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Layers of Ordeals: Beirut’s Palestinian Refugees Host Others in Bourj Al Barajneh

By Arwa Mahmoud

Palestinian refugees embraced others as the violence in Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon reached its peek with a rising death toll and a large exodus. On the day I did this feature in May 2007 over 100 refugees had flooded the already crowded Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. A shorter and edited version of it was published in on May 27, 2007.

“Hajjeh Zeinab*, where are you going now?” asked a young lady in Bourj Al Barajneh, one of the oldest Palestinian refugee

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp (Beirut)

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp - Beirut (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

camps in Beirut, “I’m going out again to see if more people have arrived,” explained the old woman as she struggled in her walk to the door, “I must see if they need anything.”

Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp is placed on 1 square kilometer space and is home to around 21,000 Palestinians—offspring of villagers expelled in 1948 from their homes in what is now Israel. The camp is now home to over 100 extra Palestinian refugees who continue to flood in from Nahr al-Barid camp in the north of the country after the truce.

“There isn’t much aid coming to us from UNRWA, but there are some non-affiliated NGOs who are offering some help,” said my escort, who met me under a large Hamas poster placed at the entrance of the gate next to a fading poster of Yassir Arafat, “The refugees here live day by day, they have no stable jobs, but everyone is giving what they can give.”

The only clear affiliated efforts to settle the refugees in Bourj al-Barajneh came from the social sector of Hamas. With the arrival of the first wave of refugees from Nahr   al-Barid, a committee was created to survey the available space and aid needed. Sometimes they were lucky to find empty homes in which they managed to place some families, but most of the time they had to seek permission from existing families to host more people.

“This made matters much worse,” said a young Hamas social worker, “Most of the homes here are very small; two rooms maximum, and they are often inhabited by families of six or more members. So how can we give them even more people? Even when they welcomed them, which they always do, there is hardly space to place a mattress for a person to sleep on. So they spend most of the time out of the house because of the crowded atmosphere.”

With this bleak introduction, I began my journey through narrow, damp walkways, hanging electricity wires, and into the already crowded refugee homes that now hosted more people inside. It was impossible to picture how such homes held double their capacity.

Despite the difficult conditions in which these homes were built and the current troubling situation they are in, inside they were clean and tidy.

The refugees coming from Nahr al-Barid were timid and all of them refused to be identified or to have their pictures taken. They gave conflicting observations that made it difficult to draw a complete picture in the beginning.

In the first home three teenagers spoke as their mother served juice.

“We fled the camp at 11 PM, after the truce was announced. The Lebanese army shot at civilian homes, with no evidence of the militants being there,” said Mohammad, a green-eyed 16-year-old who showed noticeable confidence as he recalled his ordeal. “We had no militants shooting from our homes and yet our house was hit. No person would allow the militants into the rooftops of their homes to shoot at the army,” he added. “It was very difficult for us to flee because of the shooting, and it wasn’t easy to make calls, there was hardly electricity for us to charge any mobile phone. With each bombing there would be shrapnel everywhere, and then the camp would be filled with a bad unusual smell.”

“I had the blood of a teenager splintered at me in an instant,” said another, “There was random shooting. Random, merciless shooting coming from all directions.”

A man in his late forties appeared terrorized, angry, and frustrated. “We were refugees in the north and now we are refugees in Beirut hosted by refugees,” he said with a nervous smile, “We are rejected, unwanted by anyone. Why doesn’t everyone kill us [Palestinians] all and be finished?”

Many of the Nahr al-Barid refugees specifically chose Bourj al-Barajneh for its distance. As I walked further through the alleys, my escort explained the reason behind the influx. “Some of us fled to Bedawi camp, some to Eih el-Helweh, but it’s unwise. Violence can spread to these camps any minute.”

We walked on to Abu Kamal’s house. A home with 3 rooms for a family of 6 people that now received 8 refugees. At the door we took our shoes off in respect to the custom of most of the families there, and walked on a clean floor and sat. The door of one of the rooms was open, showing a line of mattresses placed on the floor. There were men and women in the house, women dressed in hijab now all the time, since they hardly have any privacy.

“The camp was filled with young youth who had no sense of life direction. They knew nothing about their religion and many of them sometimes committed blasphemy. With the coming of Fateh Al Islam, many of its members used to guide this youth and teach them more about Islam,” said an old man who refused to be identified.

“It would be unfair to say that they [Fateh Al Islam] were completely bad,” said one of the women, “they used to stand by the poor and help the needy.”

Through further conversation, it became apparent that none of the Fateh Al Islam militants were Lebanese. They came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and many other Arab countries.

Fatah al-Islam is a Sunni salafi group that emerged among others in the north of Lebanon, basing themselves in Palestinian refugee camps such as Nahr Al Barid and Ein Al Helweh. Recently, they have especially drawn the attention of observers as being a balancing counterforce funded and supported by the Future Movement under the auspices of the current Lebanese government to meet the rising challenge of Shiite Hizbullah. After the summer war in Lebanon in 2006, there numbers have increased.

In what became a prolonged discussion in Abu Kamal’s house, Abu Kamal referred to American journalist Seymour Hersh’s recent article “The Redirection,” published in The New Yorker on March 5, 2007, where he pointed to evidence of US and certain Arab states supporting Saad Al Hariri’s Future Movement in funding such movements, more specifically after the summer war in Lebanon.

“Hersch is right,” said Abu Kamal, “the militants had a lot of money with them. They used to give whoever was in need. They would pay for widows and help the poor. But dollars would pop out of their pocket any time. Where did they get that money from?”

In a special interview for that is soon to be published, retired General Amin Hoteit of the Lebanese Army stated: “these movements have entered the camps under the blessings and support for the Lebanese authority. There is no other way they could enter.” He added that one of the people whose name came in the investigations of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri was involved with these movements, but he was never arrested.

In retrospect, the residents of Abu Kamal’s house reflected on their helplessness during the fighting in the camp. They could not stop the Fateh Al Islam militants from shooting, and some were impossible to approach during heightening tension, because they would simply blow themselves up, killing others in the process.

“We used to spot people carrying rifles and randomly shooting, but they were clearly neither from the Lebanese Army nor from Fateh Al Islam. They wore civilian clothes, and many times they were the ones who would start the shooting, provoking the Lebanese Army to hit back at the camp,” he added.

A tingling thought remained in the air about the direct involvement of the Future Movement as I gathered accounts from refugees and reflected on observations of analysts.

Lebanon continues under layers of ordeals, forever a ground for forces vying for power and civilians victimized in the middle. But hope never fades even with those “double refugees” now in Beirut’s refugee camps. Greeting welcoming smiles, servings of tea and juice, and kind old people like Hajjeh Zeinab tell that it will one day be over.

*All names in the feature have been changed for privacy.

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Inside the Home of Islam Badr (1997-2008)

By Arwa Mahmoud
Published in Daily News Egypt (Oct 31, 2008)

An 11 year-old boy was killed when kicked in the chest by his mathematics teacher for failing to present his homework. When I decided to do a feature on the story and investigate the boy’s background I found myself exposed to another side of Egypt’s beautiful Alexandria; a parallel culture with social problems more representative of the harsh realities many Egyptians suffer from today.  It was published in Daily News Egypt in October 2008.

Islam Badr (1997-2008)

Islam Badr (1997-2008)

A 30-minute drive further into Alexandria’s eastern outskirts and the classical 1920s architecture so typical of the old city begin to give way to more recent, plain groups of untiled buildings clustered along the sides. The fresh sea breeze becomes a stench of dung and dust as the streets begin to narrow, forming a large maze of unpaved alleyways known to its inhabitants as El-Ras El-Soda.

Hardly known to the average Egyptian when thinking of Alexandria, El-Ras El-Soda was home to 11-year-old Islam Badr, who recently died when kicked by his mathematics teacher in his chest for failing to present his homework.

Pacing up the stairs in one of the few tiled buildings in the area, Islam’s eight-year-old brother Sirag led the way to their small apartment. Inside, he ran to a small room with two beds. “This is our bed; Islam, Abdel Rahman and me,” he said pointing to medium-sized bed at the corner of the room. “Our sister sleeps on the other bed.”

Since the death of their son, Islam’s parents have refused to go back to their home and preferred to stay at a relative’s place, leaving Islam’s deserted clothes, shoes and books as he last left them in the room.

Islam’s books lay on his bed. In large red font he’d written his full name on the first page of his brand new drawing notebook. “He had neat handwriting,” said Sirag with a faint smile as he held one of his brother’s homework notebooks.

The relatives’ place was not difficult to spot after a short walk in the bumpy alley. A crowd of people dressed in black stood at the entrance to the building and filled the stairs all the way to the apartment where Islam’s parents were staying. Islam’s mother sat silently at the far corner of a room, pushing back her deceased son’s picture with a quivering hand as someone tried to hand it to her.

“I used to be very wary lest my son gets hurt or sick. I sent him to his own death on that day,” she said, her voice breaking into a sob.

“Unlike his brother, my son hardly complained to me about anything that happened to him at school. He was always quiet and kept to himself,” said Amr, Islam’s father.

“Islam was a decent, quiet boy who hardly gave anyone a hard time,” said Sheikh Ahmad, a bearded man in his early 20s who used to give Quran lessons to Islam at the local mosque. “I can’t imagine how he could have provoked any teacher, let alone elicit such a violent reaction.”

“But I could sense sometimes that he was troubled,” recalled his mother, “he asked me once for money to buy some school supplies. He said that his mathematics teacher threatened to fail him in his exam if he did not bring them.”

After Islam’s violent death in the classroom, most of his classmates stopped going to school, traumatized by what they saw. Two of them recalled what happened to Islam in detail.

“Some of the students had not done their homework, so Mr. Haitham [the mathematics teacher] began to hit the palms of their hands with the stick. Islam pulled his hands to rub them and fell to the ground, so Mr. Haitham kicked the side of his chest,” explained Abdel Rahman.

“He fell on the ground, lay under the desk and began to urinate,” described Ahmad, “So Mr. Haitham beat him again with the stick.”

The room Islam shared with his brothers and sister (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

The room Islam shared with his brothers and sister (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

Both children confirmed that the teacher lifted Islam’s head and they could see the boy’s eyes were half open, his face gone blue, and he appeared unconscious.

A group of teachers carried Islam and took him away to a nearby clinic.

Abdel Rahman continued, “After the teachers took Islam another teacher came to the class and said, ‘Islam is alright, so don’t say anything to the police. If you do, your parents might be taken to the police station and they will be asked a lot of questions and get into trouble.’ We did not want to lie, so the teacher said, ‘don’t lie, but don’t talk too much.’”

At the clinic, Dr Ahmad Sadiq was the first physician to examine Islam. He suggested to the teachers to take the child to a hospital, declaring that the child was “dead.” The primary hospital report, of which Daily News Egypt obtained a copy, stated that Islam was not breathing when he arrived to the hospital and no pulse was detected. Heart resuscitation was administered successfully and he was placed on life support. No signs of physical abuse were mentioned in the report.

“When I went to see my son at the hospital I found bruises all over his back and chest, and Dr Sadiq told me that my son was dead when he arrived at the clinic,” complained Amr, “There is no way my son died of heart failure like the hospital staff tried to convince me. He played soccer twice a week. There was nothing wrong with his heart.”

Dr Sadiq refused to comment to Daily News Egypt on Islam’s condition when he arrived at the clinic, or compare it to the hospital report, declaring that what he had to say is now with the father.

Corporal punishment in primary schools has been a tradition in Egypt for decades. The commonly held stereotype of the Egyptian teacher is one of a middle aged man carrying a book and a multi-purpose stick in his hand used for “disciplining” the class. With a rising problem of overcrowding specifically in government run schools, corporal punishment has taken more severe forms, several times causing serious physical injury.

However, despite the rage the death of Islam has caused among the El-Ras El-Soda community, few seemed to have objections to what they considered “mild beatings” at school for the purpose of disciplining the child. Many showed quick willingness to accept apologies if their children did not suffer permanent injury.

“My daughter almost lost her eye once,” said a parent who refused to be identified, “The teacher was trying to hit her palm with a ruler but it accidentally hurt the eye. The teacher apologized to us. And when we checked with the doctor that our daughter’s eye was fine we did not file any complaints against the teacher.”

Roqaya Hamid Zaki, 12, was hit in the head with a ruler by the school teacher. With guilty uneasiness she eyed her father as he spoke on her behalf.

Beatings of the children inside El-Ras El-Soda schools were recalled by both children and parents as a de facto form of educating. “Mr. Haitham would lift up the stick very high,” demonstrated Abdel Rahman, rolling his arm backwards, “and land it strongly on the palms of our hands. Sometimes it fell on our fingers, making them swell,” he explained.

Abdel Rahman described the “stick” with which the teachers beat him and his schoolmates. It was not always a ruler. “It is a long wooden object that is very thick.” He demonstrated with his little hand what appeared to be a five-centimeter diameter.

In response to a series of human and child rights organizations the Egyptian government has issued a comprehensive law banning all forms of child abuse, ratified by the parliament in June 2008. Executing the law, however, is a serious challenge especially in remote areas such as El-Ras El-Soda, which suffers from compounded problems.

The area seems to the casual visitor like a cultural ghetto impenetrable by the law. Alleged drug trafficking is an open practice around the school premises, and extortion of public land is reported to be a common practice unstoppable by the state. In such a chaotic atmosphere, both teachers and parents feel victimized.

“High ranking officials from the ministry would never bother to visit one of our schools. They only go to the private schools in the city,” snapped Amr.

“It is really unfair that the whole problem is being laid on the teacher like this,” complained Aya, a student affairs specialist in a neighboring school. “The class is loaded with 60-80 students. How would anyone expect a single teacher to keep their sanity in such mess?”

She is collecting money with a number of Haitham’s colleagues to find him a lawyer.

“I get paid LE 104 [$18] a month, and I don’t even receive it on a monthly basis. I end up searching for an afternoon job,” she said.

Aya was hoping she would be appointed by the ministry office through what is called a “special” contract that offers extra benefits, earning her LE 317 ($57) a month. However, this turned out to be a system applied only in few of the ministry offices, and with no consideration for experience.

“We have no chances for a decent life,” hollered Islam’s aunt, “it is as if we bring children to their own death. And so Islam is gone, he was too good for this world.”

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The Arab Initiative: A Mental Exercise

The Arab Initiative

Film poster depicting Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen

By Arwa Mahmoud
Published on Daily News Egypt (Dec 21, 2008)

“We must find a place for you to take out your gum,” says a Danish scholar to his young daughter as he holds her hand and enters the castle of Christiansborg in Copenhagen, “Maybe in the cloak room.”  The scholar is about to receive an honorary award from the Queen of Denmark for his work in the Middle East.

A sophisticated yet humble man in his forties, Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen is a Danish scholar specialized in Islam and the Middle East.  He was appointed as head of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo as part of the Danish government’s post-9/11 project to further engage in the Arab world, shifting its focus from rural area activities to a more politically oriented engagement.  This project was named The Arab Initiative, and so is the title for the recent Danish documentary directed by Lotte Mik-Meyer of the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

Following Petersen’s work for four years, The Arab Initiative presents a new attempt to penetrate the confused world of cultural misconceptions and emotional perception, shaking the ground under the viewers and forcing them to revisit themselves in order to understand others.  It is an honest depiction of the work Petersen had set himself to do when he altered the life of his family by traveling thousands of miles to a foreign culture, armed only with the firm belief in dialogue as the mechanism of change.

Through this depiction, however, the film acquired a spirit of its own.  It takes the viewer on a one hour journey through the complexities of life in Cairo, showing the many faces of its diverse manifestations of Muslim life.

“When I started this film in 2004 I wanted to counter the one-dimensional picture of dialogue, and the fearful picture of Islam and the other,” explained Mik-Meyer.  In this attempt Mik-Meyer has deconstructed the single, flat image of Islam as one group of hateful think-alike Muslims.  Arguments of Islamist intellectuals and political activists boldly presented the multiple dimensions of the Islamic outlook to dialogue and Muslim perceptions of the other.

On a softer and more silent note, she has lifted the veil off the Muslim woman of the “mysterious orient,” showing her rushing out of the bus to work, dancing on a boat adrift the Nile despite her headscarf, taking charge as a central figure in a family, and voicing her thoughts on what she perceives dialogue with the West to be.

Shot during a turbulent period in Egypt’s political history, the film rightfully focuses on the political makeup of Egyptian consciousness.  Recurring scenes depict young men cheering or holding up signs of candidate names in preparation for the parliamentary election.  More importantly, policemen and guards are shown at work or simply trying to catch a bus, a site hardly encountered in the streets of Copenhagen yet very vivid to Egyptians as a constant reminder of state presence and authority.  The film carefully reflects uneasiness in the relationship between the people and the state, thereby enforcing a consideration of the multiple dimensions of public Muslim attitude in order to understand Muslim outrage.

Mik-Meyer has successfully done the same on the Danish side.  She exposes the internal debate within Danish circles and voices the concerns and questions many have regarding Muslims.  Through her main character, she challenges the Danish viewer on a new level.  “I chose Jakob because he does not have the typical, often disdained look of what many here call ‘Halal Hippy’ when they speak of those who sympathize with Arabs and Muslims,” clarified Mik-Meyer, exposing the internal challenges she deliberately chose to create.  “Jakob has the look of the intellectual bourgeois, very much respected in our society.”

Since the publication of the controversial cartoons defaming the prophet Muhammad in 2005, most attempts at bridging the ever-widening gap between Muslims and the West have been as complex and elevated in expression as the issues themselves.  The Arab Initiative, however, offers a more subtle, utterly humanistic approach to the problem.  It enters Petersen’s home and shows conversations with his daughters.  It silently exposes the inner difficulties his wife encounters in a foreign society, having left her stable career in Denmark in support for her husband’s mission.  The viewer is thus engaged in a human story, not faced with concepts and analyses thrown from speakers on both sides.

“The film is quite healthy,” expressed a Danish 21 year-old student of Folkehojskole (Folk High School), a non-degree college offering optional post-graduate education, “It really unsettles the comfort we feel in framing ourselves and others in a simplistic fashion.  It challenges such single images so hard it is in fact annoying!”

“The wife in the film must be expressing exactly what the wives of immigrants here in Denmark could be encountering too,” added Mik-Meyer.

The film presents the viewers with the concept of dialogue as a continuous endeavor, a way of life taking a special form in the choice made by the main character.  In the process of watching the development of the work of Petersen, a viewer is presented with a mental exercise, one which forces them to cast aside their own cultural background and beliefs and step into the shoes of the other, viewing the world through their eyes and judging by their standards.  Alarmingly to some yet comforting to most, it rests on the basic fact that raw human emotions, dreams, and fears, are shared by all sides.


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