Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part
December 23, 2003
Culture of Smoke
Elia Suleiman's film "Divine Intervention" was
released last year amid much praise and, being a Palestinian movie,
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
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
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,
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
S.'s father recently lost his job as a graphic designer
and thus money was tight. I only realized at the end how embarrassing
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
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
are ridiculously cheap (even compared to Lebanon), with one hour
of computer usage costing about 90 Canadian cents.
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.)
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?"
" Where were you born?"
" Where did you go to school?"
" Where did you meet your wife?"
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
as if it happened yesterday.
It is through this collective despair that politics
in the camps is shaped. The Popular Committee, the local political
made up of representatives of towns in historic Palestine,
with representatives being elected based on the size of the
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,
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
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
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
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
things. Politics are for those who can actually be heard by
the larger world. Palestinians here hardly converse with the
let alone the outside world other than family members.
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
saying, but I kept hearing the word "filastin, filastin!" (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.
Road Map is vague on the Right of Return. It only speaks of
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.
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
will never consider themselves to be Norwegian-Palestinian.
To these people, their nationality is all they have, for
ill >>> Part
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