Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part
December 24, 2003
The Stronger Sex
With the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban regime,
filmmakers, writers, journalists, and aid workers came to expose
the plight of Afghanistan's women. They spoke of the harsh laws
placed on women that banned them from working, forced them to
stay in their homes, and, most shocking, forced them to wear
To the "liberated" women of the West,
the site was a shocker. In the immense heat of Kabul, here were
these poor souls
who were forced to cover themselves from head to toe. Suddenly
the phrase "lifting the veil" became the buzz words among
media and aid workers. Of course, the plight of Afghanistan's
women was terrible and an affront to all peoples who have souls.
And of course, no woman should be forced to wear anything that
go against her personal wishes.
But among all the good intentions,
there was a more sinister undertone in the notion of lifting the
veil: it was the duty of the West (read: white people) to liberate these people (read: non-white people,
in this case brown) from the backward ways (read: Islam). It was
the duty of the West to liberate these people from their brutal
rulers as to impose its own cultural mores and understandings.
(George W: It is our duty to share the democracy that God gave
us (although it was the Greeks who gave us democracy))
documentary I saw was particularly arrogant -- a Canadian woman
walked around the streets of Kabul interviewing people and lamenting
at all the work SHE had to do. I thought at the time that if this
woman cared so much for the plight of these women, that she would
put down the camera and donate the money that covered the absorbent
film costs to these poor women. The idea never came to her
that she should pursue Afghani women who were making a difference
and proceed to help them--only the notion of the Westerner arriving
on her silver horse to solve all of their problems.
is work to be done in exposing matters of social injustice to the
outside world through cinema, documentaries like the one mentioned
above only further
the notion of the weakness of the women of the Arab/Muslim world.
She is the veiled woman who cries over the death of her fanatic
son, calling for revenge from God. She is the woman who hobbles
along the dirt road holding her grocery bags. She is wrinkled and
old, never radiating any beauty, only a sadness that causes the
viewer to think: "Ahh. Gee. She has it rough."
there is a weakness in these women. But listening to the stories
of the women
I have met in the camp, one realizes that Muslim/Arab women are
some of the strongest and most courageous woman in the world. This
strength only comes from successive generations of colonialist
expansion, war, civil unrest, and persecution. There were the Iranian
women who marched in the streets of Tehran, (a famous picture of
an Iranian woman lighting a cigarette with
a Kalashnikov in the other hand). There were the Algerian women
who helped revolt against the French during their struggle.
women have been a notoriously raucous group. During the Intifada
of 1987-1991, Palestinian women were always protesting, organizing,
and drawing international attention by speaking so eloquently through
the likes of Hana Ashrawi. Palestinian nurses were always on the
front lines tended to the fallen men and were known for their abilities
to make due with very few resources. In Lebanon during the Civil
War, with continual sieges and bombing campaigns, their role was
that much more pivotal.
But the stories are not all so heartwarming. During
the massacre at Chatila camp and the neighborhood of Sabra, doctors
were hunted down and killed by the Phalangists forces. Olfat Mahmood,
now running an NGO in the camp, was a nurse at Sabra hospital,
and survived the massacre by jumping from a window. Women, especially
the Palestinians in the camps, were targeted by various factions
to send a message to the PLO and their supporters.
The pressures of war life are intense. The responsibility
falls to the women to keep the
fighters and the non-combatants in the camps fed. Often, food would
consist of a boiled onion or plain Thyme, and this would
often feed families with dozens of members (It was during these
sieges that conditions deteriorated so much that families
proceeded to eat the various animals wandering the camps).
countries--especially the agrarian Palestinian culture--the role
of the mother as a caregiver is particularly strong. The ability
of a mother to tend for her family is the prime source of pride
and joy for any woman in the camp. The inability to do so often
drove many women into depression (and suicide), which they still
live with today.
Even before the Civil War, women often had to burden
the pain of camp life. When the camps were set up, Lebanese soldiers would patrol
the camp and, since they preferred not to have to walk through
any water, people were not allowed to use water during daylight
hours, as it might spill into the pathways. Women would wake up
before dawn and do the cooking and washing for families with multiple
children. Hands had to be washed only at night and baths taken
in the dark.
All this had to be done among constant power outages
and a complete absence of clean drinking water, both of which have
continued to this day. For instance, there were 12 power outages
today, apparently as a result of a decision by the Lebanese authorities
to lower the electrical allowance of the camps.
The pressures of
camp life aside, there are the patriarchal overtones of Palestinian
culture. Men are the important people here, and thus, theirs is
the only voice to be heard. Men control the finances and thus effectively
control daily life. Divorce--that is a woman divorcing her husband--is
unheard of in the camp, thus making bad marriages inescapable.
One woman in the
camp who has been particularly kind to me, lamented to me about
this when I asked when I would meet the rest of her
family. "My husband, you won't meet him. He is out with
his bitches and I don't care." When she sees the apprehension
on my face, she apologized. "I get this way when he beats
But, like all vestiges of anything Palestinian, life
goes on. Children get fed, jeans get mended, and scrapes are properly
bandaged. And the kindness continues: when she finishes putting
dinner out for her three kids, she asks me: "Sina, I know
you must hate falafel by now. I made you a few vegetarian dishes. Take them home and eat
them. If you want more I would love to make some more. Have you
done your laundry yet? Just drop it off tomorrow. If you don't
I will be very angry at you. How is your film going? I have organized
a meeting with you and some people, they would love to speak to
you and be in your film. I will translate."
Between Them and Us
"That girl over there, she is a bitch."
My head turns away
from the group of girls that were giggling at the weird foreigner
with the weird hair and clothes. I look to the young man who
made the comment.
"Why?" I seem to be the only
one who doesn't know.
"She has sex."
I am baffled by his response.
A few minutes ago the guys, including this specific one, were proudly
to me their respective sexual histories. I refrain from challenging
him and I try to change to topic, not wanting to learn more,
to no avial. They keep going.
Turns out most of the guys in the village, a predominately-Christian
town of Kaftoun near Tripoli, are familiar with the prostitutes
of Lebanon. I hide my shock, unused to notion of prostitution
being a worthy source of pride. Although most or all of their
boasts could have been exaggerations or plain-macho lies, I
come to the realization that prostitution in Lebanon is accepted
male-only circles of Lebanon. "Russians, Syrians, Fillipinos,
Palestinian, Lebanese--anything you want in Lebanon," another
one in the circle says to me, as if presenting me with a menu.
Although they never proceed to ask me directly if
I want to patron one of these girls, I definently get that impression.
were confirmed later on that night when my friend I was with
told me that they wanted to ask me, only to be turned down,
thankfully, by my friend.
The experience was an albeit sobering awakening
to odd sexual dynamic at work in Lebanon. Beyond the double standards
on women, which happens everywhere in the world, I get the
impression that this is a repressed society--not just politically.
problem with the girls in Lebanon is that they lead you on.
They go out with you and then they never let
you sleep me with
them," my friend says. Although, I am tempted to ask whether
he has met and dated everyone women in this country of three
he proceeds to tell about his sexual failings with Lebanese
There is an arrogance here among the men, a sense that women
are beholden to their libidos.
Typical of the patriarchal Middle
East (and again, the rest of the world), it can be seen in
the way the men of Beirut hoot and holler as the women walk
not hooting or hollering out of joy, there are the men who
hiss at the women whom they deem to be dressed too scandalously,
beneath the hissing there seems to be the same adolescent giddiness
among these men.
In the Muslim centres of the country, including
the camp, the attitudes towards the intermixing of men and women
stringent, with exceptions. For instance, I discovered that
men in the camps
also engage in purchasing sex , albeit far more quietly and
less frequently. In the camp, dating -- openly dating -- is
Indeed, any activities that include men and women being alone together
are unacceptable--typical of any Muslim country, more or less.
a girl and a guy are found to be alone together, they (although
the guy is spared the worst) become the source of a raucous
array of rumours that spread like brushfire in the camps. Eventually,
these rumours reach their families and the real fun starts.
stories are not wholly unfamiliar to the Western viewer, but
in Lebanon, the Lebanon of Shia, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and
any of the other 31 flavours that make up this ethnic menu,
modes of thought are that much more complicated and contradictory.
For instance, there are the odd contradictions that
bring a smile to my face. In Haret Hreik, a Hezbollah-controlled
area, there are numerous beauty stores and clothing stores that
in styles from Europe. Women, in the latest styles, make the
main street cause me think I am walking through the streets
of Paris or Milan.
Tight clothes, elaborate makeup, and expensive handbags
contrast with the women who ride with the Turban-clad mullahs that
occasionally sees; these are the wives who are covered from
head to toe in a black chador. Yet the two seem to mix well--as
this utterly ridiculous mix of Western chic and Islamic religiosity
were meant to meet here in the streets of Beirut.
men in the country also speak to this contradiction. While
putting on uber-macho persona of chest hair and greased locks,
they poke fun at each other by evoking the term fag or gay.
There are the men who ride their Japanese motorcycles and rev
engines while twisting through the traffic, deafening both
drivers and passengers. Often, they do this in pacts, thereby
multiplying the sound levels.
But there are oddities among this culture of
men hold hands and link arms. (I found this hard to adjust
to). Even the motorcyclists would have a man sitting on the
clutching tightly to his hips and chest. There is a closeness--a
sensuality--among these men that conflicts with the homophobia
the divisions along religious and cultural lines also manifest
themselves between men and women. A close friend of mine here
told me about his previous girlfriend. Being a Sunni, he would
often find himself at odds with her Shia family. Eventually, this
drove a wedge between them and ended their relationship. One
be hard-pressed to find Christian-Muslim couples in Lebanon,
Another story I heard that spoke so well of the
contradictions of life in Lebanon was that of an old man who used
nearby Samer's house in the camp. Apparently, during Ramadan,
month in the Islamic calendar, he would make a Jalaab, an energizing
drink that would rejuvenate the exhausted Muslim who was fasting.
A famous drink that Muslims around the world have, it provides
nutrients to both replenish and serve as fuel
the next day of fasting.
But, during the other eleven months
year, he would make Arak, the national and 45 % alcoholic
drink of Lebanon. A typical expectation of the absolute poverty
, he would use the same barrels. Everyone
knew about it; and it was acceptable.
Between the sexually
charged and the religiously oriented, Lebanon's true fractured
emerges. (Fractured, although a vivid term, is misleading
for it implies that Lebanon was once united.) One realizes
how mendacious a country Lebanon is.
Lebanon was pieced together by the Western powers who were
dividing up the Ottoman empire. The borders of modern Lebanon,
name, is a direct result of the French colonial policy. They
created a country from a collection of nations, of which they
hardly knew anything, and pieced it together to serve their
colonialist pursuits. Much of the Arab world is like this,
with Iraq being
another example, although not to the degree of Lebanon.
in various African countries can also be attributed to these
false borders; borders that force peoples with varying religious
and cultural background to live together in the same countries
but separate worlds. It is here that the seeds of civil conflict,
and the entire turbulent history of the middle east and the Third World (although I
don't like that term), were sown, by the colonialist powers
that indigenous peoples of the world were not "civilized" enough
to run their own lives and control their own destinies.
And just like that, it was done
I have been having a hard time filming my documentary here.
While the people have been very supportive and want to tell
I often find myself having a hard time filming. I emerge from
an interview feeling dirty; as if I have taken their lives and
placed them in my bag and walked away with them.
There is truth
to the statement that people are being used during the process.
They invite me to their homes and give me endless coffee, tea,
I ask questions in my lousy and awkward Arabic, and when they
ask me to repeat the question--in English--I give up. They tell
of me of their exit from Palestine--how they were forced out
of their homes, how they took whatever they could hold, how this
brother or that cousin was killed.
"My uncle--he was only an infant--they wrapped
him up and took him on their shoulders. When they sat to rest
a few hours later,
they realized that he had fallen somewhere on the road. They
sent his brother to find him, but he never returned." This
discourse of loss--be it land, lives, jobs, freedom--is something
that colours every aspect of life for the refugees.
I hear stories of poverty and despair. Women
prostituting their daughters. Educated men stealing to feed
their families. Young
children leaving school to sell Chiclets and napkins on the side
of the road. When I hear these I always think of how lucky I
am, with my wealth and social mobility. I sit in the lap of luxury
and I decide to drop on these people to gawk and stare.
I arrogantly think that
by writing and filming about their conditions will somehow magically
solve their predicament. Activists come and go, making themselves
feel better and thinking "Well, I did my bit." Then
with our passport we leave and move on to the next tragedy. The
next chic cause that sings to us through the evening news.
Only our planet could produce
a country like Lebanon. There are the memories that I will never
forget: from the beautiful mountains of the Koura
to the luscious waters of the Mediterranean; from the smell of
sewage in Bourj camp to the smell of mass graves in Chatila.
The music of the Mosque in Tripoli to the sound of tankers in
Sidon. The luxury and wealth of Hamra to desolate poverty of
Sabra. From where we can jump into Sea forty feet, to the
roofs of Bourj where houses reach for the sky
and sit only centimetres away from each other.
I sit four and a half weeks and fifteen thousand words later,
and further away from a just answer to the question of Palestine
than ever before. The books and the articles I've read and the
films I've seen never did and never will prepare me for the trenches
of this war--with Bourj being one of them.
A dissolution has
set upon me, with notions of peace and coexistence hanging to
dear life in the parts of my brain that haven't been coloured
by my emotions. Hatred, the hatred that I have as yet been able
to avoid, begins to flower inside a person who sees this place.
The repression of a visceral response to the images of death,
cruelty, and poverty is becoming an exercise in futility.
I came to Bourj, I always tried not to yell at the newscast,
but I let loose on CNN International while Samer giggles at me.
He is used to the miscarriages of truth about his situation.
On a particularly hot and slow afternoon, Samer
and I watched an episode of Full House. I thought
of the world that I was in and the world of the Tanner family.
The real severity
situation these Palestinians are set in while watching the show;
there are no easy solutions to their problem. There is no cathartic
epiphany that comes from all the players involved--where the
piano begins to play and all is made right.
There is no singular
moment where both the "problem" and "solution" become
clear. No point where people realize when the first small crack
in the shell of time occurred. Social justice and matters of
human rights are not simple in a fair world, let alone this place
this page to your friends