Francesca Recchia

We arrive late, as the sun is going down. The warm light of dusk embraces the landscape and glistens on the white stone of the buildings. Ayat Alturshan is waiting for us in the plaza of the Al Fawwar refugee camp in the southern West Bank, not far from Hebron. Alturshan is a youth activist whose struggle for women's rights to public space has changed the face of the camp. Palestinian architect, Sandi Hilal, had told me about her previously. I was keen to meet her and hear her story.

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Alturshan is with a group of twelve women. They are sitting on beige plastic chairs arranged in a circle. Unlike Alturshan, who is twenty-eight, they are all in their forties. Each wears a colorful headscarf and a long embroidered gown. Hilal and I are welcomed with robust handshakes and many kisses on each cheek. In no time, more plastic chairs are produced so that we can sit down and join the conversation. As soon as we settle, we are encouraged to push our chairs back a little bit: to make the circle wider and conquer more of the common space of the square. Behind us, the place is bustling with activity. Teenage boys play football and little girls race on their tricycles while other kids play hide-and-seek. The atmosphere is loud and festive. As we look around to take it all in, our corner of the plaza turns into a living room. The women smile and chatter, ask whether I am married and shake their heads when I say no. One of the ladies sitting on the other side of the circle points a finger at me and laughs out loud. When I ask why, she says, “You look exactly like my neighbor, minus the hijab of course.”

The conversation is timed by a feast of drinks and sweets. As we talk, the women bring from their kitchens: trays and bowls, glasses and cups. There is cardamom-scented coffee with dates; soda and chocolate biscuits; and very sweet black tea with fresh mint. The group of women moves around the public space of the square with a remarkable sense of ownership. “This is not at all common,” they tell us. “A gathering like this would have been unthinkable only a year ago. The plaza and Ayat's determination made all this possible.”

As we sit in the plaza of Al-Fawwar, I look around in disbelief, completely charmed by what I am experiencing. I visited the camp for the first time with Sandi Hilal in 2008. Then, the area that now hosts the square was a contested space with decrepit shelters on one side, rubble on the other, and cars parked everywhere in between. It is difficult to reconcile the image of desolation in my memory with the clean and well organized place that is now the trigger of female public conviviality.

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Al-Fawwar is a large camp that houses nearly seven thousand refugees, descendants of those displaced in the 1948 war. Over time, expanding families have appropriated every available space and, until recently, there was no open or common area where people could gather, celebrate weddings, and mourn at funerals, let alone a space for women to socialize. The population is generally rather conservative, and the open presence of women in public spaces has always been frowned upon.

This plaza is unique to the history of Palestinian refugee camps, the result of years of resistance, community mediations and negotiations between the Al-Fawwar inhabitants and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Sandi Hilal, who until last year was the Director of the UNRWA Camp Improvement Program, conceived and designed the square with her team. When she left the UN, she remained engaged with the Al-Fawwar community. In partnership with Alessandro Petti, the square became one of the core manifestations of their joint, and long-lasting, commitment to rethinking the role that architecture plays in the permanence of temporary refugee camps.

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According to a 2010 UNRWA estimate, there are five million registered Palestinian refugees. Roughly 1.3 million of them live in camps. These are people who have been displaced from their homes for almost three generations and have built a significant part of their identity on the right of return. Their material and political existence is rooted in the notion that sooner or later they will be able to return to their native lands. Hence, they have refused any external action that may consolidate their situation for fear of normalization. While keeping the keys to their ancestral houses, for years refugees chose to live in roofless shelters, a symbolic statement that would demonstrate their commitment to the right of return and the temporariness of their arrangement.

In the global rhetoric of aid and development, their miserable living conditions have always been interpreted as evidence of their victimization and lack of political agency. Aid programs almost exclusively aim at providing shelter, and tend to address the needs of individual families: a tent, a shared bathroom, and food packages. The camp is therefore understood as a microcosm of singularities rather than as a community with a shared history and struggle. This limiting way of looking at it, which considers the question of refugees as a humanitarian problem rather than as a political issue, has generated a sixty-seven-year-long emergency that freezes the camp in a sort of permanent present. Such a state of exception has marginalized the role of architecture to the design of shelters and infrastructure (paving roads and building sewages) and has sidelined structural possibilities for nurturing common and public spaces.

For Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, as architects and researchers in urbanism, this margin of misinterpretation became the source of their work. Can an architect relate to the built environment of the camps without undermining the right of return? Are there ways in which the community as a whole can be involved in improving living conditions through interventions in the physical space that are politically sustainable and ideologically acceptable? Hilal and Petti started questioning the established narrative of refugees as passive recipients of aid and rethinking their role as political agents. In Alessandro Petti's words: “The prolonged exceptional temporality of this site has paradoxically created the condition for its transformation: from a pure humanitarian space to an active political space, it has become an embodiment and an expression of the right of return.”

In order to test their ideas, Hilal and Petti set up Campus in Camps, an experimental university currently located in Dheisheh Camp in Bethlehem and grounded on principles of participation, contextual learning, and critical pedagogy. Based on the un-learning of prejudices and the re-learning from the evidence on the ground, their work became acceptable to the local communities as they encourage a mentality that is different from the approaches of NGOs and development agencies. Hilal and Petti realized that the logic of development projects does not produce lasting results, nor does it foster credibility. They have therefore engaged in a long-term commitment with the community, and established a sense of collective ownership. Working with students from local and international universities and activists from refugee camps, their activities are based on a direct engagement with the reality of the camps.

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Supported by this conceptual framework, the plaza in Al Fawwar is one of the core initiatives of Campus in Camps. Hilal says that there was initially fierce opposition to any improvement project. “When we merely mentioned the word plaza, people in the camp freaked out. It raised all sorts of red flags about the permanency of the camp and giving up the dream of return.” Because of the conservative social fabric of the camp, it took Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti three-and-a-half years of discussions and adjustments to realize a plaza that today stands as a great source of pride for the whole community. The long negotiation on the design of the project offered the community a chance to debate amongst itself, a discussion between generations, and men and women. The square finally took the shape of a house without a roof: an open yet contained space that allows women, especially, to be outdoors without being exposed to the gaze of strangers. The community was finally won over by the project and the initial resistance disappeared when delegations from other camps—including members of the Talbieh and Hus’n refugee camps in Jordan—started to visit the plaza as a possible model to be replicated.

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After sunset the women in the group return to their homes. We follow Ayat Alturshan to the house where she lives with her family: a two-story building facing south on top of the sloping end of the Al-Fawwar camp. The house is covered in traditional Palestinian white stone and is surrounded by a well-tended garden. Three very old olive trees, some flower beds, and large sage and mint bushes defy the stereotypical image of the miserable shelter housing needy refugees.

We sit under the trees, sip homemade guava sherbet, and eat fresh fruit. Ayat Alturshan was one of the “students” of Campus in Camps; the activation of the plaza became her “assignment” within the program. She recalls with great enthusiasm the ups-and-downs of her journey. “As a woman who belongs to this camp and this community I often felt constrained and limited in my movements. I knew that other women would feel the same. I thought that there should be a way to go beyond tradition, and give women the right to be outdoors, gather, and get a bit of fresh air and vitamin D. Campus in Camps gave me the opportunity to put into practice what I always wanted to do. I was lucky that my family supported me.”

The idea was as simple as it was radical: to bring out in the open ordinary activities that women generally carry on in the protected space of the house. The first event that was organized in the plaza invited women to participate in a day of collective cooking, to get together and prepare maftoul, a traditional Palestinian dish similar to couscous. Men and women alike were very skeptical. At first, they thought such an initiative would damage women's morality and put strange ideas in their heads. Alturshan, however, was undeterred. She rejected accusations lodged against the project, met with community elders and religious authorities, and invited them to participate. The cooking event went so well that the sight of women drinking coffee in the plaza has since become ordinary. The plaza is also now used for various kinds of activities including early morning exercises.

Umm Mahmoud, who sits with us in Ayat Alturshan's garden, and has put together a small group of diabetic women, says that reclaiming the space of the plaza has offered the chance to encourage women to carry on physical activity and look after their health. “With the help of Ayat we now want to organize a day-long event in the plaza to raise awareness about diabetes in the camp. She is younger than us, but we don't mind listening to her. She has helped us come out of our houses. The plaza is really a blessing and has changed our lives.”

Before taking our leave, we ask Alturshan whether she feels the burden of such a big responsibility. “It's OK,” she answers. Then, with a satisfied smile, she says, “I never realized that this would turn me into some kind of revolutionary.”

Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer who has worked and taught in different parts of the world, including India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine. She is interested in the geopolitical dimension of cultural processes and in recent years has focused her research on urban transformations and creative practices in countries in conflict. Her work is grounded on an interdisciplinary approach that combines Urban, Visual and Cultural Studies. Francesca was a Research Associate at the Centre of South Asian Studies. SOAS, London, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College of London, has a PhD in Cultural Studies at the Oriental Institute in Naples and a Masters in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is now a Visiting Lecturer at Università Bocconi in Milan. Francesca is the author of three books: The Little Book of Kabul (with Lorenzo Tugnoli),Picnic in a Minefield and Devices of Political Action: Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan (with a photo-essay by Leo Novel). She is currently based in Kabul where she was the director of the 4th Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize. Follow her on Twitter at @kiccovich.