*A Palestinian journalist and activist
There are assumptions in the mind of the stranger, the neighbor who is just meters away, separated from us by a wall, which can be at once visible and invisible. A neighbor who knows nothing about the camp but from the narrow space the media allocate to Palestinian refugees; and of course, such a space is only “created” when calamity strikes.
Our neighbor has never visited the camp, because he fears it, like a ghost that you do not see but nonetheless terrifies you. He has built in his mind, a set of perceptions that resemble what he would encounter in horror movies with ghosts and vampires. But, this imaginary ghost has been based on real events, on history, and on current and ongoing “normal” events happening anywhere and anytime – we do not live in a paradise.
But the problem is that the scenario is sinister and draws heavily on the dark side, ignoring the bright side that many fail to see.
To whom it may concern… I will start by telling the story of Hassan, which is part of the shadow that forms the ghost, in case we build bridges over the wall.
Hassan al-Asmar, 28, is the most popular figure among young Palestinians in Shatila refugee camp, which is located just to the south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Hassan al-Asmar (Hassan the Swarthy) is a nickname Hassan picked for himself on social media, and it works well with the many titles attributed to him. One does not invalidate the other.
Hassan, the son of Jumana, is how many refer to him, especially older people, a matronymic name referring to his strong and willful mother. From the time he was an infant, no one dared approach Jumana’s eldest son, even when he did wrong, in fear of being admonished by a ferocious lioness baring her teeth.
Hassan is originally a Palestinian Bedouin from the district of Acre, that is why he is also referred to as “the Ghourani” – literally the man “from the Ghor” or the Jordan Valley, he is called this for many reasons, one being that the people of the valley are known for their dark skin and curly hair.
Hassan, whose name means “good” or “handsome,’ doesn’t mind any of his nicknames. His real surname is Talal, and when asked about his name, he says: “Hassan, you can call me Hassan, I love my name, it suits me, and I’m good not bad.”
Hassan has gathered as many talents as his nicknames. He has a beautiful voice with which he entertains the young people of the neighborhood every evening, accompanying his neighbor, Abu Waseem, who has a thick white mustache curled like the tip of an Arabian scimitar. Hassan is also known for his acting talent; appearing in several television productions as a young Palestinian man. His most important role was in the series Ghadan Naltaqi (Tomorrow We Meet) with the top stars of Syrian drama, and his bold appearance in the play Tarha Baida (White Veil) in the role of a rapist. The play was produced in cooperation with the Abaad NGO to revoke Article 522 of the Lebanese law allowing the prosecution of rapists. The play was attended by most of the camp’s youth in support for Hassan.
Hassan loves the Palestinian Dabke: he is good at it, and prefers it to his other talents. He joined the Al-Bayader band 15 years ago and worked hard to hone his talent as a dancer. He now also plays the bagpipes, which is part of Palestinian folklore. He committed himself to the band and it has become a priority in his life, although it doesn’t pay him anything, his passion costing him hardship.
Despite the scarcity of jobs, Hassan does not give up and won’t accept to be dependent on anyone. He takes up dead-end jobs; he is not ashamed of that, nor does he give in to sickness, despair or drugs. He rises at the crack of dawn and goes out to sell kaak bread at the entrance of the camp, and sometimes finds employment doing home delivery for an online company.
The young of the camp consider him an elder brother, not just a friend, and everyone turns to him in difficult moments. Having spent his childhood, adolescence and adulthood in the camp, he has truly earned the rank of “Leader of Sadma Neighborhood” and today, he is the leader of a neighborhood of 50 young men.
No one has been able to solve the mystery of the neighborhood’s name: which means “shock.” Even Hassan doesn’t know how it came to be known thus, but if you enter the neighborhood, you’ll certainly be shocked.
My second story is about the “Prestige of Sadma Neighborhood”. He is known as Abu Duma, the neighborhood’s most fashionable young man. With dwindling job opportunities, he dreamt of migrating. He said goodbye to the neighborhood and friends, entrusted God with his life, and got on a boat, heading towards his dream. He arrived in Cyprus safely but after only a few months he came back and proclaimed “a fish cannot live out of water.” Upon his return, he opened a very small shop at the bottom of a flight of stairs, big enough for only one person to stand; he bought an electric machine to make tea and coffee and above the door of the shop put a small sign which read: “One day you’ll grow to become Starbucks.” But it did not grow and it closed down.
There are many “heroes” at Sadma Neighborhood, they change depending on the task, but every activity or talent, has its hero. The football table hero, for example, is Mustafa al-Masri, who has pride in himself and makes the young of the neighborhood proud as well. He likes to compete with young people from other neighborhoods, as Sadma Neighborhood is famous for its love of competition, especially in football. He and his friends formed a distinguished team of talented players such as Abu Mujahid and Rabee Abdel Lateef. The team competes with teams from other neighborhoods or from outside the camp and boasts a large audience rushing to watch their games, bringing along hookahs and snacks. After Hassan collects LBP 2,000 from each player to pay the rent of the field, each player enters with a small child from the neighborhood. With his beautiful voice, Hassan immediately starts singing the anthem of Sadma Neighborhood and the crowd repeats after him in unison: I’m a good and strong guy… we train, we train… we are ready to die so Palestine lives again… And, God willing, we shall return, just say Amen…”
The match starts and for a moment, you feel as if you were watching a World Cup match.
The young of the neighborhood love each other to the point that makes one think they are siblings. They share everything: their time, clothes, food, packs of cigarettes and hookah.
One day, Hassan asked for a photo of each young man in the neighborhood, including those living abroad. He collected the photos and glued them on the top side of an old football table that he hung on a wall in the center of the neighborhood. It looked like a large wooden frame. At the bottom, he wrote: “May God put our laundry in one washer” – an idiom meaning wishing to bring all his friends together, like one family. One cannot go down the street and not notice the work or the feelings that overwhelm them by looking at it.
Hassan wishes he could get Abu Ammar’s suit and auction it. He wants to use the money it brings in to open a large cultural center to bring together the young of the neighborhood. This way he can provide them with jobs to protect them from injustice and a life that deprives them of their rights, robs them of joy, leaves them in destitution and makes them enemies of themselves. They become weak in the face of an unknown future, and the sinister ghost that their neighbor sees.