passers-by. Shops, fast food stalls, and street sellers are distributed across the market, selling virtually everything from potato peelers to bright velvet corduroy pants, from sexy lingerie to little pictures frames with hadiths of the Prophet or the word "Allah." Most of the vegetables come from the Jordan Valley, and the clothes from China. Goods such as oil and flour are rumoured to be waste materials shipped from the United States. Men selling various objects compete to shout the loudest about the price of their merchandise, while others sit and gaze. Outside the door of their boutiques—propped against the wall or sitting on a plastic chair—shopkeepers look impassively at the stream of passers-by. An important area of the food market is covered. Here, amongst stands, hawkers, and small shops, there is also a modern supermarket. In suq al-malabis, amidst gloomy shops and wrecked stands, there are fancy boutiques which recall H&M or Zara. In this noisy and teeming labyrinth, animals such as rabbits, chickens, and even lambs and sheep are exhibited for sale.
At the time of my research, not only “locals,” but also Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Romani, and Filipinos came to the market because of its better prices, tastier food, and the wider selection of merchandise. Camp dwellers particulary appreciate this greater variety of camp life. They would often celebrate the advantages of living in a highly populated area like al-Wihdat, where the cost of living is reasonable and the souk, with its services, is nearby. They took pride in claiming that the products sold in the souk not only competed with, but also outshone those in the fanciest and wealthiest areas of Amman. In this way, the souk becomes a symbol of both integration in Jordan, and the capacity of Palestinians to struggle against the adversities of a life in exile.
On one of my first visits to al-Wihdat camp, I asked if there were differences between refugee camps and the rest of the city. An employee of the UNRWA, a refugee who lived in the camp, answered: “la, ma fish farg bein al-mukhayyam w Amman, al-mukhayyam zayy al-balad [no… there is no difference, the camp is like the balad]!” This man was drawing a link between the commercial zone of the camp and the old city of Amman, which is commonly known as balad, and where there is an important open market. But in Arabic, the term balad connotes also “village,” “homeland” and “place of origin.” By stating that al-Wihdat was only another balad, he was also indirectly referring to the fact that the camp had become an alternative urban centre in city of Amman: the centre of a Palestinian space, and a symbol of Palestine itself. The association of al-Wihdat with the balad of Amman is an expression of the ambiguous nature of the camp: a space of socio-economic integration, and a symbol of Palestinians’ struggles for national self-determination.
Closeness and openness are part and parcel of the fundamentally ambiguous status of al-Wihdat and other urban Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. Refugees living in al-Wihdat have maintained a sense of connection with the camp, a distinct sense of cultural, and sometimes class identity that sets them apart from Palestinians outside—people with whom they share material conditions of ethnic discrimination. At the same time, the process of re-appropriation of the camp space has fostered the socio-economic integration of the camp into the city. Historically, camp-dwellers have developed intricate social relations with the “world” outside the camps. The boom of commerce and services, and the development of a real estate market in the camp have drastically changed the impersonal and generic space which characterized al-Wihdat at the time of its establishment in 1955. Through their daily concerns and life trajectories, refugees have radically transformed the physical and socio-economic space of a camp that still remains paramount in their nationalist struggles. As a result, at the time of my research, al-Wihdat was simultaneously a home for Palestinians in exile, and a low-income residential area well-connected to the expanding neighborhoods of Amman.