From camp to camps, translocal engagements

This short post is a summary of the presentation “Mobilising place in several places, on translocal systems of interaction and mobilisation in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon” I got to give at the BRISMES 2016 Conference. I have withdrawn from it vital information and anonymised as much as possible what I was describing, for the safety of the people described here.

The Valley of the Aconcagua, c. The Illustrated London News

The Valley of the Aconcagua, c. The Illustrated London News

What’s local? What’s relevant?

Focusing on “local engagements” sometimes gives the false impression that what matters the most is what is the closest to the prople we are talking about. My study on local engagements in the Palestinian camps regularly questioned that way of thinking. An exemple can be found in the summer of 2015. I was following the news in Lebanon and keeping in contact with some members of the place-based social movements I had been in contact with for six months. When the Beirut garbage crisis began taking important proportions and the “You Stink” protests began, I took the opportunity to contact one of the core members of a group I had been following in two of the Beirut camps camps, and which had been during my fieldwork focusing on several issues including garbage pollution in the camps. I was curious to know what their opinion about these protests was, and how they related to them, but I remained vague on purpose, asking him about his feelings on “the current situation”. He seemed distressed and spontaneously began telling me in a very short answer about his anger of a clash which had occurred in one of the Southern camps, not mentioning at all the mobilisation taking place in the city where he lived and about issues on which he worked daily.

That anecdote is in a way self-evident, and in general raises few eyebrows: after all, “the camps” are a space of themselves and it should be expected that people living in the camps focus more about what happens in other camps than in Beirut neighbourhoods, even when these neighbourhoods are closer geographically. That’s the whole meaning of social distance. The issue is, such a self-evident mechanism appeared, in the daily observation of this group, to demand a lot of work. From a situation where people care about their street, their camp, to a situation of putting together several camps in the Beirut agglomeration, and in Lebanon, and in the Middle-East in general, stuff happens.

Making the space of the camps

The group I talk about here works as network of separate and more or less formal associations linked together both as organisations and through a social group of core activists linked by friendship, common experiences of activism, and so forth. Originally, at least in the common story, most members focused on solving problems they were seeing in the daily life: children not having leisure, garbage pollution, instability of the electrical networks, and so forth. A few years later, we have not only a national organisation, but we can see that these problems and the methods employed to tackle them have “migrated” from one camp to the other. In the same time, the group has become increasingly split between interest in politics and a discourse based on social action and the rejection of politics. The tension between a political interest – strictly separated from the forms of politics practiced by the political parties – and an organisation which began immediately focusing on a form of action which was openly belonging to the realm of NGOs was visible and experienced by the activists at the several levels of the organisation.

Moving from small to larger scale was the goal of the core members of the group in question, which they attained by constituting a group of activists and friends who moved frequently from a camp to another, played football or had leisure together, and worked together:

In Camp A it was more for education with, etc. These guys they met and followed workshops and training with us, and they realised that they needed some sort of, like a coordination between the camps to be more efficient. If you’re working only in one camp then you are easier to break, so we needed to move to do it national, what was local, to make it national.
The goal was to move to a different level?
The goal was to move to a different level, even if the actions remained local. We wanted to take the local issues, that are everywhere the same, the electricity, the UNRWA that deals with the refugees in a wrong way, the popular committees, education also, they are the same everywhere. But we organised workshops with Pursue on training, capabilities, local communities, all their skills really, and it was an occasion for the activists to meet and to get together.

In the meantime, the group started using its members’ capacity both locally and as people who had studied social sciences to multiply studies on all sorts of topics, in particular access to and safety of the water, electricity, and sewage systems, but other ranges of local issues as well.

Translocality as a strength

This change of scale can be qualified of translocalisation, and did not occur by itself but because the scale of activism constituted a resource for the organisation: in a situation in which criticising the camps’ leadership was perceived to be useless, as hinted by previous experiences, and because of the negative perceptions of politics in the camps, being translocal was a way to frame an “acceptable” discourse.

In the first half of 2015, the group’s practice of expertise and investigation led to a series of public meetings with the political parties and members of the camps’ leadership. Most of the camp dwellers invited to these meetings had been previously encountered in “awareness raising” events, and introduced themselves as “simple people” or “children of the camp”. Systematically, the meeting began with a general presentation of the situation, presented by people in the audience. This was supported by the testimony of members of the group who used charts or pictures comparing the situation in various camps to support their claims.

In general, these interventions established comparisons with the other camps, in which the group was also present. Occasionally the presence of members from other Beirut camps was used as an additional support: “I don’t know your camp, but I live there and this is the situation we know”. The very neutral tone of the conversation followed a typical narrative, observed in most encounters regarding the “problems of the camp”: as the conversation unfolded, discussion led to more heated exchanges between the camp dwellers and in particular representatives of the leadership who were asked to account for the situation and the multiplication of personal anecdotes. The organisation of anger was also in general an organisation of the “rise in generality” from the camp dwellers, switching with the support of the group’s investigation documents from personal claims to the enunciation of a more general problem and the identification of a general responsible, in both case the incapacity of the factions and leadership to solve the problems.

Conclusion

We have here a small acount of how the scale of a mobilisation emerges. Geographer Doreen Massey, in her book For Space warns us against considering place as something “authentic” or “natural”. Even something as self-evident as the fact that people from the camps are more interested by what happens in other camps than in neighbourhoods of the city they live in does not go smoothly and without some social process. Of course this blog post barely scratched the surface (I have not talked about the fact that scale is also imposed by institutions, for example, or of the importance of spatial segregation in cities), but I think translocality can be on that topic a good tool for the study of social movements, as well as our comprehension of how groups and people relate to space. Instead of considering the local and the translocal as merely “the authentic”, “the given”, or “the traditional”, deemed to represent “resistance” in front of “the abstract space” and unilateral domination, we can on the contrary focus on the fact that they are carrying their own logics and contradictions, and try to see how it makes sense in a specific social story that a mobilisation took such or such scale rather than another.


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