Camp as Moral Architecture: Memory, Migration and Resistance – Adhila Abdul Hameed


Remembrance seems to be about the past. While the Holocaust is an event in the past, the Nakba did not end in 1948. The relationship between film and reality is historically and politically infused in the films of the Palestinian new wave to create a cultural weapon that also serves as resistance. These movies are works of oppressed people’s history. This paper intends to focus on the intersections of memory and trauma in Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours and Mai Masri’s Children of Shatila, by examining the themes of traumatic identity, global and prosthetic memory in the films. The study further explores the representation of memory and how it externalizes and historicizes traumatic emotions which would otherwise remain at the level of internal and individual psychology.

Keywords: Refugee camps, cinema, Palestine, memory, resistance 

Memory studies is a broad convergence field, with contributions from cultural history, social psychology, media archaeology, political philosophy, and comparative literature. History, literature, and art were used as the starting points for memory studies, a relatively young field that analyses cultural phenomena and modalities of remembering. We are experiencing a “memory boom,” which has been further supported since the turn of the century by books and movies that thematize memory and imitate its form and content. Theoretical work in the humanities and social sciences that closely connects literary and media studies to interdisciplinary research includes the concept of cultural memory. With the term ‘‘cultural memory’’ scholars describe all those processes of a biological, medial, or social nature which relate past and present (and future) in sociocultural contexts. Uprooting one from family and community, and readying yourself for an uncertain journey and length of stay in a foreign land involves a host of emotional struggles and practical preparations. Preparing for the departure also involves anticipating the additional risks of irregular or illegal border crossings and the very real possibility of exploitation and even violence. Burdened by these overwhelming financial, emotional, and psychological concerns, prospective migrants often turn to religion for strength and spiritual sustenance as they prepare for the journeys. Diasporas, which form the voluntary or forcible movement of peoples from their homelands into new regions, is a central historical fact of colonization. Cultural memory entails remembering and forgetting. It has an individual and a collective side, which are, however, closely interrelated. There are many different ways of engaging in memory studies from the vantage point of literary and media studies. Some scholars are, for example, interested in the significance of ancient mnemotechnics (ars memoriae) of literature and art, others study from perspectives such as intertextuality as ‘‘literature’s memory’’, canon formation as a way of defining cultural heritage, the relation of narrative, memory and identity, the role of media (such as photographs and movies) for remembering, orality and literacy as different modes of memory, or memory in the age of digital media. Literature and film can vividly portray individual and collective memory, its contents, its workings, its fragility and its distortions by coding it into aesthetic forms, such as narrative structures, symbols, and metaphors. Fictional versions of memory are characterized by their dynamic relationship to memory concepts of other symbol systems, such as psychology, religion, history, and sociology: they are shaped by them and shape them in turn; they may perpetuate old or anticipate new images of remembering and forgetting. Media studies’ approaches to memory are perhaps better suited to getting to grips with the question of how literature and film represent traumatic pasts and to what degree these ‘pasts’ are always already mediated memories. Cinema has the capacity of cataloguing socio-political conditions in its own unique and artistic way. Memory studies and trauma studies have developed a fraternal twin relationship. Paul Grainge situates his approach in Memory and Popular Film between existing debates on history and cinema and a recently articulated ‘memory boom.’ Through Grainge’s edited volume’s history, memory, and trauma frameworks, this constellation spurred a rise in film studies. 

The Cinema of Palestine is relatively young in comparison to Arab cinema as a whole. Thus, there are not many works written on the study of Palestinian movies, making this study more relevant. The entire history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the need to be seen, Edward Said stated in the preface of a book about Palestinian cinema called “Dreams of a Nation”. The recent resurgence of Palestinian cinema has been motivated by this aim. Over the past 40 years, Palestinian cinema has undergone numerous reinventions, but the films produced after the start of the second intifada in 2000 have received the majority of attention from abroad. Not because they are there, but because they represent a social, cultural, and political viewpoint never before seen. The so-called light art sensationalises its own source, in contrast to the serious art, which many people believe to be a product of elitist society. Thus, by fusing numerous questions, multiple realities and dimensions, as well as by blending disciplinary boundaries, film-art, in both of its forms, stimulates the public’s imagination with a variety of possibilities. Art broadens the range of possible interpretations, but politics must compel the public to recognise, consider, and address the civilizational issue. In a nutshell, this study assesses political art in light of rights violations and opposition to them, as portrayed in the chosen films. 

Several Palestinian movies were made available on Netflix last year in a compilation titled “Palestinian Stories,” ranging from a sombre account of surviving an Israeli interrogation to a post-apocalyptic Palestine that evokes memories of dispossession. The 32 movies and documentaries primarily focus on two subjects: the psychological impact of political conflict and the experience of Palestinians living under Israeli authority and in exile. The filmed portrayal of Ein El-Helweh, or “sweet spring,” the Palestinian refugee settlement in South Lebanon, A World Not Ours takes its name from a book by novelist and activist, Ghassan Kanafani. It is a brilliant first-person picture that succeeds on a wide range of emotional levels, from laughter to sorrow. Mahdi Fleifel, the director, evokes feelings in us as deeply as if his family, friends, and home were our own. The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh in Lebanon serves as the setting for his ideas, which are both universal and unique to particular film. Before his family relocated to Denmark in the 1980s, Mahdi spent his formative years in the camp. He has been coming back and recording videos for years. The friendship between Mahdi and his companion Abu Eyad is at the centre of the movie. They are both obsessed with Palestinian politics and World Cup soccer, but Mahdi has the mobility that Abu Eyad lacks. Their bond is made more valuable and tenable by this injustice. The famous saying concerning the predicament of the refugees is, “The old will die and the young will forget.” Fleifel shows that this is not the case by depicting a community that has been scarred and traumatised.

Mahdi draws from a vibrant family archive and inherited his father’s obsession with videotaping. The soundtrack is nostalgic, and the movie is rife with references to western inspirations, from Michael Jackson to Rambo to Neil Young. These recognisable elements, together with Mahdi’s amusing English narration, enable western audiences to imagine themselves in a setting that is alien in many other ways. The name Ain El-Helweh means “Sweet Spring” in Arabic. It’s a funny name for a place that was erected quickly in 1948 and now accommodates 70,000 migrants in a square kilometre. We get an unfiltered account of Palestinian complaints about their own political leaders, Lebanon, and Israel as we listen in on Mahdi’s meetings with camp residents. Mahdi’s personal trip is a warm approach to understand the turbulent history that has occurred in the seven decades since the construction of Ain El-Helweh.

In order to cope with the realities of growing up in a refugee camp that has endured a slaughter, a siege, and malnutrition, Farah and Issa, two streetwise kids living in Beirut’s Palestinian Shatila refugee camp, use their imaginations and creativity. Children of Shatila, the second film in Mai’s trilogy about how children experience war (1989). The most famous Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut—a place with a strong collective memory for all Palestinians is where the movie is set. More than ten years after the slaughter of 1982, the life of the camp is shown with an intimacy never before witnessed via the eyes and voices of youngsters. The children document their history, that of their family, and that of their neighbourhood using the digital cameras Mai gifted them. Between the significant historical films made by the Palestine Cinema Institute decades earlier and the terrible destruction of the entire archive during the invasion by Israel in 1982, these images act as a link. Masri enters these kids’ worlds—their homes, schools, workplaces, and play spaces—in a wonderfully unobtrusive manner. She then lets the kids’ voices take control of the story, give it structure, and most importantly, serve as an inspiration. Their goals to become physicians, engineers, and astronauts stand in stark contrast to the horrible circumstances these kids and their families must face. But one of them laments, “What type of future awaits them?” The grandparents seem broken in spirit as they transmit the vision of the country while preserving the tales of Palestine and the pictures of ancestors. However, the kids who later relate these tales are brimming with life, joy, and optimism. 

The public realm of the industrial urban districts has been reconstructed to serve as a repository for manufactured memories and as a cultural accomplishment of the governing ideology. In this way, monuments, buildings, and other visual representations of the mass culture served as an ideological tool to reinforce the sense of truth and universality in the collective memory. By enabling people to construct their own personal archives and take on the role of historiographers by creating their own histories through personal archives on social media through visual imagery, they also revolutionised and democratised history-making. As a result, visual memory restricts our vision of reality to a cognitive framework and gradually reinforces the assumed duplicate realities, but it also maintains the integrity of the private realm and brings people together via shared experiences. The personal meta-archives of truth, which are modified and produced by a larger framework of mechanical reproduction of common memories, might be used to explain one’s intimate relationship with visual representations. For Palestinians in diaspora, memory establishes and validates national consciousness and embodies the ongoing struggles for Palestinian legitimacy on a global scale. Within this community, cuisine and the methods of its production are an essential medium of cultural retention and knowledge. Memory as resistance occurs in the diaspora both through the practice of diasporization itself and the reproduction of Palestinian food culture in the private and public sphere, the intergenerational exchange of traditions and memory, and the voicing of the Palestinian cause.

Perhaps media studies’ methods to memory are better suited to grappling with the issue of how traumatising pasts are portrayed in literature and film and to what extent these “pasts” are always already filtered recollections. For instance, Marita Sturken examines how the Vietnam War and the AIDS epidemic were incorporated into cultural memory through the use of television, cinema, and other popular media in Tangled Memories. Throughout the films, there is an unpleasant encounter that is full of symbolism and nuances. The grandfather’s home is an example of a location to which memory clings, one of the categories of items known as “les lieux de mémoire” according to Pierre Nora (1989). The “return” of the current generation to the location where their parents and grandparents once lived, as well as the creative “postmemory” processes sparked by an old family photo (Hirsch 1997). In both films, there is a quest for traces and a contrast between a harsh present and a dreamlike past filled with tales and pleasant imagery.


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Adhila Abdul Hameed is a research scholar in Govt. Victoria College, Palakkad, Kerala. She holds an MA in English from University of Delhi and has qualified UGC NET (English) in 2019. She is a member of Indian Network for Memory Studies. Her research interests include Memory and migration studies, West Asian Literature and Children’s Literature.