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Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon:

The Smell of Misery and the Feeling of Hope

By Mazin Qumsiyeh, November 21, 2009


I have not been to Beirut since I was five years old (but I do remember some things of it) and I was a bit nervous since much has happened in the decades since.  Lebanon and Palestine together with Jordan and Syria have always been connected; only after the British and French decided to divide us and give part of the land to European Jews to replace the natives that we became separated and disconnected (and sometimes querreling).  

I was invited as a representative of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem for a conference on water rights in the Jordan River basin [1].  Our Lebanese hosts treated us like family: extremely gracious and hospitable.  I was also anxious to visit the refugee camps in Lebanon and meet with activists (Lebanese and Palestinian) who I knew via the internet.  I had written extensively on refugees and even reviewed a book on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila [2]. (I was told that camps in the north and in the south need a special army permission to enter.). 

I met with some refugees from Mar Elias and other camps in Lebanon and on Monday visited the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts [3] which serves Lebanese and Palestinian youth from marginalized communities.  An old friend (Raja Mattar) from Jafa who runs Palestine Student Aid arranged for a young Palestinian to take me to on an early morning trip to Sabra and Shatila. 

We met in front of the grandiose Crown Plaza hotel in the opulent Al-Hamra Street and the cab takes us to the edge of the camp and as we try to enter, the traffic snarls (the roads are really not designed for two way traffic).  So we leave the cab stuck in the traffic and walk.  I need to walk.  We pass by a marketplace were the marginalized do their shopping (Lebanese and Palestinian). 

The market has everything from vegetables to used (and rather dirty looking) cloths and shoes to pieces of pipes, to books.  Each of these things is laid out separately with their owners trying to sell their products to people who are just as poor as they are.  Most of these stalls are not stalls at all but rather a sheet of plastic or even newspapers on which they had spread the "goods" they are trying to peddle. From what I observed, some of them would happily sell you all the contents of their area for less than $20. I have of course been to marketplaces in poor areas but this was a bit different. The appearance is of a busy market place where things are bought and sold for very inexpensive prices (usually less than a dollar which here equals 1500 Lebanese liras). But as we move through the "market place". But it is not a noisy place; the vendors were not calling out like they do in Bethlehem. There was little of the sounds of buying and selling of haggling of jokes. 

It was a subdued affair that puzzled me. Perhaps more merchants than customers I thought.  Maybe it was not the peak time of shopping. It is as if it was a museum where visitors move around and look in silence at paintings occasionally asking in hushed subdued voices about something that intrigues them. As we get closer to the camp, the smell really becomes stronger.  It is hard to describe it, a mixture of sewage and decaying trash, a pungent odor that perhaps is the opposite of fresh air, a staleness that and suffocating harshness that makes me wonder if I am hallucinating. But then we make a turn into the camp and nothing prepared me for this.  I have been to over 30 refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank and I did expect the refugee camps in Lebanon to be worse.  I have read a lot and even seen pictures and some videos but still I was shocked by what I saw, what I smelled, what I heard and what I felt.  The words I write cannot do justice to this. 

As I was videotaping and I was hoping to move my camera up to videotape the jumble of hundreds of crisscrossed wires overhead (home made infrastructure to bring electricity and phone service to those who could make the right connections (figuratively and literally), I hear a women's voice addressing me. "Shoo bitsawwer" (what are you photographing)?  The first thing that occurs to me is that she will complain about my photographing (that happens in conservative societies) and I mumble something about coming from Bethlehem and touring the camp and she starts to tell me about the clinic doctor.  I am a bit confused.  She says there is one doctor and hundreds of patients.  And that she could not get the doctor in the UNRWA clinic to see her daughter.  It was then that I noticed the girl shyly hiding behind her mother. I make stupid useless words since I really don't know what to say as her daughter tells her to move on.   I go back to videotaping the wires and the political posters and the people. 

Children are everywhere and they like my camera.  I note no toys around, no bicycles, no balls, no squeaky ducks or stuffed animals. A couple of the kids have found things that they considered toys: a stick, a rubber band, a segment of a plastic pipe.  Some have even connected these things to make things with no use. I videotape some of them and rewind and show them their smiley faces.  I smile and speak to them feeling like I do with my own family. But my mind is tortured.  I fight back the tears as I pan my camera from their smiley faces to the open sewers that are running right next to them. This is their playgrounds I think.  Most of them have never been outside of this camp.  This is all they know. A man tells the kids to leave us alone.

A woman at a window on the second floor beats an old rug to get rid of the dust. My "guide" Waseem warns me about puddles or obstacles in the narrow alleys (there must a better word to describe a meter wide dirt opening between dense dwellings in impoverished areas, maybe masarib in Arabic?).  Waseem is from Nahr El Bared, a camp that was essentially completely destroyed by shelling as the Lebanese army fought a group of extremists.  The camp is still not reconstructed so his family lives at the edge of camp in temporary dwellings. 

Anyway, we go back to taking in the sounds, smell, feel, and sight of this camp.  Too many emotions run over me and not one of them uplifting.  We pass by the UNRWA clinic and I see lots of Palestinian mothers going in with their children.  Right next to it, there are some workers using a jackhammer to dig the street.  The kids jumping around and over the open hole in the ground (yes with sewage) almost seemed like they were mocking the work.  My first analytic thought comes to mind: this is not a place to try to fix anything at the margins, it should all be changed, and these people need to go back to their villages from where they were ethnically cleansed.  But then I feel strangely guilty for thinking something I have thought of a million times before and have worked hard on.  The guilt is maybe due to the fact that here and now, I actually can do very, very little.   

The hopeless tangle of wires, pipes, shaky dwellings seemed not to be of help to thousands living here.  But now it seemed that the infrastructure has its own life and that the people are not its friend but its foe and I am now trapped with them although for a short time. I remember a horror movie I saw as a kid and simply think that before my father died, I should have asked him if at age 5 when we visited Beirut, did we visit the refugee camp and if not why not.  Time is an enemy and we have other commitments.  We make our way to go to the edge of the camp where there is a memorial for the 1982 massacre. 

The memorial is in a fenced yard) behind another street that was remade into an open marketplace.  It seems slightly busier than the other marketplace.  In front of the entrance they are selling watches, cloths, and shoes but inside the only inhabitants are a group of chickens (strangely of a fancy breed).  The memorial is neglected, empty and quite except for the muffled sounds from the street.  There are banners that seem to be old and fading. Here the camp smell I described earlier is replaced by another smell, the smell of death mixed with chicken feathers.  Or maybe I am hallucinating since it is actually relatively clean place.  Maybe I am now totally crazy.

 Waseem seems even more subdued here.  He finally points to another banner and simply says, "this is to commemorate other Israeli massacres." I take short clips of video and I remember merely walking out and not looking back.  Waseem tells me not to video on the street outside the camp because of presence of military people and the Kuwaiti embassy (that is heavily fortified).  But I had not intended to do that anyway. We walk in silence.  Later in the taxi, away from it all, I start to ask him about himself: he just graduated an electrical engineer. No jobs for people like him from the camps.  Nothing to do. He refuses to let me pay for the cab either way. 

I go back to my hotel room and only then I cry.  I cry for these refugees abandoned by an uncaring world, I cry for all the other things I heard and felt on this trip, and I cry for our injured humanity.  In visiting the American University of Beirut (where so many Palestinians studied including my uncle who died young at age 27 after finishing his PhD), there is a McDonalds hamburger joint right in front of the University.  A day later in Jordan being driven by my friend Zuhair to his house, we pass by Jordan University and I see another Macdonald also in front of the University.

 I complain about this globalization (especially of Zionist-run Starbucks and other franchises that aid ethnic cleansing and hurts our causes). Zuhair reminds me that there are so many people who collaborate in the rape of Palestine and so many people who just stand there and watch.  There are really few activists like the ones I met in Beirut.  But we reminisce that good people (Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Internationals) make a difference in society every day.  It has always been like that. 

The institute that invited us (Ibrahim Abd-El-Al Institute) represent the memory of such a person and the attendees represent such people): individuals who do not put personal interest ahead of people interests, individuals who care and who act on this caring.  Those are the people who give us hope for a better future where we all work together against apathy and against the evil that keeps us apart. 

Here is a short (less than 5 minutes) and poorly edited video (I am an amateur) I put on youtube on my short trip (I wish I could stayed longer but had to go back to teaching)

Article in Arabic about the conference

Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD

A Bedouin in Cyberspace, a villager at home





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