Homely, Unhomely: Uncanny Architecture and Haunted Palestinian Refugee Camps

As written by Esther Wolfe

In his essay, “The Uncanny”, Freud famously interprets a definition of the uncanny within an examination of the German “Heimlich,” or “homely,” vs. the “unheimlich,” or “unhomely.”  Using examples from the German language, Freud shows that the terms are used interchangeably to describe the uncanny—what is uncanny is both “homely” and familiar, and “unhomely” or unfamiliar. Implicitly however, Freud’s treatment of “heimlich” and “unheimlich” also provides a deeper, deconstructive orientation of the uncanny. The slippery exchange between the meaning of “heimlich” and “unheimlich” shows that what is uncanny is bound up in fundamental anxieties about the construction and instability of boundary itself. In this way, the anxiety of the uncanny is not only that it is both familiar and unfamiliar, but that it also exists in multiple dimensions, transgressing boundaries and destabilizing structures of signification.

Freud’s definition automatically frames the uncanny in architectural terms, invoking spatialized references to construction and boundary, interiority vs. exteriority, private vs. public, and the concept of “the home.”  Anthony Vidler, in his book The Architectural Uncanny, refers to this intersection as the “corresponding spatiality” of the uncanny (x).

There are many examples that unpack the intersections of architecture and the uncanny. One of the most recent and politically charged can be found in the Palestinian refugee camps, particularly those within the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. In his book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, architect Eyal Weizman references Palestinian refugee camps as uncanny spaces that “each side considers haunted” (227). It has also become common within the global movement of humanitarian journalism to invoke a language of spectrality and refer to refugees as “ghosts” and refugee camps as “ghostly,” “haunting,” and “eerie.” The narrative framing of refugee camps, as well as the belief in their haunting, points to the spaces of Palestinian refugee camps as particular sources of uncanny anxiety. Invoking Freud’s definition allows us to unpack this anxiety as the result of the uncanny architecture of the Palestinian refugee camp, both in terms of the “homely and unhomely,” as well as its deconstruction of political, legal, and territorial boundaries.

The presence of Palestinian refugees is a deeply charged issue for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as for the neighboring Arab nations. Currently, the world contains an estimated 5 million Palestinian refugees, with around 1 million of this number living in Gaza and the West Bank. Politically, refugees occupy a threshold space of multiple legal dimensions. Although “refugee” is a legal status, it is also not the same as citizenship. The definition of the term “refugee” is also slippery within humanitarian jurisprudence—a “refugee” is both legally the same as, and distinct from, “displaced” or “internally displaced” persons. The term “displaced” is especially spectral and deconstructive—to “displace” means both “to move from its rightful place” and “to take over the position of.”  In this way, the term “displaced” (and the doubly spectral status of “internally displaced”) hints at the work of the uncanny within refugee status—refugees are literally both homely and unhomely, deconstructing political and legal boundary, existing simultaneously inside and outside state power.

One politically ghostly aspect of refugee status specific to Palestinian refugees is the “right of return,” which Palestinians claim in resistance to Israel’s occupation. The “right of return” describes Palestinian claims to the homes and properties they were forced to leave after the construction of Israel. The “right of return” is a phrase that reverberates with the uncanny, evoking Freud’s theories that what is “unfamiliar” about the uncanny is not that it is something wholly other than ourselves, but that it is a “return” of the familiar that has been repressed within the unconscious. This definition maps onto Israel’s denial of the Palestinian right of return. Although Israel often tries to characterize Palestine as “wholly other” than itself, it originated from the colonization of the Palestinian territories, making the denial of the Palestinian right of return function as a repression. For the Israeli nation-state, Palestinian refugees and camps function as a political repression of the familiar, their presence calling back the submerged memory of Israel’s colonial occupation from within a historical unconscious.

In addition to its political architecture, the territorial architecture of Palestinian refugee camps is also ghostly. The Palestinian territories are spatially divided by Israel, making them exist in fragmented dislocation. Israel, along with humanitarian law, closely monitors the mobility of refugees within the camps, as well as their ability to enter and exit the Palestinian territories. Here, the architecture of the camps is also spectral. Camp spaces, according to Weizman, become the work of controlling and managing the transgressive, destabilizing movement of refugee populations between “porous” national and territorial boundaries (140).    A final spectrality lies within the literal architecture of the camps themselves. The refugee camps, built by humanitarian organizations, are constructed as temporary structures. They are either new buildings built quickly and cheaply, or are reclaimed structures of occupation, often former Israeli settlements that have been abandoned. The “temporariness” of the camps, as well as this possession of former living spaces, renders the camp space uncanny- both there and not there, private and public, homely and unhomely.

Although any explanation should incorporate intersectionality, one possible reading of the haunting of Palestinian refugee camps points to anxieties surrounding the uncanny political and territorial architectures of refugee spaces. Tracing this uncanniness ultimately reveals an even deeper form of haunting. As refugees haunt our global peripheries, their destabilized existence forces us to contend with repressed histories of national and cultural trauma.



Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

“Palestinian Refugees: An Overview.” Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet. PRRN. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. Retrieved from http://prrn.mcgill.ca/background/

“Palestine Refugees.” UNRWA. Web. 23 Oct. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.unrwa.org

Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. London: MIT, 1992. Print.

Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York: Verso, 2007. Print.

Weizman, Eyal. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Ney York: Verso, 2011. Print.