Sunday, March 18, 2007

Shaadi dreams of life in Europe

wake up to grey skies and a cold, rainy day on my second day in Lebanon. Sheikh Ghaleb Chehade, the director of the American-based Zakat Foundation in Lebanon, and his wife are taking me to Sidon, where the largest Palestinian refugee camp, `Ein Al-`Ein Al-Helwahh, is based. The drive from Beirut to Sidon is flanked by the ocean on one's right. At one point, the ocean meets the river,and the blue against brown is a mesmerizing sight. The only sign of destruction I see along the way is an overhead bridge which was bombed. It now simply hangs.
Sidon is a charming little town, dominated by an old Roman citadel. The fishermen's wharf is bustling and seaside restaurants are well-patronized. Just two roads up from this evocative scene, we reach a far more emotion-provoking habitat. Well-guarded checkpoints line the entrance. The road inside is covered with large potholes and ditches. Rubbish bins overflow with rotting garbage. Children run about, absorbed in their childhood games.

The tiny room-like houses have corrugated iron roofs. Corrugated iron forms walls between homes. We park the car on a main street. Sheikh Ghaleb says it's better for me to place my laptop in the car trunk, and not leave it on the backseat of the car. We first visit the home of Sajida, a woman who has lived here for 59 years.

We then make our way, passing through narrow alleys, to the home of Shaadi, a 26-year-old man. As we pass other homes in the alley, rain drips noticeably from broken roofs into homes. Shaadi's sister, Fatima, greets us at the entrance of their home, which has a flimsy door over which a curtain hangs. We step into a dark, cement-floored hall which is the kitchen. Four doors lead off from here to two bedrooms, one bathroom, and the lounge. Sheikh Ghaleb enters a room and we follow. Shaadi's mother is sick and is in bed. The rickety bed is the only piece of furniture in the room.

Fatima takes us into the lounge, which is proudly shown. A simple lounge suite displays itself. Pictures are pasted on the walls, and a cabinet holds mementoes. When Shaadi walks into this simply furnished sitting room, there is a palpable change of atmosphere. Shaadi exudes dignity — a dignity of pure honor. Fatima's demeanor changes too. She loosens her stiff expression, Shaadi's natural, warm smile being contagious. With his large frame, he could easily be threatening, but his physique makes one feel protected. He relaxes into a comfortable position, talking candidly about his life.

"I was born here. This is my home, my life", he remarks. `Ein Al-Helwah came into being over fifty years ago, in 1947, when an agreement was made between the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government. It now houses over 100,000 people within the small space of 40,000 m.

The only life Shaadi has ever known has been fraught with tension and pain. Poverty is not an idealistic issue he'd like to combat. He lives in poverty and with a real sense of misplaced identity. Born in Lebanon, he is a Palestinian. Yet he is neither a Lebanese nor a Palestinian citizen. `Ein Al-Helwah is considered a temporary home by the authorities. But it is a permanent home for Shaadi. "The Palestinian Authority, at the time of the camp's conception, together with the Lebanese government, agreed that the Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to live in good homes and have good jobs, or they wouldn't return to Palestine," he explains. In his twenty six years, Shaadi has received a sub-standard education in the UN camp school, he has not been allowed to get a university education, he can work only in a job demanding not much skills, and he has to pass through a checkpoint each time he leaves or enters the camp. In this land in which he was born without choice, he lives an ugly, surreal existence. "Qadr Allah" [God's fate] is the simple, but potent response to how he feels about his life here.

The conversations Shaadi has with his friends are typical of any group of young male talks: politics, cars, life, work, and sports — with a distinct exception. Girls rarely feature in their discussions. At 26, Shaadi is neither married nor engaged. The same goes for many of his friends. In a society where most are married by 25, Shaadi and his friends are considered anomalies. "My parents are pressuring me to get married," he comments. "But I don't want to because I cannot give my wife the life I want her to have." The meager $150 salary he earns as a mechanic's apprentice goes to supporting his family. They are a family of five, and receive only $250 a month from the government. As for his friends who are married, the pressures they face are too much for Shaadi to risk in terms of the lifelong commitment. "I see what they experience. They are weakened by the humiliations life throws at them, and in trying to rise above these trials, in trying to be strong before their wives, their manhood is slowly eroded," he says frankly.

Shaadi has many hopes which are universal, of which the most important is to live a comfortable life in peace and freedom. But for now, he has an overwhelming dream. He dreams of living in Europe, either Germany or Belgium. He is not bitter about the life he leads here, but he yearns for a better existence. "I know that in Europe I can live a life of freedom and dignity," he enthuses. He's certain of this, and has no qualms about being an Arab in Europe, because he has a brother in Germany and a friend in Belgium. "They were fortunate to leave this behind, and are now living like human beings," he says. Shaadi wants to join his friend in Belgium, which he believes to be better than Germany. "I will not be abandoning my family. Instead, my leaving will help them as I will be able to send more money to support them."

Shaadi's eyes shine with spirit as he talks about Europe. As he talks, he has escaped to the world he dreams of. Shaadi talks of a life with dignity and freedom. What is clear to me, though, is that no matter where he may live, he will always have dignity.

If you would like to help Shaadi achieve his dream of going to Europe, or will be able to provide him with a job, please contact the writer.

Chilling at the University of South Lebanon

On the day before I leave Lebanon, I make a trip to the South. I have with me Tarek, a Lebanese man who works as a translator and fixer for journalists. He is my guide. Also with me is David, an Irish guy who is working on a unique documentary on the Middle East, and Steve, an Australian tourist.
We leave early, without eating. When we reach Tyre, we stop to have the most delicious fuul I have ever tasted. With our stomachs full, we proceed.

South Lebanon is a series of winding roads slicing gently through rocky mountainous terrain. Tarek takes shorter routes on gravel roads; we reach a dead end at one stage and have to make a tricky turn at the top of a mountain. The view is beautiful, and the high location is a perfect vantage point. Villages merge into one another, distinguished only by a change of name. We make our way to the home of Hassan, a boy of 13 who was injured by a cluster bomb. However, he is at the hospital so we continue to the nearby university.

The University of Lebanon (South) is located in serene surroundings. Its campus is made up of just a few buildings. Su`aad, a 19-year-old woman, dressed fashionably in jeans and a trendy shirt, walks out of the university grounds as we enter. She agrees to be interviewed and leads me to the cafeteria where she gathers a group of her peers. Students crowd the corridors, with clouds of smoke billowing up from the many cigarettes the young men are smoking. In the cafeteria, the obligatory shisha pipe takes pride of place at the table. It is like any ordinary university cafeteria, except for one difference: women and men choose to sit separately. For one to feel the pulse of any country or place, all one has to do is visit the local university. It vibrates with an energy unique to youth.

Mona and Hassan are both 20 years old. Mona is a sweet-looking woman with a husky voice that makes her sound far older than her years. Hassan has a tiny build – rare for a Lebanese male. His thin voice is almost squeaky, but his eager personality is contagious. Mahmood is 21 but appears older.4 He is nattily dressed in black tailored trousers, a lightweight striped sweater, and sharp black shoes. A striking ring completes his polished look. Rafah also appears to be older than her 18 years. With her spectacles and simple attire, she comes across as the stereotypical "brainy woman".

We make our way to an empty lecture room. Rafah and Hassan are studying pharmacy. The others are studying business science. I ask about the main issue affecting Lebanese youth and their answer is unanimous: unemployment. Newly qualified graduates can expect a starting salary of US$600; just US$150 more than the salary earned by an unskilled worker who receives benefits. Lebanon is a small country with a population of just four million people. It cannot provide enough jobs for graduates, and the government considers this the responsibility of the private sector.

Most Lebanese students apply for jobs both outside the country as well as within, and accept whichever they get first. The five students I spoke to say they don't want to leave Lebanon. I ask how they see themselves contributing to the economy of the country. They appear to be mystifiedWith unemployment a real threat, they cannot see themselves contributing without jobs. Rafah has an entrepreneur's mind. "It's up to us to open our own businesses so we can provide jobs both for ourselves and for others. If we don't, the government is not going to do anything," she says.

Hassan echoes her thoughts. "In the South, there are no big companies for us to find work in. If we want good jobs, we have to move to Beirut or overseas. That's why we should open our own businesses."

Beirut is the big, bad city. The mindsets of random youth I spoke to there differ vastly from those in the South, which in turn is completely different in itself because people there are Shiite. They differ, not in terms of ideology, but rather in regard to their values and morals.

The Western media has long been blamed for corrupting Arab and Eastern societies with the depraved value system it packages and sells, wrapped in glamour. In the South of Lebanon, a Hizbullah stronghold, these youth are not seduced by the false glitter of Western lifestyles. "In Beirut, you'll find most Muslim girls are not in hijab. They want to copy what they see on television, in terms of dress and behavior. But they don't realize it's an empty lifestyle," Mona explains. Su`aad, the only one of the three women not wearing hijab, adds: "And those who do wear the headscarf, dress inappropriately."

Mahmood enters the discussion. "What we should take, and will take, from the West is their knowledge of technology and science. The Arab and Muslim world should stop relying on the West for this. But we don't want to follow their lifestyle. Our lifestyle is the Islamic one. We are proud to follow this way of life," he says.

The conversation turns to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. A heated discussion ensues, and I'm unable to keep up as they switch from English to Arabic. I wait for Tarek to translate, and the answer I receive is disappointing. "This was the agreement made between the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government when the camps were set up. There is nothing we can do." This is the sum answer of their discussion. I ask them if they truly believe they can do nothing, and sadly, they do.

Their identity is proudly Lebanese and they hope the world will recognize the true Lebanese identity, which is one of peace and love.

hidden wounds

A balmy breeze caresses our faces as we drive into the driveway of the Hamad family. Mrs Hamad is in her pyjamas, sweeping the verandah. A cigarette hangs from her mouth. Her son, Hussain was hurt by a cluster bomb- a legacy of the brutal Israeli war on Lebanon. He is at the hospital, and so we leave, to return later. On our return, Mrs Hamad is dressed, but the cigarette remains. Hussain is not yet back, but is expected shortly. We make ourselves comfortable on the verandah, enjoying the late afternoon sun on our faces. With the mountains encompassing us, we are enconsced in a valley in the South.

Hussain arrives with his father and sister. His elder brother and another sister join us, and we settle into a relaxed visiting atmosphere. Hassan is a shy thirteen year old boy with a cute face. His brother, Mohammed is two years older but looks younger. A few weeks before, Hassan took an ordinary foray into the family garden, only for his life to be irrevocably changed. He reached for an orange from a branch, but instead got the taste of a cluster bomb.

Hussain is reluctant to talk, but his brother coaxes him with a gentle smile. "I was alone at home when it happened", he says. "At first I didn't realize what had happened, then I felt pain. My stomach burst open, and my hand felt like it was going to fall off", he explains simply. Hussain casually supported his left arm and ruptured abdomen and rushed to the top of his driveway, where he called for his neighbour, who took him to the hospital.

The garden is enticing, with it's fruit trees and delightful view. It’s a place where one should feel secure But none of the children will now enter into it, although it has been thoroughly checked and found to be free of any other bombs. The whole area has been searched- no other cluster bombs fell in this region. Hussain's experience was a once-off.

It’s not just his intrinsic need for safety that’s been stolen-he’s been robbed of a part of his personality. A bubbly, outgoing boy before the incident, he is now withdrawn and quiet. The physical wounds will fade to scars, but the emotional ramifications will forever haunt him. “I feel like less of a person. I feel ugly”, he whimpers. Mrs Hamad looks over wistfully at her son. “Before this happened, he was so loving and easygoing”, she relates. “But now, he is so aggressive, and he doesn’t want to be held.” She impatiently brushes away tears from her eyes, as her husband reaches out to comfort her. The daughters are silent. Hussain lowers his head.

But every child, every person has been affected by this war. Mr Hamad says, “It is not just Hussain. I speak to my friends and they too complain their sons have become aggressive and emotionally unstable.”(Stats of children affected) It’s not just the parents of the buried children who have lost their kids, but all parents in this war where one hundred percent of children were affected.

I ask Hussain if he feels sympathy for an Israeli child who has been injured by a Cartouche rocket, and he is flabbergasted. "Of course!" exclaims Mohammed, unable to stay silent. "Pain is pain- we don't want others to suffer just because we suffer."

Mrs Hamad echoes this sentiment, “My heart cries out for an Israeli mother who has lost a child, or has an injured one. I know what she’s going through.”

Although young, the boys have strong political views. “Hizbullah is our party- if it weren’t for them, Israel would have destroyed Lebanon. The Lebanese government is doing a good job, but there is corruption and they are a weak international force.” They believe that Israel will strike again, and that they will see another war on their beloved homeland in their time. They don’t want another war, longing desperately for peace, but reality tells them war is inevitable.

“Dialogue can only prevent conflict, if both parties are willing to respect the rules of dialogue and engage in fair play”, comments the astute Mohammed. “If dialogue does not produce results, as in this case with Israel which is just a big bully, and knows America will defend it, then war is essential.”

“Another war will also occur unless Israel returns Sheb’aa farms”, adds Mr Hamad. I ask the boys if they will join Hizbullah, and fight for their country if war breaks out in later years. Mohammed is keen to join Hizbullah right away, but has to wait until he turns eighteen. Hussain is reluctant, but says it is his duty and he will do so. Mr Hamad looks extremely worried and says if there is threat of war again, he would pack up and leave the land to which he and his family were born. “I care more for my family’s protection”, he says, defending his position. “My sons are braver than my husband”, chuckles Mrs Hamad and we all laugh with her. The joke is appreciated by Mr Hamad who laughs uproariously. “I want to be a martyr”, quietly intones Muhammad. Silence descends. After a moment of reflection, Mr Hamad replies with brevity, “If my sons want to fight in jihad, then I will not stop them. I am proud of Muhammad.”
The daughters have been a silent witness thus far. The elder girl, Fatima, is at university and wants to be a television journalist. But she’s worried her hijab might prevent her from getting a job in television media. The younger sister, Ruwaida, has just completed school. She does not wear hijab, and is interested in discussing pop music, Hollywood stars and Western fashion with myself and my two companions- David from Ireland and Steve from Australia.

I ask them if they would fight if they have to. Fatima nods her affirmation, Ruwaida replies in the negative. Mr Hamad glances with shock at Fatima, but his look is laced with pride.

The interview is over, but our visit is not. We laugh and chat, and are served everything from the ubiquitious coffee, to fruit and sweets and chocolate. They urge us to remain for dinner, but with the sun preparing to rise on the other side of the Equator, we have to bid them farewell to drive to a deeper valley to meet with a Hizbullah fighter.

Coffee with Hizbullah

The mountainous terrain is not friendly to those who are not familiar to its roads. But the view it presents one with is a gift of sheer magnificence as though to make up for its hostile welcome. The sun is fading into the shadows as our car zooms its way up the rocky paths, zipping down winding roads, dizzying one into a breathless sense of directionless vertigo.

Travelling on this path, it is obvious why Israel is so desperate to maintain control of Shebaa farms (altitude ranges from 150m to 1880m above sea level and overlooks Israeli towns and settlements) and gain incursion into the South of Lebanon. With its vantage viewpoint over Israeli settlements, this is an area Israel does not just want, but strategically needs. Recently, in the July/Aug war on Lebanon, it made an attempt to capture this land, dropping bomb after bomb, which international human rights groups declared to be a violation of International Law. However, the modern weaponry of Israel against the outdated rockets of Hizbullah was not enough. The will of a people proved to be far stronger.

Hizbullah epitomizes this will. A resistance movement labeled by America and other countries as a terrorist organization, it refuses to disarm, proclaiming its legal right to resistance. The members of Hizbullah will not sacrifice their dignity and freedom at the bloodied hands of Israel.

As the moon rises in a ball of orange brilliance, it symbolizes the future of Hizbullah. With the icy country air inching its way into my bones, I shiver with anticipation. I am on my way to meet with a key figure in the Hizbullah leadership. The meeting was first scheduled for late afternoon. Then we received a call saying an interview would not be possible that day. My contact, however, is persistent, and eventually it is approved.

So in the stillness of night with only the lucid stars witness to our journey we arrived at the home of Hassan* and his wife Fatima*. I am told to wait in the car while my press card and passport are taken in for verification. During the war, a journalist alleged to be American, and was granted a high-profile interview. It turned out he was Israeli. After twenty minutes of waiting, I am called in.

I walk into a well-furnished lounge decorated in burnt orange and bronze. The rich colors, plush armchairs and soft cushions are warm and welcoming, but the house itself is cold. The floors are bare ceramic tiles, but my hosts are oblivious to the chill. A well-built man in his late twenties, Hassan is dressed casually in track pants and a sweatshirt, which suggest strong muscles underneath. Fatima is dressed in a fully encompassing black abaya (loose fitting cloak), Iranian style. Her headscarf is drawn to her chin, and she seems frail underneath. Hassan and my contact, Tarek, then engage in conversation, leaving myself and my other two companions, David from Ireland and Steve from Australia to chat amongst ourselves. Fatima offers us coffee, and the thick strong liquid, my third for the day, swims a viscous stream down my throat. But her lemon and poppy seed cake is simply divine. A quiet Fatima sits next to me smiling, but not talking. It is only when Tarek prompts me, that Fatima and I begin talking. Thankfully, she understands my amateurish Arabic, and we get along splendidly. Fatima, like other women of the South possesses a strength which her city counterparts lack. “If I had to fight for my religion and for my country, I would do so without hesitation”, she remarks strongly. I ask her what role the women played in the war. She replies that they played a supporting role, encouraging the men, and helping those who had lost loved ones and possessions. But they did not actively participate.

At this point, Hassan joins in our conversation. He joined Hizbullah from an early age. His keen acumen and wise understanding enabled him to rise fast within the leadership ranks. Hassan feels that while women are welcome to fight, this is not necessary as there are enough men available to do so. “We will not be weak and make our women fight our wars”, he exclaims. When that happens, it will be the biggest disgrace to Lebanese men.” “However”, he adds, “we will never prevent women from fighting if they so wish.”

The discussion deepens, but due to the presence of David and Steve, Hassan is reluctant to go into detail. And my grasp of Arabic can only take me so far. Tarek translates the less sensitive questions, but warns that not all my questions will be answered. Hassan is adamnant that Hizbullah will never disarm. “If we were to give up our weapons, Israel knows it will be able to invade Lebanon at any time. The Lebanese government is weak- the army even weaker”, he says. He is secure in his belief that Hizbullah is strong because they derive strength from their belief in Allah.

During the war, there were theories that Syria and Iran would join forces with Hizbullah and get involved too. This did not happen. With frustration growing on the situation in Palestine, many wonder why the Arab League does nothing, and look to Syria and Iran as being the only countries, together with Hizbullah, with the resilience to fight Israel. Hassan laughs when this scenario is presented, and remarks, “All we did was defend ourselves against Israel. This was our right and our duty.” He then asserts, “Why does the world expect this of us, together with Syria and Iran? This is impossible. The only way the Palestine conflict can be resolved is if the Arab League makes a concerted effort to do something. But they won’t.” It is argued that there were some Muslims who did not support Hizbullah in the July/August 2006 war simply because they are Shi’ites. Likewise, it is said that Hizbullah, and their Shia Syrian and Iranian comrades won’t fight for Palestinians because they are Sunni. Hassan, Fatima and Tarek are shocked at this hypothesis. “We are all Muslim!”, cries Fatima. “What does it matter if one is Shia or Sunni-we are all brothers and sisters in Islam!” exclaims Tarek.

Hassan’s tone is calm, “This is what the enemies of Islam, specifically the Israeli and American governments, are trying to achieve. They are sowing seeds of distrust between Muslims. Here in Lebanon, there is no difference between Shia and Sunni. We live together in peace. If we believe the lies of our enemies, then we have lost.”

According to him, the time has come for the Lebanese leadership to change. The war garnered support for Hizbullah from previous groups which were once openly hostile toward it. But Hizbullah does not want to be part of a corrupt government. They want a leadership which is honest, and based on Islamic values. This is something even some of its supporters can’t accept- Shariah law.

Hassan signals to Tarek that the interview is over, but I have one last question. What does it take to be a fighter for Hizbullah? “Firm belief and faith in Allah and his Prophet (may peace be upon him), strong morals, a clean heart and mind, knowledge that you are fighting not for personal glory, but for your religion, and to uphold the true principles of Jihad”, replies Hassan with quiet conviction.