The Sun in a Closed Room
Shatha Abdulaal, Palestinian artist and journalist
When I met a French photojournalist at Shatila – there to capture the faces of the people for an upcoming book telling the story of the camp – I asked her why she was interested enough in us that she would come from her home in the French city of Lille and stay with a family in Shatila, especially within the economic, health, and political crisis facing the country? “Because of what you and we have in common; our shared humanity!” she answered.
“Please look hard for humanity. I don’t know where it can be found. Humanity means to be treated as a human being, so a murderer would not continue their killing spree and yet go unpunished!” I said.
Shatila was not spared from devastation during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Also ravaged by civil wars, the camp survived and went on to host stories of young people who rebuilt what the massacre destroyed.
I told her of a conversation I had with Engineer Nagi Dewali, the current head of the public committee, and how, in 1989, the Palestine Liberation Organization formed a committee of engineers, including himself, to rebuild the camp.
Nagi said, “In two years, we built the ground floors of around 63 houses and extended electricity, water, and sewage networks funded by donors. Then, there were some shortcomings from the PLO and UNRWA, and the funding stopped. After 1995, when part of the camp was rebuilt, Palestinians returned – joined by other nationalities – each looking for shelter due to the low cost of living. Random building started, and higher floors were added in ignorance of architectural rules and the absence of control by the state. This led to having ramshackle houses – despite there being two public committees, and the various Palestinian factions, who were all responsible for this outcome”.
Shatila camp has become a place of tents, shelters, and cheap accommodation that takes in refugees, laborers, and poor, marginalized people.
The camp’s census, overseen by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee in 2017, counted 14,010 people, one-third of whom are Palestinian refugees, while a little over half are Syrian refugees.
Yet, there is always hope for a new day.
The camp is overcrowded and oppressive. The people and their houses float atop exposed sewage water. With its entangled electrical wires, it is a place of enclosed, dark, and damp rooms.
There are also the stories of marginalized and outcast people and those banned from work. A high percentage of educated people and a skilled workforce without jobs. Disturbing images of despair, migration, and social illnesses, including drug abuse. However, the other side of the image is the young spirit and faces always looking for answers and change.
“I visited Shatila two years ago and saw how the stereotypes are now broken. Are young people still banging the walls of the tank?” she asked. Yes, I answered, adding that, as written by Ghassan Kanafani, the sun cannot be captured in a closed room.
There are always those who spread smiles, art, crafts, songs, poems, and stories in the camp. There is always someone good at coming up with individual initiatives, honing young people’s talents. For example, Fatima Ghazawi, a writer, managed to show the camp’s beautiful side in her story that was translated into English.
The camp now appears across social media from a simple studio, where those with new creative ideas seek to have their voices heard. Nasser Tanji, the studio’s founder, explains: “We had ideas, but no one could help us implement them. We established the studio to help young people, especially university media students, turn their projects into reality, and in this way spread the camp’s message of self-dependence without relying on funding from anyone”.
The camp needs spaces that are open to youth’s dreams and can free their suppressed voices to continue living. Such an image would speak volumes and make its way to international exhibitions for sure.
There are no spaces in the camp for children to express their ideas and unlock their potential. So, Mahmoud Hashim – aka ‘The Compassionate’ -established the Palestinian Chess Center, where children can develop their mental skills and be removed from the concerns of their fragile surroundings.
The camp is busy with its day-to-day business and its matters of earning a living – something which has become rare due to high unemployment as a result of economic, political, and social turmoil.
Palestine, however, has never left them, and its heritage is passed on to generations through art and culture.
Debka troupes at the camp compete to maintain their heritage. The Al Bayadir Band for Palestinian Folklore Arts is one of the groups that uphold such art, and it includes various age categories and several nationalities.
Mohamed Al Thahir, a Debka dancer in the band, says: “I’ve been with them since I was 14 years old, and now I am 20. Debka teaches us to sustain our heritage and identity and allows us to prove to the world that we have the right to live. We have performed in many areas and cities outside the camp, including Bekaa, Tyre, and Lebanese universities. Such integration makes us feel united”.
There are also farming projects on the camp’s rooftops, where flowers blossom and flourish amidst these slums. The cracked, damp walls of the houses also feature the colors of life that people deserve. The image of a dark tent has transformed into a tent that competes with high mountains over capturing sunlight, but such attempts are faced by bitter reality. The sun is higher than we thought, and it cannot be captured.
“But the challenge of humanity is higher than the sun. The image I captured at Shatila removes the room’s closed door and makes it wide-open to all humanity”, the French journalist said.
But this is an unfair comparison. She shook her head and repeated Ghassan Kanafani’s words: “You cannot find the sun in a closed room!”.