The Return to the Common

DAAR: Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency

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Territorially speaking, the common is different than both public and private spaces. Both private and public lands and the relations between people and things that they implicate are regulated by the state. The state guarantees private property and maintains public property. Both private and public lands are territorial mechanisms for the governance of men and women. Sometimes this form of government operates by maintaining these distinctions and sometimes it operates by blurring them. The endless privatization of public space, mirrored by the incessant intrusion of public agents (state bodies, police, et cetera) into the private domain is a technique of governmental control.

In Palestine, the idea of the public is particularly toxic. Although prior to Zionist colonization a wide multiplicity of collective lands existed, as well as collective uses of land—agricultural, religious, and nomadic, to name a few—upon occupying the land and excluding its people, the state has since flattened them all into one category, “state land”, and seized control over it as sovereign. This state land was still declared public space but only inasmuch as it was reserved for the only public acknowledged to be legitimate—the Jewish Israeli one. The contours of public land became the blueprint of colonization. This regime of sovereignty was strictly willing to acknowledge individual Palestinian titles, thus private land. The state’s mechanism of humanitarian balance tolerates Palestinian presence only as individuals. And yet, in many cases ownership of this land was seized as well.

The main legal resource for colonization was the Ottoman Land Law of 1858. This law was the result of an agrarian reform across the Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine was part until 1917. It recognized a plot of land as “miri” (privately owned) if it had been continuously cultivated for at least ten consecutive years. If a landowner failed to farm the land for three consecutive years, the status of the land was changed to “makhlul” and repossessed by the sovereign. Therefore, farmers who did not want to pay the tax for land not used for cultivation gave up ownership, even if these plots were only small patches of rocky ground that existed within their fields.

The topographical folds, summits, slopes, irrigation basins, valleys, rifts, cracks and streams of Palestine, were no longer seen simply as naïve topographical features, but as signifiers to a series of legal manipulations, generating patterns of “islands” of small privately owned fields within an area of uncultivated “state land”. So in what way did the collective differ? The idea of the common land in this context is a set of relations between people and things—organized by the principle of equality—and is not mediated by the state. But the common here exist only in an immaterial territorial form, or in extraterritorial forms, scattered amongst a diasporic archipelago of camps. The demolished cities and villages of Palestine are now one example of a common space, and their mirror image—the camps—is another. After sixty years, the memory of a single house is now equally shared by hundreds of families.

In the camp, the common is the shared history of displacement and the absence of private property. In this respect, thinking up the revolution of that return also means thinking up a revolution in relation to property. The common is an action rather than a designation. It is not a definition of a type of property or a type of land but of the practices that attempt to reclaim this land to common use. This return to common use is the main condition for the general political tendency that in the last sixty-odd years was collected under the terms of the return. Two inverse and interdependent utopias: the Palestinians’s rights of return, and the Jewish law of return. Not only is return dependent on the common, but there can be no common without return. The common that constitutes a shared Palestine in suspension; common in as much as it is in suspension.

The destroyed village of Miska is located north of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, five kilometers from the Palestinian city of Tira and fifteen kilometers from Qalqilya, today part of the West Bank. In April 1948, the village’s residents were forcibly expelled and the village was subsequently destroyed. Only one family was able to stay nearby. At present, close to 400 descendants of this family live as internally displaced refugees in the Israeli Palestinian town of Tira. The exiled population has spread throughout refugee camps and cities in the West Bank and Jordan. The municipal land of Miska has since been managed by the Israeli Land Administration (ILA) that rents it for the cultivation of fruit trees to the settlements of Sde Warburg, Mishmeret and the kibbutz of Ramat Ha-Kovesh. The only significant visible remains of the village are the ruins of a mosque. Until 2007 there was also a school, but Israeli authorities demolished the building after it was discovered that Miska refugees living in Tira had been appropriating it for social activities.

We approached Miska as a material archive for the spatial possibilities of return, investigating the socio-political dimensions of the notion. Imagining forms of return of Palestinian refugees implied exploring ways in which being a refugee and its associated spatial dislocation could reshape the political space. Refugee-ness, the most contemporary of predicaments, is a rapid and indeterminate process of transformation that fuels the transformation of states and the concept of sovereignty. The condition of being refugee, living an exiled and transnational life, is unthinkable within present political categories. We must imag(in)e new political spaces.

Vegetable fields, now cultivated by Kibbutz Sde-Warburg and other Israeli settlements, are bound by routes that marked the layout of the village on Miska, whose ruins lay underneath a thin layer of earth.

The circular building of the Phenix (al-Feneiq) Cultural Centre is like a memory probe. It traces the footprints of the village. Within the circular form the fabric of Miske was inverted. Whatever was filled by houses is now void, and the open spaces between the houses in Miske are now solids, extruded over the surface of the earth, inhabited by multiple common programs. Both formally and conceptually, the building is thus the complementary structure to the Phenix Cultural Centre in the refugee camp of Deheisheh.

Within a void in the refugee camp of Deheisheh, a structure whose shadow on the open plaza reflects the footprint of houses in the village of Miska was inserted. It is a fleeting, immaterial presence of the village within the camp.

“[…] We need to think about a model for the return. Al Feneiq is a novel that we have created; it represents a collective cultural process able to innovate, change and reverse itself. Indeed, the first Feneiq was created in Deheishe, but we have also succeeded in creating another center in the Aroab camp. A Feneiq could also be created in Deir Aban, my village of origin…I know that finally a Feneiq in my village would be even stronger than the Feneiq in the Deheisheh camp. I will leave Deheisheh Camp to the city of Bethlehem. I know I will miss Deheisheh; I will return back to walk in its alleys on summer nights. Bethlehem will remain the place where I will gather my forces and my people to prepare new bases and a new life for the Return. I am sure that we will be able to reproduce a model through the collective work that will not only prepare the environment for the return, but that will influence the whole Arab world.”

  • 1.  Note from the editors: In a conscious effort to distance themselves from more Anglo-Saxon declination of “commons”, the authors have chosen to employ the less-familiar “common”; thus making recourse to the word’s Latin origin, “commune”, meaning municipality; self-government; what we have in common.