Juliane Hammer’s book is a welcome addition to the relatively meager literature on Palestinians who were born in exile and “returned” to Palestine, most of them following the Oslo agreements in the 1990s. Hammer, an assistant professor of religious studies at Elon University in North Carolina and co-author, with Helena Lindholm Schulz, of Palestinians in the Diaspora: Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland (Routledge, 2003), explores the heterogeneous experiences of middle class Palestinians between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five in the Ramallah/Jerusalem area in the West Bank as they confront the “real” Palestine as place and society. Inevitably, it is also a book about the reproduction of Palestinian identity, as returnees cross real and metaphorical boundaries traveling between home and homeland, the national and transnational, and the spaces in between. By targeting returnees born in exile, the author proposes that her work goes beyond the usual focus on Palestinian refugees, to include other patterns of Palestinian “migration.” However, Hammer’s avoidance of the term “refugee” has political and legal ramifications, and it diminishes from the fact that many of the returnees are also refugees.
The author’s main conceptual arguments hinge on distinctions made between the “Amrikan” and the “Aideen”: Palestinians born in western and Arab host countries respectively. She posits that in general, for the Aideen, Palestine is al-watan—the national homeland, implying a “political” sense of belonging. For the Amrikan, Palestine is al-balad—the “cultural” homeland. The author examines selected spaces that facilitate integration with the “locals,” such as schools and cafes, but these were limited. Sometimes, her distinctions seem arbitrary and loom larger than the pervasive divisions created by the Israeli policies that literally have shredded the West Bank and Gaza into isolated cantons.
Hammer creatively draws on anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, outlining five chronological steps during which returnees “rewrite” their identities. She then looks at the political, cultural, and religious/traditional dimensions of identity under separate subtitles to examine what had changed in the process of return. Despite her awareness of the “fluidity” of identity, she leaves an impression, albeit unintended, that it is divided into discrete parts and found “within every individual” (p. 220). Her drive for clarification through classification forces her to reduce the definition of culture to what is essentially folklore (weddings, food, music, etc.) and to draw boundaries around interwoven concepts and processes.
The author concludes that the return resulted in strengthening Palestinian identity, even when the process involved a mutual adjustment between locals and returnees and replaced the idealized image with a more complex understanding of Palestinian society. Her study points to the need to incorporate and understand the different experiences of Palestinians into present and future national policies.
Hammer also discusses various literary sources that helped carve the imagined Palestinian homeland and its landscape, including poetry of exile. Here she makes an ambiguous observation that “Arabic is a language that is closely linked to the Qur’an and thus to Islam” (p. 60). This of course is only partially or inversely true, in that the Arabic language spread with the Islamic conquest beginning in the seventh century, but Arabic as a language appeared many centuries before Islam.
The author should have given a more nuanced attention to the concept of “return”: Under what conditions and to where? For example, most studies on Palestinian refugees from 1948 indicate that they conceive of “return” as to their original homes and villages and not to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The context in which studies on “returnees” are carried out influences not only the methodology of the research but also the interpretations and conclusions. Furthermore, research on the topic would be fundamentally different if the West Bank and Gaza could boast of being a sovereign state and refugees obtained their right of return. Nonetheless, the author has provided readers with a bit of everything on the Palestinian displacement, for example, the debates surrounding diaspora and exile, and the Palestinian national narrative. Her work is a reminder that it is essential to look at socioeconomic and cultural factors when planning for repatriation.
Randa Farah is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.