- Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics by Ilana Feldman
In the attempt to draw the histories of refugee camps transregionally, Ilana Feldman’s Life Lives in Relief proposes a historical reading of the politics of aid in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the related Palestinian experience of aid provision and reception. Combining [End Page 501] the ethnographic strength of contemporaneity with historical depth throughout eight chapters, the book is based on six years of fieldwork (2008–14) conducted in the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. Feldman fundamentally reflects further on her theory of humanitarianism as a “politics of living” vis-à-vis Didier Fassin’s “politics of life.”1 In fact she shifts the gaze from the politics of humanitarianism to politics in humanitarianism, namely trying to capture how “people survive and strive in humanitarian spaces” (p. 8). You will find no systematic ethnographic chronology in the book, but Feldman premises this in the early pages, prioritizing theoretical consistency across the chapters. All of them powerfully resume Feldman’s past key arguments on the humanitarian labelling system and the “politics of living.”
In most chapters, rich ethnographic snapshots inform the theories proposed under the analytical guidance of the author. The introductory chapter is the key to understand Feldman’s thought. After providing a concise yet dense flashback on the human geography and the built environment of humanitarian spaces in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria—which emphasize the ungraspable character of what we refer to as “camps”—the author draws out subtle distinctions between the “humanitarian situation” (Chapters 2–4) and the “humanitarian condition” (Chapters 5–8), which mark the binary structure of the book. Situation and condition both reveal the oscillations of what Feldman calls “punctuated humanitarianism”: refugee lives that are intermittently inhabited by humanitarian aid. Like “waves crashing on a beach” (p. 16), stasis alternates with crisis; chronic need, inherent to prolonged displacement (the condition), alternates with pressing emergency, which more easily mobilizes the humanitarian machine (the situation). The punctuated rhythm that Feldman theorizes not only captures the discontinuous temporalities of services and displacement, but it also registers the “oscillating intensities” (p. 24) of humanitarian presence and withdrawal in the everyday lives of Palestinians.
While large segments of the scholarship have reclaimed the importance of political rights and the very “right to politics” (p. 23) for refugees, Feldman provides a particularly compelling account of how this happens.
In Chapter 2, Feldman revisits the historical fabric of the humanitarian labelling practices and policies, drawing a fluid ontology of refugee-hood by building on the theories of Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Rancière. She thereby paves the ground for what I believe is the most important argument of the book: “Palestinian refugee politics has mostly not entailed an exit from the refugee category, but rather has happened within it” (p. 37). Importantly, this statement marks the coalescence of humanitarianism with human rights.
In Chapter 3, Feldman explores the oscillating eligibility of refugees for food rations, the act of selling them, and how this economy of rations conveys the Palestinian desire for political restoration. Chapter 4 navigates humanitarianism as “a field of compromised action,” made of tensions and suspicious relationships: the different ways in which people experience service provision give rise to an articulated refugee politics, where every subject places different weight on political responsibilities and service obligations. Here, Feldman incorporates into her analysis the generational perspective, which has often been neglected in the refugee literature. In Chapter 5, Feldman marks Palestinian refugee politics as a site for aspiration, persistence, and refusal, pinning down a fundamental point of contact between humanitarianism and the politics of rights, typically viewed as contradictory. Humanitarianism, therefore, emerges as a space where refugees also claim the right to humanitarian rights. In this sense, they neither only lead lives which at times go beyond politics, nor do they merely advance rights claims. Instead, they produce a politics of living where both recognition of loss and restoration are essential, and from which stems the...