man-made disasters

I’ve been reading the South End Press Collective’s book What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation. The book is really amazing for a variety of reasons in a localized American context, but really I think this book should be translated into Arabic. People here should be reading this book to think about solidarity, political organizing, sustainable projects in areas that are made catastrophic by man, which is really what this book argues. It was not hurricane Katrina that created so many problems in New Orleans in particular; it was the racism, classism, and neglect with respect to the levees (which Spike Lee’s wonderful film When the Levees Broke also makes clear) and all that has transpired since. I keep remembering that summer–the summer of 2006–the one year anniversary of Katrina and the way the Bush administration had not only not done anything to help people in the Gulf but also thwarted any efforts to do so. This book makes so many examples clear such as military checkpoints that allow outsiders–privileged white folks from other parts of the U.S. to enter freely into New Orleans, but people of color, poor people who were from the area have been denied the right to return. That’s just one example. But of course on this year anniversary Bush decided he’d rather send money to Israel to bomb the hell out of Lebanon and Gaza. Another man-made disaster. Another racist war. Katrina, the U.S., and Israel destroyed people’s lives in the immediate and the environment for the foreseeable future.

I was thinking of these things when I returned to Nahr el Bared (see photos), a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon this week. There is a long wait, especially for people from the camp, and when you enter you must get out of your taxi or service, enter a little barrack office, walk through a metal detector, and allow the soldiers to search through your possessions. While you do this you are forced to look at a poster of the Lebanese soldiers killed in their war on Nahr el Bared last summer. Their “martyrs” matter. The Palestinian dead, apparently, do not. The Lebanese army checkpoints to enter the camp makes me think of what these U.S. army checkpoints cordoning off New Orleans must have been like. I could have probably gotten into the city easily as a white woman. Just as I merely get a permit from the army and immediately I can enter Nahr el Bared refugee camp. But people from either place–New Orleans or Nahr el Bared–are kept out. Are denied their right to return to their homes. To move freely in and around their neighborhoods.

There has been a lot of change in Nahr el Bared over the last few months. Some good, some bad. There are many new shops that are open and many of the homes have been patched up, repaired, made inhabitable. But this is still only for the new camp. The old camp is still off limits and Lebanese army and intelligence monitor all that you do, especially with respect to photographing and writing. Only 2,000 families or 11,000 people have been allowed back. The Palestinian families who had been living in UNRWA schools in Baddawi refugee camp down the road all year are now in Nahr el Bared. But most of these families are in these new pre-fabricated houses. (Did the U.S. ship these from New Orleans?) They are suffocatingly hot with only one window; one child has already died from this heat and 25 more people have had to go to the hospital. They are made out of steel walls and zinc roofs. They are about the size of my bedroom here in Beirut, which is about 3.5 X 3.5 meters. In that small space sleeps on average 5 people, though I saw homes and met people who are sleeping 10 per unit. In that small space fits a bed, maybe a closet, a kitchen sink/counter, and a squat toilet/shower head. Some people have fans. A few people have refrigerators and washing machines. But the electricity is only on in the evenings and even then each unit can only withstand 2 amps of electricity. It is estimated that the electricity grid will not be up and running properly until December 2008.

There are other issues. In one sector next to the Mediterranean Sea I saw where the sewage system is broken and it is coming out of the ground into the soil. I suspect it is also flowing into the Sea. Or perhaps it will. So on one end Gaza’s sewage continues to flow into the Sea because Israel won’t allow it the fuel it needs to run its power plants to process the sewage. On the other end people in Nahr el Bared cannot get their sewage fixed or must wait and live among the muck that is leaking from these broken pipes.

It’s hard for me to see the ways in which people in the camp have to submit to authority–authorities that are responsible for the wide-spread destruction of their homes and lives. Same with the people in New Orleans it seems. What does it mean when you have to get permission to enter your home, your village, your camp, your country? Too many stories of this new fangled form of occupation. It makes people compliant. People must be quiet for fear that their calls are being listened to. That their movement is being watched. These relations between people in the camp and the army or the mukhabarat (Lebanese intelligence) appears to be good, to be workable on the surface. But I look at these relations and I can’t help but wonder how this is possible. Can they forgive? Is this genuine?

A friend told me the other day that she does not believe in forgiveness on a political level, public level. This was in relation to a film we had seen about Lebanese women resistance fighters from the Civil War. It’s true. About forgiveness. How do you apologize for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? Or for Apartheid in South Africa? Or for genocide anywhere? In the film, there were four women: two from Kataeb (otherwise known as the Phalange party that collaborated with Israel to massacre Palestinians in Lebanon–a party that emerged out of its admiration of European fascism during World War II, including Nazi Germany), one from SSNP, and one from the Communist party. The film was created for a Master’s Thesis and it wasn’t a very good film with respect to style or substance. When it was over one of the women from the film (Kataeb) was there and there was a long discussion between her and the audience. For this woman she entered into fighting because Palestinians attacked her family’s home in her village. She fought for 9 years. She felt she entered into the conflict for the right reasons–defense of one’s family. Of one’s land. And yet Palestinians were palpably absent from the overall discussion. None of the Kataeb massacres were either asked about or brought up (by the audience or by the speaker). Nothing about Tell Al-Za’atar. Nothing about Shatila. Bourj al Barajneh. Interestingly this woman’s logic for defense of home somehow translated into her support for Hezbollah during the summer war of 2006. Oddly enough it also meant that she supported the Lebanese army’s attack on Nahr el Bared camp last summer. Somehow she was unable to see that the people in the camp were being attacked just as people in south Lebanon or people in her village. Palestinians in Lebanon are just like poor people and people of color from New Orleans: oscillating between hypervisible and invisible depending on how it suits the logic of people in power.

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