Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part
December 15, 2003
First Impressions of the Ajnabi
Arabic is a very hard language to translate. Often, the nuances
of the language are lost in the clumsy translation to English.
Case in point: intifadah. Non-Arabic speakers understand the term
to directly apply to the social movement against Israel's
occupation, or uprising. But the word itself has nothing to do
with Palestinians, or even a social movement; when
translated directly the word means "to shake off, to be rid
Although Palestinians themselves decided
to name the social movement to end the occupation of their land
as an "intifadah," the semantics of the word are endemic
of the misunderstanding that exists between the Muslim/Arab world
and the West.
During my first few days here in Bourj-el-Barajneh,
I kept hearing this word: "ajnabi". I finally asked
one of my translators and he said it meant "foreigner". I
laughed nervously, but it weighed on me for a couple of days. So
much so, I approached
the only other "ajnabi" in the camp, an Australian
physiotherapist who has been training women in camps.
She laughed it off saying that in the camps, ajnabis are
considered guests, to be welcomed and thanked (although this has
I was warned by the camp residents that the first
few days in the camp would be the hardest. Indeed they were.
The conditions in the camps are horrible. The camp
entrance is to be found off An Nan Street in the south Beirut suburb
The first thing one notices is not the smiling portrait of Yasser
Arafat that seems to make the man out to be larger than his five-feet
four inches, but the smell. The smell of garbage is not only terrible,
but is also serves as the first test of wits for the idealistic
ajnabi who steps foot into the camp; for although the smell of
garbage is so strong that it burns the sinuses, there are only
a few scraps of garbage that can be seen. The smell seems to hang
over the specific square kilometre that the camp occupies, reminiscent
of the Don Delillo's White Noise.
Further confusing the poor ajnabi are the camps
intricate pathways. Although use of the term pathways is misleading
because there are
no paths in the camp and one must find his own way. Putting aside
the emotional chaos one feels realizing how many people actually
live in these camps, part of the problems for outsiders in the
sheer lack of mobility. This exists on both the psychological and
Indeed there is no physical space in the camps;
the paths at some points are about 35 cm wide. The most spacious
path that I have been able to find--what foreigners last year decided
to name "Champs Elysees"--is about a meter wide. This
creates some sort of demented Indiana Jones like gauntlet where
the poor ajnabi must navigate through the sewage, mangled pavement,
tight turns, leaking
water pipes, and the windows opening in the face (I had the personal
privilege of experiencing the latter, but the locals had
a good hoot over that one and told me it happens to everyone).
The greatest part of the entire charade is that there
are no signs or arrows or any distinguishing "you are here" spots.
All one has to go by is the landmarks: a broken
pipe here, a poster from Fatah or Hamas there. So, unless one's
Arabic is strong enough to converse with the locals
well enough to understand the complicated directions, the visitor
is at the whim of the coordinators
or the people they send to pick you up.
But the real shock is when one enters a house in
the camp. The entrance to the houses give a hint as to what is
to come: ancient
steel doors opened with ancient keys. One enters into the damp,
smelly house and is confronted with peeling paint, decrepit stairs,
exposed and fraying electrical wire with seem to mock you when
the power goes out daily. The tap water is not clean enough to
drink or even wash fruit in so the refugees must purchase water.
There is no proper, centralized system for water; only a haphazard
McGuiver approach that it is a testament to the resiliency and
the wit of these refugees.
Worst of all, are the reminders of the Amal war.
Amal was the name of Shia Muslim militia that waged a war (with
the support of Syria)
against the Palestinian fighters of the PLO, who were based out
the refugee camps of Beirut, one of them being Bourj. The war became
known as the "war of the camps". Amal laid siege
to the camps for over a month; over six hundred civilians were killed and the camps still show
the damage. There are the shelled out buildings that seem to be
stubbornly refusing to collapse, to the more personal images that
really bring the war into the bedroom. The latter is quite literally
attested to by the door to my room: there is a bullet hole in it.
I asked my host and he said that the door was a door
taken from another house that had been flattened in an effort to
The bullet, came from an Israeli soldier during the invasion of
1982. When I asked whether or not some one had died as a result
of the bullet, he said probably not because the hole was only a
foot above the floor. Probably not, unless he had been
sleeping on the floor like I am now.
On a happier and more lighthearted
note, I think the people are starting
to take a shine to me. In Arab culture, fathers or other revered
men receive the title "Abu" in front of their name,
followed by the name of their first born son. For those members
of the community who are respected but don't have any sons, the
community creates a nickname related to their character or after
revered figure. I have been named Abu Lowshe ("Low" rhyming
with now; and "she" rhyming with the first sound of "feather");
Lowshe being the name of the region of where the Mediterranean,
since I am Iranian, they thought that should apply. (I thought
about asking what the logic was in the name but I decided against
it; must be an Arab thing).
They challenge me to computer games
and I have to drag myself away from their pleas. When the kids
scream "Abu Lowshe, Abu Lowshe!" I find myself wanting
to both laugh and cry because, in spite of all the hatred being
spewed towards Palestinians by so many people of the world, both
past and present, they can still accept this ajnabi as one of their
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