After the abundance of media coverage surrounding the Palestine-Israel conflict this past summer, the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies last week hosted “Palestine: Activism, Militancy & the Arts,” a series that helped tell Palestinian stories ignored by mainstream media. In addition to presenting film screenings and panel discussions, the series stepped off campus for the launch of Diana Allan’s Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile at Paragraphe Bookstore.
Allan, an ethnographer, filmmaker, and PhD graduate, discussed her book as both a presentation of the daily life of Palestinians living in refugee camps and a critique of an increasingly alienating nationalistic discourse. Refugees specifically features a camp called Shatila in southern Beirut. In an interview with The Daily, Allan explained that the book is based off of her doctoral thesis, for which she traveled to Shatila and studied there. She highlighted the ethnographic aspects of the daily life in the refugee camp, also critiquing the nationalistic discourse that has overtaken the thousands of refugee Palestinians who live abroad. When asked if the book directly covers anything about Israel or the ongoing debates, Allan replied that “it does not.”
In attendance was Michelle Hartman, an associate professor of Arabic Literature at McGill and one of the organizers of the Palestine series. Hartman expressed to The Daily a hope of bringing people of all backgrounds together to “talk about Palestine while casting a spotlight on the vibrant Palestinian art scene.” Hartman wants to incite a new dimension to discussions about Palestine through the “intensity of art.”
While it may not have focused on art, the speech Allan gave at her launch was certainly intense. Allan’s talk served as a critique of discourses that “no longer adequately cover the struggles and ambitions of the millions of Palestinian refugees,” exploring the shift from traditional kinship relations to economic-based relations in refugee camps, and the evolving views of exiled Palestinians toward Palestine itself. She addressed how discourses of Palestine view Palestinians as “purely ethno-political beings” void of what she described as the mostly “Western notion of human complexities, emotions, ideologies, and aspirations.”
Key among these struggles is refugees’ lack of civil rights. Allan explained that at the cost of the refugees’ most basic civil rights, the Lebanese government refuses Palestinians full citizenship precisely to “foster Palestinian nationalism.” Allan argued that most discussions of Palestinian refugees focus on the idea of return to Palestine, which mostly reflects the experience of “Palestinians in Europe and the West, and not that of exiled Palestinians living in refugee camps.” Discussing this at the launch, Allan shared an anecdote about a girl who told her “you can’t move Shatila to Palestine.”
This viewpoint of the Palestinian refugees is particularly important because of its relatively small representation within the greater narrative of the Palestinian right of return. Allan claimed that while some nationalist strains consider refugees to be ‘cowards’ in the face of opposition, their stories of ever-present conflict must be heard to acknowledge Palestinian discourse on a wider scale, one that includes refugee camps like the one in Shatila. Even for most ardent followers of the Palestinian conflict, Allan’s approach is one that opens eyes because it is not even within the framework of these prominent political conversations.
While Allan’s discussion was primarily political, she closed the event with a reading from Refugees of the Revolution that demonstrated how her treatment of the topic is not only powerful due to its rarity, but also its artistry. Reading a passage about the business of bird-tending, she used her filmmaker’s touch to showcase complex notions of economic relationships in a way that felt cinematic. In her dual voice of artist and ethnographer, the brute reality of Shatila came to life. In listening to Allan, it became clear that with her new book, the experience of this reality will begin to speak for itself.