Palestinian children in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon.
It’s incredible that scenes like this still exist in an age where I can photograph them with a camera on my mobile phone.
This is my review of Wadad Makdisi Cortas’ memoir, A World I Loved. I highly recommend this book for people outside the Middle East who wish to better understand this region’s recent history.
Book review: “A World I Loved”
“This is my story, the story of an Arab woman,” Wadad Makdisi Cortas states in the opening line of her memoir A World I Loved. Born Wadad Makdisi in Beirut in 1909, which at that time was considered a part of Syria, she discovered Arab nationalism at a young age and lived a life true to the idea in every sense. Cortas, born a Greek Orthodox Christian, believed passionately that Arabs, in order to protect their culture and values, should liberate themselves from Western colonialism which sought to impose its ways and divide the people.
Though the memoir was originally written in Arabic, Cortas’ daughter Mariam Said explains in the book’s introduction: “She felt compelled to write in English to explain to the West the politics around the Palestinian tragedy …” (xxviii). Before her death in 1979, Cortas gave the manuscript to Mariam’s husband, the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said, for publication. At first, the family was unable to find a publisher. But after the 11 September 2001 attacks and subsequent US-led wars in the Middle East, the region became the focus of much of the world. It was then, Mariam Said writes, “that the time for her book had come” (xxix).
Cortas’ story begins in 1917, the year of the infamous Balfour Declaration in which the British promised Arab Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, and the year before an old empire would be replaced with a new one. World War I marked the end to centuries of Ottoman rule and the beginning of the French and British Mandate over much of the Middle East; Syria and Lebanon fell under the control of the French. While growing up, Cortas had no choice but to become involved in politics. Her father, a professor of Arabic at what is now the American University of Beirut, sent her to the still-operating secular Ahliah National School for Girls in Beirut. She learned much through him and his intellectual colleagues who would meet at the family’s home to discuss issues of the time. Throughout the book, she quotes her father’s lessons: “‘No one loves us for our black eyes,’ goes a saying that Father often repeated. ‘These big nations are selfish; their major aim is to use us as tools to further their interests and ambitions'” (34).
Last Tuesday a dear friend of mine was traveling back to his home in the occupied West Bank after a trip to Europe. He had been visiting Norway where he was meeting with senior officials in his capacity as an organizer with Stop the Wall, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that campaigns against Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank. In order to travel abroad, Palestinians in the West Bank must go to Jordan and take flights from Amman. Even though Jordan shares a border with the West Bank, it is Israel that controls that border. Traveling through any checkpoint (and the West Bank is full of hundreds) let alone one on a border, is a frightening experience for any Palestinian who are all subject to detention, arrest or other mistreatment by the young M16-wielding Israeli soldiers. As he attempted to return to his occupied home he was stopped and detained, and later he would be arrested and taken to one of Israel’s many prisons where it holds around 11,000 Palestinians like Mohammad, including hundreds of children.
Mohammad did not choose to get involved in politics, it chose him in 2003 when Israel built its wall that split his village in two, separating the residential area of the village from its farmland. Like many West Bank villages, the people in Jayyous’ livelihood depended on their olive trees. Mohammad’s family was no different. After the wall was constructed residents had to apply for permits, which were often denied to nearly all young men making it nearly impossible for families to collect all of their olives during the autumn harvest season. Israel also began uprooting and destroying olive trees to make way for a Jewish settlement that was to be built on the farmlands of Jayyous. Mohammad and his family suffered a great deal. I spent the harvest of 2004 with him and his family when only a few of them and I (of course my American passport gave me infinite more rights than those wishing to work on their lands) could make it to the trees, while the rest waited anxiously on the other side clearly disappointed by missing the harvest and ready to take the olives to get processed into oil. It was in that time that I learned about Palestinian fellah (peasants) and their generations of struggle to maintain their land, a struggle embodied in the olive trees hundreds of years older than any person living in Israel/Palestine.
Mohammad’s activism is his resistance, his way to protect himself, his family, his people, his land. He uses only words, but even words are a threat to the injustice of the oppressors. And that is why he sits in a cell now where his captors use every intimidation technique imaginable to break his spirit. But they will never silence Mohammad and those fighting on the side of what’s right.
Learn more about Mohammad’s case here: http://freemohammadothman.wordpress.com/.
Residents from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon gathered on 16 September to protest the Lebanese government’s halting of planned reconstruction of the camp that was destroyed in 2007 in a battle between the Lebanese army and militants from Fatah al-Islam. Hundreds of refugees from the camp and their supporters gathered in Tripoli, the closest major city to Nahr al-Bared. After being denied a permit to protest at the police station near the city’s center, organizers change the location an area far away from symbolic government buildings and people.
This is from Al-Jazeera English. If you don’t get the channel at home, you can download a program called livestation (for mac or pc) and stream it over the web.
I can never accurately express my admiration for children in Palestinian refugee camps. By now I’ve been to most of the dozens of camps around the Arab world, and there is something consistent in all of them. It’s as if from day one children are born with an understanding of their family’s more than six decades of struggle to return to their homeland. Often when I speak to kids in the camps I don’t feel like I’m speaking to kids at all. I feel humbled in their presence similar to when I speak with a person much older and more experienced than me. It’s strange to feel that way around a seven year old, no?
And In the camps you feel how far the conflict is from being resolved. I spoke about current events with friends today in Nahr al-Bared who couldn’t care less about any of the “peace” talks currently taking place, especially the debates surrounding the “freezing” of settlements in the West Bank. There is only one issue that they are concerned with — their right to return home. At six million, not only do they make up roughly half of the world’s Palestinian population (Palestinian refugees outside Palestine and those in the occupied territories and Israel), but they are also the largest refugee population in the world today. This is the issue at the core of the conflict, and it’s the issue that is always put off for “later.” However, until it’s addressed, these children are evidence that freezing settlements and even ending the occupation will not bring the conflict any closer to a peaceful and just solution.