Shadows and Echoes in/of Displacement: Temporalities, spatialities and materialities of displacement
by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Refugee Hosts
In line with our project’s Spaces and Places not Faces approach to representation, a key question arising in Refugee Hosts is how we can represent, and conceptualise, the ‘field-sites’ where we are conducting research. Through diverse media – including poetry, photo-essays and soundscapes – we have been developing critical reflections vis-a-vis the ‘refugee-hosting’ spaces where we have been completing fieldwork: the Beirut neighbourhood of Hamra, Baddawi camp and Jebel al-Baddawi in North Lebanon; Irbid camp and Irbid, Jarash and Zarqaa in Jordan, and a number of areas in Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey. This has included exploring questions pertaining to visibility and invisibility, audibility and inaudibility, but also, as I argue in this piece, examining these spaces and places through a relational frame: tracing how these ‘sites’ intersect and, indeed, are co-produced with and through one another.
Shortly after launching our Representations of Displacement series in September 2017, I started framing a piece on ‘Shadows in/of displacement’. I had envisaged this ‘shadows’ piece as a ‘sister’ to my earlier photo-essay ‘Invisible (at) Night: space, time and photography in a refugee camp,’ since the photos, taken in early-2017, captured different aspects of Baddawi camp in North Lebanon at or after sunset.
I never ‘finished’ or posted that piece in 2017. On the one hand, I felt that it remained incomplete, that the images and my discussion of them still required a further dimension. On the other hand, I worried that the photos might be overly ‘aesthetic,’ and risk perpetuating, rather than critiquing, the tendency of much ‘refugee photography’ to decontextualize and depoliticise the causes and challenges of protracted displacement situations.
Selected photographs of Baddawi camp (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, early-2017
While shadows, according to common usage and the OED may be perceived as reflecting ‘ominous oppression, or sadness or gloom,’ I was concerned, to the contrary, that the combination of images I had selected might be perceived as either too frivolous or as too romantic. In a context of overlapping, protracted displacements in a space commonly conceptualised as an ‘island of insecurity’, why would I, how could I, post images of sunsets, of the shadows of electricity cables and/on curtains, of the shadows of pigeon houses on neighbours’ walls?
And yet I saved the draft, and remained determined to explore every-day and every-night life in displacement through different lenses and media [see here], because, I maintain, this is part of the broader landscape of displacement that Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds inhabit, share, construct, negotiate and resist day in, and day out.
Beyond ‘shadows of life’ in displacement
As I re-viewed the photographs, I remained troubled by a phrase that was repeatedly echoing in my mind. It was a phrase that an audience member had used in an event in 2016 when they asserted their assumption of what it must be like ‘for them’ to live in displacement: that ‘refugees’ (posited as a homogenous entity) are living but a ‘shadow of life’ in displacement.
That ‘theirs’ is but a mere ‘trace’ of life, unlike ‘ours’, which is ‘real’.
This raised the disquieting and yet urgent question posited by Refugee Hosts Writer-in-Residence Yousif M. Qasmiyeh in his poem, Writing the Camp: ‘who are we’. By extrapolation, it pointed to the urgency of interrogating ‘who are we to interpellate ‘them’,’ and ‘who are we in relation to a diversity of ‘we-s’’.
In turn, I was troubled that the images I had taken might resonate with this mobilisation of shadows as distant ‘negatives’ of the original (noting that negatives precede the photograph in the mechanics of photography), with this mobilisation positioning refugees as non-citizens enduring ‘bare life’ (following Agamben) in ‘non-spaces‘, which bear no meaning (also see Qasmiyeh and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2013).
At and since the 2016 event, I have repeatedly insisted that the lives of people who have been affected by displacement are lives, that this is life, not just a ‘shadow of life.’ And that, just as the images, sounds and rhythms of our lives include those related to conflict and dispossession, so too do they include celebrations, joy, leisure, and of the seemingly routine every-day and every-night.
Within Baddawi, these images, sounds and rhythms often overlap and intersect, rather than taking place either in isolation or in parallel. And, indeed, as our research has continued both through regular visits to the same space – Baddawi camp – and other spaces – including elsewhere in Lebanon and in Amman, Irbid, Jarash and Zarqa in Jordan – it has become increasingly apparent that such images, sounds and rhythms overlap and intersect across, through and beyond the spaces that are inhabited and (re)created by diverse groups of people affected by displacement.
In essence, these overlaps and echoes – rather than ‘shadows’ – have emerged as some of the ‘dimensions’ that were missing in earlier iterations of this photo-essay, and which I centralise below in my reflections from/of ‘the field.’
Echoes of Space, Time and Being
It is by now evident that the camps, cities and towns where our Refugee Hosts team is conducting research with people responding to displacement from Syria are intimately related to one another: far from discrete ‘sites’, they are connected in multiple ways and across diverse scales. And as we have proceeded with our research processes in and through Lebanon and Jordan, a range of echoes, connections and overlaps have been magnified across time and space.
For instance, far from Palestinian camps being isolated ‘islands of insecurity’, there are longstanding personal connections across and between our ‘fieldsites’, as Abu Nayef, a Baddawi resident in his 70s, clearly reminded us as he glanced at an UNRWA archival photograph we had brought with us from the UK: in a split second he announced that the man in the black and white image was his cousin in Irbid camp, Jordan. A cousin and a camp Abu Nayef had himself visited in the 1980s.
In turn, throughout the course of our Refugee Hosts’ team visit to Irbid camp in October 2018, a series of ‘echoes’ between Baddawi and Irbid camps emerged from the walls – both through the ‘original walls’ of Baddawi and Irbid camps respectively, and through intersecting histories of a physical nature:
While such material objects remain physically ‘fixed’ in place, the day after our visit to Irbid camp, the same photograph of Abu Nayef’s cousin and/in Irbid camp was one of a dozen images that ‘travelled’ with us as ‘prompts’ to one of the creative writing workshop that we convened in Jarash.
And the image and its history were introduced to the workshop participants by Refugee Hosts’ Writer-in-Residence, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, born in Baddawi camp, who was facilitating the workshops in Jordan with Refugee Hosts Co-I Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge. Here, elements of Baddawi and Irbid camps alike ‘travelled’ to Jarash, shaping the contours and contents of the workshop accordingly.
As the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Jordanian participants on the outskirts of Jarash held and critically examined the images, a Jordanian medical student noted the remarkable level of detail captured in the photograph from Irbid camp, before turning to explore the depths of a second untitled image.
‘This could be here… Is it here?’
As I relayed that UNRWA had recorded the location as being in North Lebanon, not Jordan, and that our interlocutors in Baddawi camp asserted that it was an old photograph of Nahr el-Bared, he reasserted: ‘But it could be here’.
While acknowledging the absence of a direct temporal overlap – it couldn’t ‘really’ be ‘now’, due to the black and white composition -, the geographical resonances and potentially overlapping spatialities underpinning the assertion that this ‘could be here’ in turn belie the extent to which this ‘could be us.’
Irrespective of the temporal disjunture, he continued, perhaps on some levels this is us.
Temporalities, spatialities and materialities of displacement
The shadows, echoes, and diverse superimpositions emerging in/from/through these images, simultaneously re-present the materiality of the camp, and the overlapping and absent(ed) histories and geographies which constitute a camp such as Baddawi.
That is to say that the shadows created and superimposed on the walls and alleyways of Baddawi, are both ‘part of’ Baddawi camp and themselves ‘create’ a camp that is itself always-already ‘more-than-Baddawi.’
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s words reverberate in this space:
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, Writing the Camp
Such is a “same-different camp, the camp of a camp.” It is a singular-plural camp created through overlapping displacements, with ‘no beginning or end; it is always in the middle’ (following Deleuze and Guatarri).
In effect, as I propose in my contribution to Refugee Imaginaries: Contemporary Research Across the Humanities, it is essential that we pay “particular attention to the multiple interactions and relationalities that are produced in and through camps”, and indeed, non-camps.
While these relationalities encompass visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, material and immaterial dimensions, the analyses we are developing throughout Refugee Hosts entail an urgent need to be attentive to diverse echoes and traces between and across our field sites, rather than viewing them as isolated materially, spatially or temporally.
This includes the above-mentioned personal connections and (re)imaginations of the relationships between Baddawi, Irbid and Jarash, but also transcends these: each site is intimately related to, and constituted through, other spaces within Lebanon – including besieged and destroyed camps in Lebanon such as Tel el-Zaatar and Nahr el-Bared – and with diverse transnational spaces that are central to our research project.
Syria and Palestine, for instance, are both central features of Baddawi camp, with the camp’s fifth cemetery both echoing and physically embodying linkages between these three spaces:
The multiple places of origin – born in Haifa, displaced from Syria’s Yarmouk camp, died in Baddawi – marked on this tombstone point to the simultaneity of transience and permanence, of multiple origins and belongings in contexts of overlapping displacements. The tombstones in Baddawi camp offer topographical testament to the contours of people’s journeys across time and space, and to their simultaneous presence and absence, here and there.
Exploring ‘echoes’ and ‘overlaps’ requires us to acknowledge that ‘the camp’ both embraces and embodies other camps, becoming more-than-a-camp and also more than a-camp-within-the-camp. This is reflected not only through the arrival and enduring presence of Syria’s Yarmouk camp within Baddawi camp and its cemetery, but also through the ‘re-emergence’ of Tel el-Zaatar, which was destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War, within Baddawi itself: Tel el-Zaatar was physically erased in the late-1970s, and yet continues to exist, physically as well as metaphorically, in Baddawi camp:
Here, it is not merely memories of spaces such as Yarmouk, Tel el-Zaatar and Nahr el-Bared (which I have discussed elsewhere) that travel across time and space, nor merely the inhabitants of camps that travel physically between and across such spaces. Rather, camps themselves travel over time and space – including through the ‘re-emergence’ of Tel el-Zaatar within and as Baddawi camp, and some could argue, the more recent arrival of Yarmouk camp in Baddawi.
The presence, absence, and trace of people and diverse objects within, under, through, and as a camp such as Baddawi mark the overlapping histories and spatialities of displacement which both define ‘refugee-ness’ and also ‘make’ the camp. Through their symbolic and physical resonance, the destroyed camps of Yarmouk and Tel el-Zaatar are more-than physically ‘within’ Baddawi camp: they are the history, present and potential future of Baddawi.
Ultimately, our ‘fieldsites’ – including Baddawi camp and Jebel al-Baddawi, Irbid camp and Irbid, Jarash and Zarqaa, Beirut and Amman – cannot be visited, seen, heard, photographed, or written (following Qasmiyeh) in isolation.
Each of these places is, by definition more than ‘a’ camp, a town or a city; each is simultaneously a point of an origin, a point of departure, a destination, a place of refuge, a place of violence. Each space is a multiplicity and is created through relationalities with other times and spaces, through the echoes and overlaps with other temporalities, spatialities and materialities. And each person, but also each shadow, wall, curtain, tree, pigeon house, electricity cable, tombstone, has a history and a place in these overlapping processes of displacement and hosting, intersecting processes that we will continue to explore through Refugee Hosts.
Parts of this chapter build upon the analysis developed in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (forthcoming) “Memories and Meanings of Camps (and more-than-camps),” in Farrier, D., Woolley, A., Stonebridge, L., Durrant, S. and Cox, E. (eds) Refugee Imaginaries: Contemporary Research Across the Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (forthcoming/2019)
Feature Image: Shadows in Baddawi refugee camp, Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.
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Feature Image: Shadows in Baddawi refugee camp, Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.