“Where would you like to go?” asks a taxi driver a little older than my father, his thick Lebanese accent I barely understand.
I reply politely, “Off the airport road to Bourj al-Barajneh.”
“The refugee camp? No, I don’t go there,” he replies.
Not understanding how to respond, I nod and keep waiting for a taxi that will agree to take me. I finally negotiate with a driver to take me to the main entrance of the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp for an outrageous fare of $20.
As I get into the back seat, I roll down the window and breathe in a little of Beirut. Like a child curious towards a new environment, I take in the city, its beauty and its tragedy. Avoiding conversation, I maintain focus on the road as the driver chatted away, his voice slowly merging into the city sounds.
A sudden slam on the breaks mean I had reached my destination. “Here you go! God be with you.” I pull my suitcase from the trunk and settle my fare. As the taxi drove off I find myself standing at the tip of a busy bridge; across from it was a city within a city. I stand there for a moment or so, overwhelmed at its sight, unsure of how to proceed.
In my work I had visited many refugee camps but somehow Bourj al-Barajneh had its own way of instigating emotional turmoil. It stood out from the rest of Beirut and it created a sense of fear onto the outside world. As if whatever enters is lost in it forever, the kind of fear one has of drowning in the ocean.
Not sure of how to locate my host family, I drag my suitcase to the side of the road, kick it to place it in a horizontal position, and sit on it while I frantically look for my cell phone. I scroll up and down through my messages trying to find contact details for a man named Abu Muhammad. I’ve attracted the attention of a group of children who stand on the side, intrigued by a foreigner in the camps. They whisper to each other and giggle. I wave one of the kids over and ask him to direct me to Abu Muhammad’s place.
“Abu Muhammad? The one with the Internet cafe or the one with the shop?”
“The one that owns a small shop in the camp,” I reply.
He thinks for a minute. “Will you buy my friends and I ice cream from Abu Muhammad’s store?”
I find his request a fair trade and agree to it. He waves over the rest of his friends who help push my suitcase through the camp as they yell and chant: “Foreigner! Foreigner in the camps!”
We finally arrive at a small shop that is almost hidden under a crooked staircase. With no particular organization in the manner in which it is stocked with goods, in the center sat an elderly man next to a very dusty television placed on a three-legged chair supported by a stack of bricks. I can barely make out his face as it is dark inside the shop and three furious candles make just enough light to illuminate his shirt and the chair which he is slowly rocking back and forth.
The kids yell out to him to get his attention while letting me in on the fact that Abu Muhammad is hard on hearing. He slowly walks in our direction and greets me with great enthusiasm. He asks the boys to help me take my suitcase up to the third floor where I would be staying with two other Canadian volunteers. I linger around to settle my promise to buy the kids ice cream from his shop. He generously adds candy to the deal and invites me to come by his place later in the evening to meet his wife.
Over the next couple weeks I find myself right at home, accustomed to the daily abrupt power cuts, crooked narrow alleyways and of course the three dimensions of water. I create a system to store clean water that could be used to shower and drink, the second dimension for laundry and finally tap water that could only be used to clean.
Time is a limited concept when one is working around frequent power cuts and scarce amounts of clean water. I obsessively back up my work, unsure of when the power would go out as I typed an email or organized my research. The tragic ends to conversations with friends and family on Skype always sting like a bee. On one such evening, I find myself sitting alone in my flat in Bourj al-Barajneh in total silence and darkness. I try to recall where I left my flashlight and slowly try to make way into the bedroom. I look through my suitcase and in the process knock over my roommate’s collection of Elias Khoury novels.
“Are you okay?” I hear Abu Muhammad’s wife yell from her kitchen window, located directly below my bedroom. I yell back, asking her if she had spare candles, to which she responded with an invitation to her place. “What’s the point of you sitting alone in the dark up there? The three of us might as well share the darkness!” I quickly dress myself in what later proved to be an uncoordinated color combination and counted each step down to their apartment.
Abu and Umm Muhammad always extend a warm welcome accompanied with tea and snacks. As the three of us sat in darkness, their curiosity turned into a series of personal questions about my life. Nothing was off-limits; they are at ease asking me about my marital status, family details and religious beliefs. After having satisfied their inquisitiveness, they ask me a particularly difficult question: “Have you been to Palestine?”
A sudden hot flash takes over my face during this awkward pause. I stare down deep into my tea cup as if trying to focus on the already diluted sugar granules. I remember the advice from other volunteers: “Make sure you don’t tell folks here that you have been to Palestine; it creates emotional turmoil for them!”
I wonder whether I could lie bold-faced to a harmless and kind elderly couple. I look up to the pair who probably already knew the truth I was struggling to conceal. “I knew it! You smell and feel like Palestine. I hear it in your voice, I sense it in your mannerisms, I feel it in the way you talk!” exclaims Umm Muhammad.
She quickly reaches across the table and embraces me as if taking into her arms a part of her country. “Oh! Let her speak. I want to hear stories” says Abu Muhammad.
In what seemed like an eternity the three of us discuss in great detail my experiences in the West Bank. “Tell me about the sea, the sea of Jaffa,” asks Umm Muhammad.
“It is angry, the waves crash onto the rocks like an army filled with rage,” I reply.
“What about Akka?” Abu Mohammad asks.
“In Akka the waters are calm but run deep. The old city is beautiful and the marketplace has the best of Palestinian cuisine,” I say.
“What about Jerusalem, did you pray at al-Aqsa? Did you see the Dome of the Rock?” they both ask.
I share details of my Jerusalem visits; I tell them how beautiful the Dome of the Rock is: “It sits like a gem in the core of Jerusalem, one can see it from afar as its golden dome reflects the sunlight throughout the day and moonlight through the night.”
We share nostalgia and a mosaic of emotions from joy to grief. “Take me home; I want to see Jaffa before I die,” says Umm Muhammad.
Words escape me — I feel a sharp pain in my gut and a certain struggle to breathe. I realize my privilege, my non-Palestinian status, my foreign identity, and my ability to exist in freedom even in spaces like refugee camps. Ashamed of this privilege, I fail to offer any consolation to both Abu and Umm Muhammad.
Sensing my guilt, Abu Muhammad continues: “Palestine is not an identity, land, home or some ‘right’ in international law! It’s this memory we chase of a time that has long gone by, and knowing so we live in the shadows, chasing what used to be.”
I ponder his words and ask, “Would you return?”
He opens his mouth to reply but he stops himself. He then reaches for a pack of cigarettes and lights the last one. I watch him carefully as his thoughts get the best of him; in that moment he was completely alone with his conscience.
“Have you ever loved something so much that it destroyed you?” asks Abu Muhammad.
I pretended that I didn’t hear his question and ask, ” Would you return?”
My perseverance pays off as I watched him extinguish his cigarette abruptly. He crosses his arms and leans forward, I can now make out his face, even through the dark. He chooses his words carefully, as if each were carefully picked from years of internal debate and thought.
“I remember Jaffa well. As a boy I would walk around for hours. I can smell the oranges of Jaffa. I feel the earth of Palestine under my feet, the fresh breeze of the sea, how the waves chased me back and forth. I remember in great detail my home, and in particular the door to my home. I try and unlock it every time I see it in my dreams. But no matter how hard I try I can never go inside it.”
As the power returns, it brings with it an awkward abrupt pause to our conversation. Abu Muhammad abandons our discussion and resorts to talking about his shop affairs and Umm Muhammad returns to asking me more questions about my marital status, family and religious beliefs.
After I leave their humble dwelling, I find myself wide awake that night. I remember watching a home demolition in East Jerusalem, the faces of refugees in the occupied West Bank and my dear friend Aya. Her radiant smile as she visited the remains of her village. The journey we made to make her return to her original village, how she filled an empty bottle with sand to spread on her mother’s grave in exile. I remembered how she silently wept at the loss of her land and marked her coming home. It is in that moment the lines between memory and return become blurred and in a beautiful summer sunset there is momentary peace.
Lamya Hussain is a Toronto-based activist and a researcher on issues around Palestinian refugees.