A Day in the Life of Jenin Refugee Camp

(7 December 02) This was the third and final day of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday concluding Ramadan. I awoke at the home of a family where twin sons had been killed on separate occasions in the last two months. The rest of the children make the home boisterous. I heard the cries of Allahu Akbar, the funeral parade for a boy from the neighbouring village of Sili who had been killed the night before. I joined the march on the main street bordering the massive destroyed Hawashin neighbourhood of the Camp. Two young girls joined me, each one taking my hand as we maneouvered through the puddles left by the nightis rain. We walked through the Camp and then turned back again in the direction of the city of Jenin. We were no more than twenty women, just a line or two walking behind the crowd of men, and I made sure to keep the eager girls at an appropriate distance behind them. A jeep up ahead carried the slogan master who was broadcasting with a megaphone, followed by a sombre response from the marchers. Abdullah `Umar al-`Umariis small body was borne by men at the head of the procession.

I turned off at Dr. Khalil Sulayman Hospital and headed back into the Camp because I was looking after the children that morning. The girls had prepared breakfast and afterwards absolutely refused to let me fold the nightis blankets and put them in the cabinet. I said I could not relax with a cup of tea until I had helped to straighten up, but an elder daughter brought me tea and seated me in the salon, ordering her little brothers to sit still. Then the question, iDo you like a lot of noise?i I said that I did, but I also like quiet. Two-year old Anisa was chanting my local name in rhythm, iTa-ha-ni, Ta-ha-nii and the other children occasionally broke out into an adapted slogan: iWith our soul, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Tahani!i I can never say that I donit get enough attention. Before I left, they made me promise to come to the barbecue (grill) on their married sister Maysais rooftop after the mid-afternoon prayer.

I went to the home of my usual hosts in the Camp, and talked with relatives paying holiday visits, some having come from distant villages. Like me, one of them specialised in Islamic Studies. He wants to do an advanced degree in an Arab country, but cannot get out of Palestine. Nobody could refuse the lunch — it would be an insult, and our partaking of it made our hostess so happy. We enjoyed our meal to the accompaniment of constant bangs and crashes of toy ballistics, compensation for the temporary absence of the Armyis customary noise.

Our little party of four women went to the House of Condolence/Bayt Ajr for a recent martyr down the street, `Alaa Sabbagh. As is the custom, the ladies were sitting in a square formation on thin mattresses that double as seats during the day. We all greeted Alaais mother and young widow, and took turns holding his two-month old baby boy. When one foreign visitor said that she had four children, the widow said, iAnd I have just one.i Relatives had stories to tell: iThe Army kills one, and we bring another to birth,i said the woman who gave birth to twins on the very day that her husband and his brother were killed. One was shot inside his house while standing unarmed near the window. When his brother went to his side to help him, the sniper took the second brother as well.

Amidst the mourning, the holiday brings constant invitations. The barbecue I agreed to earlier tracked me down by mobile phone. iWhere are you? Maysa is waiting for you to come to her barbecue. She has phoned me twice!i her mother cried. I had tried so hard to get there on time, after the mid-afternoon prayer as I had been told. The rooftop is another world! Maysais husband Daoud had finished building a new home for a pair of light blue parakeets, a walk-in cage bordered by slender pine trees rising above the buildingis three storeys. Looking over the edge of the building I saw a lovely secret, a nursery school garden where children play, a beautiful space not visible from the street. What an oasis from the everyday scenes of destruction present in every neighbourhood. A playground! A surprise that something so normal should take me by surprise.On the rooftop, one shift had already eaten, so they began to roast more chicken and kababs, with Daoudis mother insisting I try the chicken before I had a chance to finish the kufta. She was proud of her ability with spices, and rightly so. The children were wildly teeter-tottering on a plastic toy with two-year old Anisa dangling precariously in the air, oblivious to any danger and smiling widely. Her brother thoughtfully put his arm in front to guard her from a possible tumble.

The foreign photojournalist the family had befriended the day before phoned from town, asking if there were hotels. Daoud proffered information on two. Moments later, the taxi driver phoned asking where he should take him, as one hotel had ceased to operate and the other was closed for the holiday. I told him to bring Kaz back to the Camp. Then the driver phoned again to say that Kaz had gotten out of the taxi to buy water, and how can he buy water when he doesnit speak Arabic! I said that he had learnt how to count in Arabic, but I did not elaborate that this was due to his experience with taxi drivers. When I relayed this information to the children, they took it up with gusto: iKaz escaped from the taxi!i the laughter cascading from one voice to another. The next call was Kaz who had arrived with lightning speed, presumably with a different taxi driver, in front of the main mosque in the Camp. Ten-year old Raghda was deployed to meet him and bring him up to the roof, all the while the others were proclaiming, iKaz escaped from the taxi!i iHe escaped to buy water!i When he appeared, they gave him a herois welcome, and Daoud thoughtfully inquired, iKaz, would you like some water?i iYes, please.i

Yumna asked if he had paid the taxi. I delayed the question, but brought it up when he told of walking with the funeral procession that morning. Unlike me, he had walked all the way to Sili village and had taken a taxi back. Of course he had paid! Six-year old Hasan wanted to get in on the conversation, and called out, iQays,i thereby inadvertently arabising his name, of which Kaz approved heartily. Yesterday, the family gave him an opportunity to photograph their home which had been ravaged and burnt in the April invasion, and which was reinvaded and further damaged in the darkness before dawn that day. For contrast, he also got shots of Maysa and Daoudis new home, beautifully decorated after the invasion, showing what life is like without the occupieris destruction. After Kaz had been sated with kababs and bombarded by the childrenis affection and questions, I took him to his hostis for the night. With no available hotel, one quick call found him a roof over his head, proving once again the spontaneous generosity of the Camp people. He apologised for his weak Arabic, but all agreed they could communicate in other ways.

I proceeded to the Hospital to see a few friends there. Luiay, a boy of sixteen, was shot in the leg by a tankis sniper when he was with a crowd of boys throwing rocks at a tank near his home. He lost his younger brother and his mother to the Armyis violence and prevention of ambulances in the April invasion. Luiay was wounded at the site where the twin brothers of the barbecuing family were killed. A new patient was brought in who had just been wounded in Jeninis Suweitat neighbourhood. A passing tank opened fire on cars and pedestrians, and he was shot in the arm. He was insistent that he get to Nablus for treatment as he felt Jenin Hospital was not adequate. Surely the absence of a pillow was not the reason, but it fueled his lack of confidence.

I then visited Farid, about fourteen, who also had a serious leg wound. He had been returning home from Jeninis downtown mosque after the special evening tarawih prayers of Ramadan when a tank opened fire. While Luiay usually has an entourage of visitors gathered around him, Faridis room is less populated. His mother can only visit by telephone from Lebanon. When I came in, he asked, iWill you visit every night?i

My final destination was the Abu Ghalion home at the top of the hill, about a hundred meters from where the tanks make their depot. On the second day of the holiday, soldiers came at 4:00 in the morning, made the extended family wait outside, and trashed all the homes in the large building. They were searching for someone in the family on their list of wanted men. But, my friend wondered, why were they looking under the carpets? Did they expect to find someone very slim? While the family waited in the cold, the soldiers inspected the women closely to make sure they were not men in disguise. They shined a searchlight into their faces and demanded that my friend uncover her face, as she wears a full veil. She pulled it up quickly to reveal a frowning expression. They then demanded that another woman in the home remove her headscarf. What a mess the soldiers made of the house, and this only four days after my friends had begun to get things in order from the invasion four days before. On that occasion, Captain Jamal of the Israeli Army had sarcastically thanked them for the use of their home. He then threatened to keep returning every few days, and to shoot the man they are hunting ilike a dogi if they find him. This time, on the second day of the holiday, he wished them a Happy Holiday in Arabic.

On this night, the third day of the holiday, I was staying to lessen some of the Armyis aggression, if possible, but mostly for companionship with my friends. They lent me an extra sweater, and we went to bed dressed for the possibility of having to kneel on the ground outside for hours. Knowing that the Army usually come before daybreak, we were in bed before midnight.

Dr. Annie Higgins is an Arabic and Arabic literature lecturer at the University of Chicago and is a former recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship. She is currently in Jenin.