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Travelers

Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part 6

By Sina Rahmani
December 22, 2003
The Iranian

On Mountains and Guns
The Koura Plateau is a mountain range that is home to predominantly Christian Lebanese. The region is known for its beautiful lakes and the source of some of the finest olive oil in the world.

I stayed with a friend from university in a small village, which was mostly Greek Orthodox--a minority in the predominately Maronite Christian community in Lebanon. His house was situated on a smaller mountain, thus causing his housed to be dwarfed by beautiful, luscious mountains. The view from his porch was breathtaking. At night, one could make out the roads by the cars driving on them; the roads being reminiscent of a knife pulled through raw cake batter.

I spent most of the days driving around with my friend and meeting his friends. They took a shining to my English and did their best to communicate with me. They would implore me to tell them some English jokes, which were haphazardly translated. They would invite me into their cars and would take me on driving tours of the area (I think I did the same tour at least a dozen times by that many different drivers). They asked me about my politics, my background, and whether or not I liked Lebanon. Every night we would hang out at the local cafe/restaurant and smoke nargileh. We would sit and talk for hours; laughing and making fun of eachother (and me).

The town I was staying in was a stronghold for the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party. The SSNP believes in what they refer to as a "natural Syria". The logic being that is the fact the Middle East today is only the way it is because the European powers carved up the territory of the Ottoman Empire and divvied up the bounty. The SSNP believes that these territories (Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan) should come under the banner of one Syrian state.

When I pointed out the flag, they were amazed that I had heard of it let alone recognize the logo. Many of the men in the town had fought in the Civil War and told me some stories. 

"William's dad, he has a bullet stuck in his ass," my friend tells me, with the group of fifteen people my age hooting and hollering to William's dad to show us the bullet. "It's on his thigh." William defensively points out.

Turns out William's dad, a card-carrying SSNP member, fought in the Civil War against Christian Maronite forces, who were unabashedly anti-Syrian. But while these groups of pro-Syrian forces were fighting alongside Palestinians, pro-Syrian Shia Muslim militia Amal was waging war against Palestinians in the camps. Thus continues the complex web of politics that surrounds this insane war. (Actually, the more I try to understand this war, the more I realize that they chose the wrong symbol for Lebanon. Instead of a cedar tree, an onion would have been more suitable--both in composition and effect.)

The leftovers of the war don't just lie in the poor man's rear, but in the guns that most people have in their homes. From pump-action, to double-barreled shotguns, to Walter PP7s to Kalashnikov machine guns--the instruments of death and destruction abound even in the most remote villages. On the surface, people use them to hunt and ward off possible trouble makers who apparently hang around the mountains waiting to pounce on unwitting travelers.

More realistically, they are a manifestation of the distrust left by the Civil War. Paranoia and conspiracy are rampant in this country -- what Robert Fisk referred to as "The Plot". The Syrians killed so and so. The Israelis planted this bomb. The Palestinians wanted West Beirut. Hezbollah wants to have an Islamic revolution. Henry Kissinger planned the entire civil war.

The lack of a real democracy in Lebanon (Syria is the real decision maker in this state) fuels this. The constant worries about the moukhabbarat (secret police) make people uncomfortably laugh or visibly worry at the very mention of its name. Too many people, guns, the very same guns that destroyed the country, are the only piece of protection they have from the fractured country they love so much.

Among the Concrete Rocks
The beauty of the Koura juxtaposes itself oddly with this place. Being back in the camps I have been readjusting to life here and it has been an odd forty-eight hours. Although the luxuries and the wonders of mountain life I will miss, the smile that is brought to my face by the wonderful souls here in the camp have more than made up for it. (When I got home, I asked Samer if he missed me: "I wouldn't know, I slept through most of the week you were gone.")

We stood on the roof and drank some arak I brought back. Arak is the national drink of Lebanon; not surprisingly, in needs to be watered down and drank "on the rocks". One would be insane to drink it straight.

As I looked out over the camp yet again, I realized what the really depressing aspect of camp life: the hardness. The view from here consists of concrete homes that sit beside each other in some odd formation. The outlook has a sobering effect: how long could these concrete homes sit? Could these homes sit for another 50 years? How long would these Palestinian refugees be here? How long could they survive in these conditions?

In the homes in the Koura, even the most dilapidated ones destroyed by the war, one could feel the tenderness of the children that ran through the corridors. The floorboards creaked with a song of the millions of steps they have felt. There is a sense of collective history that homes inherently represent. Houses, more correctly, homes, are meant to the forum through which we make our history, through which we build our destiny.

The camps, on the other hand, represent the opposite, the negation of history. They stand as a testament to the stolen history that these refugees have to cope with. The houses here mock history. They are a raised finger to all notions of progress and development. The camps, and states of poverty in general, are the fundamental denial of a basic destiny that every human being has the right to.

It is the attempt to reconcile myself with these truths, I tell myself that eventually these refugees will leave and this place will be destroyed. Hopeful as this may sound, but, these may be the final years that these Palestinian refugees will be here. This is not to say that wherever they may be implanted--the various plans in the working have included Canada, the United States, various European countries, and some Arab states in the Persian Gulf--will be tantamount to social justice. (Incidentally, I read Rosie Dimanno's latest rant, this one of the Right of Return. Scorned be the man who denied us the ability to tar and feather).

But I always fall back to the souls who were born and grew up and died in this place. Where is the justice for those stolen lives? Does the Road Map plan on resurrecting the dead and attempt to grant them citizenship in various countries in hopes that they forgive us for allowing this to happen to them.

I guess I will never be able to reconcile myself with that; much in the same that there really is no way to apologize to those indigenous people we annihilated in our conquest of the area we call Canada. There really is no way to take the truth straight. Therein lies the true harshness of this horrible place filled with wonderful people >>> Part 7

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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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