June 05, 2011

On Food and Shatila; a Refugee Camp

Two Dutch culinary journalists in a Palestinian camp

I spent my Saturday in a humbling surrounding; the Palestinian city camp of Shatila. Two Dutch culinary writers/journalist are gathering Palestinian recipes for a cookbook, and were wondering whether the Palestinian Diaspora had generated anything new, as far as food was concerned. And so into the camps it was.

Narrow alleyways

I know that most Lebanese have an ambiguous feeling about the Palestinians in Lebanon. On the one hand they very well realize that these people have been unlucky in an incredible way. They got screwed over and over again, by the Israelis, by the Arabs, by the international community, and – probably the most significant – by their own people. And so here they live, in absolutely deplorable circumstances, with no hope of a way out.

On the other hand, many Lebanese feel that that situation they are in is partially due to their own doing. Well, maybe not themselves, but their leaders. Poor policy making, siding with the ‘wrong’ people at the ‘wrong’ time, corruption and betrayal within their own ranks have not helped their cause much. 
Electricity wires, TV cables, generator  lines,  laundry lines and plastic ropes to keep it all together

But if you ignore that, ambiguous feelings and all, and spend a day in a camp, any of the 16 camps in Lebanon, you come out with a feeling that this is just not right. Most people have no idea whatsoever what the conditions in these camps are like. Including the Lebanese. I remember that one day I did not have a translator, and my husband said he’d do the honors. I told him what camp to drive to. He had no idea where it was or how to get in. “You mean you’ve never been here?” I said.  “I have never been in any of the camps,” he replied, and he didn't think any of his friends had either.  He was 39 then. 39 years, and had never ever been inside a Palestinian camp.
This alleyway is 'realtively speaking'  wide, but look at the balconeys touching overhead.

People were not meant to live this way. Surviving this way with no glimmer of hope, in a place that is narrow, dark, damp, musty and above all, absolutely overcrowded. I’ve written about this particular camp before.

Shatila was never intended to be a camp, and it was never intended to house over 10,000 people. But there they live, and they do not have any other place to go to, so they really live on top of each other. There is no sign that says “Welcome to Shatila’, there is no fence or gate to indicate you have entered. It is one very poor neighborhood blending into another. One is filled with poor Lebanese, the next one with poor Palestinians. And even those blend.

There are some roads in Shatila that will allow cars to pass through, but the majority of the infrastructure consists of narrow alleyways, crooked, like a labyrinth. It is dim, because sunlight does not reach that deep, and the wind does not blow here either. There is a stale smell of humans, refuse and food. Most of the alleyways are less than a meter wide. On both sides iron doors in the wall give access to dark rooms, where people sit on white plastic garden chairs and sleep on mattresses on the floor. I am not making this up, I’ve just come from there. You feel like in a time machine; like you are walking through a medieval town. The Middle Ages revisited. They wouldn’t be able to produce a more authentic set in Hollywood than this one.
Peas and carrots with rice is on the menu today at Um Younes's house

And yet, after the initial distrust, after all, what on Earth could 3 female foreigners possible want with their food, things got going. We were taken on a tour through the entire camp, in search for women who could enlighten us on traditional Palestinian dishes, and the recipes that creates them. It took some time before figuring out who to look for. It had to be ladies that still remembered Palestine, and were cooking already when in Palestine. That proved to be impossible.  We’re at a fourth generation of Palestinians in this country now.  If you’re looking at ladies who had been cooking in Palestine, they would now be in their advanced nineties. With the conditions they live in, that’s turned out to be impossible. The ladies we found all were taught by their mothers while in the camp. 
This is a game I used to play at school in recess
And over time, the two kitchens, the Lebanese and Palestinian, have fused. Or rather, the Palestinian kitchen here has been infiltrated by the Lebanese. There isn’t much difference when it comes to ingredients to start with. This is logical of course, as you work with the products that are available. And so it was a search for regional differences, little ways of preparing a dish differently.

In the end, we sat in heated discussion, between women and men equally, on how a certain dish had to be prepared, and whether that was the Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Ottoman way. This region is all about fusion.  
No cars in the camp, just scooters.
And then, when you look around in their houses, 3 small rooms at the most, to an entire family,  or walk through the narrow alleyways, no sunlight, no breeze, electricity wires and laundry lines hanging overhead, and remember the history of this partciular camp (who does not remember Sabra & Shatila?), you wonder; how come they are so nice to us? Why are we being received so warmly and with open arms? Why would this guy, on his day off, go through all this effort to drag us all around this camp, and help us with our search to the authentic Palestinian Disapora cuisine? Why would they bother? Are they going to benefit from this cookbook? Are they even going to benefit from answering us one single question? Yet they went out of their way to enable us to do our work. For which we get paid, and they don’t.
The only thing I can hope for is that, with more publicity regarding the situation they’re in, somehow, little by little, more people will feel inclined to think of their side of the coin, rather than only the Israeli one (for Europeans and Americans, that is), and then maybe, maybe, one day, when Obama makes a statement like ‘ back to the borders of 1967’, people (again, Europeans and Americans) will think, ‘Of course. What other way would there be?’ And then once we have reached that point, we can start lobbying for the Right of Return.

PS. What dish did we come out with as being purely Palestinian? Makloub. Prepared especially on feats days, often by the men.


Patrick said...

As a Christian born Lebanese let me state my (apparently controversial) opinion.

This is not how human being should be treated. We should do whatever we can to change this, as soon as yesterday.

If that means giving them all Lebanese citizenship / residency so be it. Sectarian imbalance and risk of civil war my ass. People should not be treated that way no matter what.

Roger 10452 said...

I think your story is very one sided. Although I do not condone human suffering of any kind, let me give you few facts just to balance your story.

Lebanon took in the Palestinian refugees in 1948 (after most of them sold their homes at super inflated prices to the Jews), and until 1969 (Cairo accord), we the Lebanese provided them shelter, jobs, and a safe place to raise their families until they were supposed to go back to their land. Only for them to turn against us and decided to create "Fatah land" in Lebanon and claimed that the road to Jerusalem goes through Jounieh (how wrong they were!!!).

The suffering that the Lebanese people endured from the PLO between 1969 to 1982 was extremely brutal and came at a very high price. The number of Lebanese children, women and elderly murdered by them is by far higher than any casualties they took during any operations in Sabra, Shatila, Tel El-Zaatar, or any other locations. However, I guess you prefer the way things were handled in Nahr Al Bared, so we will comply with your wishes during the next phase.

How about all the illegal arms that still exist in the camps today, what purpose does it serve? How about the brutal acts of aggression by the Israelis that the Lebanese had to endure because of the PLO actions? How about the rights of the Lebanese property owners where these camps exist today? My family owns a large piece of land in the Bekaa along the Syrian border where we have not been allowed to set foot on this land because the Palestinian operate a terrorist training camp on that land. Do we have rights or not?

I could go on for hours and write books on this topic, but I suggest that these people give up all arms immediately, show some gratitude to their Lebanese host, get rid of their criminal terrorist leaders, and then we will be more than happy to pay their way to any neighboring Arab country where they can live until such day they return to their land. We have had enough suffering because of them, and now it is time for their other Arab “brothers” to carry this burden.

Lebanon has had ENOUGH, and to all those who are talking about naturalizing the PLO in Lebanon I tell them dream on baby…the day this happens is the day the streets in Jounieh will be paved with their bodies…

Patrick said...

Roger, so let's naturalize only the Palestinians that are not PLO, I guess you don't mind that do you?

Anonymous said...

Ok calm down peeps
This article was only about their difficult condition in these camps.
And just so you know Sietske , the conservative government of Canada stopped any aid to the UNRWA , in an attempt to pressure the Lebanese government to naturalize these people. And I hear every day how much the right winged Dutch foreign minister is on friendly terms with the israelis.
Palestinians are not the only ones suffering in here , Iraqis are suffering too , if not more.

But then Roger I agree 100% with what you said about their arms. I do not believe that Hezbollah's arms are more dangerous than these. Whatever Hezbollah might have in mind , we have more to fear from armed foreigners on our own land.
But then again the international community only talks of Hezbollah.
I wonder why...

Roger 10452 said...

Patrick, of course I mind!!!

The fact is very simple: Palestinians = PLO and this equation has proven to be correct and accurate times and times again. And this applies to men, women, children and even their elderly.

While my house was being attacked by the PLO I never ever heard one single Palestinian anywhere in the world condemning their actions against innocent Lebanese civilians, and you know why? they are all cut out of the same cloth and they are very ungrateful people.

Should I remind you of all the criminals, assassins and terrorists that these camps are harboring.

Should I remind you of what they tried to do in Jordan in the 70's, Kuwait in the 90's and so on and so forth.

The truth is, not a single Arab country wants them or even wants to deal with them so they stick them on us. And enough of that already...

So absolutely no naturalization to any one of them regardless of what they are called.

I understand that the purpose of this article was to shed some light on how they live in the camps, and for that alone I would not have written anything on this blog. But when references are made to what happened in Sabra and Shatila, and indirectly accusing the Lebanese people of killing Palestinians this is when I decided that all the facts need to be revealed and not only one side of the story.

So hopefully these cookbooks will make enough money so they can buy land back and leave Lebanon sooner rather than later.

Regarding HA arms, this issue is being addressed and soon will be resolved once and for all. So I am not worried about it.

Anonymous said...

Siets, do we want recipes from such ungrateful Palestinians in your cook book? I think no!

joseph said...

Sietske - better you don't make indirect references to politics. You come out looking ignorant and naive.

And I can understand your husband and his friends never stepping foot inside the camps. Even the Lebanese army and ISF are not allowed in there.

Sietske said...

Ignorant and naive? I hardly think so, young men. I've been roaming these camps for some 20 years now, longer than most of you have been living on these earth.
I had this very long reply, in which I was going to argue with all of you, trying to explain certain things. But then I thought, uhuh, why bother? They are not going to get it anyway. You see things the way you see them, and you're incapable of putting yourself in someone else's shoe.
Instead, I'll teach my children. . .

Roger 10452 said...

I understand why you are getting upset over this because chances are these "refugees" did not inflict any harm on you or your family. However for one minute you should "see things" the way we see them and it could not be any simpler. Those people that you are asking the Lebanese to show some sympathy toward or even "to put ourselves in their shoes" are the same ones who tried to put us in our graves and take over our land.

Now tell me how would you feel if someone tried to do the same to you or your homeland???

Sietske said...

I think it should be possible – if one looks from all sides - to feel both empathy towards these people, as well as anger. Hence the ‘ambiguous’ sentiments I mentioned. You have a right to feel upset and angry, but you also have the duty to feel compassion. That’s how the world turns, it’s just not going to work any other way. This place is not a one-way street, it’s all about compromises. and so you get screwed n the deal. Doesn't matter, we all get screwed.

Anonymous said...

Sietske, you have just opened the Lebanese Pandora’s box. I do feel and relate to Roger for having witnessed firsthand some of what (if not more) he refers to in his comments. I also was raised in the notion that as a human being I should not only relate to, but also feel for the plight and the poor conditions the camps were under; and so I went a couple of times in my early teens in order to give away presents and food stuff; and later on I went to collect dead bodies (Sabra and Chatila). But in the few years in between I also collected dead bodies of Lebanese who fell under Palestinian shells and bullets. I bear witness to Palestinian kids not over 11 years of age being trained for the sole purpose of killing Lebanese. I also recall, despite money spent by various UN organizations Palestinians teaching their kids how to fight instead of how to read and write. The notion of “fedaiyin” was invented by them and applied not only on Lebanese soil but in Arab and European countries as well, heck even at sea remember Achille Lauro?
My views with regards to Palestinians “refugees”, although they might be labelled radical often, do not shy away from the fact that I do believe in the right of all to live in dignity. Having said that such rights have to be earned and not taken for nothing but “simple dues”. When I see until this day all Palestinian “refugee” camps as a safe haven for all those who conspire against the “so called” state of Lebanon, I cannot but feel that all 400,000 of them have revoked any right they might have had with our “failed” state. The Cairo treaty was revoked by Amine Gemayel when he was president, and in this new era of “Arab uprising”, I just wish that the Palestinian would rise against BOTH leaderships and prove that they are worthy of a nation, let alone as citizens in any host country.
Yes no one should live in squalor, but sorry to say you can’t help those who do not want to help themselves. Yasser Arafat, Ahmad Jebril, Fatah, Al Saika...etc throughout their history did nothing more than delegitimize the Palestinian cause and put an entire nation on the top of the terrorism list in the west, and the most feared and unwanted in the Arab world.
Before Lebanon caters for the need of the Palestinians, it is only proper for this dysfunctional state of ours to cater for its own people who in their hundreds of thousands are now living below the poverty line.
Just like you Sietske, my heart aches when I see a child with no hope for the future; but I put the blame (when it comes to the Palestinian problem) onto the elderly ,4 generations back who filled their hearts with so much hatred diminishing their chance to fit into ANY society.

Anonymous said...

Funny how Mr. Rogers thinks this story is one-sided, like he was expecting the author to discuss the pros of living in squalor instead of just the cons (hmm... it's more cosy that way?).

This is as apolitical as one can be on the issue of Palestinian refugees and no one can in their right mind condone that hundreds of thousands of people (most of whom are under 30 and therefore could not possibly have taken part in the Lebanese civil war) have to live in such inhumane conditions just to satisfy his narrow sectarian chauvinistic ego.

The sad part is that every Lebanese tribe has their own weird complexes that they are unable to have a normal rational conversation about. Reading these comments here make me feel glad that I left this cesspool of a country when I had the chance...

Danielle said...

Super post Sietske. I especially like how you drew attention to the fact that even though these people are receiving nothing for their efforts to help you..this still do it..willingly, enthusiastically, and with so much pride. And after everything they have been through..that is a beautiful thing..

And yes..go on and teach your children the lessons other people refuse to learn.

Roger 10452 said...

to the "Anonymous" who is calling Lebanon a "cesspool of a country" I can tell you that some of us are very proud of our 5,000 years of civilization, and for every Lebanese-Only-When-Convenient like yourself there are hundreds who have and will continue to pay the ultimate price for our land.

So you folks go on and do your good deeds and some of us will make sure that part of our history does not repeat itself with our guests and brotherly neighbors. Good day now...

joseph said...

I didn't directly say you are ignorant and naive. I said you look it, when you make indirect political references.

My point being - why just refer to the Sabra and Shatilla massacre?

Why not refer to the War of the Camps which was just as violent and probably claimed more lives.

Given you have worked in the camps the last 20 years, when was the last time you saw Suha Arafat walking around and helping these people better their lives?