Palestinian Studies

2018 Workshop

Faedah M. Totah

Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

Finding Refuge in the Courtyard House: Palestinians in the Old City of Damascus

While the majority of work on Palestinian refugees centers on the refugee camp, the concentration of Palestinians in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Damascus offers a distinct case study for understanding the ways in which refugees coped with living in a congested and impoverished urban space in the aftermath of the Nakba and prior to the construction of refugee camps in Syria. The material conditions of their daily life in a traditional built environment highlights the ways in which Palestinian urban refugees created a sense of community and solidarity living in an ethnically diverse neighborhood rather than an exclusively Palestinian space like the refugee camp.

This paper offers a spatial analysis of life in courtyard houses and in the Old City during the early 1950s when houses lacked basic amenities. It addresses the ways in which Palestinian urban refugees endured harsh living conditions in courtyard houses. I rely on data from ethnographic research, as well as, details from a novel written by a Palestinian Syrian that depicts these early years in the Jewish Quarter. I address the relationship Palestinian refugees forged with the courtyard house, a quintessentially Damascene space that was being abandoned by its Syrian inhabitants who were seeking modern accommodations outside the Old City. Hence, Palestinians were resettled in the Old City that many Syrians were leaving because they considered the traditional historic neighborhoods to be backward and deficient of modern amenities. As a result refugees lived under the dual shadow of refugeeness and backwardness during the early years of dispossession. In conclusion, the paper offers insight on the Palestinian daily experience during the “shadow years” in an urban setting rather than a refugee camp.

Faedah M. Totah is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. She is a trained anthropologist and has worked extensively on the cultural, social, and economic ramifications of gentrification on the Old City of Damascus. The results of this research were the subject of the book Preserving the Old City of Damascus, published in 2014 by Syracuse University Press. She has also authored several articles dealing with Syria and the Middle East. She is currently preparing a manuscript for publication that examines the daily experiences of Palestinian urban refugees in Damascus