As a personal contribution to Commons & Commoning, we included in the booklet our textual and photographic observation Dheisheh’s Common Green, which focuses on the plants growing in Dheisheh Refugee Camp – located close to Bethlehem, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – as an evolving common.
Departing from historic photographs of the refugee camp (its name, Dheisheh, means The Forest in Egyptian Arabic), through a text and a photographic essay, the observation investigates the expansion of cultivated and green areas, which seemingly goes hand in hand with the architectural development of the camp. By focusing the reader’s attention on the element of the green in the camp, which is here used as a ‘narrative vector’, the observation wants to reflect on a way more complex ensemble of aspects concerning the refugees’ life in Dheisheh and the way the camp’s community has evolved since its establishment in 1948.
After more than sixty-four years of exile, Palestinian camps are not made anymore of tents. It is a completely original urban form that emerged by necessity and creativity of its inhabitants. Spatial practices take the form of rituals and architectural realizations, expressions of both rebellion and necessary adaptation to the present. They oscillate between pragmatic and creative solutions in a congested space and visionary celebration of an idealized past. These solutions, more or less unconsciously, constitute the will to reproduce the inner spatial qualities and characteristics of the villages of origin, as stubborn and spontaneous acts of preservation of memories.
Campus in Camps
One of the first and best known historical photographs of Dheisheh Refugee Camp was taken in 1952 from the eastern side of the camp looking north-westward in the direction of Jerusalem-Hebron Road. In that photograph – at the time Dheisheh was mainly constituted of tents with the first UNRWA concrete shelters appearing here and there – we cannot spot a single tree growing within or beside the already neatly defined plots into which the area designated to the camp had been divided. What was this area before the refugee camp was established? It is said that the name Dheisheh (literally the forest in Egyptian Arabic) was given to the camp because a forest originally grew there. What kind of forest? One of those pine tree groves planted during the British colonial mandate by the Jewish National Fund and which can still be found here and there in the area? Or, as some people say, were fig and other fruit trees growing there? Or was this place in reality as rocky and arid as the hill opposite the camp, which can be clearly seen in the photograph and which today hosts the “refugee city” Doha?
1948 – Looking at the very first photographs of the camp taken in 1948, with the first Red Cross tents erected on a desert hill, it is hard to believe that this area was previously covered with trees.
1960s – The only evidence we could find during our research of a forest-like assemblage of trees in the area of Dheisheh is depicted in a tiny reproduction of a photograph that is part of the UNRWA photographic archive in Gaza. Probably taken in the 1960s, the image shows a group of pine trees growing in the eastern side of the camp, where today Al-Feneiq Cultural Centre is located.
Interestingly, some neatly defined parts of this rocky landscape on the other side of Jerusalem-Hebron Road are today still in their original state and do not host any construction. Here, the landscape is composed of wind-shaped boulders with little vegetation growing between them, mostly thistles and other small spiky bushes.
On the ground floor of Ibdaa Cultural Centre in Dheisheh, a small selection of historical photographs illustrates various stages of development of the camp. One of them, taken in 1959, shows us a camp that has a radically different shape than the one depicted in the 1952 photograph – almost all the tents have been replaced by concrete UNRWA shelters, tidily aligned along the northern side of the hill. Still, it is hard to spot any kind of green between the constructions. Nevertheless, the fact that we cannot recognise any developed tree in the picture does not mean that trees had not already been planted. In fact, taking a look at a third photograph, shot in 1968 from a similar position and from the very same angle, we see a slightly more built-up environment with a great number of well-developed trees rising between the buildings.
This is confirmed by yet another picture taken inside Dheisheh in 1973. If trees were really growing on this land before the camp was established, these are the first images we could find documenting their return.
Fast forward to the present. Can we see the architectural shape of Dheisheh evolving over time? The concrete shelters disappear one by one – destroyed in order to give way to much larger and complex structures, or absorbed into them. The number of floors increases and buildings grow in size, beginning to intersect with each other. The little available space – mostly in the centre of the camp, where the majority of shops, schools and other institutions are located – is exploited as rationally and efficiently as possible. The space of the street, arguably the only physical common space in the camp, is increasingly eroded as an effect of the self-negotiated expansion of the refugees’ properties. Step by step the camp becomes greener. The spread of the vegetation almost seems to go hand in hand with the architectural evolution of the camp. Trees and bushes – many of them producing edible fruits at different times of the year (figs, prickly pears, loquat fruits, olives, lemons, oranges, walnuts, grapes, red mulberries, almonds etc.) – are now cultivated in gardens annexed to houses and predominantly enclosed by walls that hide their trunks. Bushes and branches spill out from between houses or from behind property walls, sometimes in a glorious explosion of colour and scent. Various vegetables for personal consumption are grown. Climbing plants take over entire unfinished buildings, while potted ones are filling windowsills and wall tops. Plants of different sizes grow in big and small improvised beds built out of bricks or concrete along the streets, outside peoples’ homes. Vines grow on the shade-providing pergolas of the flat rooftops. In more than one location, the green spilling over completely covers the narrow streets, creating emerald tunnels over the pedestrians’ heads. Therefore, in many ways we might say that Dheisheh, the forest, must be a name that was chosen to honour the future of the hill on which the camp was erected rather than its past.
Although refugees living in the centre of Dheisheh often complain about the density of the built environment, the lack of space and the compulsion to build vertically when people need to expand their homes, a large amount of square metres is dedicated to plants of various sizes and uses. It almost seems that these plants enjoy a special status here and that nobody would ever dream of getting rid of green spaces for the purpose of extending a house. It feels as though plants have been planning their return and conquering their ground bit by bit. Interestingly, the habit of cultivating plants is seemingly equally distributed within the camp – humble homes have gardens and green areas as much as richer and more extravagant houses do. On the part of the Dheishehians, possibly due to the fact that their ancestors were mostly farmers in their villages of origin, they show a great respect and care for their green. All the plants that can be found in the camp are kept inside private properties or are, in any case, associated to a specific house or family. Within the camp, there is no “public green” in a conventional sense, with a central authority taking care of it. Rather, it is the Dheishehians themselves who take care of the camp’s green in general – each family contributing privately to its well-being and preservation. If the lower parts of the trunks and the root systems of trees and bushes are always located inside the borders of private properties, very often huge portions of the plants are shared with the rest of the community. This is the case not only for gardens that spill over from behind walls into the camp’s streets but also for the plots of green that are more hidden from pedestrians, yet which nevertheless enhance the lives of people living in nearby houses. Aside from visually enriching peoples’ perception of the built environment, the large amount of plants growing in the camp also plays a fundamental role in maintaining a cooler climate during the hot months. Without their presence, the camp, mainly built of reinforced concrete, would probably be much less pleasant for the greater part of the year. Therefore, if some people complain about the fact that there are no “public green areas” in Dheisheh in the form of a public parks or gardens, we would argue that instead of one single public park in the midst of a concrete jungle, in Dheisheh there is a vast common green, homogeneously spread throughout the camp. In this regard, an interesting phenomenon is the construction of spaces to grow plants (varying greatly in size, from a few centimetres to a few meters in width) outside of peoples’ homes, predominantly next to the main entrances, technically invading the common space of the street. However, in this case it is hard to speak of erosion of the common space, but rather of an attempt to improve and diversify it, of paying homage to it.
And finally, considering the amount of food that such vegetation produces inside the refugee camp, we can begin to speculate on how less dependent from the market this green renders refugees or on the informal economies of exchange it nourishes among them.
Thanks to Giuliana Racco for proofreading the text