Posted by: audreydk | August 24, 2010

Shatila

Shatila in daylight...

Shatila is a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut. What began as groups of simple tents when Shatila was opened by the UNRWA in 1949, transformed into concrete huts by the 1960’s. Now Shatila is an entire neighborhood, set off the main boulevard, complete with its own beauty salons, tall concrete apartment buildings, grocery marts and nargileh stores (what many Americans call hookah). This is not to say that Shatila possesses anything resembling luxe. Like all refugee camps, Shatila’s inhabitants are impoverished and most buildings are pockmarked concrete shells.

Pictures of Arafat and other Palestinian heroes adorn the walls of Shatila

Shatila is known as the site of the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which Phalangist allies conducted raids on the camp that killed a disputed number of civilian refugees.  Estimated casualties range between 700 and 3500, and at least indirect Israeli involvement in the incidents is undeniable.  Thus, the name Shatila is synonymous with sectarian and political violence, like so many words in Lebanon.

My friends and I decided to visit Shatila for a concert, of all things.

There was festival and concert for the Children and Youth Center of Shatila, which was, like any event these days, posted on Facebook!  The cab ride was just the beginning to an interesting evening. Four young women- three American and one Lebanese- piled into the back seat and asked to be taken to Shatila. “Shatila?” the cabbie countered with a frown, no doubt wondering why tourists would want to see “that” part of town, but we persevered…and he got us there, eventually.

The driver first tried to drop us just outside the larger neighborhood known as Shatila, but luckily, our native Lebanese friend urged him on, insisting there was a concert we wanted to see in the camp (Merci ktir, Marwa!). After about 15 minutes of asking directions and maneuvering through the tiny streets of the camp, we were in the bowels of Shatila and the driver curtly dropped us and got the hell out there.  We were a bit nervous to go where I found out even the more macho Lebanese men fear and refuse to tread, but then turned a corner to find the concert!

We were quickly ushered to our seats- plastic lawn chairs in the middle of playground near a camera which was recording to broadcast the concert live on T.V.  We sat in a crowd that consisted mostly of grandmothers and mothers with their children and listened to traditional Arabic music.  It is a music that I describe as infectious- whose long emotional pauses followed by quick upbeat sets demands that everyone joins in clapping, yelping, and swaying.

I found myself tearing up during the event, not only for the feeling of the music, but by the attitude of my fellow concert-goers, who were mostly Shatila residents.  In short, Shatila residents and supporters make a decision that, despite being refugees for generations, they have life to celebrate. In addition, holding a concert to benefit the youth center is a strong statement about the the desire to continue to live and undergird a strong Palestinian identity. It is a fierce variety hope of which I am not sure I would be capable in the same situation.

During the concert, Palestian flags were handed out like candy to excited munchkins and were waved enthusiastically.  Want to learn more about Shatila? Take a look at Joe Sacco’s magnificent graphic history “Footnotes in Gaza”.

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