For 70 years, the ramshackle Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem has been a site of displacement. Why is this ‘heritage of exile’ not enough for Unesco to grant it the status it gives Macchu Picchu and Venice?
The Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem doesn’t look much like your usual Unesco world heritage site. For a start, there are no souvenir stalls or swarms of trinket hawkers. Instead, cracked concrete walls covered with Arabic graffiti frame the entrance to a corner shop, where an old photocopier stands next to a few meagre shelves of provisions. A taxi loiters on a potholed street between piles of broken breeze blocks, while electricity cables and phone wires dangle precariously overhead.
But a new exhibition at London’s Mosaic Rooms sets out to argue that this ramshackle site of mass displacement should be considered worthy of the same protected status as Machu Picchu, Venice or the Taj Mahal. “We want to destabilise conventional western notions of heritage,” says Alessandro Petti. “How do you record the heritage of a culture of exile? When world heritage sites can only be nominated by nation states, how do you value the heritage of a stateless population?”
Since 2007, Petti has been working with Sandi Hilal, leading DAAR, the Decolonising Architecture Art Research collective, treading nimbly between the worlds of architecture, politics and development. For the last seven years, they have been working with Palestinian refugees in the Dheisheh camp to compile an unlikely dossier to submit to Unesco, arguing for the location’s “outstanding universal value” as the site of the longest and largest living displacement in the world.