Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part
December 17, 2003
Lebanese Water Torture
It is quite possibly the worst sound one can hear: a catfight.
Surprising that such a small little creature is capable of making
the worst sounds. And to sweeten the deal, the worst catfights
happen between 2 and 3 a.m. Could be that the roughest
cats come out at that time, the council of cats must have decided
that that time period would be best because people will probably
entering deep sleep and it is next to impossible to fall back
asleep after being woken up.
The screeching of the wild cats (there are lots
around Lebanon, especially the camps; the guidebook also forget
to mention that
one) is but one of the plethora of sounds that fill the air during
the nights in the camp. There are sounds of people strolling by,
usually this ends at around 1 a.m. Then the workers coming to pick
up the garbage roll by in their squeaking carts, trying their best
to make the tight turns required for navigating the camp.
the airplanes make their circles around the camp, ensuring that
everyone gets a chance to hear their engines. Then there are the
arbitrary sounds of scooters and motorcycles--although at night
these are rare. Then there around the mosque calls--one at around
1:30 a.m. and the other, this one is my favourite, starts at around
4 a.m. Not living anywhere near a mosque at any point in my life,
this last one was probably the hardest
to get used to. And how can anyone forget to mention the arbitrary
neighbour, who spends his days cursing God and his "damn
All of these sounds usually come and go--eager to
go and annoy other, more stubborn ears. But there is one sound
that one, quite
literally, can't escape: the dripping of water. It's is so constant,
one could actually set his watch to it. Maybe it's the fact
that the water seems to be outside the window I sleep near, or
maybe it's the camps quirky sense of humour, but I have not
been able to outrun the dripping. I have these huge thick pillows
and I wrap my head around them--to no avail. The water continues
to pour. This could be a lone drip-drop combination, the drip-drip-drip-plop
combo, or the dreaded emptying of the water tanks.
because the camp wasn't supplied with underground water pipes,
a complex distribution system has been setup and refined over
the years. But it was designed in such a way that from time to
the tanks of sewage need to be emptied into the sewers. This
can happen at arbitrary points during day,
and, as I have unfortunately learned, at night. Although I have
only been here a week, I can tell which sound relates to what
action or even, dare I venture, which house the sound is emanating
entire process is mind-boggling. Anybody who knows anything and
the Middle East and her wars that behind all the rhetoric about
the cause of the wars, water has always played a central role.
For example, the Camp David II summit where Yasser Arafat and
Ehud Barak failed to resolve the conflict, one of Israel's most
pursued goals was control of all water resources.
the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, for every litre
of water that is allotted to a Palestinian
household in the West Bank, four are allocated to Israeli settlers.
It is clear why Israel wants control: he who controls the
taps controls the population to a large extent. If Israel can control
how much water is given to Palestine, Israel can control how fast
(or how slow) Palestine's population can grow. The water debate
seems to be symbolic of the entire Palestinian nationalist struggle:
Palestinians will control their own land, including any foray that
mother nature makes into it.
For example, I was sitting on the
roof/balcony of my house here, and I listened to a boy of maybe
ten whistle for about of half an hour. I finally looked away from
my reading to see what the hell this kid was doing, and I realized
that he had been controlling the flight of a flock of pigeons.
He would whistle and in unison they would turn; he would whack
a stick against a wooden plank and they would fall. I watched this
dance for more than an hour, and it was beautiful. The boy seemed
to be telling the birds: "You can't use your wings until we
P.S. I found out why kids are calling me Abu Lowche.
Turns out that one kid
told the rest of them that Lowche means "tall, blonde, European".
Ha. Good to
see that even in Lebanon people who don't know me feel comfortable
make fun of me.
P.P.S. If you are a vegetarian, don't ever go to
Lebanon. In general, avoid the
Middle East. Felafel is getting tiring. Let me relate to you a
I had in a restaurant.
"Do you have anything without meat?"
"Because I am vegetarian."
"Oh, ok. Do you eat chicken?"
"How about lamb?"
"Hold on." The waiter saunters off to the back of the restaurant.
couple of seconds of silence is followed by "What?... HAHAHAHAHAHAH." The
waiter comes back and says, "No problem, we have turkey and
"Don't Complain About Falafel. We ate Cats"
political power of Palestinians grew in Lebanon, the refugee camps
political hotspots. Before the political factions arrived and
took them over, each camp had a boisterous popular committee
that would discuss issues, listen to the concerns of the people,
and issue decisions.
The popular committees were active; they
were comprised of the first generation Palestinians who could
remember the Palestine that
they were forced out of. Their work took on an urgency to reclaim
a lost homeland, which, at the time (late 1960s-1982) seemed
within grasp. A solution was always around the corner; a peace
treaty only a political summit away.
never came, and the popular committees became yet another victim
of sectarian infighting that plagues Palestinian politics.
The activists who were serious about affecting change were replaced
with bureaucrats and politicians--typical of most politics in
the Middle East. One such activists was Khalil Mahmood. He was
twelve when he left Palestine, and he became a well-respected
member of the camp. The house
that I currently occupy, belonged to him, and now belongs to
Samer Mahmood, his son.
Samer and I are good for each other. We are both computer nerds,
and we enjoy mocking everything we see on TV. Samer works in
post-production and loves to point out which videos of Arab superstars
he helped edit. Luckily, for me anyways, Samer has not been
going to work for the past week because of computer issues at
his company. He keeps me company during the days because since
most of the youth are at school, I don't have much to do. He
tells me funny stories of documentaries he has edited and his
family. His English is moderately good, but he has a tendency
to mumble so I often have to ask him to repeat himself.
Samer is extremely shy. He essentially
doesn't leave the camp other than for work. He doesn't have anyone
else in the house (his parents have both passed away in the past
two years), so he always eats out or at his brother's house.
He doesn't have many friends in the camp, although he has
been here for his entire life. His life consists of work and
his room, where he enjoys computer games, digital art, and
surfing the internet. I asked his sister about this. "It
was the war. He suffered very
much. He was only three during the Israeli invasion and he was
seven during 'camp wars'. He starved during the 'camp wars'.
I remember he would complain and complain about wanting to eat
chicken and potatoes and juice. We would laugh and ask him where
we could find chicken."
Samer's house during the war of the camps was the only
among a block that housed four families. The houses on either
side of his were destroyed and the families took shelter in Samer's
house. The room I am writing in once had 36 people living
in it. Palestinian writer Fawaz Turki described how growing up
in the refugee camps in Lebanon he would hang out at the market
for hours to pick up
whatever scraps would fallout of the vendors' carts. He recollects
how Lebanese people would often throw food onto the streets to
watch the starving refugees fight over it like pigeons.
was widespread in Bourj. It got so bad that people began eating
the only food that could be found--the meat of the numerous stray
cats that can
be found in the camps. Apparently, Samer refused to eat and he
became very thin and weak.The physical scars of the war in Lebanon
are easy to find. Bombed out buildings, abandoned squares, rotting
metal is the only thing in excess in Beirut. These can
be, when there is a will to, easily rectified. But the more pervasive
scars are invisible and manifest themselves in odd
One of these oddities is Samer's obsessions with Al Khalil
Snack Shop. Al Khalil is famous for its chicken. The bags
from the store are everywhere in the house and he eats there
at least once a day. He eats there so much that relatives laugh
and say that without Samer, the store would close down. He looks
at the menu with an excitement of a
child. He smiles as he rips the skin from the chicken breasts,
and has, to no avail, attempted to bring me back to the carnivore
flock so I can eat with him. He tells me how good the chicken
is, and I tell him that his fries are good enough for me.
During conversations, he is serious and candid with his opinions.
His opinions come across with a surprising seriousness that contrast
his soft spoken nature. He likes to tap your hand when he speaks
to you, and his eyes never leave yours. He speaks of those Palestinians
who have forgotten about the refugees and the struggle for a
Palestinians who sip cappuccinos in the cafes of Los Angeles
who speak of Palestine who have forgotten about the refugees.
And he can't stand it when people complain--as I do, especially
about falafel, my dreaded enemy. "Don't complain about falafel.
We ate cats," he tells me with a smirk >>> Part
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