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Travelers

Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part 8 (last)

By Sina Rahmani
December 24, 2003
The Iranian

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 the burqa.

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))

One 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.

Although there 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."

Most importantly, 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. 

Palestinian 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 and nurses 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).

In Arab 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 me."

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 parting 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 in the 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. My suspicions 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 placed on women, which happens everywhere in the world, I get the impression that this is a repressed society--not just politically.

"The 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 million, he proceeds to tell about his sexual failings with Lebanese girls. 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 by. If not hooting or hollering out of joy, there are the men who hiss at the women whom they deem to be dressed too scandalously, although 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 are more 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 strictly forbidden. Indeed, any activities that include men and women being alone together are unacceptable--typical of any Muslim country, more or less.

If 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. 

These 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, these 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 sell the latest 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 one 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 if this utterly ridiculous mix of Western chic and Islamic religiosity were meant to meet here in the streets of Beirut. 

The 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 their 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 machismo. For instance, men hold hands and link arms. (I found this hard to adjust to). Even the motorcyclists would have a man sitting on the back, clutching tightly to his hips and chest. There is a closeness--a sensuality--among these men that conflicts with the homophobia they espouse.

Of course, 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 would be hard-pressed to find Christian-Muslim couples in Lebanon, even today. 

Another story I heard that spoke so well of the contradictions of life in Lebanon was that of an old man who used to live nearby Samer's house in the camp. Apparently, during Ramadan, the holiest 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 valuable nutrients to both replenish and serve as fuel for the next day of fasting.

But, during the other eleven months of the year, he would make Arak, the national and 45 % alcoholic drink of Lebanon. A typical expectation of the absolute poverty here , 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 nature emerges. (Fractured, although a vivid term, is misleading for it implies that Lebanon was once united.) One realizes how mendacious a country Lebanon is.

A justification: Lebanon was pieced together by the Western powers who were dividing up the Ottoman empire. The borders of modern Lebanon, even the 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.

The conflicts 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 who felt 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 their stories, 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, sweets. 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.

So here 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.

Before 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 of the 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 we occupy.

Y'allah Bye.

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By Sina Rahmani
In a different city
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