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The Keys to Birweh [Gone to Palestine: 9]

[ ["Victory is Coming," Graffito from Shatila Camp, signed by Sa'd Hajo, image from author]

We went to visit Shatila camp where our friend Lula was teaching English. We knew the camp was important. We knew that it was a center of the struggle for many reasons. We knew that this was the place where hundreds of women, children and men were massacred over a few days in September 1982. We knew who the murderers were. We knew who trained them. We knew who supplied the weapons. We knew who promised to provide security for the camp when the PLO evacuated. We knew that the camp was leveled in 1985 to punish the people for allowing the men to come back. We knew all this because we’d read these facts in books, we’d seen the pictures, and we’d listened to eye-witnesses. And now we were going to see the place for ourselves.

We got to the English class early, and Lula introduced us to the students, who were all women.

We said “Hello. Nice to meet you. How are you?”

And they said, “Hello. Welcome to Shatila. I am fine. How are you?”

We asked them, “What is your name? Where are you from?”

They laughed at our apparent ignorance and told us, “Palestine, where else?”

We asked, “Where in Palestine?”

And they went around the room telling us, “I am Huda. I am from Khalaseh, on the border,” “I am Maryam. I am from Balad al-Shaykh, near Haifa,” “I am Nabila.” She pulled on a chain around her neck and showed us a rusty key. “This is to my grandfather’s home in Birweh. Do you know Birweh? I don’t know if you know it.”

We laughed and said, “Of course, you have a famous poet, don’t you?”

They laughed and Nabila said, “Mahmud Darwish and my mother’s sister shared the same nursing maid!” We were still laughing as the coffee arrived.

 No one had done their homework. Or maybe it was because our visit disrupted the lesson plan. But in any case, today was going to be “free conversation” instead of “grammar drills.” Everyone seemed to prefer this. Huda was leading a workshop the next day, and so we decided to have a conversation about that.

“What is the workshop on?”

“Human rights. Women’s rights. Children’s rights. Gender rights.”

We started the conversation, “What are the human rights that Palestinians demand?”

Maryam asked, “Which Palestinians? Here in the camp? Or everywhere?”

We said, “Everywhere.” They made a list of the human rights they thought most important.

Then we asked, “What are the civil rights that Palestinians demand?”

Maryam asked, “Which Palestinians? Here in Lebanon? Or everywhere?”

We said, “Here in Lebanon.”

Huda asked, “What do you mean by civil rights?”

We did our best to explain. They made a list of the civil rights they thought most important, even though they were skeptical.

We looked at the two lists and were surprised. They were almost identical.

We asked, “Do Palestinians have civil rights in Lebanon?” We already knew the answer, but the important thing was to keep the conversation going. We knew that talking was the most important thing we could do together.

We asked, “What is the difference between civil rights and human rights then?”

They said, “Human rights are universal. Civil rights are the rights of citizens who live in states.”

We asked, “If states guarantee civil rights, who guarantees human rights?”

They were silent. We were silent.

Someone asked, “What does ‘guarantee’ mean?”

We explained. We wanted to keep the conversation going, since that was the lesson today.

“The people do,” Maryam said at last. “We’re the ones who guarantee rights. We guarantee our rights when we demand them and fight for them. Even when we talk about them.”

The conversation continued. The lesson continued.

After we finished, we met the director of the school who asked who we were and how our visit with the students had been. She asked about our travels and we mentioned that last year we’d visited her home town in the Galilee. She laughed and observed that it was easier for a foreigner to visit her town than for her to.

She stopped laughing and said, “All our lives we have taught our children to know their rights. We show them the documents that talk about their rights. The right to live in security. The right to travel and freedom of movement. The right to work. The right to own property. The right to national self-determination. The right to adequate medical care. The right to education. Freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief and so on. We use the international treaties on human rights to teach our children. But they always ask the same questions: ‘These documents talk about rights as if they were real. As if they existed in the present. They talk about them as if they were universal. How is it possible that these rights are real and universal and yet we don’t have them?’”

We were silent, then someone mumbled something about ink on the page. But she corrected us. “No. It’s not just that they’re beautiful ideas that are not implemented. It’s that we fail to teach them the difference between talking about ‘what is’ and ‘what should be.’ Do you understand? It’s in the way we teach language.”

Lula broke in to observe that so far her class had only worked on the present and past tenses of verbs. They wouldn’t be getting to the conditional until next month.      

[Earlier installments of this series can be found hereherehereherehereherehere and here.]

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