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Decolonizing knowledge

In a rough context of war and seclusion, new forms of self-organization and socialization of knowledge have emerged in Palestine giving place to different ways of understanding how we can defy traditional ways of learning and how we can create new spaces for social change.

By Alessandro Petti

In 1987, in an attempt to suppress the intifada , the Palestinian civil protests against the military occupation, the Israeli government banned people from gathering together and closed all schools and universities. As a reaction, Palestinian civil society grew through the organization of an underground network of schools and universities in private houses, garages and shops. Universities were no longer confined within walls or university campuses and teachers and students began using different learning environments in cities and villages. These gatherings and assemblies reinforced the social and cultural life among Palestinian communities. Learning was not limited to the hours spent sitting in classrooms; mathematics, science, literature and geography were subjects that could be imparted among friends, family members and neighbours.

In order to resist the long periods of curfews imposed by the Israeli army, these self-organized spaces for learning included self-sufficiency activities, such as fruit and vegetable growing and animal raising. Theoretical knowledge was combined with one that emerges from action and experimentation. Learning became a crucial tool for gaining freedom and autonomy. People discovered that they could share knowledge and could be in charge of what and how to study.

The classical structure, in which “expert teachers” transmit knowledge and students are mere recipients to be filled with information, was substituted by a blurred distinction between the two. A group dynamic opened this new learning environment to issues of social justice, inequality and democracy. The First Intifada was, in fact, a non-violent movement that not only aimed at changing the system of colonial occupation but also at creating new spaces for social change. For example, youth and women now had the opportunity to challenge traditional and patriarchal sectors of Palestinian society. Within these processes, education was perceived as an essential tool for liberation and emancipation. The knowledge produced within the group structure was no longer distant and alienating, but rather grounded in the present political struggle for justice and equality.

At the beginning of the Nineties, this open and community-based system of learning was not considered by the newly established Palestinian Authority.  The national Palestinian educational curriculum continued being drawn on the basis of the Jordanian national system, ignoring these challenging and rich experiences.

However, most of the leaders of this underground network became key figures in the Palestinian non-governmental sector. For many, the state-building process of the last years became centralized, bureaucratized and, in some cases, authoritarian. The non-governmental sector is the space where these experimental practices in health, environment, human rights and education have continued developing.

In Palestine, most NGOs today, much like the PA, are internationally funded. Although donors are operating in support of the local population, they are in fact not accountable to the people, often pursuing the cultural and political agendas of the donor states. Philanthropy has thus become one of the main vehicles for Western intervention in the politics and culture of Palestine.

Bearing these dangers in mind, the network of NGOs still seems to be an important tool for developing different policies. In particular, non-governmental spaces are able to react more efficiently to the needs of marginalized sectors of society that are not represented by state policies. A new type of common space has thus emerged through NGO culture.

This type of common space has not yet been adequately understood and theorized.

Critical learning environments

In 2011, after three years of teaching at al-Quds Bard University, a liberal arts college based in Abu Dis, I co-founded Campus in Camps , the “first university in a refugee camp”. I was convinced that the university can play a decisive role in creating a space for critical and grounded knowledge production connected to greater transformations  and the democratization of society. In particular, I became convinced that “moving” the campus to more marginalized geographical areas and sectors of society could create a truly engaged and committed university. The university campus and the refugee camp are both ‘extraterritorial islands’, of different sorts of course: one utopian and one dystopian. Both are removed from the rest of the city. Campus in Camps  aimed to transgress the borders between the ‘island of knowledge’ and the island of ‘social marginalization’. In conversation with al-Quds Bard students from refugee camps, I realized that their narrations, ideas and discourses were able to flourish in a protected space, such as the university, but needed to be grounded in context and connected with the community. Reciprocally, by moving to camps, the university was able to open its doors to other forms of knowledge, to an experimental and communal learning able to combine critical reflection with action.

A clear example of this knowledge production is The Collective Dictionary: a series of publications containing definitions of concepts considered fundamental for the understanding of the contemporary condition of Palestinian refugee camps. Participants are co-authors of meanings, giving names to the reality that surrounds them in order to provide a deeper sense to what they see and experience. Written reflections on personal experiences, interviews, excursions and photographic investigations constitute the starting point for the formulation of more structured thoughts. The Collective Dictionary is both the reference and conceptual framework for all Campus in Camps  projects and interventions. What is at stake in these interventions is the possibility for the participants to realize projects in the camps without normalizing their exceptional conditions and without blending them into the surrounding cities. After sixty-five years of exile, the camp is no longer made up of tents. The prolonged exceptional temporality of this site has paradoxically created the condition for its transformation: from a pure humanitarian space to an active political space, it has become an embodiment and an expression of the right of return. These initiatives bear the names of this urbanity of exile: the garden, the pathways, the municipality, the suburb, the pool, the stadium, the square, the unbuilt and the bridge. The very existence of these common places within refugee camps suggests new spatial and social formations beyond the idea of the camp as a site of marginalization, poverty and political subjugation.

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Our work intends to broaden the investigation on how spaces for communal learning are constituted and how knowledge can be grounded in action and emerge as a group effort, rather than solely from external sources. What kind of structures or institutions are required for the accommodation of interests and subjects born from the interaction between participants, groups of teachers, and the broader social context? How can the attention of educational institutions move from production of knowledge –based on information and skills– to process of learning –based on shifts in perception, critical approaches, visions and governing principles?

Though I draw on my personal experience with Campus in Camps , I do not consider it as a model to be replicated, but rather as an inspiration for other universities and communities to set up their own campuses in accordance with their own specific contexts. In the last few years, we have been contacted by many groups who wish to be connected with our experience, among these, a group of teachers and students from the American University in Beirut; a group of professional architects in Bogot. and Manama who proposed similar learning environments in slums, calling their program Campus in Slums ; the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, interested in developing a curriculum incorporating common learning environments; the Mardin Artuklu University on Turkey’s border with Syria has begun using the Arabic version of the Campus in Camps Collective Dictionary  as part of its teaching methodology among refugee communities arriving in the city: in occasion of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo  in 2014, in collaboration with the art collective Contrafil. we formed the first the tree school  in Southern Bahia with thinkers, artists, and activists from the quilombola movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement and Palestinian refugees: and more recently in the context of Estudio SITAC and in collaboration with Alumnos 47 a tree school was established for a short period of time with educators, activities and artists from Mexico in Tepoztlán, Morelos.

The aim of our research is to contribute to the way universities understand themselves, aiming to overcome conventional structures and to create critical learning and egalitarian environments able to influence educational institutions, while seeking a manner of critical intervention for the constitution and strengthening of civic spaces in contemporary realities.

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Fotografías de Campus in Camps/ Sara Anna, The Concrete Tent/Proyecto La carpa de concreto, 2015. Cortesía de Alessandro Petti.


Alessandro Petti is an Italian architect, artist and educator based in Palestine. He is the director of the programme Campus in Camps at Al-Quds University and director of the architectural studio and art residency DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency).

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