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Photo Exhibition Backs Palestinian Refugee Camp’s Quest for Unesco Status

A proposal to nominate Dheisheh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, as a Unesco World Heritage site has received a boost from an exhibition of photos in London.

The images, by Luca Capuano, an Italian photographer of architecture, challenge Western conceptions of Palestinian heritage and culture.

The Decolonise Architecture Art Research collective, known as DAAR, organised the exhibition to support its nomination of the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp for heritage status. The exhibition, “Stateless Heritage,” is on view at the Mosaic Rooms in London until January 30.

Capuano previously documented Italy’s World Heritage sites for Unesco. His images of Dheisheh portray the landscape and the ruin of Palestine’s oldest camp.

In one room, photo books documenting the 44 villages of origin of Dheisheh’s residents are placed on plinths of different heights. The books show how the Palestinians left these villages as Israelis occupied the land.

It is a stark and visual reminder of the Nakba, when Palestinians were displaced from their homes by the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. (See a related article, “Oral History, Which Records Once-Silenced Voices, Gains Ground in the Arab World”.)

“The way that the narration has been shaped is that if refugees settle and consider the camp their home, this will jeopardize the Palestinian ‘right of return’.”

Sandi Hilal
One of the architects in the DAAR collective

What Is Heritage?

The photo exhibition is part of DAAR’s wider movement to use heritage to resist colonialism and occupation.

The collective’s nomination of a refugee camp as a heritage site could be a first for Unesco. The organisation’s rules stipulate that, among other criteria, a World Heritage site must be “an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures)”.

Whether a refugee camp meets those terms has been a subject of debate in the media.

Another challenge for DAAR’s proposal is that Unesco specifies that nominations must come from a state, but Palestine is politically and militarily an occupied territory.

Alessandro Petti, one of the two architects who founded DAAR, says: “By bringing in a refugee camp to the discussion, we also point out different forms of heritage-making that are somehow not trapped into the idea of nation state.”

It can be argued that the usual definition of heritage is not universal, but has colonial foundations and is subject to nation-state control.

The exhibition seeks to provoke people and global organisations to question what heritage is. Unesco has awarded World Heritage site status to a number of places in Palestine, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. These sites, of course, go back far beyond the Nakba but also show the degree of history that goes into making the case for a place as a heritage site.

The Question of Temporariness

The photos also raise the question of temporariness. Refugee camps are in principle built with the intention of being later demolished when no longer needed. Can that be compatible with heritage status?

Gallery: Images from ‘Stateless Heritage’

Petti’s partner, Sandi Hilal, noted that “the way that the narration has been shaped is that if refugees settle and consider the camp their home, this will jeopardize the Palestinian ‘right of return’.”

In an interview over Zoom, she said: “We found refugees actually struggling to survive and build their homes and at the same time being ashamed of making that home.”

Camps for displaced people are common in the Levant, but it is the Palestinians who have probably been hit hardest and longest.

To have an exhibition in London, about their way of life and the buildings that they live in, allows them to show the Western world what temporariness looks like. The aim is to change the mind-set of people about the lives and stories of people who had to flee their homes and set up temporary shelter, which then became more permanent.

The photos show the buildings in the camp but not the residents. It is obvious that Capuano wanted viewers to focus on the drama of the locations; the graffiti swearing allegiance to a political party or remembering someone, the electricity poles with wires hanging in different directions, the chandeliers seen through metal-fenced balconies.

“We have had a great response from visitors. We have had a huge mix of people who have come to visit, including people who have a connection to Palestine, architects, and many others.”

Angelina Radakovic
The exhibition’s curator

The viewer asks where the residents are, and whether the scene would look different when they are present.

Whether Unesco grants Dheisheh World Heritage status or not, the story of the camp will continue for many years and leave a lasting impression on the Arab world and beyond, even when the buildings are gone.

‘A Great Response from Visitors’

The response in London has been overwhelmingly positive, said the exhibition’s curator, Angelina Radakovic.

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“We have had a great response from visitors,” she wrote in an email. “We have had a huge mix of people who have come to visit, including people who have a connection to Palestine, architects, and many others.”

The Mosaic Rooms gallery and bookshop are funded by the nonprofit A.M. Qattan Foundation, which supports culture and education in Palestine and the wider Arab world. The foundation set up the Mosaic Rooms to promote Arab culture in the U.K.

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