Posts Tagged ‘Shatila’

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Dancing in the streets, remembering a catastrophe

May 19, 2009

(An abriged version of this piece appeared in the Daily Star on 16 May 2008 under the title “Palestinians mark 61st anniversary of Nakba with artistic activities)

The bright festive scenes that graced the usually subdued main alleyway of Shatila refugee camp on Friday were, on first glance, misleading. With over 150 hyper-active children wielding paintbrushes and pens, drawing upon metres of paper scrolled over the walls and dancing Palestinian dabke to the booming Arabic beats that reverberated between the cramped appartments, it was hard to imagine that a catastrophe was being remembered.

Thursday 14 May marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakbe, a date signifying the beginning of the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and homes which occurred as part of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Organised by the Palestinian NGO Najde Al-Ijtima3iyya, the artistic activities taking place in the streets of Shatila on Friday were just one of several events over the past few days geared towards commemorating the Nakbe, including theatre and music productions in the UNRWA schools and demonstrations.

Maissa Akkileh, coordinator of vocational training at the Nadje centre in Shatila, says that the importance of holding events to mark the Nakbe is two-fold. “Firstly, it is essential for new generations to know what happened to their families and their ancestors. Secondly, it is about insisting that, as Palestinians, we have a right to return to the country that was forcefully taken from us.”

Indeed, for the estimated 400,000 inhabitants of Lebanon’s many refugee camps, many of them third and fourth generation Palestinians, remembering the Nakbe is about more than just paying abstract homage to a country suffering from over six decades of occupation and apartheid. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the painful and persistent reality of their displacement and consolidate hope that they will one day be able to return home.

“It’s my country,” sighs 17 year-old Dima, “even if I’ve never seen it. We need to inform the world that we have not forgotten our right to go back”.

The dream of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to return to a home is accentuated by the difficulties they face here. Unlike in other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Syria, children born of Palestinian descent in Lebanon are not eligible for Lebanese nationality, and they face a string of legal hurdles and social stigmas which prevent them from leading sustainable livelihoods.

“We are not people anymore,” laments Dima’s father, Imad. “No one remembers the Nakbe, except for the Palestinians. This is a sad and painful day for us.”

Surprisingly, Imad, Maissa and many others are optimistic about the eventual return of Palestinians to their homeland. “If not today, then tomorrow,” says Imad reassuringly. “If not for me, then for my children or grandchildren.”

It is this positive vision for tomorrow that shines through in today’s event. By providing a creative place for the children of the camp to focus on an eventual resolution to the tragedy of exile that underlies their history and their identity, Najde’s remembrance of the Nakbe seeks to nurture hopes for a better future that can lift these children beyond the often dismal realities of refugee life.

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Refugee Camp Fashion

May 14, 2009

“Are you wearing contact lenses today?” one of my students pipes up in the front row, interrupting me in the middle of a doubtlessly fascinating tirade on the difference between subject and object pronouns.

“No,” I reply, “I just forgot my glasses at home”.

“Well you look better without them,” she says decisively.

“Perhaps, but I can’t actually see very well without them either. So which is better, fuzzy vision or looking good?”

She smiles, as do the other two girls in the classroom; I think that by now they are accustomed to my cynicism.

These sort of incidents have been a recurring template during my days volunteering at the centre of the Palestinian NGO Najde in Shatila refugee camp, Beirut. Whether it’s suggestions that I should pluck my unruly eyebrows or straighten my unbrushed hair, or comments that my blue rubber flipflops are too boyish and should be exchanged for pink or yellow sandals with glistening fake diamonds, both young girls and adult women are quick to question my fashion sense (or apparent lack thereof).

But I’m not offended by these comments. Mostly, they make me laugh because I realize that, in the context of the camp and specifically considering the values that inform gender roles there, I must come across as more of a nihilistic androgynous hobo than the quirky post-hippie that I otherwise seem to come across as.

It is true that when stood next to many of the young women who are involved in the Najde centre, both students and employees, I look like a bit of a scruff. These are chics that have a selection of shoes and matching belts in every colour of the rainbow, wear tight-fitting jeans and gaze at you from beneath thick, immaculate eye make-up. Some get around in short sleeves and skimpy skirts while other, more conservative ones sport tank-tops over tight long-sleeved shirts and top the outfit off with an elaborate array of layered and patterned material for a hijab.

One of my students, 17 year-old Razan, is like a chameleon. Tall and willowy but with a shy smile, she loves drawing and dreams of one day becoming a fashion designer (luckily for her, not one of the 32 proffessions that the Lebanese government bans from Palestinians). Every day she breezes into class in an intricate outfit based around one colour and complemented with either black or white. One day it is crimson red, the next a daffodil yellow, and the next lush grass green, each item of each outfit picked to complement the shade of the day and always perfected with a white or black lace hijab. And she looks fabulous!

Just last week, we went on an outing for all the employees of the Najde centres in Beirut, Saida and Sour. In three busses we were taken to a stunning, hidden part of the Litani valley near Nabatiyeh, to a restaurant whose seating area was nestled on the bank of the river, amongst orange and lemon groves.

Some 200 of us sat from morning till evening smoking shisha, eating mezze and dancing dabke, but amongst us, there was a hard-core few who never left the dancefloor. They boogied for hours and hours, twisting their butts in super tight skinny jeans, gyrating their hips accentuated by thick sparkling belts and shaking their shoulders laden with string after string of costumer jewellery. They looked like their could have just stepped out of Top Shop on Oxford street. Except, contrary to the trend of many of their Muslim sisters in the UK who are increasingly turning towards traditional Islamic dress to manifest their piety, these demons on the dancefloor simply wore matching white lace hijabs alongside their revived retro accessories.

Increasingly, I admit that I am perplexed by the apparent contradiction of these young girls who dress in a trendy, flattering, even sexy way, and then don the hijab as an outwards sign of piety or even modesty. Obviously, some would be encouraged to wear it but I also think many do out of choice.

I wonder if, perhaps, for some of these young women, complementing their fashionista desires with a variant of Islamic dress is a conscious means of trying to express their integrity within a tight-knit society where a woman’s virtue is still defined in conservative terms (virginity, purity, loyalty, motherhood etc). Maybe it is their way of negotiating a middle ground through social gender expectations and contemporary popular culture.

Similarly, my own conscious fashion choices are equally motivated by my ideological (read feminist) leanings: a desire to not fall into what I often see as the mainstreaming of sexual objectification of women in popular culture and media. Or not bowing to partiarchally-defined standards of beauty, like removing body hair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to making oneself feel good and confident by looking pretty, but I feel that we should explore what ‘prettiness’, or even beauty, means to us creatively, and not just cut-and-paste ready-consumable models of beauty.

But particularly, in the camp, I’m also keen to dress ‘modestly’ so as not to draw too much attention to myself as an outsider, especially wary of not feeding into the stereotype of western women as sexy, or even loose. Where some of my students wear tanks tops, for example, I would never.

So within the context of the camp, set against these negotiated femininities, when pressed about my appearance (unshaven, bespectacled, dressed in loose long silk skirts and baggy tops) I obviously do not launch into a full-length feminist tirade. I do not think that would be relevant to the girls and women there.

Amongst all of the other battles that everyone is fighting in that camp, is the notion of the sexualisation/objectification of women one that they would feel was relevant to them? Is their beauty, their sexuality (often played out within the confines of their religious traditions) not being deployed as a source of feminine power, as it is often in Western societies?

Nevertheless, I do try to respond with inklings of critical thinking about what it means to dress in certain ways. A couple days ago, I told one of my students that I didn’t care about fashion, that it was more important for me to focus on personal interactions. Interestingly, I find myself echoing the argument given by some Muslim women about the veil: that they prefer to spend their energies working on perfecting their insides rather than embellishing their outsides. Slowly, I have been realising that I am articulating my own secular reasons for modesty within a quasi-religious discourse, perhaps because I think it will resound more deeply within my interlocutors.

When Fatmeh, the woman who makes tea and coffee at the centre, tried to pluck my eyebrows, I resisted, initially laughing, but then saying that I was very grateful for the body that nature (not God, but maybe same idea) had given me. That Alhamdulillah, my body functioned well, and I was satisfied with it as a whole, despite its imperfections, even sometimes despite my own insecurities.

I do not seek to be a role model, which is probably realistic because my relative strangeness in terms of appearance might foreclose that. I am also wary of coming across as some eco-feminist warrior missionary, for such dogmatism is surely never useful either. But I do consider my work in the camp, with the children and adolescents, as one of encouraging self-confidence in all its different forms, not just academically, and nurturing notions of critical thinking.

I will just seek to be true to my own ethics, as they morph and fuse with others, and try to articulate what I feel is interesting and valuable about such explorations.

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Celebrating Mothers in Shatila

March 29, 2009

The much-sung stresses of public transport in Beirut: nightmare traffic; shared taxi (‘service’) drivers that take you half-way round the city to your destination instead of a more direct route; being overcharged because of ones foreingness… Bref, hassle and lateness, combined with wind and rain, severely dampening my Friday morning.

But my spirits were immediately lifted by the pulsating bass and rhythmic clapping that floated out from the third floor of the Najde centre. The beats got louder as I hurried up the stairs and finally emerged into the big room decked out for the occasion with a low wooden stage at the front, over a hundred chairs and a booming sound-system blaring out Arabic beats. Mother’s Day celebrations in Shatila refugee camp.

There was not a free seat in the house, and almost no space to stand either. Women and children of all ages seemed crammed into every available cubic inch: perched on each others’ laps, balanced on the backs of chairs, cradled on hips. And all but the youngest newborns were contributing to the music with their hands and feet, while attentively following with enjoyment the movements of the young dancers on the stage.

There were eight girls and boys, no more than seven years old, decked out in silken shirts the colours of the Palestinian flag and black and white kuffiyehs. Their movements were out of synch, sometimes clumsy, and I could see the ones in the back row attentively watching the movements of those in the front in order to know what was coming next. They stamped their feet and moved their hips to the throbbing beat of the music, occasionally throwing in a twirl and a waving of the kuffiyeh.

Now, I think that it is impossible for a kid to not look adorable when their dancing, no matter how technically imperfect the performance. And these little debutants were no exception. In fact, their charm was multiplied by the infusion of energy coming from the audience. The enjoyment of their spectators translated into their own pleasure in their performance, played out on their faces as the concerted effort one makes to not let concentration be disturbed by a smile.

After the dance, there was a short skit  performed by some older girls, aged between 11 and 13. They were dressed in long black jalabiyyas with bright red, orange and green hand-woven embroidery round the collar, products of Najde’s handicrafts programme. Some lingered in the background, imitating women’s household chores of sweeping, cleaning and cooking, while others read out passages praising the hard work of mothers, and women in general. Their efforts, commitment and sacrifices, the girls reminded us, should be remembered not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

More dances followed, one by a different group of girls similarly dressed in embroidered robes, and then another by a group of 12-13 year-old-boys, clad in black and white checkered t-shirts with matching kaffiyyes wrapped around their heads. The music started with an empty stage, and as the beat progressed, one at a time the boys hopped on the stage from infront, each of them wiggling on stage in a way that way half-dabke and half-hip-hop, until they were all taking turns getting down, to the great pleasure of their spectators, who continued clapping in rhythm.

Half-way through the performance, a member of the audience joined the boys on stage, waving a red and white kafiyyeh round her head in circles. After a few seconds, it was obvious that she was the mother of one of the boys, as her attention was focused mostly on him and she encouraged him with endearing gestures. Very soon after, she was joined by another woman from the audience, also a mother of one of the dancing boys, and the two women proceeded to gyrate their hips, twirl their hands  and wave their checkered scarves energetically, while the boys wiggled around them.

The vitality of the dancing was contagious. At the mothers’ intervention, the audience went from enthusiastic to wild, some women rising from their seats to clap and stamp their feet, others covering their mouths with their hand to wave their tongues back and forth in their mouths and formulate the iconic ‘u-lu-lu-lu-lu’ syllables of celebration.

Between my own clapping and laughter, I thought about how wonderfully different this series of children’s performances was from all that I had ever staged in primary school. My head was flooded by images of my young self and my companions at our devastatingly British schools in that far-away Caribbean colony: bleached white polo shirts, navy blue trousers and skirts; all stood in utmost obedience in a regimented line; orderly taking turns to articulate some perfectly memorised, formulaic phrase. And the soft, proper clapping of our parents, fit for a golf tournament, as they satiated themselves in our groomed, disciplined behaviour. All of that worlds apart from the veritable festivities now frolicking before me.

It was all so imperfectly passionate, so spontaneous. The lines between audience and performer were porous, their relationship symbiotic, one giving life to the other according to  the unpredictability of inspiration. The performance came to be one in which script was negligible and impulse was everything, in which mothers and sons laughed and danced together on a stage but not as a spectacle; their places there were as entertained as well as entertainers, as subjects in their own enjoyment as opposed to objects in the enjoying eyes of others.

But I did not have long to reflect much more on such things, because Maissa, the director of the Najde centre at Shatila, was pulling me by the arm up onto the stage, where the boys and their mothers had been joined by at least 10 more people, adults and children alike. My feigned reluctance was inadequate to prevent myself being hauled amongst the jiving crowd, where I tried in vain to shake my hips in similar smoothness to those of my colleagues’, to little avail and the amusement of much of the audience. But I harnessed my embarrassment, tried my best to keep in rhythm with the drums blaring out from the speakers, and grinned along with all the smiling faces around me.