Memory for Forgetfulness:
By Adriana Curto
“My grandfather died counting sunsets, seasons, and heartbeats on the fingers of his withered hands. He dropped like a fruit forbidden a branch to lean its age against. They destroyed his heart. He wearied of waiting here, in Damur. He said goodbye to friends, water pipe, and children and took me and went back to find what was no longer his to find there. Here the number of aliens increased, and refugee camps got bigger. A war went by, then two, three, and four. The homeland got farther and farther away, and the children got farther and farther from mother’s milk after they had tasted the milk of the UNRWA. So they bought guns to get closer to a homeland flying out of their reach. They brought their identity back into being, re-created the homeland, and followed their path, only to have it blocked by the guardians of civil wars. They defended their steps, but then path parted from path, the orphan lived in the skin of the orphan, and one refugee camp went into another.” -Mahmoud Darwish (Translated from Arabic)
On the back of a bus, heading south to the border of Lebanon and the State of Israel (Historic Palestine) on a Saturday morning, I flipped through a passage of Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir written by Mahmoud Darwish, award-winning Palestinian author and poet. Darwish had written this memoir during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where he remembers his family’s exile to Beirut in 1948. His village, Birwe, in the Upper Galilee was destroyed. Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians (LEAP), the organization I volunteered through, organized a trip for us [volunteers] to visit the border with our Palestinian co-teachers who we worked with in the classroom every day. I’d never “visited” a border before. I think the image that came to mind was a family trip to Montreal, Canada, where we drove through the U.S.-Canada border with smiles on our faces blasting some bothersome pop song my Dad immediately took a disliking to. This was not that. This was a border of contestation, conflict, and pain. In order to even access the region around the border, you need a permit, which unfortunately is easier to get when a bus full of ajanibs or “foreigners” want one.
One of the spots we stopped at was Fatima’s Gate, the former border crossing between Lebanon and Israel, closed since 2000 and now known as the “Blue Line” controlled by UNIFL or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. There were UN tanks, foreign faces, and everyone had their reasons as for why they were standing on one of the most contested lands in the world. They stared, we stared, but after a few minutes their presence was ignored as our Palestinian friends took out their kuffiyas [black and white checkered traditional Palestinian scarf] and started taking pictures in front of their home, just yards away.
The whole trip allowed me to see human emotion in the rawest way possible. My Palestinian friends, living in the camps of Lebanon, are unable to ever step foot past this fence. They can look in the direction of their villages and point over the blue helmets of the UN, but they can never step foot there. How can I go there? Or my Jewish friends at home? Why can a Jewish person from New York get citizenship in Israel but my Palestinian friend Mohammed cannot? These are questions that began to occupy my mind but have lingered within the minds of Palestinians for decades. “How can a Polish or Czech person go live in my village but I can’t?” said Mahmoud, the UNRWA director in Rashidieh Camp during a visit we took to his house. Those who long for their grandparents’ olive trees are forbidden, while we’re taking selfies at Masada or camping in a Kibbutz with our college friends.
In some ways, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is torture. Around 10% of Lebanon’s population is Palestinian, many of whom are scattered through the country’s 12 refugee camps established over 50 years ago. Within civil society, Palestinians are banned from working over 70+ occupations such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, or accountants outside of the camps. In addition to institutional discrimination, Lebanon is geographically neighboring the State of Israel. Only after obtaining a permit to access the area near the border in Lebanon will my Palestinian friends see a land their grandparents once tended to, just a stone’s throw away.
I remembered the words of the particular passage I read on the bus to the border, driving into the camp for work Monday morning. We leave our apartment in Burj el Shemale around 8:00am and the 7 of us are driven about 6 minutes into the camp, past the security entrance, and dropped off near a little corner store next to Beit Atfal Assmoud, the community organization we work through and hold classes at. It was Week 4 of LEAP’s Program. The drive in the camp was starting to seem familiar and routine, yet heavy and dreary. We dodged potholes in the road and inhaled the fumes of a burning tire on the left and the scent of an auto-mechanic shop on the right. We passed the same PLO/Fatah “headquarters”, right past the Lebanese Army checkpoint, with a man or two sitting outside on a lawn chair locking his eyes on your car, holding a coffee in one hand and a gun in the other. There were endless posters of martyrs faces, those who have died in the name of a party or specific cause, hung up above the bundles of cold, low- hanging electric wires. We drove alongside faded murals of children playing, Handala (the well-known cartoon representing the plight of a Palestinian refugee child), and the most noticeable...a quote in English, Arabic, and Hebrew reading “The State of Israel is evanescent”.
By Week 4, I felt weak and hopeless. Imagine 8 years like some of the kids I taught, or 18 years like the kids graduating high school, or the 30 year old trying to raise a family. It pulls you and sucks you in, where at points you feel like there is no way out. Palestinians did not choose to live like this, it was chosen for them. Rashidieh, the camp I had been working in, was built as a refugee camp by the French in 1936 for Armenian refugees. The UNRWA built the “new” section of the camp in 1963 for
Palestinians. This camp did not feel temporary, like it was built to be, it felt permanent.
Any fair solution feels as though it’s stuck behind bars, locked away at the hands of people in power. “These children’s paths have already begun parting from the original path”, as Mahmoud Darwish said, “and no matter how much they defend their steps, they will find it blocked by the guardians of greed and occupation.