Monthly Archives: July 2010



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Portraits – Damascus

Sean, Qamariyya St house

Rob, Saif wa Shitaa

May, Qamariyya St house

Young Syrian photographer, Citadel

Victor, barber, Bab Touma

Eyad, Swan Cafe, Yarmouk

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Palestinians in Lebanon

The Lebanese parliament has decided to postpone voting on a divisive bill on the rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It proposes a radical reconfiguration of the position of Palestinians in Lebanon, granting them the right to own property, receive social security benefits, and get better jobs. Proposed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the bill came somewhat out of the blue – as one person I met in Beirut would say, ‘that’s just so Druze of them’.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have long been marginalised by the economic and political structure of the country in which they have lived for decades. A brief period of liberalisation during the 1970s when the PLO moved their operations to Beirut had unfortunate consequences; since the end of the civil war, the Lebanese government has gradually removed the rights they had earlier accorded them. In their present situation, most Palestinians live in camps of varying degrees of officialdom; they are denied entry into several key fields of employment and are in practice excluded from anything but manual labour due to prejudice and bureaucratic obstacles. The proposed legislation would change much of this, affording Lebanon’s Palestinian population a better quality of life and removing them from the limbo in which they currently live.

It is this that provides the rationale behind some of the opposition to the bill. Rights for Palestinians in Lebanon have been portrayed by parties opposed (i.e. the Christian Lebanese Forces and Phalangists) as legitimating their presence to such an extent as to make them Lebanese, rather than Palestinian. This, according to figures such as Gemayel and Aoun, will settle them permanently – and thus obviate their right to return to Palestine. The measures, they argue, play right into Israel’s hands by naturalising the Palestinians through a process of tawteen – making them part of the nation. The Christian opposition, despite being deeply divided on most issues in Lebanon, have united behind the Palestinian question to raise the spectre of tawteen and reject the measures as harming the Palestinians more than helping them.

Visiting Sabra and Shatila a couple of weeks ago, the disparity between the quality of life there and the rest of Beirut was striking; just a short taxi ride from Hamra, we could have been in an entirely different city. A largely informal economy has developed based on the markets that line the streets of the camps. The buildings were run down and leaned into each other at crazy angles; it was reminiscent of other ‘informal’ or ‘unplanned’ housing areas I had visited, such as Bulaq in Cairo or Yarmouk in Damascus. The word ‘camps’ is, as usual, misleading; where are the tents, asked someone I was with. But Shatila was created by UNWRA in 1949; its Palestinian residents have been there for decades and have developed an established, if precarious, existence.

The right to return is a concern shared by all involved in the politics of Palestinians in Lebanon; Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians are all keen to avoid tawteen and what this would imply for the possibility of return to Palestine. But this should not be used to legitimise the marginalisation of the Palestinian community. Walking around Sabra and Shatila, everyone I spoke to told me within a few seconds of conversation that they were Palestinian. The various political factions were strongly represented: Hamas banners were strung across the streets, Arafat posters were pasted to the walls, and down a back street you could find the headquarters of the PFLP, covered in Che Guevara pictures and under Kalashnikov-carrying guard. The sense of not belonging in Lebanon is acute. Giving Palestinians the right to work and buy houses will not, ultimately, change this. Yet it will go some way towards remedying the injustice of a stateless people whose adopted state will not welcome them.

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The tears in the fabric

One of my favourite bits of cities are the holes and gaps, where there is some glitch in the smooth surface of city and society. This is a huge vacant building in Damascus that has been unfinished for years. I met one French Algerian man who told me how he had once tried to climb it whilst incredibly drunk.

Beirut was especially interesting for ragged edges and gaps in the weave. So many things are missing from it – buildings, parts of buildings, and people. The exact number of people who disappeared during the time Lebanon was at war is unknown, but some put it at as many as 17000. Here is a bullet marked building in Achrafiye (or, as a Beiruti friend put it rather sweepingly, ‘where the fascists live’). Scars both physical and mental.

When I was in Cairo I spent some time watching the bank across the street from where I was staying. With one of those long and faintly comic Egyptian bank names, the ‘Commercial and Industrial Bank of Cairene Fishmongers’ or something like that, it was probably the least bustling hub of finance I have ever seen. Three men sat outside; no-one ever seemed to go in and out. The top floors of the bank were entirely unoccupied. Meanwhile, about three million families in Cairo are homeless. Again, the tears in the fabric, the gaps in the weave.

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Rodenbeck on Egypt

The Economist has a big boy report out on Egypt. Max Rodenbeck has written nine parts, each focussing on a different aspect of masri life and the changes it has undergone under Mubarak. I haven’t worked my way through all of it yet but definitely worth taking a look.

As Egyptian Chronicles points out, this issue probably won’t be gracing Cairo’s newsstands any time soon…as the front cover features a pharaonic Hosni sinking into the sands, Ozymandias-style…

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Niqab ban in France and Syria

As the National Assembly in France votes to ban the niqab in public places, Syria has quietly banned it in schools; according to some sources this will force 1200 women out of their jobs.

The French ban is the bitter fruit of Sarkozy’s debate on ‘national identity’, a euphenism for an increasingly racist discourse on what ‘means’ to be French. The subject of identity is so complex and personal that attempts to define and categorise it are, in my opinion, meaningless and ultimately insulting. Questioning someone’s sense of belonging to a country, whether they choose to cover their face or not, is redundant. What do such questions even mean? By trying to set parameters for being French, or British, or Syrian, or Iranian, we are delegitimising anyone who does not fit such parameters exactly, no matter to what extent they feel French, or British, or Syrian, or Iranian. It is a government trying to assert control over something intimate and difficult for an individual to determine, never mind a state or a law. The same thing can be seen in Britain; a hysterical scramble to label things as British, to celebrate British things simply for the virtue of them being British. It’s unclear what the aims of such moves are; trying to manufacture a sense of cohesion? That’s all very well, but when you try and manufacture cohesion by legislating against freedom of expression, you alienate those who previously had felt a part of society.

Xenophobia sanctioned by law is still xenophobia. The kneejerk reaction to the niqab, that it is threatening, that it creates barriers, is specious and reflects on the viewer rather than the viewed. People create barriers around them by all sorts of means; an England flag shaved into your head, excessive facial piercing, a designer handbag, all can be regarded as obstacles to cohesion. The niqab ban is indicative of a rise in anti-Islamic feeling, of demonising the Muslim ‘other’ as menacing and in need of subjugation to Western norms. The French immigration test for ‘assimilation’ to French society specifies two criteria: command of the language and a clean criminal record. Leaving aside the fact that these two may not apply to many French citizens, they seem fair. Assimilation should be judged on things that all society holds equal. Niqab-wearing women may speak fluent French and never have committed a crime, and now they are to be criminalised. Only one French depute voted against the ban; it passed in near unanimity.

The Syrian ban is part of the government’s movement to clamp down on signs of Islamism. The Syrian government is Alawite; Alawite women often do not wear any head covering, and the wearing of the niqab can thus be seen as a sign of subversion. The practice of full veiling is not particularly common in Syria, yet this will still have an impact on the lives of women and girls who are involved in the education system. The ban is particularly interesting for its lack of publicity; it was passed fairly recently but barely made the news. This is probably because, unlike the ban in France, it does not have this baggage of the ‘national identity’ debate and all the politics of xenophobia and Islamophobia that comes with it. Yet both measures restrict freedom of expression to serve the purposes of state interfering in its citizens’ lives. Furthermore, both apply to such a minority practice as to make them seem deliberately targeted and thus especially unfair.

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Jebel Qassioun with Sean, Heba, and Alaa.

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