RAMALLAH, January 28 (JMCC) - Anthropologist Sophia Stamatopolou-Robbins spent two years exploring the garbage bins of the West Bank.
In this essay for the Jerusalem Quarterly
, republished at Jadaliyya
, she recalls bukaj
, the western hand-me-downs passed on to Palestinian refugees, and muses on the changing meanings of colonial gifts.
Suffice it to say here that what we know today as garbage—or al-nifayat al-salbeh, among those who work with it—has a very short history in this part of Palestine. The significance of Jenin’s new market transformation thus lies in the fact that zbaleh
is now not just a metaphor for low quality merchandise on sale in Palestinian markets. It is a prescient descriptor. With this in mind, I decided that if garbage as a category was in motion, the story of its management had to be flexible as well. It had to mimic the movements of the material itself between statuses as useful, valueless, and reusable. It also had to understand how those moves were being made, why, and when that mattered.
People in Jenin were certainly reusing materials sixty years ago, just without terms like “recycling” or “environment” as correlates to their practices. The thirty percent without animals, for example, had been expelling unwanted substances from within the walls of their homes or gardens, through the hands of municipal workers, as they do today. But that which was discarded had continued to circulate. That is, until it vanished, becoming a useful—quickly invisible—part of something new. It might have become soil in a wheat field, for instance, or fuel to heat the water at a public bath house. Not only has garbage been a changing category over time, it has also, necessarily, meant different sorts of materials at different moments.
In this sense it is not hard to imagine Jenin’s post-2000 baleh emergence as a continuation of these very same practices of reuse. But I wondered: had there ever before been another trade—involving a cash exchange—in used goods from further away? Or the practice of wearing the clothes and shoes of people to whom one could not trace a face-to-face relation, in living memory? In conversations with generations over the age of fifty in Jenin, this question soon brought me to the bukji. We remember from our short genealogy of garbage that in the first half of the twentieth century and in the absence of plastic, transporting goods from place to place meant stuffing them in baskets, wheeling them on carts or, as we see in old photographs of Palestine, carrying them on one’s head wrapped in a sheet. The composite bundle created by the sheet and goods was called a bukji. After the Nakba, the bukji acquired a new and painful meaning. The following lines from an al-Quds article by Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs ‘Issa Qaraqi’ offer one narrative from this year:?
We have been waiting for the bukji for sixty-three years, wrapped in a blanket and offered to us by UNRWA from time to time…we are the small children around it, we open it, we search in it for a decent pair of shoes or one wool sweater even if it is worn out, and we wear our pants even if they are not our size. The smell of the clothes makes clear that they are from beyond the ocean, donated to us after others wore them for many, many years. They threw them at us. We wore them and we thanked the countries that colonized us and fed us and gave us fish oil to drink.?