Their Shoafat Outshines Her Paris

Recent developments, such as the construction of the separation fence, have spurred some unexpected trends in the urban areas inhabited by Palestinians - including refugee camps, claims French political sociologist Sylvaine Bulle.

Prof. Sylvaine Bulle, a scholar and lecturer in political sociology at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at the Universite Jean Monnet St. Etienne, has news for us: The Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank are home not only to suicide bombers, but also to ordinary people who, she claims, lead fairly normal lives. Buildings are not only demolished there by the Israeli occupation forces; they are also built and used not as shelters for terrorists, but as homes, stores and offices.

If this were not enough, Bulle offers another interesting insight when she claims that despite the rise of Hamas - another one of the region's paradoxes, as she puts it - the occupation and Israeli sovereignty are not the only factors shaping space in the West Bank.

All along the separation fence, Bulle explains, Palestinians are continuing to lead everyday lives, creating what she considers to be "surprising urban fabrics and spatial phenomena," which suggest not only a struggle to survive, but - as she claimed during her recent visit to Israel - "a fairly reasonable life with symptoms of normalcy."

What does "a fairly reasonable life" mean? Bulle argues that Palestinian East Jerusalem has undergone unexpected changes since the separation fence was built. The Palestinians, she claims, know the fence is there to stay; what concerns them is staying on its "good" side, with a Jerusalem I.D. card, rather than being "pushed" into the West Bank: "They are preparing to live there, to shop, to give their children a better education, to create a reasonable living environment for themselves, not only to survive for survival's sake without any physical and spiritual assets" - an approach, she says, that changes the urban fabric entirely.

As evidence of this shift, Bulle cites the Shoafat and A-Ram refugee camps, which "are becoming new cities, born before your eyes." More and more people, she argues, now want to stay in these places, because it is in their best interests: Merchants and businessmen are investing money in these areas, furniture and cosmetics stores are relocating there from Jerusalem - all of which "reverses the relation between center and periphery." Inaccessible Jerusalem is no longer the primary urban center; immediate, domestic spaces are becoming more central. "The construction along the fence is huge," Bulle says. "At the Shoafat camp they planted a garden next to it. Two years ago no one would have believed this would happen."

So do people in the so-called temporary camps become attached to their surroundings?

Bulle: "People in Shoafat tell me that their Shoafat is more beautiful than my Paris, and they've never been to Paris."

Most inhabitants of refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, she notes, have never left their enclosed compounds, which are often cut off even from nearby towns and villages - "but that is still the 'nearby,' 'small' place that they domesticate and consider their home."

'Bricolage cities'

The refugee camps in East Jerusalem and Gaza that Bulle has studied are the distilled essence of what she calls "bricolage cities" - sites that result from a process of accumulation, with buildings added in a haphazard, unplanned way, as she claims in her essay "Indiscipline and Insurrection in Architecture" (a paraphrase of the title of Robert Venturi's famous book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture"). The camps have their own urban language, she writes, a language of economy and population explosion. Temporary, spontaneous architecture has become permanent. The camps are not officially recognized and yet are well organized, invisible cities "that swallow up the landmarks of the original city. They are a prelude to a city, the promise of a city that is unclaimed and unrecognized."

Isn't her perspective colored by orientalist enchantment? No, says Bulle: She is not enchanted by the bricolage cities, nor is her approach to them aesthetic, but "I do think that we can learn a lot from their effectiveness, from their methods of organization, and the ways in which they can mend themselves with relative simplicity."

The sociologist's "pragmatic" approach, which sometimes diverts attention from political issues, is received with hostility in radical circles, where it is perceived as weakening the critical attack on the Israeli occupation. So what is her political stance? Bulle replies that critical discourse of the past decades has looked at Palestinian space - especially that of East Jerusalem - from a geopolitical perspective, using political science, political philosophy and geography, to create "fixed conceptions of the space and of the people who inhabit it."

She is uncomfortable with the idea of a "civilian occupation" (as advanced by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman) and with such concepts as "urbicide" and "spatiocide" (the "murder" of the city and of space, respectively), because to her they seem to deny reality and ignore the fact that the Palestinians are human beings and not, as she puts it, figures in some diagram. "That is a static approach that ignores the fact that these are people, with creative energies and the ability to resist and respond."

So how do you answer those who criticize your work?

"I say [to Israelis] that we non-Israelis know what is happening in the refugee camps better than you do, simply because you cannot enter them. The difference between us is interesting, because you see the external image and fantasize about what happens inside. We know the details from within."

While the common approach is to focus exclusively on the political situation, she says, "we [outsiders] talk about the phenomenological situation, about what actually happens."

Bulle adds that outsiders can also observe the situation without the feelings of guilt that plague Israelis. The Palestinians, too, she says, have no problem of guilt, which is why they are able to enter into a reciprocal relationship with Israelis on a pragmatic level.

Aren't you worried that your argument will end up playing into the hands of Israeli right-wingers, who will use it to claim that everything is actually all right?

"I never forget the context within which all this happens, the occupation, the restriction of rights and sovereignty. But people begin to accumulate different assets that are not solely for survival; they want to live well. They take advantage of Israel's resources, but do not recognize that."

Palestinians, she claims, no longer believe in peace or in any kind of leadership, past or present; they believe only in the here and now. This is a powerful position, she explains, which is first of all evident in the attitude toward space and place - "except among the shaheeds [martyrs], who don't accept the present."

'Hybrid space'

Bulle was in Israel as a guest of the Petah Tikva Museum of Art, which hosted the conference "Blind Spots and Orientalized Space" earlier this month. The conference was part of the museum's "Blind Spot" exhibition, and also commemorated the publication of the sixth issue of the journal Block, entitled "The East Bank."

Bulle has visited the region many times before. Her doctoral dissertation in sociology examined the emergence of urban space during the national conflict in Palestine and Israel from the British Mandate period to the present. She lived in Jerusalem for four years, speaks Arabic and is familiar with the goings-on in the region.

Born in a small town on the French-Swiss border, she now lives in Paris. She came to sociology by way of philosophy, and from the outset of her academic path, took an interest in planning and worked alongside architects and city planners. In her work in the Middle East and in Africa, in Senegal and Mali, she has explored the connection between nationality and architecture. In Naples, Italy, she was involved in a project that protested what she describes as "the aestheticization of the city, like you have here in Jaffa - a process that benefits wealthy people and tourists, but conceals ethnic discrimination, and social and economic rifts, and kills the natural connection between the parts of the city and its people."

At the museum conference, she gave a lecture called "To Domesticate the Environment: Experiences and Paradigms of Enclosure in East Jerusalem (2005-2008)." She spoke not only about what is happening in East Jerusalem right now, but also about the impact of the Oslo process on space during 1993-2004, which she defines as the "cosmopolitan period." A Palestinian state still looked like a possibility then, Bulle says. All at once universal models of market economy and planning, building and architecture were adopted throughout the Palestinian autonomy, in Ramallah and other cities. But these were models that society was not built to digest. They caused serious damage to the space - and "jumped too quickly from occupation to capitalism."

After the Oslo process, she explains, the Palestinian Authority's economy was hijacked by market forces, especially by wealthy people returning from the Palestinian diaspora. On the ground, this process manifested itself in the creation of what she calls a "hybrid space," which consisted of an imported Western model alongside local infrastructure and habits. Construction was rampant and lawless: "They built anything possible in big gulps, with no real knowledge of quality construction and no awareness of the need to plan public spaces and buildings and to preserve open spaces."

The new additions to the landscape, according to Bulle, included high-rise buildings across the hilltops; giant, unnecessary highways; gated communities; malls; and big flashy villas - all geared for the returning rich, not for the local population, which do not share the same habits and cannot afford them.

Isn't this process familiar from other parts of the world?

"This phenomenon of fragmenting space is common in emerging states and economies. In Dubai, for example. By the way, a lot of Palestinian architects study there."

Bulle is fascinated by this phenomenon, because, she says, it spotlights an ongoing change in the paradigm of urban planning: "The ideas of uniformity and of the traditional design hierarchy of the center and periphery are no longer relevant." The center of Paris, she says by way of example, is now the almost-exclusive terrain of tourists: "Thirty percent of students in nearby satellite towns have never been to Paris, which is too expensive. They need an alternative of their own."

Asked if urban planning is still a relevant profession, Bulle explains that the challenge facing its practitioners today is to come up with a new approach, which she dubs "acupuncture": addressing specific aspects and elements within a space, but using common areas to connect them. "In Ramallah this is a relevant approach, because they built in fragments, and now the connection needs to be created. Urban planning is now in a crisis that challenges the prevalent conceptions of the city. Paradoxically, there is a lot to be learned from what is happening here, in this unpredictable and difficult place."