Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop


PhD Candidate, Oxford University

Preliminary Thoughts on Archives and Class in Exile

Recently, I revisited the journal Shu’un Filastiniyya and the older writings of Palestine sociologists in an attempt to answer a question often haunting my work, namely, what happened to class after exile? The proliferation of a certain kind of radical political economic scholarship in the journal, and the strong thread of class analysis in much of it, was striking in both scope and depth. It also bears a marked contrast to much of the social histories and ethnographies of refugee life that emerged from the 1990s and onwards.  More recently, and with several notable exceptions, class seems to have largely fallen out of favour despite a growing scholarly engagement with the decades old movement concept of intersectionality.  Indeed, this turn away from class comes at the precise moment when, as an analytical category, it seems to have re-entered public discourse in innovative and exciting ways, including in the rapid expansion of economic histories, and in particular histories of finance, debt, and markets.

However, what is necessary to write histories of class in exile? What kinds of archival resources are available, and how can they be read? Using my experience working on the histories of teachers and their social capital and class transformations in the 1950s and 1960s, I hope to offer some thoughts on the rich potentials of regional archival materials and those further afield, and on the material benefits of oral histories for precisely these kinds of class histories.  Using several examples of archival materials, I hope to also explore some of the politics of how these materials are often utilized in ways which under-read or elide class.

Education and educational institutions offer a useful tool to explore this question of archives in two main ways. First, there is a relatively more extensive documentation of the various educational regimes for Palestinians, in UN and state archives, private papers of more notable teachers as well as former students, and most importantly, exceptionally large databases of educational statistics, particularly in UNRWA’s fields of operation, and in Israel. Second, educational institutions have touched the vast majority of Palestinians, and there is therefore possibility to explore the everyday experience of class confrontations and contentions. In this way, institutional histories are situated between more explored histories of political formations in exile and the roles of class within and between them, and micro-histories of camp economies.

Moreover, while class in exile is under-explored, when it does it exist it is often located within a territorially bound Palestinian space – usually, within one or two exceptions, in Lebanon. While the exploration of the camps in Lebanon is historically understandable, this paper also seeks to challenge the territoriality of Palestinian class histories, and examine some ways in which capital and class flows and transformations shift, reform, diffuse and re-configure as Palestinian social mobility intensifies and expands geographically. What happens to class when Palestinians from Lebanon arrive on the shores of Europe and enter older, most established, Palestinian communities there? What of the class transformations in Palestinian communities in the Americas, and the flows between them and Palestinians in the West Bank in particular?

Again, here, education becomes a useful vehicle for understanding these histories. Rather than focus on one stratum of Palestinian elite in the Gulf, for example, how can we take up and expand Palestinian sociological studies in the 1980s to understand the histories of those elites not only with Palestine and regional power, but with the 400000 Palestinian teachers, engineers, managers, and undocumented labourers.

Ultimately, what this paper hopes to do is open up the possibilities, both practical and empirical, of class histories and to question some of the ways in which class disappearance is not just reflective of the broader politics of the academy, but also currents in Palestinian political life. The Palestinian academy’s prioritizations cannot be immured from these larger processes, and are implicated in them, but it can also be a space from which to fight back.

Mezna Qato is completing a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of educational regimes for Palestinians. She is an elected member of the National Coordinating Committee of the US Palestinian Community Network, and a member of the National Planning Committee of the US Social Forum where she developed its first Palestine Programme. She was part of Civitas, a collective research project initiated to record the voices and recommendations of Palestinian exile and refugee communities, and co-edited its register, Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions (Alden, 2006). She recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Settler Colonial Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2012) entitled ‘Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine’.