Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile


As a British anthropologist, Diana Allan worked and lived in Beirut, Lebanon to observe Palestinians’ everyday struggles in a Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Beirut. She invites the readers to a long journey that begins with the displacement (the so-called Nakba) of the Palestinians in 1948. In her fieldwork, Refugees of the Revolution, she spent over several years to make the readers be a witness to extremes of poverty, the nostalgia of Palestine, their wish to return and hopes of Palestinians in Shatila refugee camp. The book put survivals of Shatila camp residences at the forefront throughout six chapters to indicate troubles that affect social and political life from an anthropological perspective rather than an ideological one. The author reveals the lives of the camp residents with a simple reality without boring the readers with the legal terms related to migration. The author draws the real atmosphere of the Shatila camp by sharing the stories of the camp residents (Umm Jamal, Abu Nayef, Umm Hasan, Abu Farah, Abu Aziz, Umm Ali, Abu Yusuf, Fatima, and many others) sometimes from a rooftop of the ghetto-like camp and sometimes from their dreams. Additionally, the fact that black and white photographs were added from the camp at the beginning of each chapter offers readers the opportunity to see the camp from their own eyes.

In the introduction part, Allan gives the general background about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon beginning from the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Her arguments are based upon the statistical information on recent population estimation from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) which is the critical international organization for the Palestinian refugee’s rights’ advocacy. According to the recent numbers (2012), “there are currently 465,798 Palestinians living in Lebanon, of which 233,509 are registered as living in camps” (Allan, 2013, p.10). The estimated number surprised me about Lebanon’s position in terms of hosting refugees. From the background of my studies on migration, I was aware that Lebanon is also a destination country for Syrian refugees escaping from civil war. According to the UNHCR (2018), there are almost 950 thousand registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon and this number made me read the Refugees of the Revolution with the prejudice that the camp conditions would be terrible.  At the end of the book, Allan proved that my prejudices are the truth of the Shatila refugee camp.

In the first chapter, which is called “Commemorative Economies”, Allan describes the collective memory of Nakba among Palestinian refugees. She collected stories from Palestinians both remembers and never experienced Nakba in Shatila. In general, the memory of 1948 is still alive and put forward as the spirit of their identity and humanity. It was surprising to see that, the hope of turning back to Palestine is still alive for many in Shatila. They organize events in May every year to remember Nakba. In my opinion, one of the most emotional quotations from Abu Nayef, a respected camp elder, illustrates how Palestinians still hoping to return their homeland. He explained that “I would be happy to live under a tree with the sky as my roof. It would be enough just to die in Palestine”. Abu Nayef’s words underline how Palestinians wish to be in Palestine and they imagine how it would felt to be there as the last place they can see before die. Palestinian perspective on Nakba created a paradox that the effects traumatic event is neither regretted nor forgotten. However, Allan demonstrates that the memory of Nakba transferred the younger generations differently. In this part of the book, Allan gives the ideas of both young and elder residents of Shatila to show the difference. As she explained, elders of Shatila often talk about their good old days in Palestine. It is significant for not only remembering the happiness in the past but also keeping the “right to return” idea alive. However, it can be understood by the stories of marrying with a foreigner or procedure of seeking asylum from Britan that younger dwellers of the camp would like to move on their life anywhere else but Lebanon or Palestine. For instance Umm Mahmud (camp residence) points out that  “…do not like hearing these stories because too painful for her, it is important for the children to know about Palestine, but it’s good to think about how to make children’s future better rather than to live in the past” (Allan, 2013, p.50). Even though Shatila’s young and old generations contain differences on the perspective of the future it can be understood from the speeches of the residents of the camps that “right to return” idea is still existing.

In the second chapter, “Economic Subjectivity and Everyday Solidarities”, Allan draws attention on economic instabilities, scarcity of resources and harsh conditions of the camp life. Allan, from the introduction on, illustrates the importance of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for the Palestinians in terms of politics and economic stability. Because of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, PLO forcibly departed from Lebanon put an end for protection and access to employment opportunities of Palestinians and made them vulnerable. Without a holding citizenship of any kind, PLO’s existence in Lebanon was critical for Palestinians because they are regarded as stateless by Lebanon. Palestinians in Lebanon do not have an access to any kind of social security but they still pay “…taxes from their salary for social welfare services they do not receive” (Allan, 2013, p.14). In other words, Lebanese state does not let Palestinians work except agriculture and construction so they both would not be able to indigenize Lebanon as their state and they would not become a burden for the state with paying taxes. Moreover, Allan attracts readers’ notice to the importance of having neighbors and friends to survival and solidarity by giving the example of Umm Mahmud’s experience. When her mother, Umm Ali, passed away the conflicts among her sisters deepen but her neighbors offered assistance to her. Allan explains the importance of one’s relationship with neighbors and friends in the camp, which is sometimes more important than a relative by giving the title of “The neighbor close by is better than the brother far away” to Umm Mahmud’s story. The most of Allan’s friends living in the camp are trying to survive below the poverty line, and she attracts notice on how having neighbors and friends is important to build solidarity in deepening poverty.

The book’s third chapter, “Stealing Power”, briefly giving a background on Shatila’s history of electricity and how Lebanese government, local NGOs or UNRWA failed to provide basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation services. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, UNRWA works to help Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods and provides them education, health, clothing, and food. However, as Allan demonstrates UNRWA services are not enough to ensure sufficient services especially in terms of education, health, and electricity. In this respect, the importance of international organizations in establishing the future of displaced people is underlined. The situation of the Palestinians is clearly seen in this context compared to the Jews who escaped from the Holocaust. Moreover, Shatila’s chaotic mismanagement of power supply symbolizes “Popular Committee”s (PC), which symbolized Palestinian autonomy in the camps, corruption for many dwellers in Shatila (Allan, 2013, p.116). This chapter illustrates how Palestinians in Shatila camp was abandoned in darkness by the UNRWA, the government, and local NGOs and trying to provide electricity illegally beyond the glittering streets and luxurious life of Beirut.

As an interesting chapter which named as “Dream Talk, Futurity, and Hope”, Allan indicates the significance of the practice of recounting, interpreting, and enacting dreams what she called as “dream talk” (Allan, 2013, p.138). As a highly gendered activity which is practiced by women mostly, dream talk strengthens bonds between the interpreter and owner of the dream. According to Allan, dream talk is “inherently political because it shapes social and moral relations and establishes new forms of connectedness” (2013, p.174). Because of the fact that, Allan focuses on dream talk which allows Palestinian’s past sufferings meaningful and brings hope about the future. In other words, it helps Palestinian refugees to shape their future different than the past. It can be said that dwellers of Shatila interpret dreams to struggle against the everyday struggles of the camp rather than they believe the dreams would come true. The most importantly, interpretation of dreams give them hope for a more bright future.

In chapter 5 “Futures Elsewhere” and chapter 6 “Many Returns” Allan shapes a general view on the futures of Palestinians. First and foremost, Allan gives a background about how unemployment of Shatila’s youth affect their daily life. While women of Shatila are not expected to work, because of the culturally defined masculinity there is much more pressure on men to marrying, finding a job and establishing a household. However, the youth of Shatila have challenges to pursue their education and career because they are not able to find a job and take education in Lebanon. Even though, those who are lucky to find a job gain lower wages than Lebanese (Allan, 2013, p.163). As a consequence of this situation, many young dwellers of Shatila wish to secure their life in Europe, Canada or the United States. Allan shares the story of Fathi who was lucky enough to establish a new life in the UK. Allan explains that he becomes homesick because he misses the daily life in Shatila, also he could not be able to attend his cousins funeral in Lebanon (2013, p.185). In other words, crossing beyond the borders is not a solution for them until their “right to return” will be given. As far as I understand from Allan’s book, in general, this is the only possible way for them to finally begin a peaceful life with their neighbors, friends, and family.

All in all, in the light of the information that given above it can be said that this book should be read by all politicians, academicians, students, and NGOs working or studying on Israeli-Palestinian conflict or migration, particularly on Palestinian refugees. The most importantly, I recommend  Palestinians living in all across the world to read this book to be part of the sufferings, hopes and dreams of Palestinians in Shatila. Additionally, it must be read by the Israeli authorities and decision-makers, who try to ignore the existence of the Palestinians by building huge walls between them to realize that Palestinians always hope to return to Palestinians young and old generation alike. I found Allan’s book written in a quite fluent language as a reference guide who wishes to understand over sixty years of Palestinian exile.



Diana Allan, Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. 328 pp.