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Travelers

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

By Sina Rahmani
December 19, 2003
The Iranian

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 be awakened rudely by a youngish security guard who informed that the quiet, peaceful area of the airport I had found was indeed a restricted zone. Oops.

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 the country 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 smart 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 thought.

The second round of customs was particularly interesting: this portly, balding man who looked like he belonged in some old spy 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 civil 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.

Beirut
Although it was once the proud "Jewel of the Orient" -- the label applied in true Orientalist fashion and adopted by the locals 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 here.

One cannot turn his head without seeing a shell-scarred building that fell victim to the different armies, guerillas, navies, air 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 advanced country.

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 refugee camp.

"The Bourj"
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, where more 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 this rollercoaster does not seem to have an end in sight and the riders seem to be chained to their seats >>> Part 2

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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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