2010
01.25

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT OF THE  PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP SABRA

Satareh had disapprovingly called it “Social Tourism” when I mentioned my interest in a Palestinian Refuge Camp a while ago.  I fully understand where she is coming from.  But during her party I met Jihad Saad, who himself expressed an interest in visiting the camp and who offered to go there with me.  I do feel a bit self-conscious and hypocritical visiting a Palestinian Refugee Camp.  At best it reminds me of the humiliation I felt when West German visitors would come to East Germany – not our relatives, but the tourists – who at most would spend a couple of days to find out how those East Germans lived and then were privileged enough to just leave and go about their ways, whereas we were stuck inside.  Since the West Germans had to pay/exchange money to enter the country, it always reminded me of being in a zoo pacing back and forth like a lion who would rather be in the desert in Africa.   And here I am…

Curiosity got the better of me and Jihad’s encouragement helped, too.  Political issues, and the way too complex history of why these camps are in existence in the first place, aside – those issues are too big for this blog and stir up way too much heat.  The undeniable fact remains that no matter where on the political spectrum one stands – it is a shame for all of humanity that there are people who have to live in conditions like this.

I don’t know what I expected.  In Jordan I had visited a camp once before just briefly, and it was very much like a town.  After all, these camps were meant as temporary shelters but over the course of nearly 60 years have turned into just that:  towns:  Permanent buildings, ever expanding, ever getting more crowded as on a fixed parcel of land more and more people are born and forced to live together.

Often we were not sure if we were inside or outside the camp.  The lines are fluid.  But a sure thing of being inside is the sight of crowded, garbage-filled, small alleys, often unpaved.  There are shops, work areas, homes, schools, even a cemetery (which we missed) and a mosque.  Life looks normal.  But these people are locked up there even though they are free to go.  Where can you go without an ID, without a work permit, without civil rights?  The Lebanese police have no jurisdiction in the camps.  No government services are provided either.  NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) take care of business there.

Not only Israel, but Lebanon and other Arab countries, has a history of persecuting Palestinians.  Major massacres took place over time.  A dingy, garbage-infested grassy courtyard held faded posters of the massacres in 1982 and 2006, which took place in this particular camp, Sabra.  No care.  No information.  Not much of a memorial.  Looks to me like a piece of undigested history.  It is hard to come to terms with history in the Middle East as the common line is to blame Israel without recognizing the part each of the other countries have played to create and perpetuate the problem.  But…, I said no politics.  I apologize.

Right outside of the apartment where I live there is a strange looking circle filled with rusty structures and a parking lot at the parameters of the circle:  The site of a former Palestinian refugee camp!  All inhabitants were massacred here during the civil war.  Today, the rusty parts are the superstructure of a fancy, super-expensive, trendy bar!  What can I say…

From the camp, Jihad took me for a drive through the Shiite neighborhood of South Beirut.  The contrast to the camp could not have been more striking.  I have been walking for a few days through Beirut to know that narrow alleys, ruins, crowded housing, and garbage can be found anywhere else, too.   Not as condensed as in the camp and not with the social restrictions of the camp.  But the suburb we drove through was strikingly different.  Wide paved roads, lots of traffic, many high rises, all looking well tended to and new.  There was money here!  This was especially surprising because this was South Beirut, the neighborhood which Israel heavily bombed a few years ago as it is a Hezbollah stronghold.  Reconstruction obviously had progressed at lightning speed in contrast to many other more central Beirut neighborhoods.  Why?  Money from Iran!  And there the circle closes again.  As long as Iran fuels Hezbollah, Israel will attack and the Palestinian problem will only be aggravated.  The cat which bites its own tail.  The story will never end.  Or will it?  Can it?  I guess, it’s just a rhetorical question.

A word about Jihad Saad and his girl friend Karina Wehbe.  I met both of them at Setareh’s party.  Wonderful people!  Karina is an artist – see my update at the bottom of Day 9 – who studied graphic art and design in France and is working on various projects, photos, and installations dealing with social issues of Lebanon’s past.  Jihad is writing a master’s thesis on marketing which he tried to outline for me.  But it was over my head.  I had to ask him about his name, of course.  Even though he must face this question all the time, he patiently explained it to me. His Christian parents, about 30 years ago felt that it was important to build bridges across religious lines.  Instead of choosing a Christian name for their kids, they chose Jihad – clearly a Muslim name for him, and Sara – clearly a Jewish name for his sister.  I can only imagine the continuing challenge both of them face.  But perhaps, it’s also a real opportunity to start dialogue.  It certainly did that for me.

Another day in lovely Beirut and the last day that had rain in the forecast!  The next few days should be cold but full of pure sunshine.  I am looking forward to a few more day trips to places of the past.

Loading images was not possible, again.  I worked on just trying to upload one image for over ½ hour.  I can’t afford this kind of frustration and waste of time, so I am giving up and count on your patience.  I will make another trip to the Internet café before my time in Lebanon is up:  Only four more days.

For now:  Good night-.

3 comments so far

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  1. Despite the frustration factor the images do a lot to add to your narrative, so if it is possible to visit an internet cafe, know that at least one of your readers appreciate it. Also…thanks for asking your new aquaitance about his name. I thought maybe I was reading it wrong or that there was a pronunciation difference, etc. As always: be safe and good adventures!

  2. Thank you for the detailed report about your visit to the refuge camp.
    I liked your thought about going there as a tourist thinking about what it might feel like to the people living there and your comparison to our situation in East Germany when West-German tourist came to check out the life behind the iron curtain.
    I too felt like a zoo animal, caged with my wings clipped.

    Now you only have 4 days left.
    What are your plans?
    I checked the Lebanon map on Lonely Planet
    and was wondering if you are planning to explore more of the north,
    like Baalbek , Bcharré and Tripoli.
    I will do a rain dance for you ! 😉

  3. Hello Elisabeth,
    I am starting to get familiar with your blog site. But I am only on 1-19 and it is late. I will start making it my morning routine to read your blog – what a nice suggestion. I am not going to ask any questions as the answers might be in 1-20 to 1-25. Loved your “shoe ironing act”! Very creative. Will write to Cabella’s and tell them about it. One more thing to add to their advertisement.
    Have a great day,
    Yvonne
    PS: Your necklace is never far away – making sure you will come home safely!