Waltz with Bachir Gemeyal and Secret Santa

A journey through Sabra and Chatila…

The palace of Fakheridine stands proudly on the Chouf Mountains in Deir El Qamar, its weathered walls adorned with geometric patterns. The cold mountain air moves us past the Lebanese soldiers brandishing their M-16 assault rifles – emblematic of the Askari El Libnani. Civvy-dressed men and police sport Kalashnikovs – never seen so many weapons in one country. All cultural sites of national importance have armed guards – although I doubt they protect their antiquities, but rather, aim to protect sites of strategic and tactical significance. Perched on a hill or heavily fortified – modern battles have been fought within temples and churches. The Temple of Jupiter smashed to pieces by an Israeli missile while Beaufort castle became a battleground for the PLO and other feuding factions in Lebanon. This is a divided country, where political and religious differences have yet to be reconciled, subsisting on flimsy doctrine and charismatic leaders. The fate of Lebanese politics will always be weak if no leader is able to govern this highly volatile country and stay alive to keep the peace. We hear talk of Pre-Hariri and Post-Harriri, not to be confused with Rafik Hariri’s successor son, Sa’ad Hariri. Since Rafik’s assassination, to some extent, militiamen have been able to roam around and disturb the peace on behalf of their sponsors, Iranian, Israeli, Saudi etc. While the population deals with an enormous wave of refugees from Syria, affluent Libnani’s drive fast cars and frequent expensive restaurants. The different standards of living are very obvious in Beirut.

I followed a project manager from Basmeh & Zeitouneh, NGO and agent of UNHCR providing Relief and Development for the new wave of refugees from Syria to Sabra and Chatila. The traffic-blocked journey to Chatila sent chills up my spine as I read Robert Fisk’s account of the massacre by the Kata’ib or Phalange. The Israeli Army – generally perceived to be a disciplined army watched in complicity in their looking towers, while their Arab ally Phalange-Christians slaughtered the Palestinians with every means possible – women, children, young boys were all subjected to indiscriminate butchery and left in the slum to decompose. Although actual figures have not been ascertained, it is estimated up to 2,000 people were murdered within twenty-four hours. And here I was, standing over the places of arbitrary massacre. Two years’ ago, I visited Auschwitz and saw the apparatus of systematic barbarity – I feel something more chilling about militiamen running wild in a densely populated area. Sabra and Chatila was on a smaller scale – but nonetheless a massacre. I stuck the Auschwitz-Birkanau entrance sticker on my passport as a sign of solidarity among the Arabic visas, but it’s hard to imagine how the Israelis, so entrenched with holocaust in their national identity, can get involved in such atrocities. Today, Sabra and Chatila remains unchanged, pictures of Yasser Arafat adorn the streets while the new émigrés enter the slums and stretch its facilities.

Sitting with child refugee and Ferdeel
Sitting with child refugee and Ferdeel
Basmah & Zeitouneh vehicle in Sabra & Chatila
Basmah & Zeitouneh vehicle in Sabra & Chatila
Chatila children
Chatila children
Sabra and Chatila - rooftop view
Sabra and Chatila – rooftop view

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The mood was tense as we unloaded school tables and chairs from a truck. A local man sitting idly with his coffee became confrontational because we temporarily blocked the road. George Talamas, the project manager of Basmeh got paranoid about leaving the vehicle open because of the likelihood of theft in the area while we carried big bags of warms blankets and clothes for the people of the slum. I thought to myself that the community, no matter how deprived could probably work together to make the place a safer, better place. I went inside the premises of Basmeh and Zeitouneh, as I meandered around the pregnant ladies and small children seeking attention from Medicins Sans Frontieres on the floor below. I received permission from George to enter a small workshop and struck up conversation with the women’s workshop weaving together traditional quilts and tapestries for bags, covers and pillow cases. Their work was part of the NGO’s initiative to keep the women busy and ensure that they can have some income from their work. As I interviewed the ladies in turn and at times when I became subject of the interview myself – I felt the energy in the room elevate. The women opened up, but some were visibly introvert. One lady told me about her missing family – I told her to write down her full name in my notebook – ‘Ferdeel Mohammad Mushlooh from Homs’ it read in Arabic script. I told her I would ask around if I ever went back to Syria. I don’t think I will especially after my ‘kidnapping’ in Tripoli by the Mukhabarat and the Lebanese Army later that same evening on Christmas Eve.

I took a servees back to the Saifi institute and tried to document my findings. It was a bit too much to handle as I flicked through Fisk’s leading authority on the area – a chapter called ‘Terrorists’  (pg. 359 – Pity the Nation, Oxford Press). I remembered the mortuary covered in Martyrs faces and scruffy men with guns. A Syrian man called Ahmad told me about the young lad in a picture with a black sweat band and a Kalashnikov outside the Morgue/Mosque (the mosque was on the second floor). He added ‘that he blew himself up coming up from the Sinai desert in Egypt’, I felt he had no sense of shame in acts of such self-destruction. Many westerners might call this place a ‘terrorist factory’ – a term I coined after reading reports of the 1980’s Israeli occupation as they occupied West Beirut while they used such Newspeak generously to justify their presence. Ahmad added that the pictured man’s family was murdered and raped. The Press probably wouldn’t publish such hearsay accounts because it couldn’t be verified as a source or would be censored or deemed irrelevant to our audience in the West. I took his word for it as I usually do give people the benefit of the doubt especially as he was completely impartial to the plight of this particular Palestinian. Ahmad pointed at the space where the Syrian Mukhabarat or Intelligence existed before 2005 – again, Harriri’s death is a pivotal moment in Lebanese history.


A Lebanese girl with propped up curly brown hair at the Saifi Institute’s restaurant told me sit with her, I was in no mood to talk about frivolous matters. Her friends joined and it was nice because I felt acutely lonely on this particular Christmas Eve. I took up their offer to go to Jbeil near Byblos. I thought it could be a good time to see the Phoenician and Byzantine ruins and rest by the sea – so I packed my bag and waited for them to come back as promised. They called to tell me that they couldn’t take me – someone else in their group had obviously vetoed their decision. I sat there in Saifi, too mentally paralysed to read or write on Christmas Eve when memories of family and partner creep into my head. An American called James Altman, a seasoned explorer and cultural vulture said he was off to Tripoli for a Christmas party. He stayed with these people before and said I could come – I said I would think about it. I already turned down a male hairdresser from Achrafieh and a group of Hungarian and Polish girls on another occasion for a more spontaneous visit during the day. I had to think about it…

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