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Travelers

Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part 4

By Sina Rahmani
December 17, 2003
The Iranian

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.

Then 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 planet."

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.

Some context: 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 time, 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 from.

The 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 vehemently pursued goals was control of all water resources.

According to 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 have  ours."

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 enough to 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 conversation I had in a restaurant.

"Do you have anything without meat?"
"Why?"
"Because I am vegetarian."
"Oh, ok. Do you eat chicken?"
"No"
"How about lamb?"
"No"
"Hold on." The waiter saunters off to the back of the restaurant. A couple of seconds of silence is followed by "What?... HAHAHAHAHAHAH." The waiter comes back and says, "No problem, we have turkey and salami."

"Don't Complain About Falafel. We ate Cats"
As the political power of Palestinians grew in Lebanon, the refugee camps became 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.

But it 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 surviving house 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.

The starvation 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 ways.

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 homeland. The 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 5

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ALSO
By Sina Rahmani
In a different city
>>> Part 1
>>> Part 2
>>> Part 3
>>> Part 4
>>> Part 5
>>> Part 6
>>> Part 7
>>> Part 8

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