Reading the title of this article might appear confusing at first, for after all, the expression ‘permanent temporariness’ is ultimately an oxymoron, and yet describing it as such would be incorrect, for it would connote the impossibility of its existence. ‘Permanent Temporariness’ is the label of a reality embodied by Palestinian refugee camps as explained by Italian and Palestinian architects Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal.
In 2007 Petti and Hilal joined forces with British-Israeli academic Prof. Eyal Weizman to co-found DAAR, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, an architectural collective situated at the crossroad between architecture, politics and art. Recently Petti and Hilal published Permanent Temporariness, a book organized around fourteen concepts related to seventeen different projects affiliated with DAAR, which aims to provide readers with an understanding of the dissonance between the long-standing temporality of the existence of Palestinian refugee camps and the temporary identity that is constantly associated to the camps by a multitude of actors.
As I leafed through Petti and Hilal’s book, mesmerized by the architectural projects and the Arabic words used to explore the subject of Permanent Temporariness it dawned upon me that it was essential to pose one question: What are the sources of legitimization of the paradox and what is their motivation? More simply put, who benefits from this concept and why?
The UNRWA Example and the Palestinian Refugees
After giving it some thought, the three sources of legitimization that came to my mind were UNRWA, host states and the inhabitants of the camps themselves. The approach I found useful to understand how and why these three entities were legitimizing Petti and Hilal’s concept of Permanent Temporariness, is based on evaluation of the relationship between said sources of legitimization and the concept of Right of Return.
When looking at the case of UNRWA, it is important to recall that despite the aim of the organization being that to provide aid and assistance to Palestinian refugees until the dissolution of their refugee status, the persistence of the Palestinian refugee situation as well as the persistence of the centrality of UNRWA’s role within it are in fact the very constitutive principles of UNRWA. By covering the role of a quasi-state, UNRWA effectively has the denial of the Right of Return as its constitutive principle.
When it comes to host states instead, it suffices to think that if the host states were to allow the dismantlement of the camps, on the premise that the Right to Return is an unreachable dream, that would mean integrating the refugee population as de facto citizens of the host state, welcoming them as members of society enjoying their full rights. Conversely, maintaining the refugee population in the delimited space of camps can be read as the belief in the achievability of the Right to Return, which is adopted as an alibi by the host states. This use of the concept of the Right to Return as an alibi for the relegation of refugees to refugee camps by host states ultimately results in the legitimization of the paradigm of Permanent Temporariness of the camps.
A driving force behind Palestinian refugee existence
Lastly, when it comes to camp inhabitants themselves, the best way to describe this group’s relationship to the legitimization of their state of Permanent Temporariness and to the Right of Return is by saying that engaging in the former is essential to the renewal and revitalization of their belief in the latter which acts as a driving force of Palestinian refugee existence. Unfortunately, this has often resulted in an interpretation of a betterment of infrastructure and living situation in camps as a delegitimization of their right of return on the part of camp inhabitants.
Overall while this analysis might appear slightly fatalistic in its portrayal of this vicious circle, Petti and Hilal provide a case study in their book that sheds light on a new and hopeful trend; the case study of the building of Al Feniq cultural center in the Dehaisheh Refugee Camp. This case study sheds light on the transformation of an element usually seen as disenfranchising and normalizing into a vehicle of decolonization. If you want to find out how this happens, and you want to learn more about DAAR, their initiatives and projects, order your copy of Permanent Temporariness here http://www.artandtheory.org/?isbn=9789188031709