Perla Issa, The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions: An Everyday Perspective from Nahr el-Bared Camp (University of California Press and the Institute for Palestine Studies, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Perla Issa (PI): I began my research in 2011 in an effort to understand how Palestinian political factions were maintaining centrality in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon in the face of widespread unpopularity. How were they able to reproduce in everyday life?
I had been active in the camps of Lebanon for several years and was acquainted with the widespread criticism that was leveled against these factions. Palestinians routinely referred to them as “rotten,” “traitors,” “thieves,” “merchants of death” (tujjār damm). Young Palestinians often recounted how their parents forbade them from approaching factions, often physically pulling them away from factional offices or activities when such associations were discovered. A young man once told me that his grandmother warned him that political work was about the pursuit of personal ambitions rather than the general good: “The Palestinian people are like a bag of garlic, no matter which one you pick out you always end up with a head.” Indeed, a common refrain in the camps was that factions “only cared about their own interests!”
The unpopularity of Palestinian political factions is well documented in academic literature; however, the process through which they are reproduced in everyday life remains largely unexplored. My research aimed to understand the dynamics at play. How are factions maintaining a monopoly over political representation and camp organization, even when they are delegitimized in refugees’ eyes? Officially, the different political factions in the camps are divided along broad political stances vis-à-vis the “peace process,” whether they support the Oslo accords or not, and whether they are Islamic or secular in nature. Are these broad political and ideological differences more important to the refugees than the resolution of their daily problems of water, electricity, education, and health? These are the questions that made me begin my research project.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PI: The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions is an ethnography of Palestinian political factions through an immersion in daily home life, carried out in Nahr el-Bared camp in the north of Lebanon. It asks two sets of questions. First, as mentioned above, it asks how unpopular and discredited factions are reproduced on a day-to-day basis. How do they remain the center of political life in the face of widespread condemnation?
Secondly, my work inquires into the ontological nature of factions. It asks how Palestinian political factions, which are clearly made of people, came to be imagined both in academic literature and in our everyday imagination as “entities” or “structures” with lives of their own, existing separately from the very people and practices they contain. Scholars routinely use a multitude of metaphors to refer to factions: they are called “actors,” “players,” “political bodies,” or “political structures,” and these in turn are ascribed actions, aspirations, intentions, and identities. All these metaphors point to an imagination where factions form particular “entities” that “exist” in their own right. These “actors” or “structures” are then studied through an examination of their ideologies, regional and international alliances, and sources of funding, without examining the daily practices of those who form their very core—their members.
My book questions this dominant understanding of Palestinian political factions. While the first set of questions—how unpopular and discredited political factions are reproduced in everyday life—was the initial drive behind this book, the second set of questions—how factions, which are clearly made of people, come to take on the appearance of bounded structures defined by ideology that exist separately from the people they seek to encompass—quickly came to the fore as I delved into my fieldwork. With time it became clear that the answers to these two sets of questions are closely intertwined.
Through an examination of factions at the micro-level—the daily, mundane practices of Palestinian refugees—this book traces how factions are formed through local, intimate, and interpersonal relations imbued with high levels of trust and how, through particular practices, they metamorphose into impersonal structures that are distrusted by the community and end up controlling people’s lives. In other words, factions have a double nature; they are loose networks of people bound together by different degrees of trust and cohesion, yet they also appear as bounded structures distrusted by the community. This highlights that both trust and mistrust coexist in the same relationship, explaining Palestinians’ continued engagement with factions while openly critiquing them. By providing a detailed account of this process, this book reveals how factions continue to endure despite widespread condemnation. This, I hope, will help us better understand the political impasse that Palestinians—and many others—find themselves in with unpopular organizations representing them politically.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PI: I strove to write The Endurance of Palestinian Political Factions in a way that would appeal to a broad audience and not only to academics. Throughout the book I employed a narrative format, quoting conversations verbatim to provide in-depth portraits of individuals and their highly political lives. I let the complexities and ambiguities of the stories take precedence over neatly packaged analysis, in order to challenge the reader to think through what it means to be a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon today and navigate through the web of social and political relations in the context of chronic war, repeated displacement, and long-standing legal discrimination.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PI: I am currently working on a new research project about the political education and socialization of young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. How do young Palestinian refugees learn about the history of their homeland and cause? Do Palestinian political factions play a role and, if so, what does it consist of? What about NGOs? Are there educational centers or clubs who help fill the gap? Are families still playing a role? What about the internet? Are there main websites that Palestinians go to? What news sources do they resort to?
J: Your ethnography is based in Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp; how applicable is your argument to other places?
PI: Palestinians are not unique in having unpopular political parties dominate their political landscape. I was reminded of this fact on a daily basis as I was finalizing my manuscript while living in Lebanon and experiencing first hand the 17 October 2019 Lebanese uprising. Context and practices certainly change from one setting to another—for example, the practices that bind Lebanese citizens to their political parties are different from those examined in this study, and are certainly different from the practices that bind Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to political factions. However, the reality that political parties or factions are made of people, people who enter into different types of relationships with each other, still holds true regardless of the particular setting. In that sense, the double nature of factions—their existence as both a network and a structure—is not something peculiar to Nahr el-Bared camp nor to the Palestinian case.
While more studies are needed to see how the double nature of actions is enacted and experienced in different settings, I see this study as a point of departure and not as a moment of arrival. What I hope to do in this study is to suggest a new way to study any “entity” that we commonly refer to as a “structure,” or “agent,” or “body”—such as the state, political factions or parties, NGOs, or UN agencies—through an examination of the daily practices that constitute them and to question our assumptions about the nature of those “structures.”
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4 “‘We are the Factions:’ Political Faction Membership,” pp. 71-75)
Perla: During the [2007 Nahr el-Bared] conflict you were with the PFLP-GC?
Um Jihad: Yes. No, no!
Abu Jihad: We were taking aid from the PFLP-GC.
Um Jihad: We had a sort of superficial relation (kunna hayk ya’nī innu fī ‘ilāqa satḥiyyi).
Abu Jihad: A relation, a relation.
Um Jihad: I used to be in the “progressive women association” [the PFLP-GC women’s union].
The sister of Um Jihad: It was a belonging [to a political organization] (intimā’). You know how everyone has a political belonging? Each person had to have a belonging.
Perla: I can’t keep up with the three of you!
—Conversation between the author and Um Jihad, her husband, and her sister, all members of the thawra generation, Beddawi camp, July 20, 2011
When I first asked Mahmud, the youngest son of the Talal family, about his political affiliation, he answered that he was “in theory” (mabda’iyyan) with the DFLP. His choice of words seemed to imply that there was potentially a different “in practice” answer. Yet when I inquired further in an attempt to obtain the “real” answer, I was left dissatisfied; Mahmud just recounted how he had volunteered with the Najdeh NGO during the 2007 Nahr el-Bared conflict. He explained that he then found himself invited to meetings and “became DFLP.” It seemed that Mahmud was not willing to self-identify as a DFLP member, but was just telling me that “officially” he was a member.
The story of Mahmud’s relationship with the DFLP was the initial impetus that led me to rethink the nature of political membership. Living with the Talal family I was privy to the mundane micro-interactions that textured political membership. My interactions with him over the course of several months were instrumental in helping me better understand people’s relations with Palestinian political factions.
As we have already seen, Mahmud initially characterized his relationship with the DFLP as “theoretical.” About a month later I referred to him as a DFLP member, at which point he burst out: “I already told you I am not with anyone, I am with my own interests” (maslaḥtī). This sudden burst of dissent surprised me. I wondered whether I had misunderstood him earlier. Mahmud was responding to the common criticism of the factions in the camp: that they worked for their own interests rather than the people’s general good. Mahmud was underscoring that he was not a fool and he knew that he had to protect himself. It was early evening. Mahmud had just returned from working in the old camp and had to shower and eat quickly before heading out again to DJ a bachelor party on the rooftop of the house across from us. His cousin soon came over and helped him carry his four speakers down the three flights of our building and back up the three flights of stairs of the building across from us. There was no time to continue our conversation, and Um Muhammad and I took two of the kitchen chairs out onto the balcony to watch the party.
It took me about a week to be able to catch Mahmud and learn the details of the incident that had infuriated him that evening. He was home for his lunch break, and after eating the daily meal of muḥammara2 he took a longer than usual break and sat down to enjoy a midday narghile. He explained to me then that the DFLP’s yearly anniversary was approaching and they were planning, like every year, to have a celebration, which consisted of a series of speeches by its leadership and some Lebanese politicians in a hall in the camp. Mahmud’s immediate supervisor in the DFLP, Abu Mustapha, had asked him to provide the sound system for the event and told him that they would pay him 70,000LB, about 47 US dollars. Mahmud refused and handed in his resignation through a text message to Abu Mustapha: kul ‘ām wa antum bikhayr wa la’ilkun ghayr. The closest, but still inadequate translation, as the Arabic sentence actually rhymed, would be: “Happy Anniversary and you better find someone else.” When I asked Mahmud why he refused the job, he told me that he knew that the previous year they had paid 100 US dollars for the sound system. He thought this was unfair: they should pay him as much as anyone else—or even more, as he was starting up his DJ business and could use their support. He said that he wanted to leave the DFLP, that he didn’t like the factions anyways. His mother agreed: “They are no good.” He then got up and went back to work.
About a month later, as we were riding back together from Beirut to Nahr el-Bared, Mahmud told me of a romantic relationship he was having with a girl in the camp. He explained that he had met her in one of his NGO activities and they were sending each other text messages. As the conversation proceeded, I learned that the girl’s father was Abu Mustapha. I was taken aback; his ex-supervisor in the DFLP, the person to whom he had sent his daring text message a month earlier, was now the father of the girl he liked. It seemed his relation with Abu Mustapha was entering a whole new level. However, the story did not end there. Several months later, at the beginning of the school year, Mahmud decided to go back to technical college to complete his degree in hotel management. He told me that he had seen Abu Mustapha and they had agreed that the DFLP would give him the yearly stipend of 200 USD that they usually gave their students.
Mahmud’s tumultuous story made me begin to question the way we imagine faction membership. Trying to define Mahmud’s position as being “inside” or “outside” the DFLP would have not only been impossible, but would have also missed a lot of the complexity of this relationship. This story underscored the importance of following an ethnographic approach to the study of factional membership. Faction interactions such as “joining” or “leaving” might merely consist of sending a text message or having a conversation. They were informal practices, not confined to offices or political events, but interwoven with everyday activities such as meeting girls or deciding whether to continue an education. By following Mahmud’s relationship with the DFLP over several months I realized that faction membership was not about determining a person’s present classification as a faction member or not; rather, faction membership represented an evolving story of personal interactions. To properly understand faction membership, we therefore need to investigate people’s life histories.
Please note that the book is Open Access at the following link.