Palestinian Geographical Imaginations: creative alternatives and futures beyond the Nation-State

  • Silvia Hassouna

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


New generations of intellectuals and activists are challenging notions of belonging and sovereignty predicated upon the territorial nation-state model. This question is particularly urgent for indigenous groups facing dispossession and violence within settler colonial states. This doctoral thesis investigates the transformative potential of Palestinian cultural initiatives in the West Bank as they experiment with alternative paradigms of political identity. Diverging from
scholarship that frames Palestinian cultural politics as part of a struggle between two competing nationalisms, this research examines the cultivation of political alternatives and possible futures set against contemporary geopolitical
discourses. My claims are based on an ethnographic study, in-depth interviews and participant observation conducted with Palestinian curators, artists, cultural activists and volunteers. It draws upon participant observation during art
festivals, exhibitions, guided walks and volunteering work. Conceptually, this research explores cultural practices through the lens of alternative political imaginations. Building on a growing body of works in postcolonial, indigenous and decolonial geographies, my conceptual use of imagination illuminates different paths towards decolonial futures. While many contributions in political geography have stressed the role of imagination in sustaining and justifying Empire, fewer studies have focused on its role in cultivating political alternatives. My thesis makes a novel contribution to political geography by expanding academic knowledge of decolonial epistemologies and exploring the relationship between imagination and political alternatives through concrete, grounded and embodied practices. The thesis draws from a detailed empirical account of independent non-statefunded initiatives established after 2016 in the urban centres of Bethlehem and Ramallah. It explores how creative interventions drawing upon personal stories and ecological activism articulate new political identities and revisit notions of belonging, space and place. My arguments develop through three case studies: namely, the Digital Archive of the Palestinian Museum of Birzeit, collective walks at the Ramallah hills, and exhibitions and botanical gardens at the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. Each nurtures different futures predicated upon the rejection of the abstracting and homogenising logics of nation-states. The first case study interrogates the notion of counter-archive through an exploration of a digital archive initiative that builds on the intimate, domestic and everyday to imagine possible futures. Developing this thread further, the second case study explores walks organised by cultural activists in the Ramallah hills, which provide alternative readings of the landscape. This account of mobility and biography challenges understandings of belonging as fixed and static. Notions of personal and lived experiences of place are intertwined with environmental concerns. The third case study explores how notions of biodiversity are used to displace state-centred perspectives through a discussion of the Bethlehem Museum of Natural History. Together, these creative and critical interventions open new conceptual avenues to imagine political futures beyond the nation state.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorGareth Hoskins (Supervisor) & Mitch Rose (Supervisor)

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