Sabra and Shatila: A reluctant walk down memory lane

Sabra and Shatila. Pic by MB on

The Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila are only a few kilometres from the polish of downtown Beirut, but they might as well be in a different country.

To walk down the frenetic main street is a physically disorientating experience.

Everywhere you look there is filth and rubbish. Blood from the butcher’s courses across the grubby pavements; stray goats nibble at black bin bags heaped in 6ft piles by the road; muddy paths leading to crumbling hovels wind off deep into the camp, and scooter after scooter screeches down the road through a teeming bustle of the downbeat and dejected.

Parts of the camp lack even basic services

It was here in September 1982 that a Christian militia allied to the Israeli army carried out a two-day massacre and slaughtered anywhere between 800 to 3,500 defenceless Palestinian refugees.

At the height of the Lebanese civil war, after Israel had invaded Lebanon in a bid to stamp out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and establish a Christian vassal state north of their border, Phalangist militiamen went on the rampage through the camps despite the full knowledge of some of the Israeli high command about what was taking place. The names of Sabra and Shatila have lived in infamy ever since.

The camps themselves sprung up as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but have now become a permanent feature of the Lebanese capital featuring all the things you might see in any other Arab town.

The market selling plump tomatoes and courgettes sits under the shadow of a large mosque with a towering minaret, while lines of hungry men jostle at the shwarma stall and others have their beards trimmed at the nearby barber.

But walking through the camp it is impossible to keep track of the number of men who have fallen victim to the impenetrable Shatila Stare – that lost-for-good look which speaks of a wretched inner hopelessness.

Amid all the filth and the car fumes, a group of children play happily on a rusty, miniature roundabout on the side of camp’s main street. Grinning and squawking, for them it is the only way to play they have ever known.

Another, very pretty girl of maybe eight or nine years of age stands by a rack of cauliflowers in the market. As a child in the West she would have a wealth of opportunities in a life away from the garbage-filled gutter.

In Lebanon she has become a prisoner.

Reading Dan Brown in Damascus

Dan Brown's creation still divides opinion in the Middle East

Ullin throws back her head, clasps her hands together and cries out in dismay.

“You don’t like the Da Vinci Code? Why not?”

Dan Brown’s Christian revisionism blockbuster has come in for its fair share of opprobrium since it was published in 2003, but Ullin, a graphic designer, is not having any of it.

The 28-year-old, who is wearing a denim jacket with sunglasses propped up behind her brow, has read all of his books.

The former art student says she likes The Da Vinci Code for a number of reasons – the main one being that her favourite painting is The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous mural depicting the biblical meal when Jesus supposedly told his disciples that one of them would betray him.

According to Ullin, huge numbers of readers across the Middle East like the Dan Brown bestseller because they think it reveals new details about the life of Jesus – a fact that would no doubt irk a large number of Christian leaders in the region, some of whom persuaded their governments to ban both the book and film because of its suggestion that Mary Magdalene fathered the Son of God’s child.

Speak to some scurrilous Damascenes and they will tell you the secret of the book’s popularity here lies among the country’s  Muslims, who read it to snigger over the “truths” supposedly being scooped up about the life of Jesus – though this theory somehow overlooks the fact that Christ is one of Islam’s most important prophets.

But for Ullin there is another, altogether more prosaic reason that she admires Dan Brown – “I like him because he makes you want to turn the page.”

Perhaps there is more in common between East and West than meets the eye.

Syria, sex and a case of double standards

Sex before marriage in Syria is unthinkable – at least for the women


A language exchange in the Christian Quarter of Damascus.

Dima and Hiba – not their real names – are struggling to suppress their giggles as they sip glasses of Coca-Cola through straws at a table set into the corner of an Old City cafe.

The conversation has turned, rather unexpectedly, to the one thing it probably shouldn’t in the company of two female strangers – sex.

“This is what we girls chat about when we get together,” reveals 22-year-old Dima, her shiny dark hair cascading over her shoulders.

Normally these occasions are a chance to brush-up on one’s spoken Arabic; acquire a few choice transitive verbs perhaps, or get a chance to flex some under-used grammar.

And there is no doubting that tonight’s session provides a probing insight into the street vernacular of the Levant – albeit one which lies towards the more lascivious end of the linguistic spectrum.

After abruptly turning the talk away from type-I present tense verbs, Hiba, a 29-year-old college administrator, reveals that the first night of a married couple’s life is often referred to as the laylat al-dakhla, or night of entering – an idiom which should require no explanation in society where a bride is usually expected to be a virgin until the evening of her wedding.

Although traditionally both the man and women are supposed to have given themselves to nobody else prior to the day of nuptials, predictably there is one rule for the boys and another for the girls.

It would often be unthinkable – publicly at least – for anyone to know that a girl was not a virgin prior to her wedding. Yet for a guy to play the field a bit before he ties the knot is not particularly uncommon. Even among many men who might be considered to have “Western” attitudes, there is sometimes a prevailing view that a “good woman” is one who has not had sex.

In Dima’s own words, it can often seem hypocritical. She says that it is possible for girls to get operations so they can become “virgins” again, and there are even fake hymens on the market – some imported from that ultimate redoubt of secular irreligiosity, China – which can ‘prove’ a girl’s virtue to any sceptical husband.

“We just have to accept it,” says Dima, an English student. “It is just the way things are here.”

Plus ca change. Syria is moving forward, but some things just remain the same.

March of the muezzin

An evening view of Damascus from Mount Qassioun

The back pages of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper are much like those of your average Western rag.

But in among the stories about Mark Weber’s latest Grand Prix victory, or Bayern Munich striker Miroslav Klose’s Euro 2012 ambitions (the German national team are very popular in Syria – a fact which, depending on who you speak to, has everything or nothing to do with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust), lies a regular feature which you might not find in the New York Times or Daily Mail.

The Mawaaqeet Al-Salaat (Times of Prayer) section appears every day in the bottom right hand corner of the sport’s pages, listing the official starting time of the five Islamic calls to prayer in cities across the Middle East – not to mention London, Berlin, Rome and Athens.

It is all to easy to become inured to the incomparable sound of a Middle Eastern city erupting to the wail of the muezzin – especially if you live next to a mosque which broadcasts the caterwauling of one your neighbourhood’s less talented crooners.

Yet to hear the call from the hardscrabble slopes of Mount Qassioun, the sandstone-coloured peak which looms like an enormous camel hump over the north side of Damascus, is a unique experience – a visceral example, if one were needed, of the sweeping reach of religion and its centrality to everyday life here.

Yesterday’s Al-Maghreb, or sunset call, began to echo around the dimly-lit cityscape at around 7.10pm. The clouds above the hills south of Damascus were a streaky, cinnamon red – a refreshing sight after the months of bone-dry, cloudless heat – and a sign, along with this week’s rainy spells, that the Levantine autumn has finally arrived.

At first, the call is barely audible – a gravelly refrain drifting in amid the velvet gloom of an ancient city. Then another muezzin will join the chorus, his husky tones flaring up from a different corner of the city. As if eager not to feel left out, more mosques flick on their loudspeakers to broadcast their own, crackly cry of Allahu Akbar, until the entire city is pulsing with the chants of a thousand different calls to prayer.

Whisper it to any wide-eyed tourists, but many of the calls these days are recorded. There was even an idea a while ago to synchronise the singing – much like in Cairo, where the government is pressing ahead with a plan to use computerised feeds to put an end to out of time and out of tune muezzin.

The idea is a popular one for some long-suffering Damascus residents. “I think it’s brilliant,” said Aysam, a grinning gap-toothed German language student here. “You should hear the muezzin in the mosque near me. He is awful. How is he allowed to sing?”

And yet it would surely take some of the magic away from this Middle Eastern city if Syria were to follow in Cairo’s footsteps.

Better to let 1,000 flowers bloom, even if some of them do need clipping.

Getting heads in a spin

Young breakdancers learn the ropes

Barely a stone’s throw from the Al-Sheikh Hossain Habbanakeh mosque, with its twin minarets rocketing into the sky like glowing, green gate towers from the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City, head-thumping techno is blasting out at a local fitness club.

A dingy, low-slung basement affair, the Gold Star Sports Centre in south central Damascus has seen better days. A clumsily-taped poster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad overlooks one of the bench presses in the weights room, while faded black-and-white prints of the club’s owner, Mohammad, a six dan former Syrian karate champion, are dotted around the walls.

In one of the snaps he is suspended five feet in the air as if frozen in time, leg outstretched in a karate kick aimed at an unfortunate opponent’s wincing face. “I was national champion about 20 years ago”, reveals Mohammad proudly.

But that was then, and today the youngsters in his club aren’t here to fight: breakdancing is latest way to get their kicks.

Ahmad Joudeh is a 20-year-old who runs dancing sessions three times a week at the Gold Star club. A classical performer by training, he now spends much of his time teaching eager youngsters how to body pop, head spin and kick step.

“We’re the best club in Damascus,” says Ahmad, a translating student at Damascus University. “It’s better than all the others. You can ask the students.”

Ahmad’s dream is to set up a club devoted solely to dance – classical, contemporary and the breakdancing he is teaching now.  He says there are only two dance institutes in Damascus similar to the one he envisages, but both require end-of-secondary school certification for entry, effectively barring large numbers of youngsters who might want to learn how to kick their heels.

There is only one problem – money. Ahmad does not have enough of it, but he is hoping help will come from an unlikely source – his teaching partner, Saeed Akkad, a Syrian breakdancing champion and quite possibly the star of the whole operation.

Saeed is a gentle, smiling 26-year-old who has won a string of breakdance “battles” over the years. His left foot is currently in plaster, but Ahmad is hoping his friend might be able to pull off yet another victory so the duo can use the prize money to help start their club together.

“I wish we could start tomorrow, but we will start when we have saved enough.”

Saeed had better hope his run of form continues – the future of his and Ahmad’s dream might depend on it.