Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps

Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps

Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps

Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps


Nearly half of the world's eight million Palestinians are registered refugees, having faced partition and exile. Landscape of Hope and Despair examines this refugee experience in Lebanon through the medium of spatial practices and identity, set against the backdrop of prolonged violence. Julie Peteet explores how Palestinians have dealt with their experience as refugees by focusing attention on how a distinctive Palestinian identity has emerged from and been informed by fifty years of refugee history. Concentrating ethnographic scrutiny on a site-specific experience allows the author to shed light on the mutually constitutive character of place and cultural identification.

Palestinian refugee camps are contradictory places: sites of grim despair but also of hope and creativity. Within these cramped spaces, refugees have crafted new worlds of meaning and visions of the possible in politics. In the process, their historical predicament was a point of departure for social action and thus became radically transformed. Beginning with the calamity of 1948, Landscape of Hope and Despair traces the dialectic of place and cultural identification through the initial despair of the 1950s and early 1960s to the tumultuous days of the resistance and the violence of the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath. Most significantly, this study invokes space, place, and identity to construct an alternative to the received national narratives of Palestinian society and history.

The moving stories told here form a larger picture of these refugees as a people struggling to recreate their sense of place and identity and add meaning to their surroundings through the use of culture and memory.


The landscape of human history is littered with displacements, diasporas, forced migrations, treks, and flights; violence and terror form the substance of innumerable memories, silences, and nightmares. Over the course of several centuries, the Atlantic slave trade displaced twelve million Africans. In the nineteenth century, the Cherokees were forced down the "Trail of Tears," the Navajo were marched on the "Long Walk," and the Herero of Southern Africa were forced into the Kalahari Desert. In the twentieth century—dubbed the "century of refugees" (Loescher 1993)—the displaced were iconic figures evoking war and human rights tragedies.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the breakup of empires spawned large-scale displacements (Marrus 1985). The end of the Ottoman Empire was followed by the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the expulsion of the Asian Greeks from the emergent Turkish state. At the same time, in the southern United States, economic pressure, discrimination, and terror compelled thousands of African Americans to make the "Great Migration" to the North, portrayed in the stark yet colorful murals of artist Jacob Lawrence. The depression and drought of the 1930s gave rise to the westward movement of the "Okies," migrants from Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Texas, poignantly rendered in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In Europe, the displacement of over thirty million people in World War II is unparalleled in modern history (Zolberg et al. 1989).

While these movements were propelled by violence of various kinds such as the structural violence of poverty and the threat of starvation, or racialist-driven terror and discrimination, ethnonationalist exclusions orchestrated by expanding and consolidating states have played a prominent role. Modern warfare, with its advanced technologies designed to inflict high casualties and a propensity to remove civilian populations, has produced mass movements and enabled exclusivist states to expel undesirable populations. In the twentieth century, "ethnic cleansing" in emergent states multiplied in rapidity and scale.

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