Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nahr al-Bared comes to Beirut

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A camp resident explains entry restrictions into the camp (Author's photo)

I had already been intrigued for some time by reports of the new Nasawiya Café in Mar Mikhael (drink beer on a sofa surrounded by intelligent women? If you insist…). So when I then heard they were hosting a live talk with residents of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp last night, I saw no reason not to attend.

Somewhat shaken by the verbal abuse meted out at the entrance (a simulation, you see, of the camp’s notorious army checkpoints), and feeling vaguely as though I’d walked into a Hunter Thompson novel, I squeezed myself between the wall and the roughly 150 other attendees while a camp resident expounded on this or that aspect of camp life with the aid of a projected slideshow. As someone whose Arabic is, shall we say, sub-Qabbanian, I couldn’t follow more than the general gist of what he and his co-residents were saying. However, we were subsequently shown a screening of Sandra Madi’s documentary, ‘Nahr al-Bared: Mokhayyam I3tiqal’ (‘Detention camp’), with English sub-titles, and after two hours which also included a Skype Q&A with Madi and other refugees live from the camp, a central point had amply emerged.

Which is, in summary, that the overwhelming majority of the camp’s thousands of residents are non-violent non-Islamists who have, for the last five years, been subjected to highly unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on movement, labour, commerce and the general ability to attain a basic standard of human dignity. Stories of absurd harassment recall the occupation of Palestinians in another territory: one resident told of a schoolbus being prevented from entering because one of the girls had the ‘wrong’ kind of ID (unique among Palestinians in Lebanon, those of Nahr al-Bared have to carry not one but three kinds of government-issued documents).

Quite apart from the humanitarian considerations, this does the Lebanese government no favours. As one resident put it: “I was against Fatah al-Islam, we all were. So if the Lebanese government won [in 2007], then I should have won too. But they treat me as if I was the loser.” The implication here applies to camps around the country: by alienating rather than partnering with peaceful Palestinians – who, as already noted, are the vast majority – the government only empowers the extremist fringes. The day will come when this is yet again a problem for the Lebanese as much as for the Palestinians.

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