olfactory mukhayyam musings

mukhayyam (Arabic): camp, literally an encampment or place where tents are; also used to refer to a refugee camp

In the second installment of sensory perception in Shatila (read about seeing Shatila here), I’m continuing on to the camp’s smells and aromas. Some are just what you’d expect in a crowded place with few services: trash, the occasional whiff of sewage, and so forth. But after a few days I quickly learned there were dozens of smells I did not expect. They were a part of my own education about the camp as a whole: Shatila has all the things we’ve been conditioned to look for in a refugee camp (exposed electrical wires, crowded dwellings, et al). But all those things amounted to just a fraction of our experience there.

Despite and beyond the smells or sights we’ve been trained to look for in a place like Shatila, once there you’re struck by the people, the food…

oh the food
oh the food

…the schools, homes, businesses, orange juice stands, cell phone shops, stores that sell really cool towels with maps on them – the 90% of reality that is simply people living their everyday lives. This isn’t to downplay or minimize the problems in Shatila, which were profound, but rather to emphasize the importance of understanding that there is so much more to these communities than violence, trauma, and poverty.

Stepping outside in the morning on my walk to school, the first thing that hits me is the smell. While the air is not fresh, it doesn’t smell of raw sewage either – but there is a faint sewage-y smell mixed in, as though the plumbing and sewer systems are functioning but a little too sluggishly in the summer heat. It’s not something unique to a refugee camp; I recognize the smell from many other cities, but the difference is that the way Shatila is constructed, so restricted and filled with winding alleyways, that there’s nowhere for the smell to disperse or be diluted, even when the hot and humid air is stirred by a breeze.

This smell blends with the faint odor of trash, which is collected systematically, but not always regularly, and never from established containers – piles of small, full trashbags accumulate at corners somehow known to all the locals though they seem unmarked, at first, to us. The piles do disappear almost daily, but often leave a trail of scraps or leakage.

But beyond these smells there are many, many more. There’s the crisp, slightly burnt smell of fresh manaqeesh coming out of the oven in the morning, accompanied by the marvelous savory smell of zaatar. There is the heavenly smell of perfectly ripe cantaloupe and freshly prepared Palestinian lunches that are brought to us daily, and the mouthwatering oily smell of falafel and tawuq and the other street foods we picked up at night. The smell of nargileh (aka hookah) mixes with cigarette smoke in the alleys, and in the wider streets this blends with the fumes and exhaust of motorbikes darting through crowds. At night (during Ramadan, at least), the air is punctuated by firecrackers that leave their own smoky trails behind.

a) beautiful and b) delicious
lunch: a) beautiful and b) delicious

In the more open market areas there is more exhaust and smog from the cars that herd people out of their way, plus the smells of fresh fruit and vegetables (plus cilantro and mint) in the morning – which gradually morphs into the smell of gently rotting fruit at the end of the day. At the end of the market is a pungent rubbish pile that smells cloyingly sweet and oddly nondescript. In the rare open spaces, there is a dusty, dry smell, betraying the lack of trees. Inside the shops much of the merchandise has a plastic, made-in-China smell: simultaneously sterile and mildly sour. And in the air-conditioned grocery store just outside the camp, the severely cool and manufactured air gives the whole place a non-sort-of-smell.

The building where we held classes was being repainted this summer, so each morning before the students arrived, the smell of paint and paint thinner permeated our stairways (we didn’t really have hallways, since the school is built straight upwards), just waiting to mingle with the strident cologne our male students wore to class – which seemed a bit excessive, until 20 minutes in a hot dark classroom made our faces run with sweat and we would remember how, despite our best bathing and laundering efforts, many days the smell that stuck out the most was our own.

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