In the Ruins of Nahr al-Barid: Understanding the Meaning of the Camp


In the Ruins of Nahr al-Barid   Understanding the Meaning of the Camp

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By Adam Ramadan

The destruction of Nahr al-Barid camp in Lebanon in 2007 was a disaster for the 35,000 people for whom it had become home. To understand what was lost, this article explores what the refugee camp is and what it does, materially and imaginatively, for its residents. Drawing on the words of ordinary Palestinians from Nahr al-Barid and Rashidiyya camps, it describes how the camps are social, cultural, and political refuges from marginalization in exile. While the camps draw meaning from a particular Palestinian time-space that emphasizes displacement and transience, they have also become meaningful places in themselves. Consequently, the loss of Nahr al-Barid and the displacement of its society have been understood as a repetition of the foundational experience of the modern Palestinian nation: the Nakba.

IN TRYING TO PORTRAY the disturbed and discontinuous nature of Palestinian existence, Edward Said wrote that Palestinians in exile do not really live, but “linger in nondescript places, neither here nor there.” From this perspective, life in exile is a kind of meaningless purgatory through which Palestinians must pass before the promised future return. Time is privileged over space, and the present comes to be seen as a temporary transition between a meaningful past and a hopeful future.

In contrast to Said’s claim, I would argue that the refugee camps in which so many Palestinians live are neither meaningless nor nondescript. They may be temporary spaces in which Palestinian refugees await their right to return, but they have nevertheless become imbued with meaning and significance over decades of Palestinian habitation and place making. As I argue in this essay, the meaning and importance of a camp is perhaps never clearer than when the camp is viewed through the prism of loss.

Between May and October 2007, a new chapter was written in the story of the Palestinian people. Nahr al-Barid, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon home to 35,000 people, was totally demolished first by a 104-day military conflict between two non-Palestinian sides, and then through the actions of the victorious Lebanese army: looting, arson, and vandalism. Nahr al-Barid’s destruction resumed a sequence of erasure of Palestinian camps in Lebanon dating back over three decades to the destruction of Nabatiyya, Tal al-Za`atar, Dikwaneh, and Jisr al-Basha camps in the early years of the 1975–1990 civil war. The Palestinians of Nahr al-Barid were displaced to Biddawi camp and further afield, staying with friends, relatives, and acquaintances, or sheltering in garages, storerooms, and improvised shelters. With the camp destroyed and the Lebanese army refusing to allow people back, the prospect of a quick return faded into a prolonged and uncertain displacement.

In order to understand what, besides buildings and property, was destroyed in Nahr al-Barid, it is necessary to ask what a refugee camp is and—more importantly—what it does, both materially and imaginatively, for its Palestinian residents. In this article, I explore how Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon act as social, cultural, and political refuges from marginalization in exile. I do this by looking at two camps: the destroyed Nahr al-Barid in the north and the still “thriving” Rashidiyya in the south. Using 128 semistructured, qualitative interviews conducted with residents of the two camps in 2007 and 2008, I show how the camps draw meaning from a particular Palestinian time-space, which emphasizes displacement and transience, while at the same time becoming meaningful places in themselves. In these interviews, I asked people about life in the camp, the advantages and disadvantages of living there, what the camp means to them, and prospects for the future.

Rashidiyya and Nahr al-Barid are quite different places politically, economically, and socially, but my intention here is not a straight comparison between the two. Rather, I have juxtaposed opinions and quotations from residents of the two camps: the residents of Rashidiyya talking of what they have, those of Nahr al-Barid talking of what they have lost. My aim was to understand what the camps mean and do for Palestinian refugees living a marginalized existence in Lebanon.


A refugee camp can be defined as a temporary humanitarian space, usually set up by international humanitarian agencies and designed to meet the basic human needs of displaced people, including shelter, protection, and short-term relief. Palestinian refugee camps have these basic functions, and Palestinians receive relief, welfare, and social services provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Palestinian political factions, and various Palestinian and international NGOs, charities, and other groups. In the course of six decades, however, the camps have developed into seemingly permanent features of the landscapes of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Over the years, the inhabitants themselves replaced their tents first with corrugated iron and then with brick and concrete, and the camps became like small cities. As the built environment was assembled into something more permanent, the slow accumulation of experiences and memories, births and deaths, built up a sense of place and meaning. Alongside the networks of formal institutional support, myriad informal social relations among camp individuals and families formed channels through which help and support are given and received. As much as the material fabric of buildings and streets, these relations between people and institutions constitute the space of the camp, creating a place of refuge from the bewildering disorientation and insecurity of exile.

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is a fellow in geography at Downing College, Cambridge. This article is from his doctoral research project, which focused on the everyday lives of Palestinian refugees in refugee camps in Lebanon, based on original fieldwork in 2007 and 2008. He would like to thank Linda McDowell, Ali Rogers, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments. Research for the article was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and would have been impossible without the invaluable help of so many Palestinian friends, contacts, and research participants in Lebanon.

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