Displacement and the City: An Interview with Ayham Dalal

This is part of our special feature, Networks of Solidarity During Crisis.

Migration has always played a major part in creating a European identity, derived from a thriving pluralistic space. For centuries, the movement of people has shaped our societies and cities, and, consequently, has enriched our cultures and values. Today, Germany’s capital Berlin, which has had an Arab population since 1960, when thousands of Moroccans entered West Berlin as so-called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers), has become the Arab capital of exile; a source of inspiration for new social movements and experimentations, driven by the Arab intellectual community. It has also become a site of multiple displacements where the older generation of migrants meet the new, triggering bottom-up placemaking and long-term sustainability within diverse neighborhoods. I had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Ayham Dalal, one of the new generation of Arabs and top emerging scholars at the department of international urbanism and design at the Technical University in Berlin, who looks at the construction of space and home in the city and beyond to create a more just and livable future. 

Nicole Shea for EuropeNow


EuropeNow You are part of a research center called the Habitat Unit at the Berlin Technical University. Can you tell us a bit about the center and its core mission?

Ayham Dalal Habitat Unit is one of the departments at the faculty of architecture at TU Berlin specialized in international urbanism and design. It was established on the merits of Prof. Peter Herrle who used to run the center for seventeen years, and now it is led by Prof. Philipp Misselwitz who chaired the department in 2012. The center was established at a time when schools working on topics of architecture and urban planning recognized the needs and benefits of “internationalizing” their scope and field of work. Western universities like those in Germany, the UK, and France became interested in teaching about, studying, and researching urbanization processes and spatial practices beyond their national territories. One of the internationally known examples here is the Development Planning Unit (DPU) at the University College London (UCL). I see Habitat Unit as a parallel to DPU, and therefore a center that was built with these international ambitions and commitment to interdisciplinary knowledge production.

Over the past few years, Habitat Unit has become a leading hub that attracts thinkers, researchers, practitioners, and students interested in urgent topics and new phenomena occurring today in the field of planning and urbanism. These can vary a lot: from examining the rural/urban frontiers in China, to exploring the impact of industrialization in Addis Ababa, to collective housing in Cairo, to the architecture of circulation and consumption that facilitate the delivery of product across regions and continents. In that sense, Habitat Unit is committed to pushing the boundaries of knowledge in regard to what we can call “planetary urbanization” but following right-based approach and participatory planning.

With the growing interest in becoming “internationalized,” many departments and research centers working on urban studies could fall into the trap of voyeurism and exoticism: i.e. parachuting projects and researchers in contexts where they barely have any contacts or access to local knowledge. This can be very tricky and counterproductive. In contrast to that, Habitat Unit works an enabling platform, a space where researchers from the global south and the global north could meet and work together on topics that can be “less appreciated” at the researchers’ home university. It also seeks to support academic programs (for instance in universities in Cairo and Johannesburg), and to empower marginalized communities—whether in camps, informal areas, or slums. For instance, students participating in our design studios will not only be exposed to new contexts, and widen their understanding on urbanization, but also would be forced to think about how to empower the communities with which they are working, and to learn from them. This has an important impact on these students in the future, who would either become practitioners, planners, government advisors, or consultants, and would play an important role in shaping the cities of tomorrows.

In addition to working at the Habitat Unit, I am part of the Collaborative Research Center “Re-Figurations of Space” (SFB1265) since 2018, and a research fellow at the French Institute of Research in the Middle East (Ifpo) since 2017.

EuropeNow The center works on new formats of urban knowledge transfer and transnational learning. How do these differ from traditional approaches?

Ayham Dalal Today’s world is highly interconnected. Thanks to the internet, knowledge and learning have become facilitated and influenced by all types of media platforms and technology. This is in addition to books, which have always been the way to transfer and preserve knowledge. Yet, it’s tricky to assume that all people have access to technology. Moreover, it is dangerous to assume that all universities in the world are interested in urban knowledge transfer and transnational learning by virtue. Universities in the “overly isolated” territories like Syria—as I call them—were disconnected from a global stream of exchange academically, economically, culturally, and so on. Urban knowledge was therefore confined to its local boundaries, perpetuated sometimes by the knowledge that professors might bring from studying abroad. I still remember how during our studies on urban planning, a professor who was taught in Germany, or GDR to be precise, was teaching us about the norms, standards, and techniques of constructing streets or cities from scratch, which might have been the prevalent urban knowledge in the sphere of the socialist camp back then. Knowledge exchange is therefore permeated by many factors, and often restricted, limited, and influenced by asymmetrical power relations and networks of communication.

Based on that, what we have been trying to do is build bridges with the communities out of reach through workshops in which we collaborate with local actors, students, and scholars. In these workshops, international and local students spend time with the communities where knowledge is exchanged and even co-produced. In Gaza camp in Jordan, for instance, the German and Jordanian students developed a water heating system that increases the insulation of roofs. This idea was adopted by the CSO in the camp and was spread in other contexts as well.

In parallel, the center seeks to nourish and expand these routes of urban knowledge transfer and transnational learning by collaborating with universities—both in the Global North and the Global South. We had very successful collaborations with universities in Cairo and Johannesburg that enable scholars and students from both universities to spend time in Berlin and vice versa. In such occasions, South African or Egyptian students have the chance to examine pressing urban issues in Berlin, like informality and migration, and to give feedback and reflect on them using their urban knowledge—and the other way around. Such events and ways of collaboration enhances, and often produces, new formats of urban knowledge transfer and transnational learning.

EuropeNow Currently, you are co-leading and researching the project “Architectures of Asylum,” which compares the socio-spatial practices of refugees in Jordan and Germany. How does this project effectively address global challenges?

Ayham Dalal The project’s idea began as I moved to Berlin in 2015. At that time, the city was receiving high numbers of refugees who were put in refurbished buildings. The most memorable image of that was the temporary camp opened at the old Nazi airport at Tempelhof. People were accommodated in small shacks within the hangar, which was heavily appropriated. This forced us to make immediate links to Zaatari camp in Jordan. Particularly, it was clear that refugee camps were turning into a global typology for accommodating people on the move across the world, and that refugees’ knowledge on space or “Raumwissen” is not being addressed enough. Refugees appropriated the space in ways that make sense to them. It gives it meaning and functions. Sometimes this was against how the space was initially planned and programmed. The purpose of the project was to look at this conflict, or misunderstanding, and try to draw lessons from it.

Throughout the research, we learned that refugees will always appropriate the space of the camp and the shelter. The main purpose of this appropriation is to make the space habitable, and to enable them to dwell. Imagine that in both contexts, Jordan and Germany, refugee families with different origins, social structures, backgrounds, lifestyles, and cultural habits are provided with the same space: a container of about 3 x 5 meters. People are expected to stay there for an unknown period of time. What happens is people start to make sense of the container and slowly turn it into a living space with its own privacy and rhythm. Most of the time, these appropriations and spatial practices are rejected or frowned upon by the management of the camp.

Our project, therefore, aims to raise awareness towards the importance of allowing refugees to dwell. All human should have a global “right to dwell.” Living temporarily in camps and shelters is not an excuse to freeze life and expect people to be okay with living in a 15 m2 for an unknown period of time – which can be years, where notions of privacy, gender, and social space do not apply. Humanitarian actors need to take these points seriously into consideration and allow for a camp and shelter design that is more flexible and where refugees’ knowledge on space can be practiced. We understand how challenging this can be, but through our collaborations with the LAF, UNHCR and NRC, we try to get our message through.

EuropeNow How does your own background play into your ethnographical work of place and displacement among refugees? What macro and micro levels do you engage with?

Ayham Dalal I was born and raised in Syria, for a family with Palestinian roots. My father was born in Beirut, lived in Kuwait, and studied in Yugoslavia, resettled with his uncles in Beirut and after the Israeli invasion to Lebanon he moved to Syria where he met my mom and settled in Homs. Contrastingly, my mother’s family originate from Ramallah in Palestine and settled in Syria. Holding a Jordanian passport, becoming uprooted from Syria in 2011, and turning into a migrant in Germany since 2012, I was becoming sensitized to displacement as an existential experience. On a personal level, displacement produces a sort of distortion, a continuous alienation and fragmentation of identity. This confronts me every time I am asked “where are you from?”. It is very challenging for me to give a brief or simple answer. Displacement forces people to construct multiple identities, to embrace diversity and difference. It’s an act of creation; a preparation for the new. Many Syrians are experiencing this distortion recently due to the crisis, but for me, it was always there. I remember going back to Amman in the 90s to visit my relatives, and how I was shocked by the rather neo-liberalized way of life and the different dialect they spoke. My father has a strong Palestinian accent that each time my friends in Syria would call me home, they would ask “who was that person who responded to the phone?” being shocked by his remarkably “different” accent. All these aspects made me very alert to what displacement does to our cities. Walking in a city like Amman, one is forced to put in touch with the impact of displacement on place. Every corner, street or neighborhood tells a story about displacement—and here I don’t only mean “forced” displacement due to wars and conflicts, but displacement for economic, cultural and political reasons as well. The city has become an archeological site of displacements.

This entangled relationship between displacement and space was magnified during my research in refugee camps. On a micro level, my inherited local knowledge about Syrian culture for instance, gave me a better access to understand, grasp, and interpret, the ways they reconstructed space and utilized the shelters. I remember, very much, the earliest visits to Zaatari camp where I witnessed refugees’ need to talk and express their concerns. My unique positionality allowed me to voice their demands and present a “different” side of the story on how the camp spatially evolved, for instance. Another example would be collaborating with the director and sociologist Kamil Bembnista to produce an ethnographic documentary about the appropriation of space in Berlin’s camps (Tempohomes). Having lived in Syria and given that I had to endure displacement myself, our focus on the documentary was to present an empowered vision on refugees’ agency, and to avoid misinterpretations or misrepresentations which can easily happen if the researcher has little understanding of the meanings behind refugees’ gestures, lifestyle choices and way of life.

On a macro level, my work on displacement and space is rather directed towards the impact of borders and mobility, and displaced populations as city makers. In a recent article published by the Town Planning Review, I use my personal story and heritage to show how the world is increasingly structured into “overly connected” and “overly isolated” territories and how current waves of displacement can be seen as ruptures in the global system of distancing/managing populations. In this regard, I find the notion of “encountering” a very important one, and maybe one that we need to invest more into to unpack and depict the absurd ways in which mobility and borders are shaping and refiguring the world today.

EuropeNow You are working at the intersections between the production of space, home, and identity, not only as an architect and researcher, but also as an artist. How has this enriched your cultural sensitivity and personal resilience?

Ayham Dalal My perception of complex notions such as space, home, and identity developed a lot, particularly during my research. It made me recognize the importance of Heidegger’s theory on dwelling as an existential phenomenon—one that cannot be separated from the experience of the humankind. It also made me sensitive to the historical dimension of the process. A Hundred years ago, we used to dwell differently than we do today. The individual practice, which was carried on later by experienced craftsmen, was replaced with architects and investors whose vision of the dwelling vary based on ideologies, cultural aspirations, and socioeconomic standards. For that, I am very grateful for Heidegger who opened my eyes to the power of dwelling, Sakana in Arabic, which refers to stillness, a state of being that predates all human mind inventions and structures such as house designs. In other words, I became aware of a spectrum of the home. At its core lies an existential need to dwell, and in its spatial manifestation, one could read people’s culture that evolves out of the routine, and the need to create a system of social communication. In Syria, for instance, it was usually the case that visitors would need to take off their shoes before stepping on the carpet. Dirty shoes on the carpet were absolutely a no go. This was the opposite to what I experienced in Jordan, where carpets can be stepped on with shoes, which can be seen rather as “westernized” cultural practice, similar to the construction of homes that are rather open directly to a salon, living area, and sometimes a kitchenette, with master bedrooms containing its own bathroom. Such a design would have been unwanted in Syria where notions of privacy are highly guarded. Having a master bedroom with its own toilet in Jordan is another example of “borrowed” cultural practices which are maybe common in the USA. What I’m trying to say here is that the notion of “culture” itself should be seen as rather fluid and dynamic and on the light of some sort of “representation” or an attempt to communicate meaning to a certain social group.

Another funny example here about the different cultures of dwelling between Germany and Syria is the size. I still remember a discussion in Amman with a German researcher who was sent by the government to do a project in Jordan. She was very frustrated after she offered a Syrian family to stay temporarily at her place. “They told me my flat is very small” she told me with a confused look on her face. And I had to explain to her that many Syrian families in Germany are struggling to find big flat with multiple rooms. The dwelling culture in Germany encourages individuality. In fact, I read an article on Deutsche Welle (DW) saying that each second house in Berlin is inhabited by one person only. This stands in contrast to how families in Syria lived and maintained privacy with big flats containing multiple rooms. An average 120 m2 was the traditional flat area so to say in Syria, whereas here in Berlin it might be rather 60 to 80 m2? I am not very sure about the numbers but just an example of how this research increased my cultural sensitivity to the ways in which home, culture and identity are entangled.

Moreover, looking into the notion of dwelling in the context of the refugee camp made me aware of how much I needed it in my personal life. I still remember sitting in the office and reading about Heidegger’s idea that dwelling is a space in which we feel protected and secure. These ideas got deep into me, especially that as a PhD student, and an uprooted person, I suffered a lot from the absence of home. Because “home” is a mental notion, I was constantly comparing between my life in Germany and Jordan. I was contemplating the meaning of the home, until I recognize dwelling does not require a special place. If I embrace my being, then I will automatically dwell. At that time, I drew lots of courage and inspiration from the ways refugees dwelt in Zaatari camp. Looking back at the photos and attempting to reconstruct a 3D model out of my sketches, in each corner and angle, I saw resilience, an unmistakable willingness to live, to survive, to continue. A force that doesn’t care about humanitarian standards and planning principles, nor about the materials they were provided with—whether tents or caravans. They would construct those in every possible way that would allow them to dwell. That was very inspiring for me to learn about. It helped me find strength to start dwelling myself.

EuropeNow How has COVID-19 impacted your research and changed your perspective?

Ayham Dalal Coronavirus made a significant impact on research studies especially in the field of ethnography that requires not only contact with people, but also for the researcher to observe the environment and the space in which the studied social phenomenon is taking place. For instance, during the lockdown, we were not able to visit the camps in Berlin. Therefore, we had to find an alternative solution, especially for the documentary. So, we came up with the idea of the co-directors. We announced that we would like to work with few refugees to help us direct a movie. There was some interest, and some started to work with us for a few weeks, and when the curfew was removed, we built on that. Although the idea did not fully succeed, but the attempt of working with refugees as movie makers opened our eyes to many issues and new ways of collaborative research. COVID-19 has also influenced academia significantly. Many of the conferences and planned seminars were canceled. On the one hand, this interrupted the flow of academic life for many of us, but on the other hand, it also forced us to think of new ways to disseminate research findings and engage with the public via online tools, such as webinars.

But generally, the spread of coronavirus opened my eyes to the fragility of the world we have constructed. The complexity and excitement of creation gave us a false illusion of stability and security, that life “should be like that.” We tend to forget about its temporariness and that alternative, and more sustainable, ways of living are also possible.



Ayham Dalal is an architect, urbanist and artist based in Berlin. He obtained a PhD in architecture with distinction from TU Berlin. Currently he is associated with the project “Architectures of Asylum” at the CRC “Re-Figuration of Spaces” and works on his first monograph “Dwelling and the End of Shelter.”


Nicole Shea is the Director of the Council for European Studies and the Executive Editor of EuropeNow. She currently also serves as Chair of COST Action 18204 “Dynamics of Placemaking and Digitization in Europe’s cities,” which aims to empower citizens to contribute with citizen’s knowledge, digitization, and placemaking to diverse ways of interpreting local identities in European cities. Her most recent publication The Many Voices of Europe: Mobility and Migration in Contemporary Europe was published with De Gruyter in January 2020.


Published on October 13, 2020.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email