Memory as Host: Poetry and History in Baddawi

Memory as Host: Poetry and History in Baddawi

*NB: This piece is available to read on Refugee Hosts only for a limited time (2 weeks) *

Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge, University East Anglia and Refugee Hosts’ Co-I

I have just finished a book (Placeless People, OUP, 2018) on how writers and thinkers responded to refugees in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Many of the writers I was interested in – Arendt, Orwell, Simone Weil, Beckett, Dorothy Thompson – understood clearly that their refugee crisis was in reality a crisis about the meanings of citizenship. The then new condition of statelessness revealed how fragile everybody’s citizenship was, and how febrile and fragile the bonds of human community were. In the middle of the last century, the task of imagining a citizenship apart from ethno-nationalism never seemed more necessary – or impossible.

Nor, indeed, of course, does it now. Many refugee communities and their hosts are currently addressing similar questions about community, belonging, and our responsibilities to one another. With one difference: at least seventy years on, the refugee history – the history of mass displacement, declining and failing nation states, violent state formation, and permanent de-citizenship that, as Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, was once so novel we had to invent a new name for it – statelessness (the other new name in the twentieth century was genocide) – now has a historical memory. The meanings of refugee memory have changed. Statelessness now has an archive.

From the late nineteenth century through to much of the twentieth, refugee memory would commonly be assumed to mean a memory of a home brutally lost, however imaginary that home might have been – I’m thinking here, for example, of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. It still means that, even if some of the homes, such as in the case of second and now third generation Palestinians, have never been lived in. But refugee memory now also means the long memory of what historian Peter Gatrell calls refugeedom: a shared and often conflictual memory of multiple displacements across generations that stretches from the colonial mandate system and the minority treaties of the early twentieth century through de-colonisation and the Cold War to the permanent refugee camps, urban ghettoes, and detention centres of today.

In this paper, I want to talk about how this (relatively) new archive of statelessness challenges ways of thinking about refugees, community, and citizenship. Arendt once wrote of how the stateless, the refugees, the disenfranchised others of colonialism, capitalism, and totalitarianism dwelt in what she called the dark background of difference. As scholars such as Seyla Benhabib, Patricia Owens, and Ayten Gündoğdu, have shown, this dark background is less – or at least not only – the vanishing point for political sovereignty it is often assumed to be, as a place where the meanings of human community are at their most charged, and, consequently, sometimes at least, creative. Now also repositories of refugee memories, today’s refugee communities are also living – dangerously and precariously – archives that record the long story of refugeedom and, crucially, the different modes of citizenship it renders both necessary and possible.


Baddawi refugee camp in North Lebanon was created in 1955. Home to approximately 40,000 ‘established’ Palestinian refugees, over the years the camp has created communities and cultures and endured civil war and lawlessness. Since 2011, the people of Baddawi have also hosted thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria, itself a country that owes its borders to the shifting refugee populations of twentieth-century colonial, mandate, and postcolonial politics (Thomas-White, 2017). There is much shared refugee history between Baddawi’s old and new residents, so much so that many refugees from Syria identified the camp, and not Lebanon, as their desired destination even before they left (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2016). Baddawi today is a kind of lieu de mémoire, operating proleptically for the nation-less, not analeptically, as memory sites tend to do in nation building.

Since 2011, ethnographer and geographer, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and the poet and translator, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, who was born in Baddawi but now lives in the UK, have been documenting how refugee-refugee humanitarianism (the phrase is Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s) is transforming the physical, social, existential, and psychic life of Baddawi. In 2016, I, along with theologian, Anna Rowlands, and Health and Development specialist, Alastair Ager, joined them as part of a larger project on Refugee Hosts in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, funded by the UK’s Research Councils (AHRC-ESRC) and the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

Baddawi is a comparatively small Palestinian camp, so the physical impact – rendered in several powerful photo essays by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh – of the new arrivals is not hard to see. Its architecture has been squeezed upward: concrete scrambled onto concrete, new homes made out of courtyards and balconies, vegetable gardens improvised wherever the sun might catch. The camp is crowned with the densely knotted wires of Baddawi’s erratic, and dangerously contested, electric economy. With spaces so compacted, it is difficult to navigate what is immediately in front of you: small wonder that many visitors remark on the birds that fly above the camp, sometimes on the strings of the boys perched on the rooftops.

Refugees ask other refugees, who are we to come to you and who are you to come to us? Nobody answers. Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds share the camp, the same different camp, the camp of a camp. They have all come to re-originate the beginning with their own hands and feet.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, ‘Vis-à-vis or a camp

In his extraordinary sequence of recent poems, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh has taken this density, this crowdedness, and turned it into a means of talking about how the largely understated, almost invisible, work of history and memory gets done when people are suddenly, and violently, pushed together. ‘Refugees ask other refugees, who are we to come to you and who are you to come to us? Nobody answers,’ reads a line in a poem from the sequence ‘Writing the Camp, ’ ‘Vis-a-vis or a camp’. These are poems as dense as Baddawi itself. They are dark, in the sense that it is hard to see clearly what is happening on the page in front of you, but also poems that – to recall Arendt – move through a background of difference. ‘Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds share the camp, the same-different camp, the camp of a camp’, the poem continues.

For Arendt, ‘Who are you?’ is the question we address when we speak and act in the world. The answer to that question, however, invariably remains hidden from ourselves – we never know who we are completely, or even at all. So too, for the refugees of Baddawi, the question remains unanswered: ‘Who are we and who are you?’ ‘Nobody answers’. But this is not because the question of refugee identity or community remains unanswerable. Nobody answers for themselves because the history that is being made in Baddawi – and the human community at its heart – is being inaugurated, again, through the movement of people, so to speak, in the dark of a common memory: ‘They have all come to re-originate the beginning with their own hands and feet.’

The camp is thus always being written, for Qasmiyeh, in a process that quietly rips at the hearts of its new and old inhabitants. Each incarnation of the camp is born of a trauma and of the memory of trauma. Baddawi is also an archive of death, wounding, and mourning. This is not a metaphor. As Elena and Yousif explain in their photo-essay in The Absence of Paths (exhibited as part of the 2017 Venice Biennale) the first threshold to be crossed in this place of multiple thresholds is the old cemetery (there used to be just one; a fifth was built in 2017). You cannot avoid death in Baddawi if only because its cemetery is one of the very few horizontal spaces in the camp – a place where you can see in front of you. But to encounter death, is also to encounter the refugee history that is continually re-making the camp: ‘Born in Haifa in 1945… died in Baddawi in July 2016… Palestinian from Syria…’ reads one tombstone. ‘The words of – and over – the dead mark the multiple states of refugeeness, the past, and the place,’ in Elena and Yousif’s words.

This constant historical presence – a memory that will not settle — is also why Qasmiyeh’s recent poems insist again and again that ‘the camp is time.’ The camp is in time because it is being made of multiple refugee histories. This insistence is a direct challenge to the representation of refugee camps as ahistorical spaces of timeless – and agentless — suffering. As historians of humanitarianism have shown, the de-politicization of refugee crises since the middle of the twentieth century has had the thoroughly political consequence of silencing, and in some cases – notably the Palestinians – obliterating, refugee history. By superseding the refugee camp of the humanitarian imaginary with the idea of a constantly written archive of refugee memory – the camp as time not empty space – Qasmiyeh is also claiming the right to name the camp for generations of refugees, past and future: ‘Only refugees can forever write the archive,’ he writes: ‘The camp owns the archive, not God.’ Not God, and not UNRWA either, we might add.

Only refugees can forever write the archive.

The camp owns the archive, not God.

For the archive not to fall apart, it weds the camp unceremoniously.

The question of a camp-archive is also the question of the camp’s survival beyond speech

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, ‘Writing the camp-archive

But for the archive – the ‘camp-archive’ – to survive on its own terms, it must also guard against the very historical violence that constitutes it. No more than the history of the nation state is refugee history homogenous history. Baddawi is a ‘same-different camp’, where ‘a sudden utterance’ as Qasmiyeh puts it in one poem, ‘is a stranger.’ ‘Those who are arriving at the threshold are not one of us. It will take them time to know who they are…’ he says in another. The hostility that Derrida taught us to hear in hospitality is as present in Baddawi as it is in any other resource-deprived refugee hosting community.

But there is a crucial difference. In the West, here in the U.S., in Europe, and in Australia, those who understand rights as a property to lose have recently turned hostility into a civic virtue – a defensive repudiation not only of refugees but of the history that links democratic citizenship to territorial violence and aggression, and the benefits of that citizenship to the losses of refugeedom. The suppression of refugee memory is an ideological constant in our current political culture. By contrast, having nothing to lose, the rightless of Baddawi have no choice but to live with refugee history – more of it arrives daily. Because it cannot be pushed out, forgotten, banished, this archive of statelessness does something extraordinary: it weaves a web, often silently, in the intangible – in a new sound, in the smell of new dishes, another knot of electricity wires, different footfalls – that holds the community of the camp together. It does this precariously, contingently but, by and large, in far more good faith than in the dully-imagined evocations of communal cohesion we hear so much of, but rarely experience, in Europe and the U.S.

‘Refugees are Dialectical Beings’ is the title of Qasmiyeh’s most recent poem on Refugee Hosts. Again, he is picking up on the phenomenology of Baddawi’s changing landscape: the camp sounds different because the new refugees bring with them new dialectics as a trace of their refugee history, of where they have come from, where they have been. ‘Haifa…1945…Palestinian from Syria.’ ‘The dialect that survives on its own is that of the dead,’ Qasmiyeh writes: ‘Dialects when uttered become spectres of time’.

These dialectics are also dialectical; they are same-different, other, threatening, uncanny, but also part of an on-going archive of refugeedom which is made and re-made by the arrival of each new accent: ‘In dialects, we gather the ungathered with the subtlety of the dead,’ the poem concludes. This is another characteristically dense line, but it compresses beautifully Qasmiyeh’s vision of how the arrival of Syrian refugees to Baddawi traffics with the past, with the dead – with the long history of refugeedom – to gather a new community into being.

This is not a political community, in the sense of people having a national sovereignty, real or imagined, to be defended, reclaimed, put first, or to hide in. It is rather a political community lived in by citizen-refugees who are working, alongside those in other camps across the world, to maintain the non-state sovereignties necessary for people to live together. This is hardly utopian living; it is necessary living. But the avowal of what it means to be stateless present in the weft and weave of Baddawi – its living-dead archive — does perhaps suggest some new imaginative terms for thinking about different models of citizenship. ‘In writing about these events and others,’ Qasmiyeh said in a recent interview, ‘we chase the camps as if we were chasing ourselves in details that are no longer there to be observed transiently but to be inscribed and re-inscribed to create a new archive, that of the upcoming and the future.’

©Lyndsey Stonebridge

Cenne Monestiés, December 2017


Featured Image: This tombstone, marking a grave in Baddawi camp’s fifth cemetery, offers testament to the contours of a journey which has come to an end in this space. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. January 2017.


Read Yousif’s poems, and other related essays published on Refugee Hosts here:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

‘Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugees are Dialectical Beings

‘Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘A Sudden Utterance is the Stranger

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Writing the Camp-Archive

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘The Camp is Time’

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) ‘Writing the Camp’

Stonebridge, L. (2016) ‘Poetry as a Host

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