Monday, July 13, 2009
Salams All :)
I was advised to copy and paste the entire text here. Usually I go for short and sweet but I'll try something new*
Click Ain El Helwe for background information on the place.
Ein El Helwe Camp -- 2009
“I’ll be wearing a red shirt. That’s how you’ll know me”. It was around 1pm under the sizzling sun in Saida (Tyr) home to my family from my father’s side. Inside Saida is a refugee camp known for being most notorious and over-populated. It is walled with a concrete fence that separates the camp from the rest of town. Only Palestinians live inside, and only they are allowed to walk in and out of the camp that has security blocks at every entrance.
The camp is about a two hour bus ride from Beirut. The bus station in Saida was crowded with taxi drivers hustling to get the passengers away from the buses, and vice versa. I didn’t expect to see so many shops and buildings in the town of Saida – it’s been hit so many times during the war. But I figured I’ll see the difference in the camp itself when I get there, it holds about 70,000 people, my aunt later tells me, and you can go around the entire place in less than half an hour. Crowded. That’s the picture.
I sat on the side of the road just inside the bus loop waiting to spot a young girl in a red shirt. This would be the first time in my life that I’d see my aunt and her family of seven children, the ones living with her. She has another four living abroad.
Sitting. My head down. Exhausted from the ride. I lift my head up. My eyes hit the eyes of a woman, old, heavy, veiled, dark-skinned, her eyes searching. I had a feeling. I locked my eyes on hers so she had no choice but to look at me. Then I say, “aunty Bahija?” She looks like her. She looks like my sitti (grandmother). Almost a photocopy of her. My aunt smiled and came over to hug me. Yasmine, her daughter with the red shirt, followed from afar as she was in the middle of sending me a text message to say they’ve arrived. She didn’t need to do that anymore. The contact was made.
What do you say, really, when you meet family-strangers? What’s the procedure when you meet family for the first time?
In this awkwardness mixed with a high level of comfort as if sitting with the past, with my sitti and daddy, like being at home but not really, me and aunty and Yasmine sat in the taxi that drove us from the bus station to the refugee camp, about a 12 minute ride. Quickly, our conversation moved from random stuff like, “you look like our side of the family” or “Saida is not what I imagined it to be” -- to succinct directions from my aunt on how to enter the refugee camp gate. I did not have my permit with me that day, my aunt knew this so she was devising a way to get me in there un-noticed by the guard at the gate.
“Hold my arm and walk close to me while Yasmine walks behind you. If he asks, we’ll say you’re my daughter and you’ve forgotten your permit today”. Luckily, the guard never asked and we walked straight in. I looked up, from the un-paved, broken, dirt filled ground of the street so narrow it barely fit one person. Up above were the buildings, low roofs, peeled decaying walls, cable wires cut in half and hanging from poles, puddles of muddy water in potholes everywhere, a lingering smell from drainage, and on the side there, yeah, over there is a little girl, happy, eyes smiling, in a messy dress, playing with a group of children. Over ahead of us is a group of teenage boys, shirtless soaking in the sun as they watch pedestrians walk past them.
We turn so many corners. Like rats in a maze. This is the second Palestinian refugee camp I’ve been to in Lebanon and the feeling is the same: how on earth do people know how to get around in these camps? No cross-sections, no borders, no end or beginning of something, a street, definitely no street name, and for land marks, well, to my untrained eye, every house looked just about the same, and so does the unpaved rough muddy dirt filled narrow walkways, sometimes called a street.
I could easily get lost in one of these ‘houses’ in a refugee camp, not because it’s big, at all, but because of its architecture. But that’s another story.
While we walk, and while I take in my surroundings, my ears want to notice the way my aunt talks. Heavy Palestinian (we’re from Acre, originally in Palestine) dialect with a deep mature tone that’s soft yet tough, has speed yet is easy to follow. Not without effort to speak, she’s old, heavy and with high blood pressure. All together like music to my ears.
We enter a narrow decaying old beige door. We face an open space. On the right hand side is the neighbor’s “house”, and on the left is my aunt’s house. A shared space to the point that when the neighbor washes his car (which he uses as a taxi in Saida outside the camp) my aunt’s house gets soaked. No wonder there’s so much humidity in the house, Or is it from the other neighbor, on the other side who washes and drains her laundry just above my aunt’s dining room walls, from the outside, so the walls soak up all the water?
In anycase, I walk in. First, I get introduced to my cousin Nada, then Abir, then Ibrahim, then Miriam. Finally, Ali. Maysoon wasn’t’ there. And then I hugged the two little girls. No. Wait. They’re the neighbor’s kids. See, my aunt leaves the main door of the house open for air to come in, which means just about anyone might be in her face at anytime. Consequently, she never leaves her hijab. It’s either in her pocket, in the kitchen, at the main door, or even, check this, tucked neatly in her pants under her abayah. Or (giggles) tucked in her bra.
Which obviously means I couldn’t take off my hijab either the entire time for the same reasons, but also because of her sons, who don’t work or go to school. Including Ali, who is a 30 year old adult unlike the rest. Ali had spent eight years in the gulf, Kuwait. He worked as a camera-man for special events. After eight years, his Syrian boss fires him. He’s now back to his parent’s house. Not working. Not married to the girl he was engaged to in Kuwait, and not with money which he spent in Kuwait. For a young man in the prime of his life, I wish him better things and a better life. But given that he only has the Palestinian ID, he cannot work much in Lebanon, and not much in places in the Middle East. He’s thinking of going to the Unites States – to his other sister, Hanan, the pride of the family. I’ll tell you about her later.
We talked so much me and the girls that by the time it was late afternoon/evening, I had sweat about a gallon worth of my bodily liquids. From the heat. The house, lower ground, is made of a small sitting-room cleaned up for guests. It has a small door. Open it and you’ll be in the T.V room which has a T.V, two floor mattresses for sitting and a huge wall-to-wall closet for storage. My aunt has the master key to the main cabinet that holds such things a shampoo, soap, biscuits, other condiments and of course, her purse with money. She opened that closet about 10 times a day in order to send little Ibrahim to buy her things from the corner store. First it was some rice. Then oil. Then watermelon for me. Then ice-cream for me. Then cheese for me. To go with the watermelon. Then Mulukiyyah (spinach) for me. Aunty fed me all day long. And Ibrahim kept going to that store all day long. With bribes of course, of a dollar per trip which came out of my aunt with tons of guilt trips to little Ibrahim, such as, “ wouldn’t you rather get my blessings as your mother than that dollar?” To which Ibrahim answers, “No”. That day he gathered all his bribe-money and went to the beach.
Next to the dining room, on the side, is a small entrance-opening. Walk through it and you’re in the kitchen. A table, a fridge, a stove, a sink. Look up and up above the stove is a big whole/space in the wall covered with curtains. It’s a storage space. Look down from there to the side next to the stove and you’ll see the bathroom. Toilet, sink and an opening inside the wall that’s uncovered. It’s the shower.
To go upstairs, you need to step outside the house. Yes. The girls have to put on their hijab each time because they are literally outside. Then, you walk a bit and there’s a staircase that leads to an upper level above the ground level house. Those are the bedrooms. A door, decaying beige one, insert the keys to get in. Once inside, I’m confused. Yes. I still get confused on how to get around such a small space, too. For example, the girl’s bedroom is separated from the corridor with curtains. The other bedroom has no door, it’s on the right hand side. Inside that bedroom is another door to another bedroom where aunty supposedly sleeps. Come out of all this, step back and you’re inside a T.V room (yes, lots of TVs in my family) and if you sit and look out the window, no, if you stick your arm out, you can touch the neighbor’s wall. Not the Taxi-driving neighbor, but the other one.
I told the girls I’d need directions just to walk around the house, so small with two levels to it and two entrances and an outside staircase.
We laughed. I knew before I came that it’ll be a new scene for me. One that would require my camera for photos and video recording. But I decided not to bring it with me. Not the first time. Not to my family. I didn’t want to use them like they were an interesting subject/site/scene for my camera or for my studies or even for my blog. Let the human experience the human – leave the cameras for later. Atleast after I’ve soaked it all in and especially after getting their permission. I could sense that my aunt wants to be interviewed by me about life in the camps. I sensed this when I talked to her about my studies and my journalism and how I am seeking to work with a local Palestinian researcher/journalist in Saida on interviews. Turns out she knows the man I’m talking about, he’s been her neighbor in the camps for many years and she admires his journalistic work.
Small world. But what’s better is that my own aunt who lived in the refugee camp for over fifteen years, who gave birth to most of her children in the camp, considers herself removed from the ‘true’ authentic Palestinian experience, as in those “true” ones who witnessed all the wars in there, all the deaths, the internal strife, division betweed Palestinian groups, those who ‘sold out’ and helped enemies, those who killed, those who survived and fought for their freedom. The mothers who gave their sons up for the cause, or those who died trying. My aunt witnessed only one war and she lived for many years abroad. For this reason, she feels it’s important to tell not only her story, but also the stories of the older generation of Palestinians who she knows, heard their stories. She wants, I feel, to honor them (especially those who passed away) by telling her story in comparison or contrast to theirs in order to deliver the larger picture, the diverse experiences in the camp of her generation, the older ones, and even, in forecast, the stories that her children might have.
I’ve always wondered about those reporters who come to the camps and take a few pictures, do a couple of interviews with translators, and then go back to report as if experts all of a sudden, on the Palestinian situation. I get mad at something like this. I will run interviews and I will take pictures. And I will never call myself an expert on the situation. My own aunt who lived here for 15 years hesitates to call herself a “true” Palestinian because she hasn’t experienced all of it. What gives me the right, or anybody from the outside, to pretend we know it all, to know such a complex life and place just by taking a few pictures? There is a market for the question of Palestine, but we’ll talk about that later.
I’ve always known that my father’s sisters aren’t big fans of my mother. I know this in a superficial way, kind of like knowing the name of a person, but not knowing much about that person himself or herself. To me, I’ve always known that the ladies aren’t best friends. Period. But I still brought the topic up with aunt. We were in the kitchen where she was feeding me, of course, and we talked about how we’ve lost contact of each other for so many years. Then, suddenly, my aunt says what can be translated as, “may Allah swt forgive your mother”. I quickly say to her, “ we have to talk about this, your relationship with mom”.
My aunt smiles and moves on to wash the dishes, somehow changing the subject. And over two days, each time my mother comes up in a conversation, either my aunt has no reaction, or she shows a face that is obviously suppressing reaction. She’d answer or react in a passionless way, like we were talking about taxes.
Vice versa is also true. When I later called my mother from my apartment to tell her about my weekend, her reactions were also very similar, passionless. I imagine that if by some miracle, the two ladies were to open up to me about their past and their relationship with one another, I bet I’d hear lots of criticism, blame, unforgiven pain, unhealed wounds, maybe even hate. And somewhere in there was my father.
I was praying duhr in the living room at my aunt’s house, then I look up and on the shelf were some pictures. One of them was that of my father looking at the camera, posing with his regular glasses on, his wristwatch that he wore all the time, standing there at the sea-side with the Mediterranean sea behind him with some ships at the dock. He was around 50 years old, dark skinned from all the hot climate countries he’s been to all his life, now sporting that famous thick mustache he always had, and his smile, of course. My aunt and Yasmine were in the room with me when I was praying. When I finished and looked up, Yasmine pointed me to the pictures on the shelf to show me the rest of her brothers and sisters on graduation day, but my eye caught my dad’s picture.
Yasmine was saying, “And this is my brother Ahmad who graduated from university. And this is my sister and me and my … “. “Is that my dad?” I ask. “Yes, it is” says Yasmine who continues “and that’s my other sister over here on her graduation from highschool and … “. “ That’s my dad” I say, almost in trance like talking to myself, eyes nailed on him. Yasmine stops talking, she’s silent now, and so is my aunt. I just saw a picture of my dad not in some photo album in Canada, not in any other country but on the shelf in Ein El Helwe refugee camp on Palestinian territory in Lebanon inside his sister’s house.
But like I said, my mother and this side of the family weren’t best friends and this means that that loveless marriage between my parents which terrifies me so much, has deeper roots that just two people with uncommon interests. I’ve sensed this before but I never knew how to think about it.
What could possibly dry up a marriage especially after five kids and so many years? It must be forces large and outside the immediate family. Or atleast such things contribute to it all. It’s all one big circle of influence, especially because my father was the eldest in his family and was connected to them in many ways but mostly out of responsibility. And also, my mother always identified with her family as in defined herself year after year and many miles away from Lebanon, always in relation to her family.
Therefore, I come from a disconnected family. Immediate and extended. And now I realize and acknowledge that it could only be this way. And I could have only feared a loveless marriage. And it stems from many points of emotional disconnections that happened over many years and for various reasons between my parents, who tried hard for their kids to keep it normal. But now I see they could have never won the fight. But only dance to its rhythm until the end of their time. I know when I marry, I will always fear a loveless marriage. I also know it all depends on my other half, and the kind of history he will bring with him, the “chemicals” so to speak that will mix with mine. And if the chemicals don’t spark, at least now I know how to think about it all. And if the chemicals do spark, I know I’ll take the extra mile to maintain it.