- Palestinian Refugees and Identity: Nationalism, Politics and the Everyday by Luigi Achilli
In this finely grained and elegantly written ethnography of the political life of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan through the lives of boys and young men, anthropologist Luigi Achilli takes on a welcome task. Aside from a select group of anthropological articles, Jordan has been largely missing from the scholarly literature on both camps in general and Palestinian refugee camps in particular. Research access has been problematic for decades largely due to security issues. Achilli’s ethnography is all the more interesting in that Jordan has hosted some of the largest refugee camps in the world and the most permanent of what is ostensibly a temporary abode. Achilli has managed to breach the gap in the literature by conducting extensive ethnographic research in Wihdat camp in ‘Amman; needless to say politics and secrecy as sources of anxiety form a subtext. The author faced the usual suspicion of outsiders that, in this particular political context, can become an obstacle but one he managed to overcome.
Achilli works in the ambiguous and fraught interstices of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, and marginalization in state and society that suffuse the lives of Palestinians in Jordan. His ethnography is focused on the negotiation of Palestinian national identity, their ambiguous citizenship status in Jordan, and everyday life. But beyond this task, Achilli also writes a history of the camp, touching on its early years, the watershed era of confrontation with the Jordanian state and the Palestinian resistance movement, the latter’s defeat, the state’s “discriminatory turn” (p. 47), Jordan’s neoliberal turn, the rise of Islamism in the region and, more recently, the Arab Spring. Palestinian Refugees and Identity is a most welcome addition to the body of scholarship that will carry forward our understanding of camps as dynamic spaces, as well as filling in the gaps in the literature on the Palestinian experience in Jordan.
The complex and variegated political subjectivities of Palestinian refugees are at the heart of this ethnography. Through the themes of religion, masculinity, and idleness — aspects of what the author calls “ordinary life” — Palestinian national identity is produced and reproduced but not in ways normally perceived as being national or indeed even political. A primary goal of the book is to complicate dominant narratives of Palestinian nationalism, and this the author does admirably. The most significant contribution of Achilli’s work is his approach to “politicization;” refugee camps have long been characterized as zones of political activity and, not surprisingly, Wihdat was once in the forefront of Palestinian resistance. Its seeming political quiescence and perceptions of politics as highly corrupt belies an at times ambiguous relationship with Palestinian nationalism and the now West Bank-based political struggle for self-determination. What comes to mind is the presence of a “post-national” way of being in the world. Achilli argues that Wihdat’s men have adhered to the ideals of Palestinian nationalism through ordinary activities of being pious, honorable men, gainfully employed, which he refers to as socio-economic [End Page 159] integration, able to support their families, and engaged in leisure activities that enhance a sense of closeness to others and a sense of national affinity. Even the seemingly nonpolitical domain of fun, such as soccer matches, hanging out on the weekends, or simply lingering outside assume significance for the way they blend an ethical nationalism with the need to live ordinary lives but do not directly engage the political.
I especially appreciated the comparative historical angle the author adopts. For example, when elaborating on piousness and new ways of being masculine, he compares this with that of their fathers and grandfathers, the generation of Palestine and the generation of the revolution, respectively. In each historical era, the performance of a moral masculinity differs substantially.
The book is focused overwhelmingly on male experiences, and indeed he provides an incisive analysis of masculinity. As a (presumably) single male conducting research in the camp, his access to women was somewhat limited by cultural norms of gender...