This article addresses a critical inflection point in the history of the long War on Terror: Israel’s 1992 deportation of over four hundred Palestinians to the “no-man’s-land” between Israel and Lebanon, and the camp that the deportees fashioned for the better part of one year to contest the legitimacy of Israeli colonialism and demand their return. The deportation—meant to incapacitate Islamic militant resistance to the US-brokered peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization—paradoxically provided the conditions of possibility for conversation and collaboration among attorneys, doctors, professors, university students, and imams, which had heretofore been highly restricted and regulated by Israel’s carceral practices in the West Bank and Gaza. The deportees—those who in Giorgio Agamben’s estimation had been literally abandoned in a zone of indistinction—engaged in a political practice of “habitational resistance,” refusing their conversion into homines sacri by performing instead a mode of life that rendered multiple lines of transterritorial affiliation, self-assertion, and continuity. The deportees’ published archive—poetry, photobooks, autoethnographies—is understood as a technology of mediation that operates beyond the bounds of the prevailing Islamophobic and orientalist frames while also addressing Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The case of the deportees thus illuminates the articulation of race, religion, and war as it rubs against the linkage between settler colonial dispossession and the Westphalian trinity of nation, state, and territory.
In a February 1993 essay titled “Islam and the USA Today,” African American studies professor, poet, and writer June Jordan opened up a set of questions regarding the pressing intersection of race, religion, and war. Jordan’s essay surfaced how the cultural imaginary of US geopolitics forged Islam as a narrow object of knowledge—from images of starvation in Somalia, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and internecine violence in South Asia to the devastation left behind in Iraq following the first Gulf War and the redolent orientalism of mass-market American films, especially Disney’s Aladdin, that sought to secure hegemony for anti-Muslim racism. Each of these examples from the “incendiary realm of world affairs” pointed to the urgent need for Americans to “detect and oppose, de facto and aforethought, U.S. wars against the people of Islam.”1 In the transition from the residual Cold War to the emergent War on Terror, when what American studies scholar Neda Atanasoski calls a postsocialist US military imaginary was being crafted,2 Jordan’s litany evidences the way enemy production to underwrite US claims to global security was being envisioned as part of a world historical crisis that rendered Islam a figure suitable for compliance with “American objectives” (107).
The geospatial coordinates Jordan outlines for this mode of enemy production have conditioned the contemporary articulation of proleptic war against Islam as racialized religion par excellence. While each of these coordinates limns our political present in robust ways, another site Jordan identified has been largely overshadowed by ensuing historical events, discourses, and geopolitical structures. Jordan writes,
On barren land between Lebanon and Israel, 400 men arrived in winter and emptiness. They had been blindfolded and pushed into buses that traveled through the darkness, with illegal speed. They had been seized inside their homes and driven away, at gunpoint, into sudden unimaginable exile. From their enemies each of them received a blanket, a paper bag of food, and $50. They are Palestinians. Most are Muslims. They may not survive. No man can live on no man’s land. (106)
At first blush, it may seem rare to glimpse ground unincorporated into the territorial ambit of the nation-state. The production and consolidation of bounded territory as the primary domain for governance, administration, and relative autonomy are foundational to the expression of political modernity.6 The Westphalian compromise that gave rise in Europe to the homology of nation, state, and territory is organized by a logic whose internal and external manifestations cast religious difference as a zone of political regulation and ongoing surveillance on par with, and at times articulated through, racial difference.7 Rendering a singular sovereignty out of this trinity is accomplished in part through self-authorizing claims to an unbroken authority over history,8 while geospatial zones situated in excess of this trinity are rendered the terra nullius of modern colonial fantasy, an expression of political liberalism’s valuation of territorial sovereignty as the basis for a Kantian permanent peace secured in practice through systematic colonization.9 Political modernity’s colonial underpinnings are suffused with cultural imaginaries that envision such frontier zones as sites adjacent to, or just on the far side of, sovereign power. Their ambiguously external status necessitates a mix of securitization, surveillance, and state-sanctioned violence.10 At the same time, striated manifestations of territorial sovereignty that render jurisdiction less homogeneous and more heterotopic are produced through what Ann Laura Stoler calls “imperial sovereignty”: that assemblage, like Israel/Palestine’s, whose mode of governance is catalyzed by porous differentiation, a palimpsestic administrative apparatus, and the enfolding of insides and outsides.11 Israel routinely expresses its sovereign power through its capacity to enfold zones, populations, and political subjects into the juridical order via their withdrawal from the tapestry of legal protections. Such spatialized zones, populations, and political subjects come to exemplify the figures whose exposure to premature death often goes unpunished, even as Palestinian suffering comes to exemplify the visual grammar of humanitarianism par excellence.12 At the level of visual geography, the performance of Israeli sovereignty produces modes of concealment, surveillance, and witnessing, whose permanently temporary status seeks to disable, disarticulate, and disrupt self-determined Palestinian sovereignty and the concomitant expression of communal lifeworlds such forms of self-determination would manifest.13
Insofar as the Israeli state casts parliamentary democracy, militarization, and ethno-religious distinction as crucial to its legitimacy, it expresses itself through liberal ideals of a permanent peace. It draws on a modality of warfare the theory and practice of which is rendered through the fears and fantasies of enemy production that animate the narrative construction of a national peoplehood and the consolidated expression of political sovereignty.14 It frequently does so through the permanently temporary suspension or withdrawal of a normative juridical order;15 the tactics and technologies to dispossess, dehumanize, incapacitate, and maim subject populations;16 and an antagonism with modalities of Palestinian existence expressed as a willed refusal to give way, give up, or give over, which is one way to say ṣumūd—“steadfastness”—as a praxis of decolonization.17
In this way, Israel/Palestine serves as a crucial site for the historical, material, and symbolic articulation of race, religion, and war.18 The ligatures among and between them, since the emergence in the late nineteenth century of political Zionism as a project to locate Jewish sovereignty in the territoriality of an exclusively Jewish nation-state, have rendered non-Jewish difference the object of unequal or permanently stigmatized political life. Palestine has served as a laboratory to visualize war-making technologies, a point of departure for ideological traffic between concepts of racial difference and religious constituency, and a site for theories of power, knowledge, and subject formation.19 It has served as an engine for subjugation, repression, and expressions of necropower20 and as a catalyst for forging modalities of resistance that articulate local struggles with transnational circuits of identification, solidarity, and futurity.21 In short, Palestine may have become, in Bill V. Mullen’s words, “the most dialectical place on Earth.”22
What, then, might the Palestinian men on no-man’s-land reveal about the conjuncture of race, religion, and war? Through what forms did these deportees challenge the spatial, racial, military, and state structures designed not only to obscure their existence as individuals but also to disrupt their ties to community and family through geographic dispersal and material deprivation? This article turns to an archive of historically occluded modalities of political practice, ones that caught not only June Jordan’s attention but also that of writers, philosophers, journalists, and state actors in the United States and Europe, to say nothing of Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, and US negotiators: the archive of institutional practice, photographic documentation, and poetry produced by the men at what they termed Mukhayyam al-ʿAwda, the “Camp of Return.” Print and television media in the United States and Europe were enthralled, at least in the early months of the camp, by the activity of the deportees, their endurance, and their capacity to build an infrastructure for what John Collins calls “habitational resistance”: an expression of a Palestinian refusal to be denied the capacity to live on and off of one’s own territory.23 If Muslim racialization is formulated as a threat to the wider Westphalian trinity in general and to Israeli sovereignty in particular, and terrorism is figured as the contemporary sine qua non of such threats, the Palestinian Muslim deportees who founded the Camp of Return offer a generative alternative to the narratives that would efface Palestinian existence, enacting continuity and community in the face of violent deterritorialization and fragmentation. In treating this archive, we elucidate the historical contingency of race, religion, and war’s conjunctural articulation, where the forces of epistemic abstraction, disembodiment, and deterritorialization echo in Palestine’s subjection to settler colonial violence and where the archive’s referent capacitates urgent formulations of knowledge and power in a dialectical relation to such forces.
The Camp of Return was built on part of a six-mile strip of land between the Zamarya checkpoint, marking the end of Israel’s “security belt” in Southern Lebanon, and Lebanon’s military checkpoint in the village of Marj al-Zuhur, or “Meadow of Flowers.” This zone became off-limits in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War, when the Israeli military occupied a region of Southern Lebanon under the auspices of national security. At the culmination of what was dubbed the “War of the Knives”—an escalation of violent resistance by Palestinians in response to increasingly dire conditions in the West Bank and Gaza—in early December 1992, members of the Hamas-affiliated ʿIzz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for killing a number of Israeli soldiers and taking hostage an Israeli border security agent named Nissim Toledano. The terms of the agent’s return included the release from prison of Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Israel refused Yassin’s release, the al-Qassam Brigades killed Toledano, and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin responded by ordering the large-scale detention and deportation of Palestinians with purported affiliations to Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. Approximately two thousand Palestinians were rounded up in the West Bank and Gaza, and over four hundred (many of whom were removed from administrative detention) were loaded onto military transports and slated for immediate deportation.24
During the First Intifada, the Israeli government routinely managed resistance to the occupation through the use of indefinite administrative detention inside Israeli prisons and on several occasions embarked on large-scale mass arrests of people with purported Hamas ties.25 The same was true with respect to targeted deportation, a tactic used on a number of occasions to expel prominent organizers and activists beyond Israel/Palestine’s borders.26 The scope, scale, and coordination of the December 1992 deportation, however, were something not seen since 1948’s dispossession of over 750,000 residents, what Palestinians frequently term the Nakba.27 For some, including political scientist Anis Sayigh, it signaled the continuation of Herzlian Zionism’s settler colonial drive toward a “Palestine . . . emptied of its residents.”28 At the time, political scientists Ali Jarbawi and Roger Heacock identified Rabin’s strategic objective as allowing the continuation of high-level negotiations in Madrid between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, a process that Hamas (among many other sectors of Palestinian society) opposed, in large measure due to the negotiations’ permanent deferral of substantive reparations for the Nakba.29 The negotiations would result in the 1993 Oslo Accords and the ensuing peace process, a framework many Palestinians refused to accept precisely on the grounds that the forms of sovereignty under consideration were incommensurate with desires for the fulsome expression of Palestinian futurity.30 The Oslo Accords initiated the carving up of the West Bank into striated forms of Israeli-supervised rule and was coupled with the exponential intensification of efforts to build Jewish-only settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories. The permanent deferral of concerns for Palestinian refugees, access to basic infrastructure, and the fate and future of Jerusalem were conjoined with a neoliberalization of Palestinian governance, with preparations for and investment in a Palestinian free-market economy routed through Israeli occupation and Palestinian political and territorial division.31
In the long term, Israeli carceral power and key concessions by the Palestine Liberation Organization enabled the Madrid and Oslo negotiations to proceed to a successful agreement.32 One might look back on this agreement and see an unbroken narrative whose culmination is the iconography of handshakes and tense grins in the White House Rose Garden. Allowing this image to claim totalizing authority, however, misses substantive forms of resistance that posed an obstacle to Oslo’s telos. Were the strategic objective of the deportation to have succeeded—namely, the political banishment from the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel of many local Palestinian elites opposed to Oslo—the ultimate agent responsible for the deportees’ dispersal (initially a two-year “temporary removal”) would have been nonhuman, extrapolitical forces—the natural or empty environment of mountainous terrain, freezing winters and blistering summers, and the region’s snakes and scorpions.
The 415 men ranging in age from seventeen to sixty-two—among them imams, professors, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and students—were deposited on the far side of Israel’s security belt and marched for several miles toward Lebanese sovereign territory. When the Lebanese state would not accept them, the deportees decided to stay put until such time as they could return to Palestine. They repurposed the land around them and the ground beneath them as a stage to perform, to document, to visualize their human status, and to enact a politics of embodied resistance. With infrastructural support from the local village of Mimass, they built a cafeteria, a library, and Ibn Taymiyya University, an institution that offered courses in Palestine studies, language, professionalization, Qurʾanic recitation, and karate.33 According to the university’s yearbook, eighty-eight deportees were registered in twenty-two courses taught by professors of biology, political science, engineering, and literature. Much of the university’s administration was composed of faculty who had senior-level appointments at the Islamic University of Gaza. Ibn Taymiyya held at least two graduation ceremonies, printed its own letterhead, reached out to regional universities for support and for transfer credit for its students, and staged a public conference and exhibition focusing on the local flora and fauna.
The Camp of Return produced an archive documenting dense, complex, and embodied resistance. The deportees published over thirty works—some via local presses in Beirut, others more widely dispersed, in places like London. Many of these publications take the Camp of Return as a point of departure for documentary, critical, and imaginative writing alike. They used Arabic poetry not so much in the modernist mode of longing and (self-)fragmentation, made famous by Palestinian poets such as Mahmud Darwish and Tawfiq Ziyyad, but in its traditional function as a “register of the Arabs” (dīwān al-ʿarab). Through metered verses of occasional poetry, the deportees chronicled everything from the political to the personal—from the protests and marches they organized, which often met with violent response on the part of Israeli border police, to personal expressions of longing for family, for home, for the books in one’s library. Such practices made their demand not only to be visible but also to be able to return to Palestine central to any future negotiated settlement.
At the time, political philosopher Giorgio Agamben constructed a version of the deportees’ vision of political futurity, proferring an argument that effectively occluded the embodied specificities of Palestinians’ habitational resistance. In his 1993 essay “We Refugees” (later collected in Means without End), Agamben begins to explore a critical apparatus that will be most fully pronounced in his work on bare life and biopolitics. Taking as its point of departure the fiftieth anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s essay by the same name, here Agamben uses the figure of the refugee to speculate on a different kind of postsovereign political actor. He argues that “given the by now unstoppable decline of the nation-state and the general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories, the refugee is perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time.”34 Agamben explicitly recalibrates Arendt’s formative work for a post–Cold War conjuncture. He signals the possibility of a violent recasting of political boundaries that would drive upward of 20 million people from the former Soviet bloc to what he calls Europe’s “advanced industrial states.” In Agamben’s calling forth of a different kind of postsovereign future, one in which the “permanently resident mass of noncitizens” does not refresh the logics of encampment and genocide, so prominent a feature of European modernity, the political subjects figured as refugees do transformative work to dislodge and deconstruct the symbolic trinity of state/nation/territory.
In the widespread uptake of Agamben’s thought, few critical commentators have reckoned with the centrality of Israel/Palestine to his argument. For Agamben, the case of Israel/Palestine provides a laboratory through which to envision a European political imaginary yet to come. This vision arrives in “We Refugees” first in the image of Jerusalem. Agamben glimpses political potentiality in Jerusalem as an undivided city that might serve as the capital for two different states. “A future Jerusalem, with its overlapping and ‘reciprocal extraterritorialities,’ could serve as a model for imagining an alternate political cartography in Europe, in which all residents of the European states (citizens and noncitizens) would be in a position of exodus or refuge, and the status of European would mean the citizen’s being-in-exodus” (24). A post-Soviet Europe might draw political inspiration from the idea of Jerusalem as a site whose shared sovereignty (Israeli, Palestinian, international) would of necessity underwrite an inclination toward a permanent condition of exodus as a resolutely nondominant political subjectivity. Much more could be said about the kind of theological imaginary that figures a Jerusalem-to-come as the horizon of a broad political possibility—and the genealogies such a theological imaginary might draw upon.35
But importantly, Agamben’s essay concludes by turning to the snowy hills of Marj al-Zuhur and the Palestinian deportees of the Camp of Return:
As I write this essay, 425 [sic] Palestinians expelled by the state of Israel find themselves in a sort of no-man’s-land. These men certainly constitute, according to Hannah Arendt’s suggestion, “the vanguard of their people.” But that is so not necessarily or not merely in the sense that they might form the originary nucleus of a future national state, or in the sense that they might solve the Palestinian question in a way just as insufficient as the way in which Israel has solved the Jewish question. Rather, the no-man’s-land in which they are refugees has already started from this very moment to act back onto the territory of the state of Israel by perforating it and altering it in such a way that the image of that snowy mountain has become more internal to it than any other region of Eretz Israel. Only in a world in which the spaces of states have been thus perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognize the refugee that he or she is—only in such a world is the political survival of humankind today thinkable. (26–27)
Banishment and abandonment as dimensions of governance are distinct from the juridical features of the refugee. One need only recall the genealogy of European imperialism that informed Arendt’s critique of the conflation of human and citizen—a genealogy tacit in so much of Agamben’s theoretical architecture—to adequately demonstrate that the modernity Agamben inscribes was constituted through rubrics of coloniality and settler coloniality whose processes of racialization animated their differential valuing of certain populations over others. Indeed, from enslavement and incarceration to colonial settlement and genocide, such differential valuations of human being were routinely predicated on practices of everyday violence that, rather than operating as exceptions to juridical norms, were inscribed precisely through them.36 Seen from this angle, the Camp of Return marked irrefutable evidence that deportation was not as much a unique or exceptional expression of the post–Cold War paradox of political sovereignty as it was more properly another beat in the violent rhythm of Israel’s practice of, and embodied resistance to, expulsion, transfer, and what Baruch Kimmerling calls “politicide.”37
Additionally, Palestinian liberation struggles were often articulated globally through the discourses of third-world struggles against racism and imperialism—and likewise proffered secularized vocabularies of nonaligned Marxisms.38 Islamic political formations of the 1970s and 1980s often drew tacit if not explicit support from both the United States and Israel as potential countervailing forces—“good Muslims” in the fight against communism.39 At the same time, as became clear at the Camp of Return, histories of the Muslim Brotherhood (out of which Hamas emerged at the beginning of the First Intifada) retained investments in a global Islamic revival, especially in Central and Southwest Asia and North Africa. Pressing the question of Palestine’s decolonization through this framework would situate its liberation as a historically Muslim land, something that, in the Brotherhood’s framing until the late 1980s, was understood to follow from the transformation of Islamic society. In this sense, in critical apposition to nation-state sovereignty as the negotiated site for the expression of political freedom, Brotherhood political theology drew upon psychic and spiritual investments in the umma, a globalized imaginary with rich and variegated ideologies, including those predicated on substantive modalities of decolonization.40 It is this critical refusal of the negotiated settlement of the nation-state that Grant Farred calls Hamas’s “axiomatic politics”—“the refusal of politics as the predetermined meeting in the middle—the ameliorating of extremes, the art of settling for, of the middle as the place where, in fact, no politics takes place.”41
Of note, then, is how Israel/Palestine breaks into and catalyzes post–Cold War theoretical speculations—with the high-profile case of the Camp of Return providing one generative site. What matters for Agamben’s argument are the abstracted philosophical questions produced through the act of deportation and encampment that garnered a broad global audience. But it is precisely in the embodied practices of habitational resistance, and the forms of documentation they produced, that the men in the Camp of Return fashion an axiomatic alternative.
Embodying and Documenting Habitational Resistance
The transfer of Palestinians from their ancestral homes has been a crucial locus of Zionist settlement in Palestine since the 1880s.42 Yet if the logic of transfer is predicated on the elimination of Palestinian claims to territory through forcible removal, what came to pass at the Camp of Return was something quite otherwise.43 Transfer’s kinetic momentum was disrupted through claiming a lived relation to the land of abandonment. Wrenched violently out of the carceral apparatus of Israeli occupation and detention and forced out into the open, the deportees in the camp found many opportunities to organize. The deportation provided the conditions of possibility to congregate people and ideas that had otherwise been cordoned off from one another. The deportees established an ongoing set of situated practices that disrupted the deterritorializing violence of dispossession and deportation. It served as a site for conversation and collaboration among attorneys, doctors, professors, university students, and imams that had heretofore been highly restricted and regulated by Israel’s practices in the West Bank and Gaza. Collins notes that the growth of popular committees (lijān shaʿbiyya) during the First Intifada exemplified a practice of habitational resistance, with popular defense manifested through medical relief, education, local security, and community gardens. The deportees forged a similar structure at the camp. Husni Muhammad al-Burini, himself a deportee and the author of one of the few comprehensive and in-depth studies of the camp to date, devotes a chapter to what he terms the “deportees’ nation” (dawlat al-mubʿadīn). Over a dozen popular committees were developed, addressing everything from media, health, engineering, and education to sports, culture, telephone communications, and the maintenance and administration of the camp’s archive.44
The Camp of Return’s practice of documentary self-expression is especially notable. At least nineteen writers produced at least thirty books, all but two of which were about the camp—including several collections of poetry, a yearbook for the university, documentary photomontages, and social-scientific analyses of life in the camp. They used technologies of mediation to be seen and heard beyond the bounds of the Islamophobic and orientalist frames that prevailed in Western media, and they turned their practices of survival and cultural production amid that exposure precisely into the condition that warranted their human status writ large.
An illustrative text in this regard is Saʿid Maʿalawi’s The Eagles of Marj al Zuhur: The Daily Struggles of the Palestinian Deportees, in Words and Images.45 Maʿalawi, a longtime Lebanese photojournalist and writer, lived in Mimass, the village closest to the encampment. Upon hearing about the impending deportation, Maʿalawi went to receive the deportees immediately. He stayed in the encampment from 19 December 1992, when the first tent was raised, to 15 December 1993, when the last person left the camp. Eagles brims with documentation. It includes chapters titled “The Dramatic Sequence of Events,” “The Administrative Organization of the Camp,” “The Deportees’ Cultural and Athletic Activities,” “The Deportees’ Social and Political Position,” and “Interviews with the Press.” It also includes small photographic portraits of all of the deportees, giving their names and their places of residence before deportation. Indeed, throughout the collection, Eagles wields the realist impetus of journalistic photography. A narrative arc from deportation to return structures the text. It seizes on images from a series of key moments in the life of the camp—from the initial deportation and state abandonment to the networks of support that were rapidly mobilized, and from the mundane structures and practices of living in common to media engagement and, finally, a practice of departure that ceded the territory. The photography’s documentary realism fastens onto the mundane practices of communal care, a kind of being-in-common buttressed by infrastructures of sociality: a university, courses and exhibitions, shared hygiene, exercise, prayer, and organized demonstrations.
The over 225 photographs in Eagles document a wide array of activities, practices, and modes of being. They reflect on and contort the modes of visuality either that encode Palestinian subjectivity as threat—to order, to Israeli and US interest, and so forth—or as a paradigmatic figure of suffering, one that warrants a depoliticized liberal humanitarianism. The production of a countervisuality itself is reflexively addressed, such as in the caption for one image: “A camera crew from the television channel CNN International films and broadcasts live from the camp. This step had a significant impact in showing the true scope of the deportees’ suffering.”46 Numerous photographs show the tasks of self-care in the camp—washing, cooking, eating, and cleaning, sometimes alone but often in groups. A series of photos document recreational activities, including a cluster that shows the camp’s soccer team competing against the local village’s team and even receiving a trophy in the end. There are numerous photos of “the University that united everybody, professors and students.”47 A whole other publication documents the work of the university, the courses that were offered, and the agreements the university made with institutions in the West Bank and Gaza to offer their courses for credit. There is likewise documentation of the camp’s library, a large tent that “contained more than 1,500 religious, philosophical, political, and literary books.” As one caption notes, the library “was one of their most significant accomplishments.”
In Eagles Maʿalawi also includes poetic images, where the captions emphasize the continuity between the deportees’ dispossession and the broader history of Palestinian displacement. The caption for a photograph of one man reclining on a thin mattress pad outside of his tent reads, “‘My homeland is not a suitcase.’ . . . Raʾid Zaqut dreams of his homeland.”48 A series of images depict a protest meant to signify the men’s own humanity. “We are human beings, and we have children,” reads a sign in both Arabic and English held before a video camera. The protest, as described in a subsequent caption,
involved writing the names of their children, the dates of their birth, and place where they live on balloons, before setting out on a march in the direction of Mimass Province, where they eventually released the balloons . . . into the beautiful weather. A sudden wind blew and carried the balloons toward Palestine, whose armistice lines lay about thirty-two kilometers in the distance. The Israeli forces were then ordered to fire a spray of bullets at the balloons, exploding them in the air so that they wouldn’t enter Palestine.
Another series of photos focuses on UN Security Council resolution 799, passed just days after the deportation. Resolution 799 “condemn[ed] the action taken by Israel” and “demand[ed] that Israel, the occupying Power, ensure the safe and immediate return to the occupied territories of all those deported.”49 One photo is of a snow-covered tent on which someone has written “799.” Another has been taken from some distance. Dozens of men have arranged themselves into a formation that reads “799 HOME.” Enforcement of the resolution was never substantively undertaken, and the resolution played little role in securing the men’s return. After several months at the Camp of Return, the men staged a mock burial of the resolution, here given the shape of a body in a coffin, at the “UN Cemetery”—signified as such by a large English-language poster. The caption reads, “The body was placed in a grave specially prepared for it, to bear witness to international feebleness in the face of Israeli appropriation and the utter disregard of international agreements and the ‘Bill of Human Rights.’”
Documenting a temporary claim on space renders a particular and distinct image of Palestinian resistance. If part of what military occupation wields is command over that which is visible and to whom, at the Camp of Return embodied exposure to the elements was reconfigured as, in part, a stage for media exposure. It was also the ground for exposure to one another, to a practice of being in common, a temporary authority over land as a place entangled with the environment.
The Poetic Register in No-Man’s-Land
Whereas Eagles documents the bodily and spiritual presence of the deportees in the face of their enforced absence, often pointing outward to international media, the poetry composed in the Camp of Return often points inward. The poetry chronicles more than it invents, pressing the experience of life in the camp into the carefully measured metrical patterns of classical Arabic poetry in the hopes that such rhythm and rhyme might facilitate its transmission both laterally (across space) and historically (forward in time). Indeed, this poetry is equally as concerned with images and events from Islamic history as it is with current events. Many of the poems in the two collections under consideration here—Blazing Ears of Wheat, by Jawad Bahr, and The Pulse of Marj al-Zuhur, by Muhammad Fuʾad Abu Zayd—are filled with images drawn from the Arabo-Islamic literary heritage, such as the glory of war, praise of God, Islam, and the prophet Muhammad, and the sanctity of martyrs’ blood. They are also concerned more with performance than with publication, more with embodiment than with writing. Nearly all of the poems by Bahr and Abu Zayd follow the conventional meters of classical Arabic poetry standardized by al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi in the eighth century AD. In the face of political defeats in the present, this poetry revives triumphs and rhythms from the distant past, not so much as models for future action but as mnemonic tools, commemorating significant events in Islamic history to inscribe the deportees’ experience within a longer, shared calendar of ritual and observance.
Yet while the images, forms, and language of this poetry disregard many of the thematic and formal innovations of modern Arabic poetry, nevertheless significant sociological, historical, and documentary value inheres in this work. Abundant footnotes explain the occasions on which particular poems were read to large crowds of deportees. Narrative accounts of specific protest marches document aggressions experienced at the hands of Israeli border police. Personal meditations render into verse the joy of receiving letters from loved ones. If, as the oft-cited adage has it, “poetry is the register of the Arabs” (al-shiʿr dīwān al-ʿarab), the poets of Marj al-Zuhur envisioned a world in which poetry continues to serve this purpose, recording and transmitting that which the victors of history seek to erase. For the deportees, the poetics of displacement is equally a poetics of documentation—an insistence that these stories be incorporated into the larger, variegated, transnational, and transterritorial narrative of Palestinian resistance.
One element common to the two poetry collections under consideration here is the abundance of occasional poems, many of which commemorate the celebration of Muslim holidays in the camp. Bahr’s poem “Jerusalem and the Nocturnal Journey” (“al-Israʾ wa-l-quds”) describes how the deportees celebrated the holiday of Laylat al-Miʿrāj in the camp (27 Rajab in the Islamic calendar, 1 February in 1992). The holiday commemorates the prophet Muhammad’s legendary ascent from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and his nocturnal journey through the heavens. But in honoring the holiness of Jerusalem, Bahr also bemoans his distance from it, turning the commemoration of a collective holiday into an occasion for personal lament. Although the poem begins with a bold rallying cry, it quickly swings back into melancholia, loss, and self-doubt:
Bahr’s collection also includes a poem he recited at a Ramadan celebration in the camp,54 while Abu Zayd’s includes one commemorating the Hegira, the prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina.55 In every case, the observance of holiday rituals—through poetry recitations, shared meals, and other practices—maintains the intimacy of home and the surety of time markers where spatial continuity has been ruptured. These holiday works not only mark the passage of time in the camp, underscoring the length of the deportees’ exile, but also attempt to integrate the deportees’ experience into the shared fabric of collective time, asserting a spiritual connection to family, loved ones, and the community of the faithful as a whole where a physical one was impossible.
Other occasional poems commemorate events specific to the Camp of Return, such as Bahr’s poem honoring a delegation from Sudan that visited the camp,56 or Abu Zayd’s free verse poem marking the one-month anniversary of the deportation.57 Both collections include poems that were recited at the opening of the university in the camp,58 and both end with valedictory poems dedicated to the first group of deportees who returned to the occupied Palestinian territories.59 Where Bahr stresses the bittersweet nature of the moment—happiness for those who are returning, sadness for those who must remain behind—Abu Zayd turns the occasion into a moment for moral reflection. In composing these poems and reciting them on the day of their colleagues’ return, Bahr and Abu Zayd simultaneously express their personal emotions and mark the occasion publicly, recording it for posterity and inscribing it in the larger history of the camp.
Abu Zayd provides some of the more gripping narrative accounts of how the deportees were brought to Marj al-Zuhur and the harsh living conditions they endured once they got there. These accounts are almost always interlaced with a moral message about how the deportees’ faith in God ultimately gave them the strength and forbearance to live through the various ordeals in the camp. In the long narrative poem “The Call of the Deportees” (“Nadaʾ al-Mubʿadin”), for example, Abu Zayd writes:
While these occasional poems affirm and document the community’s presence despite attempts to erase it, some of the less conventional poetry in both collections comprises personal reflections on the feeling of receiving letters from one’s family. In his footnote to the poem titled “An Inspiration Appeared” (“Wahi atalla”), Bahr informs the reader that he composed this poem “after receiving some letters from [his] family.”61 Where in other poems Bahr decries the insufficiency of the written word, here he does quite the opposite: in the letters that his wife and children send to him, the written words are “like a sweet fragrance,” a “radiant illumination,” composed from “alphabets of copiously watered flowers.” “An Inspiration Appeared” is meant not to be recited for an audience but to document a private experience—the intimacy between the reader and the page of a letter. Yet even in its focus on the personal, isolated act of reading, Bahr’s poem affirms continued connection, intimacy, and closeness, thereby implicitly chronicling the failure of deportation to achieve its effect. Indeed, the affective bonds of sight and smell, “illumination” and “fragrance,” have been translated into “alphabets of light” and of “copiously watered flowers,” such that the words ironically smell even sweeter and shine even more brightly than their referents. The connection to loved ones, in other words, becomes even stronger with distance, and it thereby thwarts the intent to sever, disperse, dislocate, and disorient.
Meanwhile, in the headnote to his poem with the rhyming title “A Greeting and a Command” (“Tahiyya wa wasiyya”), Abu Zayd explains that the poem is intended as “a letter to my children and grandchildren in the homeland, in which the names of all my children and grandchildren . . . appear.”62 And indeed, the names of Abu Zayd’s two sons, eight daughters, and sixteen grandchildren are interwoven into the poem’s thirty-two lines. Throughout the poem, he plays on the literal meanings and morphological patterns of their Arabic names, yet even in this atmosphere of wordplay, he maintains his moralizing, admonishing tone. According to Abu Zayd’s implicit poetics, the function of poetry is to educate and advise. To fill one’s verses with introspection, with contemplation of losses sustained and distances suffered, is morally unacceptable. The poetic speaker’s voice does not oscillate from one emotion to the next, from triumphant assertion to self-questioning melancholy, as in Bahr’s verse. Rather, the speaker of Abu Zayd’s ode “commands,” enjoins remembrance, and, in an effort to counter the uncertainty of exile, announces what will be with the certainty of an assured patriarch.
Both Bahr and Abu Zayd consider poetry not necessarily as a mode of aesthetic expression, but as a moral and historical pursuit, one meant not only to strengthen and cement their community’s ties across international borders, intranational movement restrictions, and prison walls, but also to record their struggles for posterity, reintegrating their story into the larger narrative of Palestinian resistance. In a poem titled “The Question of Deportation” (“Qadiyyat al-ibʿad”), Abu Zayd writes:
At the end of August 1993, just weeks before the Oslo Accords were to be finalized, return was granted to the deportees at Marj al-Zuhur. About half of the men returned in September, and the rest in December. Many were immediately returned to Israeli prisons in the West Bank and Gaza, enfolded back into the practices of indefinite captivity and confinement. The space of “naked earth” and “naked life,” the commons that had been fashioned contingently and precariously, was quickly foreclosed, including by those men in the camp who, a few years later, would attempt to reinscribe nation-state sovereignty as the foundational basis for Palestinian freedom. Yet the archive remains, and the remains within it—photographs, booklets, yearbooks, certificates, letters—record a practice of habitational resistance fashioned in the seam zone of a historical transition. On the one hand, this archive insistently foregrounds the international interest that the Marj al-Zuhur deportees garnered during a single year, as well as the work they performed to reframe Palestinian life and presence through claims to visibility and legibility in a global lens. We have seen how this international attention invited their experience to be repurposed as an abstraction—a portable metaphor capable of prompting the abstract citizen to recognize, as Agamben would have it, “the refugee that he or she is.”
On the other hand, even as the photographic, political, and poetic archive of Marj al-Zuhur records an appeal addressed globally, it simultaneously resists the occlusions that attend abstraction, insisting instead on the specificity of the stories from Islamic history that the camp mobilized in prose, performance, and verse; the embodied practices of piety and protest that sustained it despite extreme physical deprivations; and the rhythmic undulations of Arabic poetic meter into which it pressed the experience of exile. In this sense, the practice elaborated at Marj al-Zuhur speaks across both territorial and political lines, embedding itself within an increasingly long history of Palestinian resistance while also working to reframe how Palestinian life is viewed through international political, cultural, and theoretical lenses. In so doing, at the time of its assembly the archive of practices and papers disrupted the broad cultural and geopolitical momentum to enfold Palestine’s future into a post–Cold War “new world order.” By grasping hold of that contingent conjoining of race, religion, and war in its historical, representational, and poetic density, in its embodied practice and set of effects, we glimpse into a shadow history of our present.
Jordan, “Islam and the USA Today,” 107. Subsequent citations to this work appear in text.
Al-Jayyusi, Trends and Movements; see esp. “Platform Poetry,” 583–94.
See Harlow, Resistance Literature. For some of the foundational texts of resistance literature (adab al-muqāwama) in Arabic, see Khidr, Adab al-muqawama (1968); Shukri, Adab al-muqawama (1970); and Kanafani, Adab al-muqawama (1966).
See, for instance, Simpson and Smith, Theorizing Native Studies; and Goldstein, Formations of United States Colonialism. On liberalism’s philosophical investment in law as a vector for systematic colonization, see Neocleous, War Power, Police Power. On the centrality of the racial for the legitimacy narratives of political liberalism, see Mills, Racial Contract.
On the lineaments of the frontier in US imperial culture, see Feldman, “Empire’s Verticality.” On the projection of indigeneity as the constitutive excess of American empire demanding subjugation, assimilation, or elimination, see Byrd, Transit of Empire.
Stoler, “On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty.” Israel’s legal architecture is founded on a heterogeneous mix of Ottoman, British Mandate, and Israel’s post-1948 emergency Basic Laws. An expanded scholarly literature on Israel/Palestine has taken up and complicated this formulation, exemplified by Ophir, Givoni, and Hanafi, Power of Inclusive Exclusion.
David Theo Goldberg calls this “racial Palestinianization”; see Goldberg, Threat of Race, 106–50. For a critique of the absence of an ongoing process of colonization in Goldberg’s theory, see Abu El-Haj, “Racial Palestinianization.” On concealment, surveillance, and witnessing as central to the visual politics of the Israeli occupation, see Hochberg, Visual Occupations.
Lloyd, “Settler Colonialism.” All transliterations from Arabic follow the system of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (IJMES). The literature on ṣumūd is vast. On ṣumūd as a praxis that emerges in relation to the struggle against carcerality, see Meari, “Sumud.”
These included mass arrests in August 1988 (120 people), May 1989 (1,500 people), and December 1990 (1,700 people). See ibid., 56–60.
On seven separate occasions between 1987 and 1992, the United Nations condemned these targeted deportations and demanded that Palestinians be able to return to their homes.
Edward W. Said’s immediate analysis of Oslo, his break with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and his propositions to move forward exemplified a certain wider Palestinian structure of feeling: “I doubt that there was a single Palestinian who watched the White House ceremony who did not also feel that a century of sacrifice, dispossession and heroic struggle had finally come to naught” (Said, “Morning After,” 3–5).
For a comprehensive overview of the university, coedited by its board of directors, see al-Aqtam et al., Jamiʿat Marj al-Zuhur Ibn Taymiyya.
Agamben, Means without End, 16. Originally published under the title “We Refugees,” the essay was collected as “Beyond Human Rights” in Agamben, Means without End. Subsequent citations to this work appear in text.
On exodus and exile as ethical commitment to reciprocity, see Butler, Parting Ways.
All translations from Arabic are by Emily Drumsta. Subsequent citations to Maʿalawi, Eagles, appear in text.
Photographs in Eagles have captions but do not include page numbers.
Even here, in this caption to a photograph, there is a poetic paronomasia on the three-letter root j-m-ʿ, which forms the radical for the words university, united, and everybody alike. The Arabic reads: “al-jāmiʿa allatī jamaʿat al-jamīʿa.”
“My homeland is not a suitcase” references Darwish’s 1969 poem “Diary of a Palestinian Wound.” See Darwish, Habibati tanhad min nawmiha.
UN Security Council Resolution 799 (1992), www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/799(1992).
On the relationship between these two modes in the pre-and early Islamic poetic tradition, see Stetkevych, The Mute Immortals Speak, 161–205.
Bahr, “al-Israʾ wa-l-quds,” 23.