Nationalism outside the nation: Palestinian refugees and political identity

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current publications, Publications

Achilli_2015Revolutionary times make revolutionary people, we might assume, and especially in the fraught terrain of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But as Luigi Achilli contends in his recently published book Palestinian Refugees and Identity: Nationalism, Politics and the Everyday (London, I.B. Tauris, 2015) examining political (dis)engagement among Palestinian refugees living in camps such as al-Wihdat in Jordan, actually sometimes the converse is true.

Given the concentration of people and ideas within their confines, refugee camps are often presupposed to be spaces of fierce resistance and deep-rooted nationalist fervour. The first Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan were established at the aftermath of the 1948 Israeli-Arab war by the Red Cross as temporary, emergency shelter for displaced Palestinians. Following the 1967 War, a new wave of refugees arrived and today 42% of registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. Palestinian refugees have since been barred from returning to Israel by the Israeli government.

But centring on the years surrounding the Arab Spring, in his book Achilli subverts assumptions that Palestinian refugees are highly politicised subjects by virtue of the upheaval which defines their transitory status. Using an anthropological lens, Achilli’s book forces readers to question what it means to be political and what political expression means in times of tumult.

Deviating from much in the field of resistance studies, he instead outlines how a collective sense of national identity has developed in Jordanian refugee camps distinct from wider political systems, parties and ideologies. Nationalist sentiment has been reconfigured, and is manifest in the desire of Palestinian refugees to integrate into Jordanian society so as to achieve economic security and community stability. Nationalism exists in harmony both outside of the old nation and within a new one; reconciled with notions of integration, it has shifted from the focus on grand armed struggle, to everyday expressions of community identity, such as attending a football match, or praying.

Achilli spent three years living in the camps as he conducted his research. His research is inflected with personal memory and a sense of shared experience. During that time, ‘’my life trajectory and [the refugees’] life trajectories somehow intersect, even though from mine it is from a privileged position’’, he tells EUI Times.

Gender and masculinity emerge as highly important variables in this portrayal of nationalism. Achilli’s book is primarily based on his interviews and interactions with (self-identifying) men. He argues that the masculine implications of armed resistance are subordinated to a masculinised desire to be the primary economic breadwinner. His book therefore opens up avenues for further enquiry, notably over how expressions of national identity are complicated by gender for example. How do women conceive their national identity or express themselves politically?

Ultimately Achilli’s book is intended to impart nuance to understandings of Palestinian nationalism and expressions of political identity. In the highly contested field of Israel-Palestine relations, Achili’s work is striking in how it downplays institutional or militant politics, to emphasis Palestinian refugee’s withdrawal from formalised political structures. We are left with the gentler vision of the everyday as the realm where political identity is definitively formed, and performed.