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Travelers

Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part 5

By Sina Rahmani
December 17, 2003
The Iranian

Hurry? Where to?
I was reviewing some of writing of the last few years and amid all the mindless babble I was able to discern two things: 1) I really had no opinions or a distinct voice in most of my writing 2) my writing is filled to brim with detail after detail.

Although my memory, whatever is left of it, has the amazing ability to retain the most detailed facts, the writing also hints at the ridiculously busy life that I, and the rest of North America, live. From the latter stages of elementary school, we are weaned onto a notion of blocks of time (recess, play time, snack time, math time), agendas, multi-tasking, and "streamlining." We are a culture on the go; with spare moments rationed like gold.

"Samer, wake up. Y'allah. It's 2:30 in the afternoon." No response. Although I am a guest in this man's home, I find it to be my moral duty to wake him up and invade on his private space.

I sneak into his room and I turn on his TV. I plug in the headphones and I watch some Al Manar, owned and operated by Hezbollah. I get rather bored of the repetitive rhetoric (most of which I can't understand) and I start to flash around. I watch some American TV shows for half an hour. Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Blossom, Mad About You are all the rage on these pirated satellite channels.

I keep flipping and I finally find something that could really keep me tuned in: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. Although this one was by the worst of the trilogy, I am enthralled. I watch the ENTIRE movie. A glance to the clock reveals that 5 p.m. is rapidly approaching, and Samer is still asleep. He had been working almost 12 hours straight for a couple days and he was exhausted. I let him be and I got to some emails.

He finally rolled out at around 6. I feign shock and he asks why I am so surprised. I tell him that he literally slept through the whole day. He yawns at looks at me: "What is this life? Why else shouldn't I sleep through it." Although he has his shy smirk on his face, I can tell he was serious as well and completely correct.

Time doesn't slow down here in the camps; it doesn't make an appearance. It is not an issue here. Time is for those lucky enough to have jobs. Time is for those who have work to do. Time, busy time, is a luxury here in the camp. This is not to say that everyone here is slothful and lazy, not at all. When there is work to be done it is done. But this is Lebanon, and these are Palestinians. Automatically they have two asterisks beside their searches for jobs.

Time never belonged here in the first place, among the refugees. The nature of their existence was never meant to be permanent, thus time was unnecessary. Completely the opposite, it acts as a painful remainder of their loss and dispossession. The "refugee" trope we understand is one of idleness, a pause. A brief coffee break for the sisters of fate. They are boat people. They are a people in motion. They are urban bedoin.

In his memoirs, Edward Said points out that he always carries with him far more than he requires -- as if he was preparing himself for the prospect of being forced out of his home, city, town. Refugees move with their flocks of children and animals in search of refuge from the complicated world and her politics. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or U.N.R.W.A was set up to deal with the crisis of Palestinian refugees. A foreign organization represented by five letters from a foreign alphabet.

But in the camps there is no such thing as U.N.R.W.A. Only unruwa. Rolling off the tongue like the city of Burundi. A hastily spoken word because one was never supposed to get used to it. A rushed word that is not supposed to be spoken. Most people in the camp don't even know that it is an acronym, let alone what the acronym stands for.

The temporary permanence of these refugees is the source of a type of collective apathy. I am told by students that the schools are undisciplined and chaotic. People talking to each other--chaos. One girl I was helping with math ("helping" being the operative word of this political science major) summed it up nicely when she said: "Why should we care? It's not we can find jobs or afford university."

We are losing this generation to a malaise. A disease that abounds in the camp and cannot be inoculated against, only escaped from. Why should they pursue an education when the embassies will only deny them a visa or a work permit? Why should they pursue a greater existence when they are not even given one.

While they hate America and all her politics, they sing along quite amazingly (considering their English skills) to America's biggest cultural exports. They wear Gap jeans and Nike shoes. They watch (bootleg) Hollywood movies while drinking Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In this place, where nothing seems to make sense, why bother keeping track of these paradoxes?

Palestine and Her Discontents
"Are you a Jew?" She is about 13 and looking at me with an intense glare. I am astounded; people have guessed my background many times but that was a new one.

"What if I was?" I respond.

A pause. An eerie silence fills the small, hot room. The hum of the ceiling fan creates a backbeat to this odd conversation. She looks at me and in the most honest tone: "Then I wouldn't be able to look at you."

Another youth quickly jumps. "Habibti (My friend), shut up. You don't know what you are talking about, he is a Palestinian. Aren't you?"

An older women, who seems to be a parent, tells me, although she seemed to be speaking to the group rather than to me, "To me, it doesn't matter what religion the person is. I will judge each person individually."

The kids have been cowed; indeed, for all their rhetoric, I found nodding heads all around. But they are still waiting for my answer. I debate my answer. Should I tell them the truth or a half-truth or a third-truth. "I am Iranian."

The reason for this internal debate is that ethnicity and politics are unfortunately braided together. If I say I am Canadian, people will view me one way. If I say Iranian, another. They have known me for seven minutes and my ethnicity is already an issue, my politics need to be stated. Three or four of them simultaneously ask me:

"Are you a Shia?"

I tell them that I am.

"Do you pray?"

I tell them not as much as I should.

"You are Iranian. Hezbollah. They are great."

I knew this would happen. The young man, a stern, serious look--far too serious for his thirteen years--waits for my response.

I am coy: "Well, they did get Israel out of the south of Lebanon."

I stop there with an albeit truthful statement. I don't mention anything about what Hezbollahis did in Iran while students were protesting for democracy. I don't mention the fact that I disagree with a lot of their policies, and I question their commitment to democracy.

Hezbollah, turns out, is well respected in the camps but is not on the same political playing field as the other Palestinian factions. Many Palestinian appreciate the help that Hezbollah has provided the Palestinians--both politically and socially, through it vast and complex social services network. But Hezbollah is Lebanese, and is concerned chiefly with Lebanon.

This response seems to have pacified the seven or eight pre-teens and tweens whom I have just met while at a local youth centre. The discussion ends and they begin watching some music videos--Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, 50 Cent, and various other Western popstars. I ask them about America.

"It is bad. They support Israel."

Heads nodding all around.

I am not surprised. I would not be too enamored with the country that gives billions to the country that I deem an enemy. But the America they hate so much produces so much of what they consume, like the pop music they are signing along with.

These contradictions are the symptoms of a larger plague at work here in Bourj. It is a culture of that is direct result of 50 years of dispossession multiplied by 15 years of brutal civil war, exponentially increasing by 3 years of uprising.

The posters express it all. There are posters of those who died during the Israeli invasion or during the current intifadah. There are the political posters, which are numerous, announcing commitment to this faction or this philosophy. There are the posters of Dome of the Rock and various other Islamic symbols--not bad on their own--but often there are juxtaposed with the Star of David.

One poster particularly shocked me. It was my first day here and I was being shown around the camp. We went to someone's house and I saw a slew of pictures adoring the grungy, water-damaged wall. Relatives long passed and pictures of a Palestine lost.

I was attracted, in every sense of the word, to a picture of a girl of my age, wearing a graduation cap and smiling beautiful. I was smitten; I asked my guide who she was. "She was martyred six months ago." I froze. I thought of the beauty she could have added to the ugly world? I wanted to ask more. Who was she? What did she study? Did she have a crush on anyone before she died? Did she dot her 'i's with little hearts or just regular circular dots?

The culture of death I can understand. If the only life you experience was full of the war, then death would not only be accepted but expected. Not to be enjoyed or tempted, in Bourj, there is a passivity to death that disturbs me. An apathy towards the loss of life that is all too prevalent not just in Bourj, but in our sick, twisted planet.

40 rebels killed. 200 civilians dead. 17 prostitutes murdered. 1,500 dead in an avalanche. 2,000 dead during the uprising. Death becomes the domain of accountant, taking balances against some historical database.

I must call myself on my arrogance at this point. Here comes the enlightened Westerner to tell these ignorant Arabs how to wage their war of liberation. But this is not the point I am trying to make. I never came to Bourj to teach people about their social movement. I am only here as a passive observer; trying to impede as little as possible on their lives.

Leaving aside debates on martyrdom, I worry for these kids. I worry that they will not see a world free of occupation and refugee camps. I worry that they will never be able to feel the leaves of the olive tree tickle their forearms. I worry that they will be denied the basic existence that they were taking refuge from in 1948. I worry for our society the most, because eventually we will be made to answer, both morally and historically, for this social injustice >>> Part 6

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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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