Fauda means chaos in Arabic. Fauda might as well mean Beirut in Arabic as well. The two might be interchangeable. I could write a book about living in Beirut. Many have encouraged me to do so and many have already done so. When I asked our volunteer, who just spent 9 days in Lebanon with me, what he thought of Beirut, he said it was chaotic. “Chaotic, but good.”
It is chaotic. I think why Beirut has such a hold on my soul, notwithstanding the trauma it has caused me, is I cannot figure it out. Not only can I not, I fear I will never. Beirut is this exotic, enticing city which feels like an actual living, breathing person. You get invited in to experience all the beauty, but if you dig just a little under the surface, you see all the ugliness and danger. In one sense, it is intoxicating; a recent article defined experiencing Beirut as, “drinking champagne on a volcano.” That sums it up precisely.
There is a great deal of culture -- Arab and all sorts of Euro-trash blended together. There is Lebanese wine and vineyards; there also is a nightlife that rivals Europe. Shopping, hotels, beaches, ski resorts, Byzantine and Roman ruins. The history goes back to prehistoric times; every single empire has been through Lebanon -- Phoenician, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and the French. Even Lebanese Arabic has a French twist on it and is mocked throughout the region as a “feminine” Arabic. The history, food, lifestyle, and the jaww (Arabic for atmosphere) are dizzying. It’s so much to take in. And, at the moment you become captivated, you slowly begin to get a very bad feeling, a sick to your stomach feeling. At this point, you start seeing the nonsense, the danger, the dysfunction.
If I were to go into all of the nonsense, violence, politics, sectarianism, militias, wars, refugee crises, history, and dysfunction, this would be a book and not a blog post. It is all consuming. Trust me on this. Beirut seems to be both all that is right with the world and all that is wrong; it’s like ground zero. So, I’ll stick to the Palestinians since they are what brought me to Beirut in the first place.
Here's the long and the short of it -- before the state of Israel was created, Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. After WW1, England and France chopped up the Middle East for themselves. Palestine became a British Mandate and Lebanon was under French control.* Many Lebanese traveled to Palestine to work. I have been told by many older Lebanese and Palestinians that Palestine was the place to work and make money. Lebanon was the place to party, vacation, and enjoy life. This was known. Travel back and forth was common. Many Lebanese were born in Palestine as their families were based there for work.
After the Arab/Israeli War* and the establishment of Israeli statehood, everything changed. Lebanese families returned home, and there was a mass exodus of Palestinians who were either removed by force or fled in fear. Nearly half of the estimated Palestinian population was now displaced as refugees. It was a crisis in 1948.* The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were set up in 1948, for the most part. Some Palestinians, mostly Christian, were integrated into Lebanese society because of their social status.
However, most Palestinians were not integrated and were confined to refugee status. Currently, there are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in the tiny country of Lebanon, containing nearly a half million registered Palestinian refugees.* Palestinians haven’t had an easy ride in Lebanon. They are denied citizenship, legal employment, have no right to travel, and cannot legally own property or a business. Their education and healthcare come from UNRWA only.* This is the story of generations of Palestinians in Lebanon. Grandparents, parents, children who are having kids of their own…all remain refugees. They are living in refugee camps that resemble slums more than they do actual camps.
Life in Lebanon is complicated. The Palestinians are complicated as well. I have heard from many different Lebanese that the Palestinians started their civil war in 1975 to try to take over Lebanon. I’m not going to speculate on their opinion or debate with them, but what I do know is that Palestinian militias, most notably, the PLO, were active in the Lebanese Civil war, and they were brutal. Actually, they were active before the civil war since their arrival from Jordan after Black September.* They committed atrocities, massacred Christian villages; they controlled some of the south of Lebanon, attacked Israel from Lebanon and they were the main reason the Israeli army was in Lebanon, including the siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982. They were responsible for a massacre in Damour, a Christian village south of Beirut. On January 20th, 1976, Palestinian forces, mostly the PLO, along with a few others, massacred over 500 villagers and executed Lebanese Christian militia members.*
This was a direct response (revenge, if you like) to what happened in Karantina two days before. On January 18, 1976, a Christian militia went into the slums of Karantina in Beirut, which was controlled by the PLO, and slaughtered up to 1500 Palestinians, mostly Muslims.* Also in January 1976, the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut had been under siege by Christian militias. When Tel al-Zaatar finally fell on August 12, 1976, between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians were killed; some were executed, including a number who had already evacuated the camp and were reaching West Beirut.*
Fast forward to 1982. On September 16-18, 1982, a few months after Israel's invasion of the country, a Lebanese Christian militia, in collusion with the Israeli army, slaughtered about 2,000 Palestinian refugees -- mostly women, children, and the elderly -- in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The massacre occurred after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Phalangists, a Christian militia responsible for most of the massacres I listed above. The PLO was blamed for his assassination; it was actually a Syrian agent who was responsible. The massacre was in retribution with the Israeli army.* Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestinians, mostly the PLO and Yasser Arafat and made their way to Beirut to find him. What should be noted is Arafat and over 14,000 PLO fighters had been evacuated out of Beirut on August 30th, over two weeks before this massacre; this was an attack on Palestinian refugees who were civilians.
What you need to know about the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 is it was Christians slaughtering Muslims and Muslims slaughtering Christians. The Palestinians were active in the fighting, and the Syrian army joined in the fight against the Palestinians during the Tel al Zataar siege. An Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982 led to a continuous Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for almost 20 years. It was brutal. It was horrendous. It was bloody. I have yet to find any good guys in this multifaceted conflict, except the civilians caught in the middle.
So why did I dig a bit deeper and explain some of what the Palestinians were involved in? It wasn’t for my health, because doing the research to make sure I had my facts straight made me sick to my stomach. I have heard so many stories from my Palestinian and Lebanese friends about that time that I know how it affected real people; I know how they suffered, I know how they lived through it, and I know how they live now. It wasn’t just research facts; it was real in a city I have come to know very well. I have been to the sites of all of the massacres I have described. I have been to exactly where they happened; I can visualize it all very easily.
Sometimes, I have seen similarities with the Syrian conflict in the past few years; we really want to make sense out of a war, even when it is senseless. We want to pick the good guys that we can root for and support and help; we also gloss over their flaws. We want it to be black and white. Rarely are things black and white. I would suggest that the entire Middle East is a very dark shade of gray, however.
Maybe I wrote out that bit of graphic history to make it more gray for you too. I have to point out that it was a very brief account; the whole thing is much more complicated and bloody. But, maybe, I wrote it out more for me than for you. It’s a good reminder to me about the people group I feel compelled, called, and committed to serve. I know who they are. I know their history as refugees from the Nakba in 1948 to now. I have heard hundreds of personal accounts of what happened and have done extensive research. I know of the bloody history in Lebanon. I got a glimpse of just how complicated it is now, and how the consequences of the civil war play out daily. I understand why the Lebanese have problems with the Palestinians and why the Palestinians have problems with the Lebanese. I can also see why the Lebanese have problems with Syrian refugees after the history of the Syrian army in the civil war. Even after the war, the Syrian army and Muhabberat (secret police) were active in Lebanon. I remember going through Syrian checkpoints in my first visit to Beirut in 2004.
But what I see very clearly and stand in awe of…is the pain. I sometimes gasp reading accounts of the massacres and the fighting in the civil war, camp wars, car bombings, and what happened in Chatila. I can be angry, horrified, and judge all of them -- PLO, Christian militias, Syrians, Israelis. But, what cuts me to the core is the pain and suffering. All of it. Lebanese and Palestinian, both Muslim and Christian.
When you walk into Chatila camp and want to get to the bowels of the camp, so to speak, to enter into the center, you walk past something significant. I notice it every time I enter the camp; it’s the mass grave from the 1982 massacre. It’s open to the public to walk in, and you will see all of the names of the victims written on the wall. It is a daily reminder of what happened there.
Palestinian refugees are the good guys and the bad guys. Are they the innocents? What I know for a fact is they are people trapped in an impossible situation. They are people who have had grave injustices committed against them and they have committed injustices. To this day, because after working with Palestinian refugees for over 13 years now, I am reminded of how vulnerable they are. That’s what I take away from all of this; you are among the most vulnerable in the world when you are stateless.
They are vulnerable, and they continue to be at risk.
For sure this post is schizophrenic, but I feel that represents Lebanon the best. The beauty. The horror. Paradise. Hell. Dream. Nightmare.
Check out the sites that I list as my sources for more information. Or, if you are interested in learning more of Lebanon’s civil war, I highly recommend Robert Fisk’s book, Pity The Nation. It is a sobering, detailed account of the war, and Fisk spares no one. Also, the video clip at the beginning is from Anthony Bourdain’s “Part’s Unknown” in Beirut. It does the best at showing you the fauda of Beirut. He also does a piece in Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp, where I worked for 4 years. He has done 3 episodes in Beirut, one of which was when he got caught in the 2006 war. They are all worth a watch!