Al-Madafeh: The Hospitality Room
Sandi Hilal
8 November 2017, 17:00-19:00
Auditorium De Molen

Located between the domestic and the public sphere, Al-Madafeh is in Arabic the living room, the room dedicated to hospitality. It is that part of the private house that has the potentiality to subvert the role of guest and host and to give different political and social meaning to the act of hospitality.

The living room opens itself to host the guest, the foreigner, the outsider and functions as a representational space between the domestic and the public.

In a foreign country, access to public space is a challenge for refugees as they are expected to constantly perform the role of the “perfect guest” in order to be accepted. Turning private spaces, such as the living room, into social and political arenas, is often a response to this limitation of political agency in the public realm.

In the Arab world, the living room is a space that is constantly maintained and always ready with fruit, nuts and black coffee for the unexpected guest, who may knock on the door anytime during the day. Even in refugee camps, where space is extremely scarce, the living room remains the most important part of the house. In the absence of the State, the living room represents an available social and political space regardless of the general precarious conditions. Paradoxically, it may be the room that is used the least, yet it is the most symbolic, curated and cared for area of the house.

I first arrived to the city of Boden, in the north of Sweden, in November 2016 to conduct fieldwork for a project with refugees commissioned by the Swedish Public Art Agency. For most of the refugees I met during that visit, Boden is not the “paradise” they hoped for when they fled from their home-countries. They, therefore, see it as a transitory solution and still strive to reach their dream destination quickly. Because of this frustration, they spend most of their time inside their homes and have limited contact with the rest of the city.

My perception changed when I met Yasmeen and Ibrahim, who, unlike most, have the intention of staying in Boden. When I first visited them and their family, I was welcomed into their home and realized that their living room was functioning in a similar way it did when they lived in Syria: it was open and ready to host the unexpected guest. The possibility of hosting had become for them a way to regain access to their lost personal and collective history, combining their lost life in Syria with their new life in Sweden. By exercising their right of hosting and activating their living room, Yasmeen and Ibrahim felt no longer numbers, but owners of their own story.

What I witnessed in Yasmeen and Ibrahim’s home made me reflect on how, throughout my own practice in the last decade of experience in Palestinian refugee camps, the grey area of the threshold between private and public space may become the condition to reclaim political agency.