Nasser Abourahme is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University where he works between colonial studies, political theory and urban studies. He is currently a Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow at INCITE, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Innovative Theory and Empirics, and the Special Features Editor at the urban studies journal, CITY.
“Nothing to Lose but Our Tents”: The Camp, Revolution and the Stubborn Insistence of Everyday Material Life
How does one inhabit that which cannot become home? In a very concrete sense this question defines the Palestinian camp experience. For Palestinian politics, the camp has been both that which cannot be abandoned (and so must be lived) and that which cannot become permanent (and so cannot be lived). This paradox, I argue, weighed heavily on the Palestinian Revolution, for which the camp was a central object of thought and practice. When Arafat paraphrased the famous Marxist maxim, and transmuted the chains as tents, then the lesson was clear: only in the transformation of environment could self be remade. In this politics which would put the Palestinian body back into consequential physical movement (and turn the refugee into a historical subject) the camp is an object to be transformed into the means of its own undoing. “Barracks of incarceration or revolutionary launching pads?”—Kanafani asks in a 1969 editorial, on this choice rests “the very historical and fateful existence of the revolution.”
This paper reads across three novels of the revolutionary period (by Kanafani, Abu Shawir, Yakhlif) to show that Palestinian revolutionary realism both heeded this insurrectionary call but also undermined it. On the one hand camp life is mediated as nothing but the surficial expression of deeper political totality that lies elsewhere—only in armed struggle outside the camps can camp life be overcome. And yet at the same time, just at the point where the camp should be overcome in the protagonist’s journey toward militancy the very narrative drive itself comes unstuck. Not only does the world of domestic/built objects, from tin roofing to mud bricks, get entangled with subjects in metamorphic imagery, but the very formal attributes of this novel—episodic, multiply voiced, grammatically uncertain, temporally unstable—register the paradoxes of camp life in ways that cannot be mediated (a la realism) back to politics proper. Camp form and novel form are entangled. Reading these novels I argue points us to political roads not taken, to ways of thinking about Palestinian camp life as more than a means to another end elsewhere, but as always both means and end in its own right.