A review of Chiara de Cesari, Heritage and the Cultural Struggle for Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019)


When the West Bank city of Hebron’s Old Town was designated a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017, the representative of the Palestinian delegation remarked: “Palestine, as a sovereign state, even though it is occupied, has exercised its right to inscribe on the World Heritage List a city that is on its territory. It should be a trivial statement that people are masters of their own territory.”[1]

The statement, of course, is anything but trivial. It will become trivial only when Palestine is a sovereign state that is no longer operating under conditions of occupation. Until then, the nomination and inscription of a site as world heritage is a performance of sovereignty, an act of claiming ownership over the sites and the territory on which they are located.

It is precisely the dynamics of claiming and performing sovereignty through cultural heritage under conditions of settler colonialism that Chiara de Cesari explores in Heritage and the Cultural Struggle for Palestine. Cesari’s book opens with a vignette on the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC)’s founding in 1996. The HRC was sanctioned by Yasser Arafat, the former president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), at a time of growing criticism of his approach to the Oslo peace process with Israel from within Palestinian society. As it became clear that Hebron would be split up jurisdictionally between the PA and Israel, the HRC was tasked with promoting urban revitalization, pushing back against Israeli settlements and maintaining a Palestinian presence on the ground. At the same time, Cesari traces how the HRC’s establishment resulted in the effective disbanding of the Hebron Defense Committee, which pursued direct actions of civil disobedience to challenge the occupation.

Readers learn from the vignette that the HRC was initially envisioned as a temporary institution, but with the diminishing horizon of possible Palestinian statehood, over time it became a body of cultural governance. Moreover, Cesari contends that the fragmented sovereignty of the PA, combined with transnational trends that posit heritage as a developmental asset, pushed the HRC to undertake an expanding range of governance functions, resembling at once a humanitarian organization and a de facto municipality.

Cesari’s opening vignette illustrates the multiple entanglements, possibilities and limits of tethering the pursuit of sovereignty to cultural heritage. These entanglements are local, national and international. They connect the residents of towns that host sites of heritage preservation, the multiple actors involved in the quest for sovereignty and international heritage circles. In a context of settler colonialism, cultural heritage sites provide evidence of historical as well as continued Palestinian existence and bolster claims of belonging. The ownership of these sites is linked, in turn, to claims to the land. At the same time, however, as the disbanding of the Hebron Defense Committee foreshadows, this pursuit of sovereignty can clash with other politics of establishing Palestinians as a people with the right to a state since it introduces its own logics of governance. It is this tension that remains a lingering question throughout Cesari’s incisive ethnography of the manifold terrain of the cultural struggle for Palestine.


Heritage Politics Under Settler Colonialism


In Cesari’s account, the PA is one of the main actors that turns to cultural heritage for the enactment, or performance, of Palestinian statehood. The limits and tensions of the PA’s cultural politics are at the forefront of the book’s third chapter, set in Ramallah. The main protagonists are the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage (DACH) and Riwaq, the oldest Palestinian civil society heritage organization. Readers are introduced to a DACH that jealously guards its authority to hand out—or withhold—permits for renovation in its engagement with Riwaq and clumsily undertakes excavation and museum projects, which are either aborted due to lack of funds or turn into stifled museums that lack significant parts of their collections and “fail” to attract Palestinian visitors.

This museological focus demonstrates an attachment to a mode of material preservation and conservation that emerged in post-war Europe and became hegemonic globally in the 1970s. Similarly, Cesari contends that the PA remains attached to Eurocentric taxonomies of heritage value that prioritize ancient Roman and Biblical remains and create an arc of human civilization that starts in the Middle East, moves over time to the West and culminates in Europe. In tethering its representational strategy to these taxonomies, Cesari argues, the PA presents itself as embracing a plural cosmopolitanism in its connection to the land in contrast to the exclusionary narratives of Israeli heritage. Echoing Cesari’s analysis, the speech of the Palestinian delegation noted above continues: “In Palestine there is a centuries-old tradition of plurality, which is made up of strength, empathy, solidarity and feeling, and which is not based on belonging to this or that religion.” [2]

Much can be said about the limits of the PA’s heritage politics, from the cultural hierarchies it reproduces to the obstacles it places in the way of civil society actors such as Riwaq. Here, Cesari proceeds with impressive incisiveness and care. She is clear about the shortfalls of strategies that promote sites that are meaningful primarily within a Eurocentric conception of the Near and Middle East and that seek to preserve these sites in stiff museums. She contends that they cannot create meaningful spaces of cultural history for Palestinians. Both the choice of sites, and their particular presentation, Cesari suggests, remain removed from the daily life and vernacular attachments of Palestinians.

But at the same time, Cesari places these shortcomings on the ledger of settler colonialism. Early on in the book she posits that while Palestinian and Israeli heritage politics create interrelated claims and counter-claims of ownership, the two are differentiated by the concrete conditions of settler colonialism and power imbalances. The conditions of settler colonialism create a certain desire for the performance of sovereignty through cultural heritage and at the same time make its fulfillment impossible.

The conditions of settler colonialism create a certain desire for the performance of sovereignty through cultural heritage and at the same time make its fulfillment impossible.
This contradiction is the key interpretative framework Cesari offers for the failures of the PA’s cultural heritage projects. DACH excavations with signs pointing to nowhere are an example of how large-scale cultural heritage projects, requiring lengthy time horizons and substantial budgets, become impossible in this political context. Similarly, bureaucratic mimicry—in the form of the production or denial of excavation and restoration permits—constitutes an aspiration to sovereignty under conditions of its colonial impossibility.

Cesari brings this framework to bear on her analysis of the failed plans for a Palestinian national museum, the subject of the book’s last chapter. The PA is ultimately unable to marshal the necessary time horizons and the financial resources for such a museum because these require the stable ground of sovereignty where future promises can be made, financially and otherwise. Cesari argues that the failure to create a national museum demonstrates the PA’s inability to create spaces where Palestinians can recognize themselves as part of an imagined community and where the PA can aesthetically produce itself as that community’s legitimate representative.

The PA’s representational challenges are not limited to its inability to aesthetically reproduce itself through Eurocentric cultural strategies under settler colonialism. Cesari explains how the experiences of protracted poverty and sense of abandonment expressed by the residents of Hebron contribute to the political class’s lack of legitimacy. While implicating the PA’s broader shortcomings, Cesari presents these experiences and expressions within the framework of fractured sovereignty. This framing might leave some readers with knowledge of Palestinian political history wondering about the links made and not made. But, at the very least, the book lays important groundwork for the additional and necessary exploration of how the broader representational challenges of the PA and the aesthetic challenges that Cesari incisively lays out interact with one another, within and beyond the politics of cultural heritage.


Civil Society and Other Possibilities of Cultural Politics


While Cesari is gentle with her criticism of the PA’s cultural politics, the book’s normative thrust comes in her discussion of Palestinian civil society organizations. These groups have been involved in cultural heritage through urban and rural regeneration projects, traveling exhibitions and enactments of a future Palestinian national museum. On the one hand, these civil society endeavors emerge from the conditions of fragmented and deficient sovereignty and share the PA’s aspirations to Palestinian statehood via cultural heritage. On the other hand, they challenge the PA through divergent approaches to what constitutes cultural heritage and how to activate its politics.

The long arc of civil society engagement with heritage begins in mandate-era Palestine, when local intellectuals, who coalesced around Tavfik Canaan, produced ethnographies with Orientalist tropes to revive a cultural history of Palestinian existence. Their subject was the Palestinian peasant and the genre was folklore. Through the early waves of dispossession (1948 and 1967), this approach served the dual function of establishing long-standing links to the land and creating affective mobilization among Palestinians around the loss of land and the destruction of the lifeworld of the peasant.

Like the “mimicry” of the PA, Cesari interprets these efforts of selectively activating tropes of the Oriental gaze—such as the peasant’s timeless lifeworld—as a case of “strategic essentialism” informed by and responding to the colonial political context. It is an activation accompanied by subversion. Understood as such, the post-Nakba return to folklore was not centered on the imagination of an idyllic peasant life. Rather, it aspired to aid in the production of militant subjectivities with affective attachments to the land and statehood.

Over time, Cesari argues, while it has not given up on the aspiration to Palestinian statehood, the substance and subject of civil society’s heritage politics have shifted in response to international changes as well as to the continued conditions of settler colonialism. These two threads intersect in the changing engagements of international donors, who have been increasingly prioritizing civil society organizations due to unhappiness with the PA and especially after the 2006 election triumph of Hamas in the West Bank. This shift, in turn, has contributed to further eroding the PA’s sovereignty, and it has governmentalized civil society actors.

At play, however, are also transnational trends that are causing general shifts in heritage frames. Two trends are of particular relevance. One is a growing turn away from monumental ruins and toward an appreciation of the vernacular and intangible elements of heritage. At the same time, heritage is increasingly connected with development. This connection remains fraught since development, touristic or otherwise, can threaten the very structures that heritage professionals aim to preserve. At this juncture, sustainable development is offered as a compromise in which cultural heritage is put to work as a source of economic development in ways that do not jeopardize its future.

If the PA remains attached to Eurocentric taxonomies of heritage with their roots in nineteenth century archeological discoveries of Biblical lands, Cesari shows that Riwaq and the HRC have tethered their legitimacy to the more recent trends within transnational heritage networks.
If the PA remains attached to Eurocentric taxonomies of heritage with their roots in nineteenth century archeological discoveries of Biblical lands, Cesari shows that Riwaq and the HRC have tethered their legitimacy to the more recent trends within transnational heritage networks. Both groups focus on vernacular heritage and seek to foster socioeconomic development through heritage preservation and renovation projects. For example, the HRC’s projects of urban revival restore old buildings and open them up to Palestinian residents. Cesari analyzes their project of revitalizing an old suq, which attempted to maintain its traditional character while also returning it to its role as a functioning marketplace for generating income. She also examines Riwaq’s village renovation projects, which have deliberately involved the local residents. Thus, this is a politics of cultural heritage that is more accessible and participatory, both in the sites that are chosen and the involvement of stakeholders.

The divergences between the cultural politics of the PA and those of civil society produce various tensions, such as when Cesari’s interlocutors criticize the PA for being removed from its own people. A key instance of how these tensions manifest is the DACH’s resistance to a new heritage law proposed by Riwaq that would expand the scope of legally protected heritage from antiquities to recent properties and from monumental to vernacular sites. But the multitude of Palestinian actors are brought together by their shared aspiration to statehood. Thus, the HRC takes on de facto municipality functions and continues to build a Palestinian presence on the ground in Hebron, along the lines of Arafat’s original vision. In Ramallah, the standstill around divergent definitions of heritage is mediated by a quotidian division of labor where Riwaq tends to vernacular heritage as DAHC focuses on excavations.

In Cesari’s ethnographic mapping, civil society engagements with heritage point to other possibilities of cultural politics that can push aspirations to statehood in more democratic, participatory directions. And yet, questions remain. Cesari herself raises a crucial question through the engagement of civil society actors with museums. She narrates two illuminating stories: one is about the Art Academy Palestine’s travails to bring Picasso to Palestine, the artist and curator Jack Persekian’s nomadic collection that opens up representational possibilities for the Palestinian diaspora. The second story is of Khalil Rabah’s traveling performances of a national museum, which combines a critique of the museum as an institution with the aspiration for one. These critical engagements with the colonial present and an aspirational future of statehood move beyond the PA’s cultural politics. But they are beset by possible ossification as the nomadic collection searches for a permanent home to exhibit the works and the traveling performance has not given up on the desire for a brick-and-mortar museum. As these politics are enacted through cultural heritage, with its preservationist emphasis, they raise the question of what it means to relegate an anticolonial resistance that is not (yet) in the past to the confines of a museum.

Through these sites and periods, Cesari’s book also traces a shift from the early politics of heritage, which sought to foster affective connections to a particular cultural lifeworld as a way to activate a militant politics of statehood, to a logic of cultural governmentality that creates subjects who are aware of the proper taxonomies of value. This shift is partly due to political context, which renders segments of the Palestinian population in need of aid. Cesari argues they become “humanitarian subjects,” as reflected and reproduced in the aid-giving relationship HRC has with the residents of Hebron’s Old City. This subject position is significantly different from the militant subjects of heritage that the earlier turns to cultural politics sought to activate, but it is not the only departure. Both Riwaq and the HRC, in an effort of cultural governmentality, aim to raise awareness and produce citizen-subjects who recognize the value of cultural heritage and take responsibility to protect it. The frustration of HRC experts with the locals’ desire for the “new” is indicative of the value hierarchies at work in the molding of such subjectivity.

After weaving through the complex and shifting terrain of Palestinian heritage politics, Cesari concludes by asking whether the future might witness a return to folklore as heritage that enacts a revolutionary subject.
After weaving through the complex and shifting terrain of Palestinian heritage politics, Cesari concludes by asking whether the future might witness a return to folklore as heritage that enacts a revolutionary subject. And yet, the arc that Cesari draws of cultural heritage maintaining the pursuit of sovereignty for Palestine over time, begins with the disbanding of the Hebron Defense Committee that sought an alternative type of mobilization through direct action. The book ends with an analysis of the current cultural governance landscape that approaches heritage preservation as an end in itself and seeks to mold its responsible custodians. Much of Cesari’s book focuses, with very good reason, on the possibilities for cultural heritage to advance Palestinian politics of statehood and the potential for more democratic modes of heritage to emerge within the context of Palestine. And yet, the two bookends point to significant ways in which heritage politics can be conservative in its conservationism. It is grounded in material and narrative continuity. While such continuity is a way of claiming Palestinian presence and belonging, Cesari herself recognizes the representational limits of these claims as pursued through heritage. If a revolutionary subject is tied up with the imagination of a different future, it remains to be seen whether heritage politics can provide sufficient grounds from which to launch this subject.


[Elif Kalaycıoğlu is assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and researches the international politics of world heritage sites.]





[1] UNESCO, “Summary Records of the World Heritage Committee, Forty-first session, Krakow, Poland,” July 2–12, 2017, p. 223. [French, translation by the author]

[2] UNESCO, “Summary Records of the World Heritage Committee,” p. 223.


How to cite this article:

Elif Kalaycıoğlu "Cultural Heritage and the Politics of Sovereignty in Palestine," Middle East Report Online, May 04, 2021.

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