Seventeen years ago, my Arabic teacher at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency primary school in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem asked me and my classmates to write something about the camp.
It was winter and I was 13. Although I had just started my journey in writing, I was not keen. Writing was the last thing on my mind: I was more interested in keeping myself warm.
The school was far more cramped than usual. They had built new classrooms with a type of sheet metal made from zinc and wood. We called them zinco classrooms, and because of them, we were now 45 students to each room, huddled onto shabby wooden seats in a very narrow space.
I never did work out if it was our good or bad luck that saw us so privileged to learn in these new rooms.
The zinco classrooms shaped me in all ways, intellectually and emotionally. They framed my understanding of what it meant to be a refugee. The cramped space sparked in me a hatred toward this squeezed world of school. Half of most of my days were spent here, cooped up.
My only respite was found in the other half of the day, when I would run the narrow alleys of the camp getting up to mischief. Those alleyways were the only spaces where children could play in the camp. And so our lives were determined by the weather, particularly the seasons, specifically two: the unbearable heat of summer and the wet and cold of winter.
Learning by the season
In winter, my mother forced me to wear all the clothes I had in the closet. I would walk around in several layers all of different sizes and different colors. Nothing matched. In general, the mothers of my classmates showed creativity in so many ways, a creativeness arising from a life of poverty. My mom, for example, would give me socks and plastic bags to wear in the wet. I would put on the socks first, then the shoes and over both would go the plastic bag as a protective layer to prevent water seeping in.
I spent years of my educational life learning in a puddle. Literally. In the classroom, the longer we could keep our feet up from the water the braver we would feel. It was a challenge we developed into a game. Who would be the hero of the zinco classroom that day? Most of the time, we wouldn’t have a winner. When the rain was heavy and leaked through the ceiling, the cold and rain would simply put an end to our school day.
Our mothers benefited in some ways. By the time we got home we were drained, too tired to cause any trouble, seeking only the warmth of our beds.
The zinco classrooms had some unanticipated side effects. On a rainy day, it was terribly difficult to hear the teacher over the sound of water plonking on the roof. Studying would get even harder when the water dripped onto our books. The letters would eventually blur and dissolve into colored smudges on the page. Learning impossible, we would call on our imaginations and dream the hours away.
In summer, our minds would seek refuge from the sweltering heat and wander to the sea, so close yet out of bounds to us. Even now, all these years later, some of my old classmates have never seen the sea.
Far from entitled
When I hear the US State Department refer to me and my classmates as “entitled beneficiaries,” I cannot help but laugh. I know – I have had the good fortune to travel abroad when most of my neighbors have never left the occupied West Bank – that this learning environment is neither normal nor healthy.
It is certainly far from entitled. Despite erratic funding, certainly never quite enough to properly meet needs, UNRWA has nevertheless supported millions of Palestinian refugees who would otherwise have been completely destitute, even if we did learn in overcrowded, ramshackle classrooms.
My identity as a refugee will not change regardless of what the American and Israeli governments say. My lived experience in the camp – within sight of my original village, al-Walaja, to which I am forbidden from going – learning in puddles, playing in alleyways, all these have shaped me. I cannot erase my history. I will not erase my dreams of return and justice for all.
The camp suffered many social and political difficulties at the time in 2001 when I was tasked by my teacher with writing about it, difficulties that had lingered for more than a decade.
Educational and social activities were largely prohibited during the first intifada, and the Israeli occupation authorities would shut down Palestinian schools and arrest writers and intellectuals. Reading books, writing novels, selling magazines and newspapers were considered political acts.
Being caught in possession of a political book – which could include biographies of prisoners, or accounts of other revolutions elsewhere – could result in detention. It was an attempt at what Palestinian prisoner and writer Walid Daqqa has called a strategy of “melting the awareness,” at rendering us, in terms of our history, identity and culture, a blank sheet.
In the Palestinian context, the street has always served as a public space for both social and political life. The Israeli occupation, meanwhile, has always tried to erase Palestinian memories and culture, and replace it with ideas and principles that force a dependence on Israel. It is a political annihilation, a systematic plan that aims to create an incomplete and incoherent society composed of individuals fearful of losing what little we have left.
This “melting the awareness” strategy aims to destroy Palestinian unity and shake our conviction in liberty by putting a very high price on any form of resistance. It has devastated our social lives. As the pressure on us grows, and our freedoms and opportunities shrink, our social fabric has weakened. When I was a child, social life was centered around the common spaces in the camp. Today, it is not safe to gather this way. Our fear of the repercussions has forced us to isolate ourselves from each other in our homes.
The strategy works on a very deep and subversive level. It weakens us by targeting us psychologically. It aims to replace our sense of belonging and faith in our own righteousness with doubt and a false memory in which Palestine no longer exists. This may seem trivial compared to the daily oppression we suffer. It is, however, the very essence of what “melting the awareness” entails.
Palestinian culture has always been at the heart of the resistance against the Israeli occupation. Maintaining the Palestinian national culture, the sense of peoplehood, has been the most important objective of all our political parties. To beat the Israeli occupation it is paramount that we withstand Israel’s attempt at erasing our culture, history and identity.
I had forgotten when our assignments were supposed to have been completed. I didn’t even hear the teacher when he asked me to stand in front of my classmates to read my story out loud. In fact, I hadn’t written a single letter.
Instead I traveled in my imagination through the streets and alleys of the camp, past the marches and demonstrations for the martyrs, the stones and the old shelters, hearing the voices of invading Israeli soldiers. I traveled in my head to the sea, through woods that no longer exist.
I dreamed zinco dreams.
With my classmates I’ve grown up and seen dreams come true and dreams die. I have classmates who became doctors and engineers, artists and writers. I have classmates whose dreams died with them, martyred for the cause, fallen like autumn leaves.
I have seen Palestinians defy theory and academia. Refugee camps may be poor and overcrowded places, but in Palestine they are neither chaotic nor crime-ridden as the social sciences might predict. In spite of the poverty, high unemployment and inadequate access to social services, Dheisheh prides itself on a low crime rate and a high rate of post-secondary education among residents.
Indeed, the camps maintain social relations and social order. They contribute strongly to enhancing social and political awareness. It is for this very reason that they are seen as a threat to the occupation by those supporting the occupation.
Dheisheh refugee camp is less than half a square kilometer. It is inhabited by at least 15,000 people, many of whom are children under 18 years old. Israeli occupation forces invade the camp routinely, arresting and wounding at will. According to UNRWA, in 2017, 45 camp residents were wounded in such military incursions, 32 from live ammunition. There were two fatalities, stories that will never unfold.
I didn’t write that article when I was 13, though it did mark the beginning of my journey as a writer. Maybe I was not then able to explain what was on my mind at the time. There are many stories that have been written, and many that have not. There are also stories that are still waiting to be heard.
Aysar al-Saifi, the author of three novels and a collection of short stories in Arabic, is a translator and a refugee originally from the village of al-Walaja. Twitter: @AysarDawoud