Emotional (im)mobility: Exploring objects of hope, despair, and imaginary territory
For a month, I lived with the patriarch Abu Hassan and his family in Nahr el-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon established in 1948 as an emergency response to the Nakba – the Palestinian expulsion during the formation of the state of Israel. He treated me like a son and each night they would wait for my return so ‘the family’ could have supper together. Here, I understood that immobility, transience, and limbo are an experiential mainstay for immigrants and refugees. Their journey and status are married. It begins with mobility, leaving one’s home; and for the most part, it ends in (im)mobility, stuck in a foreign land. The refugee experience is, by its very nature, the embodiment of limbo and chronic uncertainty; uncertain of return, the future, and after a while, of identity. In cases of forced displacement, the moments of departure present limited choice of luggage, and small objects are a common choice. These are often taken for practical, sentimental, and at times, monetary value. In other instances, they’re simply a talisman for an unknown journey.
In the camp, immobility and time act on these small objects in a strange fashion. Many refugees at Nahr el-Bared revealed that, after some time, the objects took on a different meaning: they were imbued with the home that was left behind and symbolised a dream to return. Through time and immobility, the objects became the embodiment and repository of memories; and, after decades, they began to represent the lost territory, hope to return, and eventually represented the Palestinian identity itself. Those who had experienced Palestine spoke with passion about their belongings; Farrah, the founder and leader of a local NGO, mentioned a ‘library of memories’ when describing her objects from Palestine, while Ahmed, a man about 75 years old and father of ten living in terrible conditions in containers for the past 11 years, explained how important the key of his home in Palestine was to him. When the Israeli army came, his family locked the door and took nothing but the key, which became a symbol of hope to someday return. Having inherited this key, it made him the guardian of his family’s history. For the young generations, powerful objects such as the Palestinian flag were crucial not only to build their identity, but also the urban setting of the camp where they were born and raised. As Fauzi, a 23-year-old student explained, ‘Everywhere you look, you see Palestine. We do many paintings on the walls, we spread our flag, it is all there. The camp does not let you forget that you are in Palestine, and makes us remember home, all the time’.
After the Lebanese military invasion of 2007 devasted Nahr el-Bared, the urban environment which had developed over the decades was decimated and many small objects were lost. By then, some objects had gained the status of heirlooms or fetishes (like African dolls believed to hold powers), and refugees spoke longingly of this loss of hope embodied in the objects. Ahmed exclaimed, ‘When I came back to my home in the camp [after the war], everything was destroyed. I tried, but I could not find a single thing. I lost everything, all my memories, my history. I lost the key of my home in Palestine. I’d kept it for 70 years! I lost my hope to return to Palestine! I lost everything that could represent Palestine for me. Life just does not make sense anymore. I am just struggling to survive’. This ‘second Nakba’ plunged Ahmed into a state of emotional (im)mobility: a surrender and despair where even attaining legal status holds little value. This is a deeper uncertainty which erodes the sense of purpose itself, a state more corrosive than the physical restraint of camp life.
Ahmed was visibly tired when I met him, his battered teeth, unshaven beard, red eyes, and dark circles intensified a sense of suffering. As he spoke, it appeared that his key had gained a new status or power in its imagined existence. It had become more powerful in memory, than in its physical form. In the imagination, it ‘became’ Palestine for him, allowing him to inhabit what we can call the imagined territory. Yet for the generations born and raised in the camp, who had never seen the Palestine of their parents, this loss was akin to the Nakba which has defined the Palestinian camp identity for many years. For the young, there was a connection with history; for the old, great despair and connection with an imagined Palestine. These lost or imagined objects were the unseen bridge between past, present, and future. Hafidz, a talkative architect, showed me the ruins of his old house and explained that ‘after so many years, I do not feel so bad coming here anymore. Nowadays, it is just concrete. But when I was 15, coming back for the first time, was really hard, really sad. I took a piece of concrete and saved it to remember my home… When we have nothing to remember our history, we feel as if our past does not exist’.
When my time in Lebanon was over, Abu Hassan made a last gesture of great kindness. He collected what he could. As gifts, I received Palestinian flags, boxes, bracelets, family pictures, postcards, scarfs, maps, faction's propaganda. As he gave me these objects in tears, he said, ‘Do not forget us! Do not forget Palestine!’. I then truly realised the power of the objects I was investigating; he had understood their power to keep us connected, to build a bond beyond time and space, and years later I am still writing about them. With this experience, Ahmed and his key came to life, portraying his emotional (im)mobility and deep longing for an imaginary territory.
* All informants have been assigned pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Fabiano Sartori is an Architect and Urban Planner (MSc in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture, 2018; Master in Environmental Management, 2012; Master in Sustainable Environmental Rehabilitation in Architecture and Urbanism, 2011) with 15 years of experience – as researcher and practitioner – in both the private and public sectors and on the development and humanitarian fields in Brazil, Spain, Lebanon, and Greece. Currently, he has been working as Environmental Field Adviser for UNHCR Brazil into the emergency response to the Venezuelan situation.
Mbongeni Ngulube is an Anthropology researcher in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. His current work focuses on land (tenure), identity, exchange, and the migration-development nexus (‘pre’ and ‘post’ emergency). Ngulube is a Mundus Urbano Scholar under the EU’s Excellency Program and has lectured at universities in Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. He is currently lecturing in the Masters of International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture at Univesitat Internacional de Catalunya. Ngulube has a background in Urbanism, holds three masters in Architecture, Urban Development, and Housing; and has doctoral works in Social, Cultural, and Development Anthropology.