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Factories of Catastrophes and Refugee Camps.

The children play at the crossings of alleyways. They run and they quarrel. They laugh without hesitation, without complaining about the harshness of the place, nor about the stagnant water and ditches. They laugh as if deceiving their fate, deceiving the age at which later their laughter will cease.

The camp has not changed very much. The number of inhabitants has increased manifold, as has the number of small nests closely crowded together, the number of people living in cemeteries, the chaos of electric wires, the blameful eyes peeking out of small windows, the clothes hanging on short wires, and the cars that have been consumed by time. And inside the rooms, rust has assailed the old keys, and age has assailed the pictures of martyrs.

The camp has not changed very much. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is the most merciful international authority. It too has grown weary or has aged. Satellite dishes alone prosper. Satellite television offers solace in the camp. The inhabitants have grown weary of reiterating their attachment to the right of return. Return is only available through satellite television. There they gaze at the country that had once been their country, at the monster of settlements devouring soil and space and property deeds, at houses that dig into their flesh and make their dream even more impossible. That is the current Palestinian-Arab age: satellite television and refugee camps.

On a small bench sits a man in his sixties, smoking a cigarette. Near him are a few basil sprouts and other plants. It is as if he was trying to remember that he used to own a plot of land, even a small one; that he was the owner of soil fit for cultivation and fit for burial; as if he was trying, with besieged greenery, to respond to the blackness of age. The wrinkles in his face resemble the pages of a notebook, the record of living in the camp, not far from a homeland that keeps becoming more distant, a notebook that speaks of the difficulty of finding one's daily bread, the difficulty of working, the difficulty of being a refugee, and that of being born in the camp and being buried in the camp.

The camp seems quiet and safe. But visitors should be more wary. The moment an incident takes place, the armed men spread out. The firing of bullets begins then the bombs resound. The camp too can be divided. Radicals in it have neighborhoods, mosques and guns. They disagree over the most successful way to reach Palestine, the most successful way to take control of a neighboring crossing or of a nearby street.

They have not relinquished their right and their dream. But within this camp, they have seen the seasons come and go. The camp remains and they remain in it. They have seen the peace process come and go, and the planes come and go. And they have seen the names of the camp's generals changing. Yet the camp remains and they remain in it.

Sometimes loudspeakers resound and call on them. They demonstrate in anger and protest. Then they return to live, young men without work or with work that does not ensure near decent living, and dreams of emigration hindered by a lack of documents or doubts over them. The harshness of time has gone on for long. Palestinians are born in the camp. They embrace camouflage uniforms, AK-47s and keffiyehs. They marry and they procreate, and the number of refugees multiplies. They dream of returning to a soil they love and they lie down on the soil of the camp.

In the Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp near Saida, images crowd one's mind: Yasser Arafat's keffiyeh, the sign of victory, the plane that never sleeps, Oslo, and the Mukataa being demolished over the symbolic leader. One recalls Mahmoud Darwish, the rope of joyful trilling, and the passersby in passing words. One also recalls the wounds of Palestinian division, the articles of national reconciliation, the attraction of not signing, and the luxury of not signing.

We commemorate the Nakba. We commemorate the great catastrophe, and the immense powerlessness, and the memory of the world that forgets. It is a dreary and fierce world, and a region crowded with factories of catastrophes and refugee camps.

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Publication:Dar Al Hayat, International ed. (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:May 17, 2010
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