Ph.D. candidate in Social and Cultural Geography, University College London
In studies of displaced Palestinians, and diasporic groups in general, “home” has often been approached as a place to which return is impossible or imaginary, retained only through the power of memory. However, this approach can overlook the lived, material dynamics of multi-sited homes and houses and their critical role in the (dis)connections to Palestine and Palestinianness experienced by those in diaspora. Drawing on eleven months of multi-sited ethnographic research conducted in New Jersey and the West Bank, this paper analyses the tensions of Palestinian-American homes from the perspective of the children of migrants. Bringing the Palestinian case into conversation with research on the generational dynamics of migration and transnationalism, it argues that homes have the powerful capacity to reproduce Palestinianness and forge material connections to the homeland whilst simultaneously making evident the multiple fractures—generational, cultural, geographical, and classed—that exist within New Jersey’s Palestinian-American community and their relationships with Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The paper analyses these relationships through three key tensions. Firstly, I argue that diasporic homes are critical in generating deeply held identifications with Palestinianness amongst the second-generation. However, their rich material culture and embodied practices—from cooking to “calling home”—are colored by generational fractures. My interlocutors and second-generation comedians mock the mystifying furnishings with which they grew up, such as the saloon’s sofas covered in plastic wrapping, observing their parents’ Palestinianness “through the gaze of their assimilated selves” (quoting Kathleen Hall). Secondly, I examine the houses constructed by migrant families in their West Bank villages. Often large, ostentatious and characterised by a global middle-class aesthetic, these houses are materializations of the classed asymmetries between migrants and non-migrants (as described also by Jørgen Carling). Indeed, the second-generation describe them as highly American spaces that reconstruct the cultural tastes and norms of their New Jersey lives during their return visits, yet, contradictorily, also spaces of Palestinian authenticity through which they can forge affective ties with “the land” and its people. Thirdly, I explore how houses embody the intimate linkages and painful fractures of transnational kinship. While my participants talk of maintaining a spare room should anyone arrive from “overseas,” the long separations of family members and enduring emptiness of houses in the West Bank, which some say are “built for the birds,” point to the ongoing significance of geographical divides that are re-entrenched by the temporalities and contingencies of entering and exiting the occupied territories through Israeli borders.
Together, the paper sheds light on the significance and complexities of homes in the production of Palestinian subjectivities mediated through displacement and generation. If these homes encapsulate the creative and defiant practices of Palestinian cultural reproduction, they also orient us toward the differences and asymmetries between Palestinians that open up over time and space. Indeed, my paper suggests that bringing Palestinian Studies into conversation with Migration Studies can sharpen our analyses of Palestinianness and the axes of difference cutting across “the Palestinian people.” Moreover, it can encourage an often-foreclosed discussion of their commonalities with, and differences from, other displaced groups.
Thomas Brocket is a PhD student in Social and Cultural Geography at University College London (UCL). His Economic and Social Council (ESRC)–funded PhD research, entitled Between East Coast and West Bank: An Ethnographic Study of Second-Generation Palestinian-Americans’ Relationship to Palestine and Palestinianness, draws on nine months research conducted in north New Jersey and two months in the West Bank from 2015 to 2017. He has published news articles based on his research in the Independent and the Conversation.