First of all, as you may have noticed, I have decided that after two and a half years, it’s time for a makeover. Thoughts and comments welcome…
Second, as part of what is obviously an addiction to social media, I have hopped on the Pinterest bandwagon as a way to find and share inspiration, particularly when it comes to cooking & photography. If you’re into that sort of thing, follow my boards and pin away! I’m also of course still on Twitter and Tumblr.
Third, as I was preparing my latest piece about life in Shatila, I realized how few photographs I have of the camp itself. This is mostly because I felt so self-conscious about my presence there to begin with; and hauling around my camera to document the camp’s sights just never felt quite right. So, apologies for the lack of visual stimulus connected to my Shatila entries. I hope words provide a glimpse (hopefully a more mediated and thoughtful one than a snapped photograph, which in a refugee camp just feels like an easy way out) into the month I spent there.
This is the first of five pieces I am writing to catalogue sensory perceptions in Shatila. In part it’s a simple writer’s tool: conjure a place by visualizing and describing everything you see, smell, touch, hear, and taste there. But it also seems fitting because the five senses was a unit I taught my students, whose English was quite basic (our program covered low beginning through advanced students). After exhorting them to tell me (in complete sentences!) what they were seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling, it only seems fair that I should call upon myself to do the same.
My first remark about seeing in Shatila has to do with a sense of overload. There is simply so much packed into a small space that one’s vision is assaulted. The streets and alleys are filled with people: not just Palestinians, but Syrians and other refugees and a substantial South Asian population, all seeking Shatila’s low rents (some other refugee camps must be entered through checkpoints, but Shatila essentially blends into the surrounding urban landscape as an extension of Beirut).
Look up, and you’ll see posters for political parties or for martyrs, murals depicting the Dome of the Rock or Handala, mundane banners advertising cell phone stories and defiant banners predicting the return of/to Jerusalem, and graffiti related to Arafat or Fatah (Shatila’s traditional role as a PLO stronghold was part of the reason it bore the brunt of so much violence in the 1980s). Patchworked into this milieu are signs for UNRWA institutions and NGOs like Beit Atfal and the Red Crescent. Higher up, there are long lines of drying laundry and pipes and electrical wires crisscrossing alleys and connecting buildings. After the beginning of Ramadan these were interspersed with colorful ribbons and flyers and streamers for the holy month – red, gold, blue, and green.
At eye level are many businesses of all varieties: a cell phone business every three doorways, bakeries and sandwich shops, orange juice stands with buckets of oranges and men furiously juicing, fruit and vegetable vendors, dozens and dozens of clothing stores, miscellaneous housewares for sale, and a surprisingly interesting assemblage of shoes on display.
Look down and you’ll often see mud and water, the results of inadequate drainage infrastructure. Often the ground is wet in periodic and random spots, though the summer must be nothing compared to the winter rainy season, when we’re told the flooding is incessant. There is trash, but it moves: there are garbage drop-off points that seem random at first glance but in reality are routinely emptied. There are trucks and bins and men with those long mechanical arms used to pick trash up from the ground – the problem is that there simply aren’t enough, and that there are no dumpsters to hold the trash in the meantime. So in some places there are goats trotting through the rubble, or remnants of trash betraying the location of the freshly-removed piles.
There isn’t a whole lot of light because everyone builds up, up, up: imagine every building at least five stories high, but with enough space in between each one for an adult to touch both walls at once. In the Moroccan countryside, if a family married off a son or had a windfall they would expand the house by adding an extra courtyard or two; in Shatila, they add another floor to the top of their building. By the same token there are very few trees anywhere in the camp. The one exception is at Sahat al-Shuhada, the memorial to the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which is a space that deserves its own separate description (and in any case is technically outside the bounds of Shatila itself).
One cannot really describe anything in Lebanon without adding that part of the visual experience is seeing a whole block (or street, or mountainside) lose power in an instant. In addition to scheduled power outages that everyone lives with, certain places (for example, refugee camps) experience additional frequent electrical outages, which can be immensely frustrating but also provides a stunning spectacle when most of your field of vision suddenly blacks out, and you’re left with nothing but the thoughts in your own head, staring at nothing at all.