A Day in Ain al-Hilweh Camp

A Day in Ain al-Hilweh Camp
*Palestinian journalist, Ain al-Hilweh camp, Lebanon

Mornings in the camp begin at 7:15 a.m. I have nothing to do that early. But the fact that houses in the camp are like the Smurfs’ village, closely packed and crowded, forces me to wake up every day along with my neighbor who wakes her children for school. So, I get up with them to the sound of her shouting, “Come on, Abdallah, get up! Get Uuuuuup!” It sounds like a military bugle call, waking up anyone who lives near Um Abdallah.
My day in the camp is the same as that of any other young woman. I wake up cursing Um Abdallah to myself—she has made me wake up too early before my ten o’clock lecture. I have a cup of Nescafe with my mother.
It’s the same old camp, nothing new: The buildings surround you from every direction, making you feel as if you were at the bottom of hell besieged by bricks. Sun rays timidly seep through the walls and the randomly-built houses. No trees, no flowers, no birds chirping; all you can hear is the gossip of the neighbors backbiting about each other, the shouting of mothers, and the voice of the vegetable hawker who comes early shouting, “Four kilos of spinach for one thousand!”
After the Nescafe begins the torment, which is the journey to university: crossing the camp’s checkpoints and circling around in search of a less crowded exit. This search journey sometimes takes a whole hour, when it should only take 10 minutes if the road were passable. After university, I often have to walk home because cars won’t go into the camp. First, it’s because of the traffic, and, second, because they are afraid of a sudden clash breaking out. So, I feel that I, and all the residents of the camp, are living in a catastrophic chaos and a new Nakba. As if we were living in a “ghetto,” isolated from the rest of humanity as “a human sanctuary harboring human predators.” This is the stereotyped perception that appears on the taxi driver’s face when I tell him “to the camp.” He glances at me and I hear the car tires screeching, leaving behind a cloud of smoke and dust obscuring the view. It takes me half an hour, sometimes more, to find someone to drive me back home, in rain or under scorching sun. At times, I curse the camp, at others my rotten luck, and my great- grandfather for leaving Palestine, and the mother of the Jews. Then, I grab my books tight and go back on foot.
One of the features of the life in the camp is that we’re required, at all times and in all places, to sleep with our shoes on, in case a battle suddenly breaks out. At home, for example, I always have a packed bag in case I need to flee. Inside, I have my own and my husband’s clothes, our identity papers, and some rare books, ready to go at the first gunshot or shell—though we may not have time to grab it. Time and time again, we have fled barefoot under the whizzing bullets without even thinking about anything other than holding on for dear life. 
In the camp you dream of a quiet day free of sounds, of noise. Even amid the quietness of Fridays, the silence is broken by the voices of children who have decided to spend their weekly day off on the streets. They play football and kick the ball around. I see my own childhood running around with them; a childhood deprived of playing spaces and of the fun and pleasure enjoyed by other children around the world. So the street was our playground at the risk of getting hit by a car or by stray bullets.
My neighbor Duaa’ comes over in the morning. She has nothing to tell me but the usual everyday stories: “Do you know who was killed today? That prompted a state of alert among the gunmen during the night. X was shot by accident.” This is the talk of the neighbors, of children, of old and young. The obvious question on their faces: When is the next battle? Where? Why? 
On the roadside, young men stand arguing, complaining about not being able to find work. Some of them sit behind a stand selling fake perfume bottles while others stand behind a cart of vegetables or sahlab – a creamy hot drink. They all think about migrating.
Life in Ain al-Hilweh (which means “Sweet Spring”) is all but what the name conveys, and is in total contrast with the misery and bitterness there. It is enough that it is a waiting station for people suffering from the fever of yearning for Palestine with no cure in sight. In the camp you don’t look for a cure for your yearning, but for return as the cure —nothing but returning home will do. When I enter the camp, a shiver runs through my body because of my homeland’s fever. This shiver, simply put, resembles a wave longing to embrace the beach, although death is only a few steps away from us.