I made a pilgrimage yesterday to a place that gets as religious as it can get for a former Jew like me. We were finishing up work in the Shatila center and I noticed that one of your young volunteers in Shatila was sitting on the stage in the back of our center reading a book (I’ve seen a lot of this in Shatila and it makes me so happy–not just that people read, but that people are reading good quality stuff); she was reading a collection of Ghassan Kanafani stories. She was sitting with another of our volunteers and we were sharing aspects of our favorite Kanafani stories and he mentioned that he is buried in Shatila, which makes sense, but I never thought about it before. I said that we should make a pilgrimage there and we decided to take a walk. The graveyard is actually on the outskirts of the camp, though there are a couple of mass graves inside Shatila, too, of other shaheed. The graveyard is lined with trees and there are faded posters of Abu Ammar on some of the trees as you enter the cemetery. Many of the graves have holes inside them in which there are potted plants. But towards the back side of the cemetery is Ghassan Kanafani’s grave.
I cannot really describe what I felt visiting his grave, but it was powerful to see him among a sea of other martyrs (as well as those who have died of natural causes). I felt that I wanted to hire a proper gravedigger, rent a truck, and take all of these deceased and bury them in their proper home, in Palestine. It made me want to fight for al awda even more than ever to see these people displaced even in death. And, of course, every day in life.
One of Kanafani’s many gifts to the world is his writing, of course, but also the legacy of his family who created the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation and the kindergartens it supports. The children there are trained to create amazing artwork and Kanafani’s daughter trains the teachers in art education. Normally this time of the year all of the kindergartens in the Palestinian refugee camps around Lebanon, hold an art exhibition of their work. This year only three are able to do so given the situation; two of them are in Beirut, Mar Elias and Bourj al Barajneh refugee camps. I went to see their exhibition this week as part of my research is on the cultural production of the children in these schools. The kindergarten in Nahr el Bared refugee camp, which the Lebanese army destroyed, had sent some of their work to Beirut to be framed and as a result it is now on display in these other camps (pictured here). It is all that remains of this school, though I hope these children and their families are safe and alive. Much of the art work is self portraiture and the children also tell stories of who they are, what village or town they come from in Palestine. Their book, Like Roses to the Wind is one of the most brilliant collection of paintings I’ve ever seen. Incredibly powerful and moving.
On another note, I’m reading Rosemary Sayigh’s very smart and important book, Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. There is a passage in it that, if one changed the words, could be written about the situation today (the context is the 1980s):
“On 4 October,  even before the formation of the Wazzan Cabinet, the Lebanese Army entered in force into West Beirut, where it behaved like a foreign army of occupation, confiscating arms, setting up checkpoints, searching homes and feeding interrogation centers in East Beirut with streams of Palestinians, Lebanese radicals and foreign migrant workers. On 5 October alone, according to official reports, arrests reached 453. In the propaganda of the Maronite right, West Beirut was a zone infested with terrorists, subversives, counterfeiters, criminals and illegal residents, and it was the Army’s task to flush them out. Arrests did not touch leaders of national movement parties (several had gone underground or left the country) but concentrated on their followers and on popular quarters. The Army broke into party and militia offices, newspaper and publishing centers. Censorship regulations were reinstated, prohibiting criticism of the Army or news about the government other than that issued by the official news agency. Conditions in the various interrogation centers and prisons used to ‘process’ the detainees were degrading and brutal….at night the General Security office was given over to torture sessions.”
History repeats itself here and everywhere. I was thinking about this passage this afternoon after attending a meeting held by the Danish Refugee Council, World Vision, and Save the Children Sweden commemorating World Refugee Day, which is officially tomorrow. I didn’t intend to stay for the entire meeting, but I did as I found out I could speak about our project to document the harassment of Palestinians in Lebanon right now. So I stayed. There were many people who were on the same page, albeit most of them Palestinian, about rights for Palestinians in Lebanon as well as a renewed demand for al awda. When the Australian ambassador spoke about the primary goal for helping refugees is to help them “return” to their homeland with “dignity and safety” Anni Kanfani, Ghassan’s widow, who was there, took her up on this statement and called for pressuring western governments, Australia, the EU, the U.S., to allow Palestinian refugees to return home. I felt so energized by her and by this statement. I started thinking that now is the time: given the assault on Palestinians here in Lebanon and in Baghdad, as well as the situation in Gaza, all of which have risen out of a context directly related to the U.S. and Israel’s occupation and colonization projects, we should demand that the UN take this up again especially because, as Anni put it, it is the UN that first decided to render Palestinians homeless. While on World Refugee Day (what is that anyway? as if refugees deserve only a day out of the entire calendar year? as if such a day does anything to help them in anyway?) we should consider creating safe conditions for all the refugees on the planet to return home, we should remember that Palestinians have been displaced the longest and unlike all other refugees they are not only refugees, but also stateless. We should also consider what the Australian ambassador said today about the root problem of refugees in general, which she sees as the “failure of a country to address its own human rights problems.”
All of these thoughts left me feeling empowered until I got home and saw the press conference with Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush on Al Jazeera, which more or less is repeated in this piece from the Washington Post:
Bush said it was also “in Israel’s interest” to have a Palestinian state because of “the demographic pressure” from Palestinian population growth that would otherwise “make it very difficult for Israel to maintain its Jewishness as a state.”
This is the root of the problem in Palestine: there cannot be a Jewish state. This is built upon a racist premise and is the ROOT of the problem. This must be dismantled and a new state must be created that allows Palestinian refugees to return home no matter what passport or ID card (if they even have one) they carry.