Daily Podcast #16 Saba Innab /// Reconstructing Nahr el Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp



Saba Innab is an architect, a urban researcher, and an artist practicing out of Amman and Beirut. Her architectural practice includes working on the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee Camp in the North of Lebanon. Through mapping, model making, design, and drawing her work explores the suspended states between temporality and permanence, and is concerned with variable notions of dwelling and building and their political, spatial and poetic implications in language and architecture.


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



So when you first asked me about my moment of true decolonization, honestly, my mind went all over the place and on so many levels. I thought of my immediate context, which is Amman and Beirut, and I thought of being in Beirut now and it’s uprising. But I’m not going to talk about that. And I will use use it as a reference point. So 10 years ago, I came to Lebanon from Amman to work on the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared as an architect, which is a project many of us thought had a revolutionary layer to it at the time. In my first days in Beirut, and before I went to Tripoli in the north, which is, by the way, 40 minutes away from the camp by car, I found a book, titled Choosing the Sad Ending by the late Jordanian novelist and political activist, Ghalib Halasa, who spent most of his life in exile between Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. So Choosing the Sad Ending is a compilation of diaries, articles, commentaries on class struggle in the Palestinian context in the 1980s. The book is a critique that suggests that the PLO chose consciously and willingly the sad ending against the will and the sacrifices of the Palestinians and the armed struggle, and this was written in the 80s. So there is a prophecy in a way. The book analyzes and debates the role of the Palestinian elite, the bourgeois, and the ruling class manifested in the PLO, and the class liberation struggle within this context.

So there is something in the book and in the title in particular that is really timeless, which is, you know, the need to dismantle the structure of authority and domination within the Palestinian context, pre and post Oslo, of course, and, and the need to critique and challenge the narratives produced culturally and politically, but most importantly, to constantly think of the margins and the centers. So I realized recently that I cannot really separate this incident or this book from Nahr el Bared. Although they may seem not directly connected. And to go back to Nahr el Bared, in 2007, the Lebanese army demolished Nahr el Bared camp, a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon, after an armed conflict with Fatah al Islam, a predominantly foreign Islamist fundamentalist group that had planted itself in the camp just six months earlier. On account of the demolition of the camp, 33,000 refugees were displaced to adjacent areas and to Badawi camp, which is the closest camp to an Nahr el Bared. The battles continued a little over three months, and the destruction happened after the battles concluded, which is a very important point. And this destruction was justified with no actual justification by the logic of the exception of the extraterritoriality. So it was the exclusion from the law that allowed for a total and sudden destruction of the camp, especially that it was promoted as a war on terrorism. And the bulldozed camp was transformed into a military site. But no one could enter unless you unless you have a permit from the army intelligence.

So do think about this, this project is an invitation to think about post war reconstruction and gentlemen, as this kind of I mean, post war reconstruction projects or post conflict reconstruction projects, they normally depart from reconstruction as a national project of reconciliation, sometimes to interpret a future or reinterpreting a heritage and national identity. But in the case of Nahr el Bared, we are reconstructing an extension of a colonial space from one hand and an extraterritorial space on the other. And this brings us actually to one of the most crucial questions here: can the camp redeem or liberate itself from both accumulative and current political burdens or with the reconstruction as a process be a continuation or a manifestation of the violence that caused the destruction in the first place? During the battles, the Lebanese officials had begun to make plans for the reconstruct for reconstructing Nahr el Bared with key words such as “sovereignty” and “security” dominating the discussion, and actually a consultant was hired, which is a really big firm in Beirut, who immediately entered into discussions with the military on planning specifications and proposed a really random master plan. And the least, we can say about their proposal that it’s a vision of a desired camp by the authorities.

At the same time, in Badawi camp, where most Nahr el Bared residents had taken refuge, a spontaneous grassroots initiative emerged, formulating a counter plan and mobilized by a general conviction that Nahr el Bared’s destruction and the government’s plans of reconstruction were politically motivated, it was really obvious. And the initiative was named Nahr el Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies or NBRC. And it was a group that attracted members from the local community and practitioners from and outside the camp. Now with no sorts of document or no sort of documentation of its built environment, the only way to restore the spatial history of the camp was to reconstruct it from residents’ memory, and the whole camp with NBRC were mobilized for for this reason. So these studies, I mean, the spatial studies of the camp impose the community as the main partner in the reconstruction process, as they were the only producer and owner of that knowledge. And in partnership with UNRWA, NBRC managed to gear the reconstruction process towards achieving a number of principles discussed and emerged from several community meetings such as participatory planning, preserving the fabric, the previous fabric of the camp, to name a few. So, maps of spatial organizations were produced, urban fabric plans, individual households, plans, and typology analysis. I mean, all kinds of drawings were created and validated in several community meetings, which is, in itself a process of datafication that transformed the invisibility and the abstract body of the refugee into a grand gesture of reclaiming space. Despite this grand gesture, I think we should be able today to be critical of the project if we think it’s necessary, and to recognize the fallouts, and I think my moment of decolonization was in this realization.

Many moments in this extended exile and refuge had metamorphosed and still does. So from being moments of liberation to ones of failure, and vice versa, in a constant cycle of illumination and resurrection. So for example, the moment of the promise of liberation, which was introduced by the Palestinian armed struggle in the late 60s, had transformed later into a moment of failure as it was abused over the years to justify excessive discrimination and isolation of the Palestinians by the host countries, which is the same rationale that justified the destruction of the camp. However, a notion of liberation, resurrected from the same moment of failure, this absence of documentation of the camp or the invisibility from the system made the reclamation of space possible. So the process of mental mapping and recollecting of space commanded the right to the space, and therefore the return to the camp. And I must say there was a genuine conviction that the return to the camp is a prerequisite to the return to Palestine. And this is not really an idea I’m imposing but more of a collective moment that is poetic but extremely political as well.

At the same time, this moment had revealed the power structure and authority within the camp itself. So the idea of reconstructing the destroyed camp, held revolutionary potential in the construction of spatiality itself, and with it the possibility to rethink building in temporariness. Slowly but surely, the new, the promise of the new or the new of the demolition, brought a new constellation of power involving the state and the army and imposing their vision of security through planning despite the involvement of the community. So another crucial question in this process is regarding the possibility of imagining a future in such context and through architecture in the nonlinear time or in the permanent temporariness, and imagining a future actively where architecture could shift from the position of need, to the position of desire. And for me, an architect working on the reconstruction, the question transformed from how to rebuild a camp into how to dwell and even die in a state of suspension.

And I have to say the term “permanent temporariness” has been used, and is used by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti to indicate to indicate the transformation of the physical temporariness of the camp into concrete, urban densification conceptually and theoretically, but I use the term in reference to deterritorialization beyond and outside the physicality of the camp, in order to tackle the notion of dwelling in the temporariness in any inhabited space. For example, Amman, my city, is certain manifestation of this nonlinear time, which is also part of the Palestinian narrative that is strongly overlooked. Its permanent temporariness is beyond the walls of the camp, for sure. And on the other end, there is Nahr el Bared, reconstructed with a master plan and infrastructure on an expropriated land by the government, which is an extreme case of this mutated state of temporariness. Between the two, there is a whole spectrum of allusivity and typologies, of what permanent temporariness is. And this is another decolonizing moment for me, which is to realize the sub architectural histories in this nonlinear time, that could be written and actually can hijack the main architectural history or timeline, written by the noise and by authority. And I would like to end with this thought.