I ended up staying 5 more nights in a suburb of Beirut. I had met some very friendly people in Aleppo weeks earlier who invited me to stay with them. Being at their apartment I felt somewhat normal again. It is amazing how comforting and relaxing doing dishes can be. I was also lucky to meet their flatmate, an incredibly intelligent Lebanese Shia girl, who was willing to teach me about her city and show me the southern suburbs. The southern part of Beirut is mostly Shia and most recently famous for being heavily bombarded by the Israelis during the 2006 conflict. I spent a day on my own cycling through the maze of block apartments and noted the yellow and green everywhere. Yellow for Hizbullah and Green for Amal. Yet unlike the image portrayed by the western media, this area is not patrolled by fundamentalist warriors enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam. Other than the flags, the only evidence of Hizbullah are the men directing traffic, collecting donations or overseeing the rebuilding of buildings destroyed by Israeli strikes. Though they are widely believed to be the most powerful force in Lebanon (the military is almost entirely absent from the Shia areas), they don't seem to feel the need to constantly flex their muscle. And as far as the enforcement of strict islamic principles, I saw people eating and smoking during Ramadan, and stores selling sexy clothing for women. Even being American, I was greeted by many friendly people. Hmmm...
The next day, I was taken through a bit more of Dahieh (the southern suburb) and then to Sabra and Shatila. The names intimidated me. For anyone familiar with the history, or for those who have seen the film "Waltz with Bashir," you know that these Palestinian refugee camps were the site of the Palestinian massacres at the hands of Israeli supported Phalange militias in retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese president and Phalange leader.
It was the first day of Ramadan and Maya drove us up to the Sabra market. We parked and entered a bustling street lined with shops. Sabra is now home to many many Syrians and Iraqis in addition to the Palestinians and is no longer an official camp. We ducked down a side street and slowly entered Shatila. This extremely dense camp houses over 12,000 refugees. Wandering the filthy narrow concrete alleys felt more like slums from the Indian subcontinent rather than the Middle East. Though not the worst conditions I had seen, it was still quite miserable and I could not keep two things out of my mind: the images I had seen in my studies of slaughtered palestinians in the camps and I could not stop pondering the history that had caused this camp to exist at all. Down one small alley, past some old Hamas posters, I spotted something hop in the stagnant puddle we were crossing. A baby frog. How did it get there? For anyone thinking about the situation from a distance it must have been quite strange: an semi-agnostic American man of partially jewish ancestry and a Lebanese Shia woman laughing, bent over, trying to get a picture of a baby frog in a puddle in a Palestinian refugee camp on the first day of Ramadan after they had been secretly drinking some water. That this moment could happen at all gives me hope.
We left the camp after a few short hours. The only startling moment for me had been went we hit an intersection of alleys and we came across a man sporting a machine gun. I looked at Maya and she seemed unworried so I was relaxed. Then she abruptly stopped for a few moments and I caught a glimpse of uncertainty on her face and she uttered "Oh... its a real gun..." I skipped a few breaths. But then we just continued forward and walked by. Later, driving away from the camp I realized how these years of seeing horrible conditions and the need to be stoic had desensitized me to all this. I felt a little sick that I did not feel more. But this did not last long. It came, and not in any small way. Suddenly, emotionally overwhelmed, my shell cracked.
"Hey, are you okay?" she asked me and reached out to touch the back of my neck.
"Yes," I lied.
(to be continued later in part 3)