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Travelers

Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part 7

By Sina Rahmani
December 23, 2003
The Iranian

Culture of Smoke
Elia Suleiman's film "Divine Intervention" was released last year amid much praise and, being a Palestinian movie, much controversy. When the film was submitted for Oscar nomination, the producers were informed that it could not be submitted because it did not recognize Palestine as a state and could not receive nominations from it.

It argued that the U.N. did not recognize Palestine as being a state and thus it didn't. This was despite the fact that it took nominations from both Wales and Hong Kong, even though they are not independent states. (No doubt some ardent supporter of Israel was an influential member of AMPAS and decided that to allow a film -- a piece of art from those crazy Palestinians -- wouldn't do well in painting Palestinians as the terrible animals they are).

The film acted as an absurdist lens through which to view the Palestine-Israel conflict. It contained very little dialogue and very odd scenes involving a Matrix-like fight scene and a Yasser Arafat balloon flying over Israeli troops to the Dome of the Rock. One scene in particular touched on some lesser known aspects of Palestinian culture (and Arab culture as a whole).

The viewer finds a hospital in Palestine, late at night, with a patient slowly hobbling out of bed to the outer corridor to have a cigarette. Once outside of his room, the viewer finds the corridor smoky and filled with people. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, and patients, all enjoying a cigarette. The scene moves slowly while the camera seems to take turns puffing on the cigarette with the I.V. laden patient.

Everyone here smokes. Convenience stores abound and whole shops dedicated to cigarettes. The smoke competes with the smell of garbage as to who has supremacy over the camp. A film begins to collect on your clothes that creates a beautiful blend of B.O. and cigarette smoke. The long time effects of the cigarettes becomes clear when the people smile; teeth that this makes me (the son of dentist no less) cringe internally, and sometimes externally. Many people in the camps don't practice very much oral hygiene and this further compounds the problem.

A more social form this culture of smoke takes the shape of is the Nargileh. Known to Westerners as the Shisha or Hooka, it is the beautiful, slender tool through which flavoured tobacco is filtered through water. Men sit for hours smoking, laughing, playing cards, yelling at their kids, screaming at their friends. The nights become a haze; a poor man's nightclub. This extends beyond the camp. In the mountains, the sessions would go even longer, and the groups more boisterous.

The friend I was staying with would smoke at least two packs a day. Often he would skip breakfast and fire one up. He wasn't the only one; most of his friends smoked and one would never go anywhere without the smell of smoke trailing behind you.

If anywhere these two worlds meet--the Koura and Bourj--is in this culture of smoke. It is a direct result of not having anything else better to do. Nightclubs, bars, movies, sports facilities are for those with cars, money, and a reason to do them. In the camp, where everyone is poor, this is obvious enough, but in the north, there is less poverty but most people are not immaculately rich as to afford the luxury of pre-packaged fun.

S.'s father recently lost his job as a graphic designer and thus money was tight. I only realized at the end how embarrassing it must have  been to consistently shoot down my request to see films at the local theatre. He is Syrian, so many in Lebanon thinks he is a privileged member of the community, and thus resent him. "These people, they are nice to you to your face. But when your back is turned, they spit on you."

Further complicating matters is the fact that he is a Muslim in a Christian town. Secular as he may be, he still doesn't advertise it. "Why start something?" S. reminded me a lot of the kids I hang out with in the camps. They are outsiders in a Lebanon that does not take kind to long term visits. (The motto of this country should be "Welcome to Lebanon. Please spend a short time here, and leave in due haste. Do not dare overstay your welcome. Shokran.)

It was S. who was always encouraging us to go smoke some Nargileh. He proudly proclaimed himself as the town's "Nargilologist". The inability to buy fun is understood implicitly. The internet cafes are ridiculously cheap (even compared to Lebanon), with one hour of computer usage costing about 90 Canadian cents.

One internet shop that I have been frequenting (in the camp) is consistently filled with kids, even at midnight. Parents coming to grab the kids by the ear drag them away from their games. The older kids then move in, and play network games until the wee hours of the morning. (One of the oddest moments I had here in camps consisted of a network computer game that took place in a Jordanian marketplace.)

No one actually pays very much for the service, and thus the shops don't make all that much money. Making money would imply a permanence, a stability, that the camp itself inherently denies anyone. How can one be successfully rich among the poor? 

This boredom seeps into one's very essence, making daylight an enemy, needing to be hidden from and loathed. The only salvation can be found with the question "Want to smoke?"

Ante Lebnani?
" Where were you born?"
" Lebanon."
" Where did you go to school?"
" Lebanon."
" Where did you meet your wife?"
" Lebanon."
" Ante Lebnani?" (Are you Lebanese?)
" No. I am Palestinian. I am from Jaffa." Or Akka. Or Nazareth. Or any other village, town, or city.

This conversation repeats itself over and over again with the people here in the camp. They are proud of their heritage. They are proud of the olive groves their grandparents tended to, or the flock of sheep their family known for.

Although most of the people I have met have never seen Palestine, they can describe the smell of the mint in their garden. They are products of the great oral history that has passed on through the generations. This idea of a nation-state that hasn't existed (officially, anyway) for more than 55 years.

I was supposed to arrive on the day they mark "al-Nakba"--the catastrophe. There was a demonstration and a cultural show the night I arrived. After half a century, Palestinian refugees remember the Nakba as if it happened yesterday.

It is through this collective despair that politics in the camps is shaped. The Popular Committee, the local political body, is made up of representatives of towns in historic Palestine, with representatives being elected based on the size of the population of the town. For the political science student, this is an intriguing system--both practically and philosophically.

The Popular Committee is still around, and they dole out of the resources inside the camp and ensure everything in the camp runs smoothly (relatively, of course). During the sieges of the civil war, they were responsible for distribution of food (no matter how little). There are the parties in the camps, although they no longer play any major role.

Fatah, Arafat's party, only has an office in Ain-el-Hilweh, a huge camp in the south of Lebanon. Most of their work is focused on the power struggle currently going on there. Al-Jabhah-Jabesh, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has a small office as does the Al-Jabhah-Democratique, or Democratic Front. Most of their work is largely of a social nature and is more focused on organizing the few men in the camps (the ratio here is about 1-3, because most of the men either left or were killed).

The posters and the spray-paint announce this political faction or that. Realistically, not very many pay attention to these things. Politics are for those who can actually be heard by the larger world. Palestinians here hardly converse with the Lebanese, let alone the outside world other than family members.

A reporter from Al-Manar (a.k.a. Hizbollah TV) was here interviewing people about the Road Map; a crowd of men were yelling and screaming at the stocky reporter. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I kept hearing the word "filastin, filastin!" (Palestine, Palestine).

On the whole, people are doubtful that the Road Map will accomplish anything. They feel betrayed and forgotten, and the Road Map is another American and Israeli ploy to answer the question Palestine without any real justice for these refugees.

Incidentally, the Road Map is vague on the Right of Return. It only speaks of a "just solution." I am suspicious this means tawtin, or naturalization, into their respective countries, with miniscule financial compensation. Opposition to tawtin in Lebanon is one of the few issues that unites all the factions, even sympathetic Hezbollah.

Other plans that have been studied are based on the "Lebanon first" principle--with Palestinians in Lebanon being the first to be dealt with because theirs is the worst plight. Canada was chair of what was called the "Refugee Working Group," where it proposed to take in 30,000 refugees.

No matter what happens, the flicker of Palestine will still live on. Even if you send them to Norway, I have the feeling they will never consider themselves to be Norwegian-Palestinian. To these people, their nationality is all they have, for good or ill >>> Part 8 (last)

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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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