Memory of Massacre—A Story from Beirut
September 16 was the anniversary of the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut, Lebanon. Sabra and Shatila are two Palestinian refugee camps that were set up in 1948 to accommodate a large number of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcefully displaced by the creation of the State of Israel. Between September 16 and 18, 1982, the murder of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese men, women, and children was carried out by a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia as the Israeli Defense Forces sealed off exits of the camp and sent flares in the air to illuminate the sky for the attackers. As recently exposed from Israeli State Archives and presented in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, the United States was aware of the attacks and did not pressure Israel to end them. Although it was not the only massacre during the unfathomably bloody civil war in Lebanon that lasted from 1975-1990, it is an emotional memory of place and death that hit me hard when I was studying in Lebanon last fall.
During my semester at the American University of Beirut, I often found myself avoiding the familiar environment of this particularly Americanized part of the city. I felt that the AUB, and the surrounding areas of Beirut that it influences, obscured my experience and made it difficult to connect with the more indigenous aspects of Lebanon. So I navigated the unique Lebanese transportation system (semi-organized chaos) to spend time in places that were more exciting to me than the hip coffee shops, high-end clothing stores, and rooftop clubs—although I won’t lie, an occasional dip into the Lebanese spirit of hedonistic abandon in one of Beirut’s seemingly infinite bars and clubs was never too dull either.
Jumping out of a shared taxi onto the street that runs between Sabra and Shatila, I found it always full and in motion—people, cars, scooters, carts, food, trash, cheap things to buy—an overwhelming sensory experience that felt like an entirely new world. This is how my journeys into Shatila began. On my first visit, I spent time observing, having casual conversations, buying some bootlegged “habiby” CDs, or a pistachio dessert. I returned on the weekends regularly, eventually exploring deeper into Shatila. I had fewer and fewer qualms about being in a place not advised to visit by the State Department and many Lebanese largely influenced by sectarian suspicions. It struck me to find, among the residents, the same unique Palestinian spirit of hospitality and warmth that I felt the second I had made it through the Israeli border and into the hands of Palestinians in the West Bank some months earlier.
This is one of the reasons my time spent in Shatila made such an impression on me—I felt Palestine. But I also sensed the tragic effect of separation from one’s homeland on those residing in the camp. I was among a restricted community of people removed from Palestine for three or four generations. They cannot make the trip a few hours south to return home; many of their homes either no longer exist or are occupied by Israeli families. They are not given citizenship or equal rights in Lebanese society, but still very much hold on to their identity as Palestinians; many still have their housekeys for the day they are able to return.
Most of my memories in the refugee camp revolve around a young "dabke” troupe. Dabke is a Levantine folk dance that has been taken up as an expression of Palestinian nationalism and resistance to cultural and political oppression. I sat and watched the stomping, twirling, and smiling as they danced by light from candles placed on the floor throughout a room of the camp (electricity is frequently shut down). I walked through the narrow, dark alleyways, sometimes exchanging greetings with undistinguishable figures as we passed each other: “Assalamu alaykum.” “Wa alaykum a’salaam.” I was welcomed into their homes. Sitting on a curb with my friend Hasan, he told me how he feels happy to be Palestinian and to have the opportunity to dance dabke in two troupes despite all the other restrictions and stifled aspirations that life in a refugee camp brings.
On one occasion I rode with Hasan on the back of his scooter. He was weaving in and out of the traffic on the street between Sabra and Shatila, consistently and narrowly avoiding collisions with who-knows-what. There was one stretch of the street that was relatively calm. He slowed down, turned to me, and told me that when the massacre in 1982 happened, this street was full of dead bodies. After one or two repetitions, my imperfect Arabic comprehended his words. I felt his pain and the pain of his people.
It is important to acknowledge the resilience of the Palestinian people, to affirm their humanity and good nature. But in doing so, I do not want to normalize their suffering, in historic Palestine and worldwide. At a time when the “peace process” continues to ignore the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people, perhaps we can take a moment to memorialize the Sabra and Shatila massacre and understand the magnitude of the refugee problem that currently affects over 4.9 million Palestinian refugees. I hope this recognition can lead to a desire to contribute to the international effort to enable the Palestinian people to exercise the right of self-determination and a peaceful existence.