By Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD, A Bedouin in Cyberspace, a villager at home. Axis of Logic
Editor's Note: Noone I have ever read, tells the story of the Middle East with honesty, compassion and humanity equal to that of Mazin Qumsiyeh. Mazin leaves the trappings of his impressive intellect behind when writing his first hand accounts, allowing us to see the humanity of those - who alone - really deserve a voice before the world, from the Middle East. Mazin has become that voice for them, ringing more clear and more direct to the heart than all prattle of the politicians, diplomats and think-tank schemers combined -from Washington to London to Paris and Tel Aviv, who falsely claim to be seeking peace.
- Les Blough, Editor
Read this story to the end and see the 5 minute video taken by Mazin during his visit to the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
I have not been to Beirut since I was five years old (but I do remember some things of it) and I was a bit nervous since much has happened in the decades since. Lebanon and Palestine together with Jordan and Syria have always been connected; only after the British and French decided to divide us and give part of the land to European Jews to replace the natives that we became separated and disconnected (and sometimes querreling). I was invited as a representative of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem for a conference on water rights in the Jordan River basin .
Our Lebanese hosts treated us like family: extremely gracious and hospitable. I was also anxious to visit the refugee camps in Lebanon and meet with activists (Lebanese and Palestinian) who I knew via the internet. I had written extensively on refugees and even reviewed a book on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila . (I was told that camps in the north and in the south need a special army permission to enter.).
I met with some refugees from Mar Elias and other camps in Lebanon and on Monday visited the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts  which serves Lebanese and Palestinian youth from marginalized communities. An old friend (Raja Mattar) from Jafa who runs Palestine Student Aid arranged for a young Palestinian to take me to on an early morning trip to Sabra and Shatila. We met in front of the grandiose Crown Plaza hotel in the opulent AlHamra Street and the cab took us to the edge of the camp and as we tried to enter, the traffic snarled (the roads are really not designed for two way traffic). So we left the cab stuck in the traffic and walked. I needed to walk. We passed by a marketplace were the marginalized do their shopping (Lebanese and Palestinian).
The market has everything from vegetables to used (and rather dirty looking) clothes and shoes to pieces of pipes, to books. Each of these things is laid out separately with their owners trying to sell their products to people who are just as poor as the vendors. Most of these stalls are not stalls at all but rather a sheet of plastic or even newspapers on which they had spread the "goods" they are trying to peddle. From what I observed, some of them would happily sell you all the contents of their area for less than $20. I have of course been to marketplaces in poor areas but this was a bit different. The appearance is of a busy market place where things are bought and sold for very inexpensive prices (usually less than a dollar which here equals 1500 Lebanese liras). But we moved through the "market place" and found it not to be noisy place; the vendors were not calling out like they do in Bethlehem.
There was little of the sounds of buying and selling and of haggling of jokes. It was a subdued affair that puzzled me. Perhaps more merchants than customers I thought. Maybe it was not the peak time of shopping. It is as if it was a museum where visitors move around and look in silence at paintings occasionally asking in hushed subdued voices about something that intrigued them. As we got closer to the camp, the smell really becomes stronger. It is hard to describe it, a mixture of sewage and decaying trash, a pungent odor that perhaps is the opposite of fresh air, a staleness with suffocating harshness that made me wonder if I was hallucinating. But then we made a turn into the camp and nothing prepared me for this.
I have been to over 30 refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank and I did expect the refugee camps in Lebanon to be worse. I have read a lot and even seen pictures and some videos but still I was shocked by what I saw, what I smelled, what I heard and what I felt. The words I write cannot do justice to this. As I was videotaping and I was hoping to move my camera up to videotape the jumble of hundreds of crisscrossed wires overhead (home made infrastructure to bring electricity and phone service to those who could make the right connections (figuratively and literally), I heard a women's voice addressing me. "Shoo bitsawwer" (what are you photographing)?
The first thing that occured to me is that she will complain about my photographing (that happens in conservative societies) and I mumble something about coming from Bethlehem and touring the camp and she started to tell me about the clinic doctor. I was a bit confused. She said there is one doctor and hundreds of patients. She explained that she could not get the doctor in the UNRWA clinic to see her daughter. It was then that I noticed the girl shyly hiding behind her mother. I made stupid useless words since I really don't know what to say as her daughter tells her to move on. I went back to videotaping the wires and the political posters and the people. Children are everywhere and they like my camera. I noted there were no toys around, no bicycles, no balls, no squeaky ducks or stuffed animals. A couple of the kids have found things that they considered toys: a stick, a rubber band, a segment of a plastic pipe. Some have even connected these things to make things with no use.
I videotaped some of them and rewound and show them their smiley faces. I smile and spoke to them, feeling like I do with my own family. But my mind is tortured. I fought back the tears as I panned my camera from their smiley faces to the open sewers that are running right next to them. This is their playgrounds I think. Most of them have never been outside of this camp. This is all they know. A man tells the kids to leave us alone.
A woman at a window on the second floor beat an old rug to get rid of the dust. My "guide" Waseem warns me about puddles or obstacles in the narrow alleys (there must a better word to describe a meter wide dirt opening between dense dwellings in impoverished areas, maybe masarib in Arabic?). Waseem is from Nahr El Bared, a camp that was essentially completely destroyed by shelling as the Lebanese army fought a group of extremists. The camp is still not reconstructed so his family lives at the edge of camp in temporary dwellings.
Anyway, we went back to taking in the sounds, smell, feel, and sight of this camp. Too many emotions ran over me and not one of them was uplifting. We passed by the UNRWA clinic and I see lots of Palestinian mothers going in with their children. Right next to it, there are some workers using a jackhammer to dig the street. The kids jumping around and over the open hole in the ground (yes with sewage) almost seemed like they were mocking the work. My first analytic thought comes to mind: this is not a place to try to fix anything at the margins, it should all be changed, and these people need to go back to their villages from where they were ethnically cleansed. But then I feel strangely guilty for thinking something I have thought of a million times before and have worked hard on. The guilt is maybe due to the fact that here and now, I actually can do very, very little. The hopeless tangle of wires, pipes, shaky dwellings seemed not to be of help to thousands living here. But now it seemed that the infrastructure has its own life and that the people are not its friend but its foe and I am now trapped with them although for a short time.
I remember a horror movie I saw as a kid and simply think that before my father died, I should have asked him if at age 5 when we visited Beirut, did we visit the refugee camp and if not, why not. Time is an enemy and we have other commitments. We made our way to go to the edge of the camp where there is a memorial for the 1982 massacre. The memorial is in a fenced yard, behind another street that was remade into an open marketplace. It seems slightly busier than the other marketplace. In front of the entrance they are selling watches, cloths, and shoes but inside the only inhabitants are a group of chickens (strangely of a fancy breed). The memorial is neglected, empty and quite except for the muffled sounds from the street. There are banners that seem to be old and fading. Here the camp smell I described earlier is replaced by another smell, the smell of death mixed with chicken feathers. Or maybe I am hallucinating since it is actually relatively clean place. Maybe I am now totally crazy.
Waseem seemed even more subdued here. He finally pointed to another banner and simply said, "This is to commemorate other Israeli massacres." I take short clips of video and I remember merely walking out and not looking back. Waseem tells me not to videotape on the street outside the camp because of presence of military people and the Kuwaiti embassy which is heavily fortified. But I had not intended to do that anyway. We walk in silence.
Later in the taxi, away from it all, I started to ask him about himself: he just graduated an electrical engineer. No jobs for people like him in the camps. Nothing to do. He refuses to let me pay for the cab either way. I go back to my hotel room and only then, I cry. I cried for these refugees abandoned by an uncaring world. I cried for all the other things I heard and felt on this trip, and I cried for our injured humanity. In visiting the American University of Beirut where so many Palestinians studied, including my uncle who died young at age 27 after finishing his PhD. There is a McDonalds hamburger joint right in front of the University. A day later in Jordan being driven by my friend Zuhair to his house, we passed by Jordan University and I see another Macdonald's joint, also in front of the University. I complained about this globalization, especially of Zionist-run Starbucks and other franchises that aid ethnic cleansing and hurts our causes. Zuhair reminds me that there are so many people who collaborate in the rape of Palestine and so many people who just stand there and watch. There are really few activists like the ones I met in Beirut. But we reminisce that good people (Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Internationals) who make a difference in society every day. It has always been like that.
The institute that invited us, Ibrahim Abd-ElAl Institute, and the attendees, represent such people: individuals who do not put personal interest ahead of people interests, individuals who care and who act on this caring. Those are the people who give us hope for a better future where we all work together against apathy and against the evil that keeps us apart.
Here is a short (less than 5 minutes) and poorly edited video (I am an amateur). I wish I could stayed longer but had to go back to teaching.
READ HIS BIO AND MORE STORIES AND ESSAYS
BY MAZIN QUMSIYEH ON AXIS OF LOGIC
- Article in Arabic about the conference
- Sabra and Shatila
For background on the massacre and Sharon's responsibility, visit Indict Sharon, "Sabra and Shatila: September 1982" Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout, 2004, Pluto Press, London and Ann Arbor, MI, 462 pp., 36 photographjs, 5 maps
- Book Review published in the Holy Land Studies Journal,
It would be correct but rather reductionist to state that this remarkable book is the most comprehensive and thorough documentation of the events of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. The mark of a good book is that it leaves the reader changed and this volume does that. Upon first hearing about this book, my first and incorrect inclination was that perhaps I do not need to read it. Many of us Palestinians assume we know the suffering of our people over the past six decades, we have seen it and we have lived it. This thought quickly evaporated after flipping through the first few pages of this book and then it was hard to put it down.
It is appropriate that this edition came out in English after its initial publication in Arabic. Knowingly or unknowingly, many in the Western world lend their name and their tax money to support atrocities like the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Would it help those taxpayers see what is being done with their tax money and US diplomatic support? Would it help bring people to a better understanding of the "situation"? More importantly would it bring us closer to see the victims of this particular massacre as people and not mere numbers? Having lived in the US for many years I wanted to look at this English version from that perspective. I also wanted to compare it to other books that relate personal testimonies of survivors of atrocities.
Those murdered in Sabra and Shatila are not around to tell us their stories so we are left with the survivors, those relatives and friends and acquaintances who witnessed the event and/or came to pick the bodies and the pieces of their shattered lives. Telling their stories is not easy. A writer or editor of such a compilation has the heavy responsibility (and duty) to his or her subjects to let them tell the story with as little interference as possible. It is not easy to craft careful and neutral questions that allow for free and open answers. It is also not easy to select from all your interviews individual accounts to include in a readable book. It is not easy to research names then cross check all references and resources to ensure presenting a picture that is as close as possible to the reality of what happened. All this and more are achieved in this book.
The first part of this book consists of six chapters that relay the statements and testimonies of the families and witnesses. The first two chapters cover the place and time and events leading up to the massacre including the encirclement of the camps by the Israeli army. Chapters 3-5 cover chronologically the events of September 16-18; the horrific 40-hour period in which nearly 2000 men, women, and children were systematically massacred or abducted and "disappeared". Chapter 6 covers testimonies covering the search for victims following the massacre. Forty-six actual testimonies were selected and included in these six chapters out of total direct testimonies gathered on 430 victims (about half Palestinian, 28% Lebanese, and the remainder belonging to other nationalities).
The second part of this book summarizes the research (including field study) conducted by the author into the massacre. Chapter 7 reviews results of the detailed field study conducted in 1984.
Chapter 8 analyzes the issue of the number of victims killed. The chilling method used by Israeli governments to minimize the casualties (in the Kahan report) is analyzed in detail. In one part, the author recounts what the historian Toynbee once said in debate with Yaacov Herzog in 1961. Hetzog lashed out at Toynbee for mentioning the Nazi atrocities in talking about the massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yassin in 1948. Herzog’s contention was that the deaths of a few hundred Palestinians could never be even discussed in relation to the horror on Nazi atrocities. Toynbee’s answer was that "Every increase in numbers produces an increase in suffering but it is impossible to be wicked or criminal more than 100%." She ten explained how the wickedness of trying to obfuscate reality or minimize the numbers of victims (as happened in the Israeli Kahan report). There are lessons to be learned from that. Yet, the most astonishing fact is that no authority (Israeli, Lebanese, or Palestinian) took it upon itself to compile a list of the victims. As such, the list compiled by this author must remain the most complete such list to date.
There are four appendices to the work. Appendix 1 contains 28 tables related to the field study. Appendix 2 provides the most comprehensive listing of names of those known killed (906 names) or abducted and missing (484 names). Given that only a handful of the missing were ever found, over 1300 human beings lost their lives with this tragedy.
The book ends with a series of remarkable photographs. Most are ones I have never seen before and I am sure other readers will find equally transforming. Most books place such photos in the Middle of the book or close to the beginning. A photograph it is said is worth a thousand words. But a photograph can elicit all sorts of emotions that then detract from the importance of reading the text itself. In this case, the placement of the photos at the end was the right decision and I urge readers to read this text in the order it is presented. For me, this was particularly powerful. I, as a reader was able to read the testimonies and review the facts and figures taking time to draw the relevant lessons learned before I saw at the end a series of pictures of what the scene of the crime looked like. To me the most remarkable and damning evidence of Israeli culpability and the accompanying lies about the massacre are found on pages 304-317 and buttressed by pictures and maps of the Israeli command center overseeing the camp. Anyone examining this evidence and International law understands the culpability of the Israeli politicians, commanders and soldiers. They knew the camps were undefended, they knew that massacres would be committed by the 150 Phallange militias they invited in, they knew the bloody outcome would happen, and finally they watched without interfering as this unfolded over three days.
I never met the author, Dr. Bayan Nuwayah Al-Hout, a faculty member at the Lebanese University for the past 25 years. I can only marvel at the amount of efforts over two decades that such a project demanded. It is usually something done by well-financed teams with a cadre of paid staff. For the author to have done this with very limited resources and help is truly admirable.
It was once said that the sign of a good book is that when you close the last page it is like saying goodbye to a dear friend. Well in this case, it is like saying goodbye to hundreds of friends: those who died in that tragic massacre and those who survived to recount the stories and live their lives awaiting justice. If we are to honor them all then we must engage in the quest for peace with justice.
When in a few years, a museum is built for the Nakba (catastrophe) that befell the Palestinian people, it will have a prominent place in it for Sabra and Shatila. This book will be the key resource for this. Those who care for human rights should buy it, read it, and learn the lessons from it.
There is a section at the end of the book, not given a chapter status and seeming as orphaned as the Children of Sabra and Shatila, that is simply titled "Conclusion: who was responsible." For those looking for the simplified answers of assigning blame to just one person or party, they will be disappointed. For those who want to use the lessons learned from this tragedy to prevent future tragedy, the careful analysis here is a must reading. From the Lebanese militia, to the local Israeli commanders guarding the camps, to Ariel Sharon who gave the go ahead, to the Lebanese government, all share some of the guilt. But ultimately, all of us who heard the news and who took no action are responsible for the continuation of a string of atrocities against civilians. On page 324, the author quotes from the song lyrics of the Argentinean singer Alberto Cortez:
Where was the sun when anger burst at Sabra and Shatila? Where was I? At what party, careless, when I read the news? And where were you – you so eager to defend the oppressed – when the massacre happened? Where is the pride of men? Where were you my friend with the sleeping conscience?.."
The road between the atrocities of Sabra and Shatila runs rather short to those of Jenin, Nablus and Rafah of today and to our suppressed humanity. Such books can be our tour guides.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD, is author of "Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle"
- Al-Jana Center
Al-Jana/ ARCPA works with communities that face marginalization in Lebanon, engaging them in documenting their rich and empowering experiences and cultural contributions and in the production of learning and cultural resources.
It is the belief of Al-Jana that the challenges that face these so called "marginalized communities" have enriched their existence and as such have contributed to a stronger sense of community building; creative problem solving; and communal initiative and resiliency. Their vibrant culture reflects this resourcefulness and deep human spirit. Al-Jana operates with the conviction that in working and learning with and from these communities, it is vital to build on their strengths and contributions.
Al-Jana works with children and youth, encouraging them to critically research and learn from the historical and cultural experiences of their community. Much of the work focuses on engaging the children and youth to express their own issues and aspirations while developing skills to convey their inner worlds by way of creative productions and manifestations that inspire and engage young people. The work involves film-making, photography, drama, creative writing, applied arts, performance pieces, and the holistic experience of organizing festivals and carnivals that significantly cater to children and youth. Only through such a gradual process of learning, expressing and ultimately, growth, can children and youth become active agents in community development, advocating community and youth issues and concerns.
One of the key and lasting components of the work is the production and dissemination of learning resources based on the hands-on workshops with children and youth, that in turn inspires and engages other young people.
Al-Jana maintains that the challenges facing "marginalized" communities can only be addressed by working closely with the concerned community and by a concerted effort by all interested bodies and grass-root organizations. Al-Jana facilitates a network of over 60 community centers, pooling resources, and coordinating efforts to promote active learning and creative expression amongst disadvantaged young people.
Al-Jana facilitates forums for exchange, skills development and coordination of efforts amongst grass-root organizations working with disadvantaged children and youth in Lebanon, the region, and leading experiences world-wide.
It is important to highlight the rising levels of intra and inter community intolerance and violence towards and between children. Al-Jana has focused on the creation of a conflict transformation program that also engages young people in becoming active agents in conflict transformation and in promoting a culture of tolerance.
It is the hope of Al-Jana that through its works with the local communities, positive potentials will be unleashed and will contribute towards fostering a culture of tolerance, and healthy diversity in the country they live in. Such work will support the communities to overcome their "marginalization" and support positive engagement with neighboring communities.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD,
A Bedouin in Cyberspace, a villager at home