The ambivalence of poverty: political economy and nationalism in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan
Luigi Achilli (Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO))
Paper short abstract:
This paper is based on my ethnographic research in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Here, people have diverse understandings of what prosperity entails. I argue that the capacity to negotiate between these different understandings is crucial for the realization of full humanity.
Paper long abstract:
This paper is based on my ethnographic research among young men living in al-Wihdat - a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. In the camp, there are strong connections between their economic circumstances and the ways these fed into moral and nationalist registers. What is interesting here is young men's specific understanding of what well-being and prosperity entail. To them, much separates camp dwellers, the unfortunate ones, from the wealthy families living in Jordan. However, whereas the authorities and the international community usually associate camps' material poverty with social and cultural estrangement, the negative connotation of the word 'masakīn' (poor/miserable) acquires a positive dimension within the camps. Here, poverty stands to indicate ethico-political qualities such as steadfastness and humbleness. It remains, however, a crucial ambiguity with regard to poverty in the thinking of many of my informants. People also recognise poverty as being a condition fraught with deeply ambivalent images and feelings. Rather than universally treating poverty as a source of authenticity, many camp dwellers claim that the condition of being masakīn can lead people to a crooked path. At times, poverty and unemployment are recognized as the main causes of many of the frustrations, anxieties, and conflicts that afflicted camp dwellers. A true Palestinian needs also to provide for his family, rather than merely searching for moral legitimacy in the socio-economic marginality of his condition. I argue that the capacity to negotiate between these different understandings of prosperity is crucial for the realization of full humanity (insāniyye) in al-Wihdat.
Invisible hands: alternate modes of prosperity, wealth and well-being