The Perennial Refugees: Steadfastness in a World of Forgetfulness

Doris Bittar


Photographs by Mia Grondahl

Foreward by Hanan Ashrawi, Introduction by Peter Hansen

United Nations Relief and Works Agency

The American University in Cairo Press, 2003

Throughout the book, certain themes show great similarities from one refugee camp to the next. The Palestinian elders pose like antiques and are usually surrounded by children. The expressions etched into their faces bear the scars of 1948, 1967, and countless other expulsion dates. They are clearly in a stranger's land. Conversely, the children are more at home, perhaps because this is the only life they have known – likewise for their parents. They show affection toward their pets and playfulness toward each other. Their energy is expressed through direct gestures such as washing their faces or sprinting in the streets.Mia Grondahl's photographs in “In Hope and Despair” embody the facets of the Palestinian refugee experience – a refugee experience that now straddles two centuries and has continued into its fourth generation and sixth decade. Thoughtful introductions written by Hanan Ashrawi, Peter Hansen from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and Grondahl herself provide background for the images and remind us of the vast network of Palestinian and UN institutions involved in supporting a people in exile. This book not only shows the resilience of the Palestinians but builds a compelling argument for them to be counted as a nation among other nations.


Grondahl's primary theme revolves around the gentle and anchoring domain of the Palestinian mother. It reminded me of my own trip to the Nahra al Barad Camp in Lebanon . We visited our friend's mother, Nourah. Her kitchen was bright and full of food, cups, saucers and fruit preserves. Nourah's home was a refuge from the refugee camp. She never stopped working, sweeping, preparing peppers to be pickled, making coffee, playing with the children, etc. The rooftop was an alternate anchoring space with herbs and tomatoes growing in pots, while it offered a dramatic panorama of the camp. I was heartened to see these kinds of spaces included in the book. The mothers' milieu is a life-affirming force, acting as a place for dreams and keeping the surrounding world in perspective.

Mia Grondahl captures the complex circumstances of the refugee camp without falling into the predictable trap of over-emphasizing the hopelessness of its victims. This book communicates the Palestinians' divergent experiences. We see a nation struggling between several forms of brutal intransigence, and we notice other realities that allow romantic musings. We can see ancient and contemporary phenomena side by side:ancient, because there have always been refugees; contemporary, because this situation is only 50 years old, though the softened and worn concrete of their dwellings resembles the smooth stones of the oldest cities on our planet. We are permitted to indulge, to speculate about a myriad of ideas and emotions, as these enduring photographs follow the Palestinians during the period of their exile.

This essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 48 (Summer 2004) 
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid