Diary from the Lebanon
Author: Sina Rahmani
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 05/12/2003
Beirut : Jewel of the Orient
I arrived in Beirut 20 hours ago. (18 May)
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, including 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 one’s head without seeing a shell-scarred building that fell victim to the different armies, guerrillas, navies, air forces that each took turns battling for political supremacy in this tiny country. 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.
With the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, three 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 Releif 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, more than twenty…..
The conditions in the camps are horrible. The camp entrance is to be
found off Annan street in the Beirut suburb of Bourj-el-Barajneh. The
first thing one notices is not the smiling portrait of Yasir Arafat
that seems to make the man out to be larger than his five-feet four
inches, but the smell. The smell of garbage is not only terrible, but
is also serves as the first test of wits for the idealistic ajnabi (foreigner/guest) who
steps foot into the camps; for although the smell of garbage is so
strong that it burns the sinuses, there are only a few scraps of
garbage that can be seen. The smell seems to hang over the specific
square kilometre that the camp occupies, reminiscent of the Don
Delillo’s White Noise.
Further confusing the poor ajnabi are the camps intricate pathways.
Although use of the term pathways is misleading because there are no
paths in the camp and one must find his own way. Putting aside the
emotional chaos one feels realizing how many people actually live in
these camps, part of the problems for outsiders in the sheer lack of
mobility. This exists on both the psychological and physical levels.
Indeed there is no physical space in the camps; the paths at some
points are about 35 cm wide. The most spacious path that I have been
able to find–what foreigners last year decided to name Champs
Elysees–is about 75 centimeters wide. This creates some sort of
demented Indiana Jones like gauntlet where the poor ajnabi must
navigate through the sewage, mangle pavement, tight turns, leaking
water pipes, and the windows opening in the face (I had the personal
privilege, but the locals had a good hoot over that one and told me it
happens to everyone). The greatest part of the entire charade is that
there are no signs or arrows or any distinguishing “you are here”
spots. All one has to go by is the landmarks: a broken pipe here, a
poster from Fath or Hamas there. So, unless one’s Arabic is strong
enough to converse with the locals well enough to understand the
complicated directions, the visitor is at the whim of the coordinators
or the people they send to pick you up.
“Blame the Palestinians”
“One cannot understand the Lebanese civil war without understanding
what happened to the Palestinians. Palestinians upset the delicate
balance of Christians, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims that Lebanon had
maintained,” I was told by a learned Lebanese professor about the
cause of the civil war. This is him, of course, forgetting the fact
that sectarian divisions had been building for decades before the civil
war. Forgetting the fact that while the Christians of the north were
becoming immaculately rich, the Shia of the south were growing poorer
and poorer. Forgetting the fact that a census had not been done since
the 1930s, and Lebanon’s “balance” of political power was unfavourably
weighed towards the Christians. Forgetting the fact that Lebanon’s
sectarian divisions had been a source of violence since the 1800s.
This does not stop many Lebanese people from blaming a lot of things
on the Palestinians. Not only do they blame the civil war as a whole
on the Palestinians, but also many different aspects of the civil war.
This blame has manifested itself in the form of the structured and
legislated discrimination. Palestinian refugees do not have the ability to
work in 79 different professions in Lebanon and do not have the
ability to vote. The camps are not allowed to expand or even have
telephone lines (although with the wireless revolution, technology has
allowed Palestinians to circumvent the racism in this case). They are
not allowed to have passports, and are only granted “travel documents”
through a long and expensive process. This can be to no avail because
foreign governments often don’t grant Palestinians visas out of fear
that they might claim, of all things, refugee status.
Falafel is getting tiring
Falafel is getting tiring. Let me relate to you a conversation I had in a restaurant.
“Do you have anything without meat?”
“Because I am vegetarian.”
“Oh, ok. Do you eat chicken?”
“How about lamb?”
“Hold on.” The waiter saunters off to the back of the restaurant. A couple of seconds of silence is followed by “What?..HAHAHAHAHAHAH.” The waiter comes back and says, “No problem, we have turkey and salami.”
Bio: Sina Rahmani is an Iranian-Canadian student activist living in Canada
studying political science and critical theory at McMaster University.
He is currently in Beirut working with a Palestinian NGO in
Bourj-el-Barajneh refugee camp as part of a larger cultural exchange
programme. For more information, go to