We know very little about why Palestinian camps are located where they are in Lebanon. We also know little about the trajectories of their communities. We often assume that, upon their arrival, refugees were directly transported to tents that later became “camps.” Reflecting on ideas of refuge and ways of writing alternative histories of Palestinians camps in Lebanon, Dictaphone Group created a project entitled Camp Pause, commissioned by Dar El-Nimer in Beirut for Qalandia International Festival 2016. Our work process combines live art methods and multidisciplinary research. Live art and research are intertwined from the initial conceptualization of the project through its development and public viewing. In that sense, and like many art projects that are based in communities rather than art studios, the process is as crucial and telling as the outcome of the project.
As the members of Dictaphone Group, our personal and artistic interests center on examining marginalized places, peripheral to the capital, and to discuss our relationship (and right) to access the sea and enjoy it as a place open for all. In the summer of 2012, we created an interactive performance entitled This Sea Is Mine, which invites the public on a fishing boat journey from the fishermen`s port of Ain al-Mraisseh to the contested Dalieh of Raouché. We stopped at each resort location on Beirut’s coast to explore its land ownership, the laws that govern its use, and the practices of its users. In 2015, we created a project in collaboration with a group of youth from the city of Sidon. In the project, entitled I Will Guide You Through Saida, we explored the relationship of the residents of Sidon with their communal spaces and discussed the real estate projects that are radically changing their neighborhoods and the city’s seashore.
Camp Pause continues our interest in looking at the relationship of the individual and the community with the sea as well as their urban and natural environment. The project centers on a video installation we developed with four residents of the Rashidieh refugee camp, located on the coast of Lebanon, just south of the city of Tyre. We filmed their everyday routes from their homes to the sea, each participant leading us to the final scene in which they stand against the backdrop of the sea. Along the way, they weave narratives about the history of the land, their arrival, the struggle to build, and everyday life in a camp situated away from the city, bordered by agricultural fields and the sea.
The installation is presented in a small room where audience members finds themselves at the center of four stories, are each projected on of the walls in the room. The videos begin in the home of each of the participants, then move with them along the alleys and streets of the camp to finally reach the sea.
Camp Pause installation at 2017 Countrcurrent Festival in Houston. Photo by Dictaphone Group.
The encounters we had with various people we met by appointment or by chance revealed the spaces of the camp through their everyday lives and habits there. As a lived space, the specificities of the days we visited the camp and experiences of the people we met dictated the outcome of the project. As visitors to the camp, we were struck by the contradiction between, on the one hand, its openness to the sea and the vast surrounding agriculture fields, and, on the other hand, the militarized entrance to the camp. The Lebanese army has set up a checkpoint at the entrance along with surveillance points on the seashore. Such discrepancies in the scenery reveal a masked oppression and a false freedom given to the camp’s residents.
The History of the Land and Early Arrivals
“If it was not for the orchards here during the camps’ siege, people would have starved to death,” says one Rashidieh resident. Farmlands and citrus orchards irrigated from the Ras al-Ein area by old water canals surround the camp.
The area of Ras al-Ein accommodates ponds of drinking water, two of which are on Rashidieh Hill and considered to be some of the oldest water springs along the Lebanese coast[i]. Ras al-Ein and Rashidieh Hill are also important areas of “Old Tyre,” which expands down to the coast. Historically, the area was inhabited by Tyre’s residents because of its abundance of water and fertile soil, while the city itself was left for governance and religious matters. It is said that Alexander the Great razed the part of Tyre on Rashidieh Hill after the priest refused him entry into the temple. What remains today of old Tyre is the Rashidieh village[ii].
During the French mandate, the French authorities gave many plots of land to the Catholic Church’s religious endowment[iii]. Sections of Rashidieh Hill, where there were already two churches, were part of this give-away. It was on that land where, in 1936, the French authorities established a camp for hundreds of Armenian refugees fleeing the area of Cilicia. Around a decade later, the Palestinian refugees arrived. An elderly woman from Rashidieh told us that she and her family first arrived to the town of Maroun al-Ras from northern Palestine. She goes on:
from Maroun al-Rass to Bint Jbeil and from there we took a bus to Tyre. The district administrator found us. There was a train that passed through here. We took it towards Syria and arrived in Hama. We managed to get cars to take us to the mosque where there were many Palestinians. We stayed there for seven days. Later, they brought cars and asked each person what their occupation was so they could send them to an area where they could work. My father had said he wanted to go to Damascus but they did not allow us to. They sent us to Houran. We eventually returned to Damascus but then made it back to Lebanon and decided to stay in Tibnine because we had relatives there.
In 1950, a couple of years after arriving in south Lebanon, the Lebanese authorities decided to relocate all Palestinians residing in southern towns (e.g., Tibnine, al-Mansouri, al-Qlayla, and Bint Jbeil) to designated refugee camps. The authorities established one of these camps adjacent to the Armenian camp with nothing but tents. The residents there began to build walls from mud and clay in order to reinforce the tents. For every eight housing units, they built a shared bathroom fifty meters away. A decade later, as Armenian residents began to leave, the Palestinian refugees began moving into those lots. Of the 311 Armenian houses, two hundred of them remain today and are commonly referred to as the “Old Camp.”
In 1963, UNRWA built a new camp to house Palestinian refugees who were then residing in French mandate military building called “The Gouraud Barracks” in the Beqaa city of Baalbeck. After the Lebanese government had decided to evacuate the barracks, building the new camp began in Rashidieh, adjacent to the Old Camp. The single housing units were ninety-nine meters squared and composed of three rooms, a bathroom and a courtyard lined a grid network of roads. The residents of “Gouraud Barracks” moved in, along with some others who moved out of the Old Camp. However, the rooms were very small and the ceilings too low. Over the years, Rashidieh camp residents demolished these houses and built their own houses.
Throughout the years, large numbers of Rashidieh residents worked in the surrounding orchards either as seasonal or daily laborers, benefitting from the generous amounts of water in the area. Abu Hassan, one of the people we worked with on this project explains: “We would not be able to live if it was not for the water we have in the camp. We have a lot of it and always had. Ras al-Ein contains water springs, two rivers and ponds. We pump water from the ponds to our water tanks and from there to the houses and farmland.”
After the 1969 agreement in which the Lebanese government recognized the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, and its control of the camps, the Rashidieh residents worked the Jaftalak fields surrounding the camp without paying any fees. Each farmer could choose a plot of land to plant and they would come to be (informally) known as the owner of that plot. The Jaftalak land was public land divided between the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education, and other-defined state land. Yet the cultivation of Jaftalak fields was limited to greens: pinto beans, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, radishes, etc. The farmers were prohibited from growing fruit-bearing trees since the land did not legally belong to them. According to Lebanese property law, whoever plants a tree, automatically owns the land it is on.
Currently, rapid changes are affecting the farmlands that characterize Rashidieh. This is partially caused by an ongoing battle to build between the residents and the Lebanese authorities.
The Battle to Build
Because of its proximity to Palestine and its location on the coast, there is a history of resistance fighters (fida‘yeen) departing by boat to carry military operations against Israeli targets. As a result, the camp has seen many Israeli attacks, most notably in the years 1973, 1978, and 1982. During the latter, Israel destroyed six hundred shelters and displaced four thousand people.[iv]
After 1985, the Lebanese state took complete control of the Palestinian refugee camp’s entrances and forced all residents to enter the camp through a single checkpoint guarded by the Lebanese army. This siege is still in place today, in different forms. Restricted by demarcated boundaries and the sea, the Rashidieh camp cannot expand. Instead, new construction projects are built within these boundaries, compromising shared spaces in the camp such as football fields, the seashore, and the farmland. Mona, who lives close to what was once the camp’s first football field, explains:
The first football field was here, inside the camp. It was nice because we would sit on our balconies watching and rooting for the players. With time the camp felt overcrowded and people began building on the land of the football field. Now it is completely gone. There are three others, but they were all opened by Palestinian factions. This one was not owned by anyone. The residents of the camp had made it themselves.
She also told us about when construction on the farmland started:
Demand for houses was growing, especially after the influx of refugees from Syria. It is more profitable to build and rent the land than to farm. Look at the al-Kawakina neighborhood as an example. It was once planted and is now completely built on. The landowner fenced the land in ten years ago and planted it. Five years ago, he started housing construction there. He built rooms and rented them to displaced Syrians. Initially, he had built two rooms for a small café, but that was not successful so he began renting them out. He also started selling plots of land for others to build on.
Mona and many others talked about the Rashidieh seashore.
The coast of the city of Tyre, including Rashidieh’s beach, was subject to sand grabbing and suction during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) in a dubious and corrupt process which involved stealing the sand. This has resulted in the threat of collapse and other damage by waves to the houses directly facing the sea. The residents of the camp are dealing with this problem by building a wall between the houses and the waterfront. For this, they use rubble from roads and other infrastructural projects. Despite their ugliness, the piles of rubble are an appropriate solution because they do not cost the residents anything except the effort of transporting them to the site. Residents of the seafront are most often the poorest in the camp. They chose living on the beach for the low price of the land. An owner of a cafe on the beach recounted, "my parents were looking for low prices, not for the sea." He also explained that a large part of Rashidieh beach is made up of landfills stacked along the sea, as well as garbage that is being thrown into the water channels that flow into the sea, with the waves throwing it back on the beach. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency does not clean up the beach. Their work is limited to waste collection containers distributed in the neighborhoods, which they later empty into a landfill at the outskirts of the camp, to then be transferred to a landfill in the town of Qana, after the Ras al-Ain seaside landfill closed down in 2015.
The battle to build is also further complicated by the Lebanese government`s decision to prevent the entry of construction materials into the camp without obtaining a permit, which takes a long time and, in most cases, is not granted. Residents of the camp describe this ban as collusion between Palestinian factions and Lebanese authorities who grant permits only to influential people in the camp. These people in turn sell the materials to residents at double the price. The battle to build affects all Palestinian camps in south Lebanon. Most recently was the news of two people being wounded, including a policeman in municipal Tyre and a Palestinian resident of Buss camp, due to an attempt to bring construction materials into the camp without permission.
The participants in the Camp Pause project told us these stories, as well as many others. Together, we aimed to work on research that would contribute to the formulation of an alternative discourse about Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Community-based projects are not as simple as they may sound. They are where the ethics and politics of art and research work are most at stake. How do we make art that is with the community and not only about the community? How do we represent those we work with as they would have liked to represent themselves while maintaining the artistic integrity of the project? These questions become even more poignant when we are working with a community that our government has discriminated against, positioning us in a much more privileged citizenship status.
Working with a community means that we allow encounters to happen, the work to be transformed, the schedule to be shifted, and stories to unfold as we discover the space. For example, the initial artistic concept of Camp Pause was to call on each participant in the project to design the last scene in the video and to choose their background with the sea. In reality, no one responded well to this proposal and some expressed the need to move away from the romantic view of the sea and the geographical proximity to Palestine.
Working with participants means that we look for their personal reasons behind sharing their stories with us. It also requires that we respect those reasons while maintaining a critical distance to them. According to one of the participants in Camp Pause, the main purpose behind sharing her story with the public especially their arrival at the camp and the violence that her family endured during the “camps war” with Lebanese militias is that the Palestinians should make sure that their stories do not die with them.
Like many of Dictaphone Group projects, we found that recounting the narrative history of spaces is key to understanding the present state of things. The early recollection of Palestinians arriving to Lebanon in 1948 reveals a similar lack of understanding and lack of organization by the Lebanese state that we are now witnessing with Syrian refugees arriving in vast numbers since 2011. Um Khalil, a Palestinian resident of Rashidieh, recounts reaching Syria after having stopped in Lebanon on the way from Palestine. She was consequently forced by the Syrian authorities to go back to Lebanon as this was her first port of arrival after Palestine. This practice is now known in Europe as the “Dublin Regulation,” which calls for the deportation of people to where they were first registered as refugees irrespective of their preferences or life plans.
We are reminded through this project that the disregard of people’s pain and personal choices, the casual racism and vilification of refugees in Lebanese villages and towns, and the calls for grouping refugees in camps that are easily controlled and ultimately attacked is nothing new. While the whole world is busy discussing what they call the “refugee crisis,” we hope to remember the importance of listening to those who are really in that crisis. We also hope to remember that leaving people in limbo with few resources and rights is not a solution but an absence of one.
[This article was previously published in Arabic, and translated by the authors]
Research, Art Direction, and Article: Abir Saksouk and Tania El Khoury
Camera: Karam Ghossein
Video Editing: Ali Beidoun
Sound Design: Majd Al Hamwi
Participants: Hussein al-Zaini, Khadijeh al-Masri, Hassan Ajjawi, and Zahraa Faour.
Green Sotherns, unpublished report about Ras al-Ein water springs.
Interviews with Rashidieh camp residents.
Interviews with architects and researchers Nasr Charafeddine, Ismael Sheikh Hassan, and Lina Abu Rislan.
Republic of Lebanon, Land Registry and Cadastre, various documents.
Rebacco Roberts, “Palestinians in Lebanon: Refugees Living with Long-Term Displacement,” Journal of Refugee Studies 24, no. 2 (2011) 416-417.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), various reports on the Rashidieh camp.
Various, historical aerial photography and cadastral maps of Tyre.
[ii] All information about old Tyre is extracted from an interview we conducted with architect and urban planner Nasr Charafeddine in July 2016.
[iv] Rebacco Roberts, “Palestinians in Lebanon: Refugees Living with Long-Term Displacement,” Journal of Refugee Studies 24, no. 2 (2011), 416-17.