Palestinian Studies

2017 Workshop

Diana Keown Allan

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, McGill University

What Bodies Remember: Sensory Experience as Historical Counterpoint in the Nakba Archive

Alive to the sensorial contours of experience, the phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the body as “a setting in relation to the world” (1962, 303), suggesting that conditions of existence are always embodied and relational, based on a changing assessment and engagement with the material world. This paper draws on interviews from the Nakba Archive to explore embodied and affective experience as sites of recollection and meaning-making amongst Palestinian elders in Lebanon. I argue that sensory forms of knowledge de-center event-based histories in productive ways, raising questions about the relation between durational and event-based histories, and historicality itself. What kinds of pasts are understood to be relevant, intelligible and communicable, and why? A central theme addressed is the analysis is the world of work. Descriptions of labor are significant because they articulate—and bring into alignment—people, place, sensual matter, and affective relations formed through it. They speak to the seasonal rhythms of communal life that fulfill social, biological and existential needs. (This idea resonates with Marx and Engel’s theory of labor as the means by which lives and worlds are produced and reproduced, itself the seed of Hannah Arendt’s theory of the vita activa(1958), in which labor-action—rather than a posteriori contemplation of life—forms and reveals our sense of ourselves, our humanity and our relations with others).

Diana Keown Allan is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill. She is a filmmaker and anthropologist who received her training at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and is the creator of two grassroots media collectives in Lebanon, the Nakba Archive and Lens on Lebanon. She was a recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship in film and anthropology, and her ethnographic films Chatila, Beirut (2001), Still Life (2007), Nakba Archive Excerpts (2008), Fire Under Ash (2009), and Terrace of the Sea (2010), have been screened in international film festivals and as gallery installations. Her recent ethnography, Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile (Stanford University Press, 2014) won the 2014 MEMO Palestine academic book award and the 2015 Middle East Section Award at the American Anthropological Association. Her current research––both written and filmic––explores the politics of Beirut’s informal economy,