Last night, I slept at my grandma’s house, a modest two-bedroom apartment that sits comfortably inside a large apartment complex in Ras Beirut. My grandma’s house overlooks the sea, and the Beirut Luna Park’s huge Ferris Wheel. These are parts of the landscape that I remember from the days when I used to crouch over my grandparents’ living room sofa to look over the windowsill, aching, like my brothers who I can remember as being lined up beside me, for a way out of a drawn-out family lunch.
My grandma’s house is the house of many memories that I really enjoy retreating to. Yesterday, as my teta and I were replacing the thicker winter bed cover with pastel summer cover in my dad and his siblings’ old bedroom, I remarked jokingly to my teta that I can remember the days when my uncle was still living in that room. And I was trying to conjure an image of the bedroom’s walls that were splashed with posters of Madonna, and other female sex symbols of the 80s when my grandma interrupted my train of thought. Shelaughed and said, eh konto t2atlo ba3d! (translation: we used to fight (to the death) each other). That reminded me of my tomboy years and how I used my experiences from the corridors of Beiruti houses and streets to furnish my tomboy attitude. I remembered,for example, when I first learned the word “fuck” one day at the beach and how I thought it was so cool. I quickly started to work it into all of my sentences, until my mama overheard me enacting a story with my toys and gently pulled me aside and told me,what, I can’t remember, but I can remember that that was the end of that verbal transgression.
As I got under the covers, I reached over to the bedside drawer and slid out a couple of photo albums from among a pile of 20 or so other photo albums. The photos were for the most part my aunt’s. They were images of her as a teenager surrounded by happy faces of her friends, mostly around my grandparent’s dining room table. Outside a war was raging but they seemed to have a peace of mind that we right now do not…I marveled at how similar her many facial expressions captured in those images are to her daughter’s. Time has a funny way of creeping in to places and faces, and also leaving them.
As I lay in bed this morning and I listened to the chatter of my grandma and her visitors, who seemed to be ringing her doorbell every 15 minutes, I realized that I also like being in my grandma’s house because it connects me with the present. A problem with having a 24 hour generator in your parent’s rental apartment in a (gentrified) upper-middle class neighborhood is that it removes a person from some of the fundamental day-to-day realities of the city. Eh, I would like to be able to complain for once about a hot, sleepless night, and kissikht el-dawleh, wein el-dawleh, ma fi dawleh, ba3dna bi 3asr el 7ajari. I like to sleep at my grandma’s house because it allows to rest my head on the pulse of this city, and revel in the memories that waft through its streets.
Today is the second full day of me not fasting this Ramadan. I had no appetite for breakfast, my favorite meal of the day especially when I’m in Lebanon where breakfast is so yummy and varied, and I still have not had lunch (It’s 4:15 pm). I guess I knew that fasting for three weeks would change my fitr eating habits, but still I think it’s amazing to actually experience that change. There’s a lot of mystery, I think, that fasting is shrouded in…when a person starts to go through it, especially for many days (as opposed to a few like I used to do prior to this year), a lot about a person’s body and mind becomes revealed.
Some observations about Ramadan fasting:
1) a person body is capable of so much more than one thinks when one is deprived of food and water for 13+ hours. Some of my most productive days this past month were days when I got up early and launched straight into work, and didn’t stop until an hour or so before iftar. Accomplishment feeds! Last year, I was surprised to learn that for several of my Muslim friends in DC their preferred time for gym exercise was an hour before iftar. This is inconceivable to me, and to I think most of the Muslims in the Arab countries where the state cuts work hours by more than 25% to give fasters more time to sleep. This widespread misconception probably accounts for why Fasters are more likely to gain weight in Ramadan than to lose weight.
2) Fasting is a great source of communal/familial bonding. Little fills my heart with warmth like breaking fast with family. Our shared feelings of hunger and phsyical tiredness is so acute; you can really sense it when silence falls over the table like warm blanket during those first couple of minutes after the maghreb adhan.
3) This last thought has been nourished by an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with a good friend Jo* who is not fasting but is putting himself through a rigorous physical training program. Like physical training, Fasting teases the limits of human capacity. And a whole month of doing that, I think, can leave a person with a strong sense of command over themselves for a while after.
Yesterday, I trekked up to Nahr el Bared refugee camp to talk to people about the camp’s reconstruction efforts, or lack thereof. It’s been a couple of years since I last visited the camp — as a senior in college, I was part of an ad hoc group called the Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign that tried to provide help to those displaced by the war the Lebanese army ruthlessly waged on that camp.
That was in the summer of 2007 and little has changed since then. Though the Lebanese government was granted tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction money (admittedly this is only a small fraction of the amount needed to complete reconstruction) little progress can be seen.
A variety shops — mechanics’ offices, clothing stores, pastry shops– line the streets of what’s known as ‘the new camp’. But this happened very much in spite of state efforts. As soon as the Army re-opened the camp in October 2007 to (a select few) Nahr el Bared residents, the refugees scrambled to recover Nahr el Bared’s previously thriving economy by setting up shop on top of the mud and the rubble. But with the Army’s unrelenting grip on the camp’s borders, Nahr el Bared’s marketplace is practically empty. The vast majority of the shop’s market prior to the war came from the camp’s surrounding regions. Now virtually noone is willing to endure the inspections and demeaning and tyrannical attitudes of the soldiers at the camp’s entrances in order to consume Nahr el Bared’s relatively cheap goods and relatively skilled services (many Palestinians who have engineering and medical degrees have no choice but to offer their services inside refugee camps, since in Lebanon they are not allowed to practice their professions — Lebanese with similar credentials have converged on rich, urban areas: Beirut and Tripoli, with only a widely dispersed few in the very provincial far North where Nahr el Bared is located).
That’s to say nothing about the so-called Old Camp, the larger, more densely populated part of the camp that was all but razed to the ground by the war on Nahr el Bared. Those that hail from the Old Camp have been holed up in make-shift housing for three years, waiting for the Lebanese state to deliver on its promises to reconstruct their houses…
I’m writing an article now that will describe this situation more elaborately than what’s been stated above. I’ll include some interviews with the amazing Nahr el Bared refugees as well as some activists who have been working to fix things up.
In the meantime here are some pictures I’m digging up from the internet to better illustrate the destruction, the neglect.
Pictures of Nahr el Bared before and after the war:
This is a blog that will document my experiences in Beirut and will attempt to unravel the jumbled up thoughts that they often bring about.