Inside a different city
Five weeks in a refugee camp in Lebanon: Part
December 19, 2003
I arrived in Beirut 20 hours ago. Milano
was a bust. I hadn't slept and I was so tired and in need of a
shower I absconded back to the airport after only a few hours in
the town. I traipsed around the airport for a while, and after
I got bored with that, and realized that I couldn't buy any Fun
from the duty-free shop, I started to read.
I read some Edward
Said and I took out my Lonely Planet guide to Lebanon. After
reading about the Cedars of north Lebanon, I dozed off, only to
rudely by a youngish security guard who informed that the quiet,
peaceful area of the airport I had found was indeed a restricted
In my sleepy haze, I forgot the guidebook (the North
York Central Library will be very upset with me) on the bench.
When I went back to retrieve it, I was informed that it was no
longer there. I looked around but, alas, the book I had been religiously
reading the last six weeks was gone only hours before I reached
where I needed it the most.
The plane featured a boisterous group of Arab twenty-somethings,
sitting directly behind me no less, who insisted on drinking the
finest wine in Italy, despite the fact that we were 35,000 feet
above the vineyards. Not only that, they insisted on drinking a
lot of it.
That was fun; lots of kicks to the lower back vis
a vis the seat were enjoyed by all. They were too loud for me to
sleep and too big for me (and the ever so masculine flight
attendants) to confront, so I watched the movie: some odd little
ditty that featured George Clooney and the woman from "The
Truman Show" about some station near some planet that really
tested both my patience and my faith in the ability for anyone
in Hollywood to create a descent film. By the way, if anyone can
enlighten me on the title of that movie, I will be truly thankful.
We arrived and as I gave my passport to customs I
was promptly asked whether or not I had SARS. I wanted to say something
like "Of course, don't you?" or "it's all the rage
in the T-dot" but the sudden image of my mom coupled with
the AK-47 clad men watching me like a hawk quickly dispelled that
The second round of customs was particularly interesting:
this portly, balding man who looked like he belonged in some
movie was asking people where they were coming from. After not
being able to find my passport for ten minutes, I realized they
were hiding in my pocket-laden cargo pants. Scorned be the man
who invented those bloody things; they spell out doom to all
disorganized people like myself who carry far too much.
With sweat poring down
my chin and the word "Iran" as the place of birth in
my passport, I was fresh picking for the gloomy-looking men with
rubber gloves who, in the worst case scenario, were to search more
than just my bags. He looked at me and asked me where I was coming
from in Arabic, I played dumb and asked him to repeat it in English,
at which point I said Toronto. He pointed to the exit and told
me to yallah.
I was relieved; I had over 30 kilos of English
books in one of my suitcases and some literature on the Lebanese
war and on Palestine--not exactly the most normal luggage for a "tourist." I
was picked up at the airport and we drove to Bourj-el-Barajneh
camp, which happened to be minutes from the airport.
Although it was once the proud "Jewel of the Orient" --
the label applied in true Orientalist fashion and adopted by
who benefited financially from the rich, jet-setting Westerners
that included the likes of Marlon Brando and Sean Connery -- the
city will never live down the legacy of its terrible civil war
of a decade and a half. When the dyke that held back the sectarian
divisions broke, it unleashed rivers of blood and despair that
flowed through this city and have forever left a terrible mark
One cannot turn his head without seeing a shell-scarred
building that fell victim to the different armies, guerillas,
forces that each took turns battling for political supremacy in
this tiny country of three million. Cars that once protected fighters
like the mother protecting her child, stand on their sides lonely
and find themselves fighting their own enemy -- rust. Despite this
there are all the staples of life in any other technologically
The airport is brand new, having been rebuilt
only a few years earlier. Internet cafes, bars, and clubs are abundant,
complete with scantily clad women and men in dire need to express
their masculinity by modifying their cars. Beirut, just like the
rest of the Middle East, seems to revel in this paradoxical existence.
But this is not the Beirut that this writer came to see. I left
Beirut minutes after I arrived, although I am still on the land
that Beirut occupies. I left Beirut when I entered Bourj-el-Barajneh
With the Arab-Israeli war of
1948, seven hundred thousand Palestinians fled their homes in Palestine
and found temporary residence in various Arab countries including
the West Bank and Gaza, which then came into the hands of Jordan
and Egypt respectively. In the Palestinian collective discourse,
this is referred to as "al-Naqba", the catastrophe.
The United Nations, then only a toddler and finding its organizational
legs, haphazardly created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
to deal specifically with the temporary crisis of Palestine refugees.
The crisis was anything but temporary. Furthermore,
the problem was only compounded by the Arab-Israeli war of 1967,
refugees fled. Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, "the Bourj" in
common parlance, was set up in the Beirut suburb of Bourj-el-Barajneh.
It was originally built to house ten thousand in the one square
kilometre it occupies, but it now has a population double that,
almost twenty thousand.
The refugee camps did not provide very
much refuge from the civil war. Be it the Israeli bombardment during
the invasion of 1982 or in the "war of the camps," where
rival factions tore up the camps, Bourj-el-Barajneh has been through
everything, and the refugees have gone along for the ride -- although
does not seem to have an end in sight and the riders seem to be
chained to their seats >>> Part
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