Shatila: Refugees of the revolution

Shatila: Refugees of the revolution
Review: Allan's book offers insight into the world of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon, as they struggle to go about their daily lives.
3 min read
06 April, 2015
Shatila refugee camp was set up by the UN in Lebanon in 1949 [Getty]
Book review of Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile by Diana Allan (Stanford University Press, 322pp, 2014).

A funny thing about personal memory is that it typically gets less reliable as we age, as our desire to dwell on past events diminishes. But for some, society insists we play the same old music so old djins can dance. Then the audience moves on, while we continue with our lives.

Diana Allan's book analyses the filmed testimonies of Palestinian exiles in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, a project undertaken for the camp's own archives. 

Palestinians in Lebanon suffered long before the high-profile, Israel-assisted massacre in Shatila refugee camp and the adjacent Sabra neighbourhood in 1982, and they have had a hard time ever since. Between 762 and 3,500 civilians were killed in the massacre, mainly Palestinians and Lebanese Shias.

Interviewing the residents of the camp is important. It follows-up on Rosemary Sayigh's 1970s oral histories of these refugees: Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. The bruising memories of the 1948 Nakba were still painful. The families that were exiled then, a poor and prospectless people beyond the West Bank and Gaza, had been, and are, left out of whatever strategies the PLO and the Palestinian Authority have dreamt-up.

     The author found the residents tired of being called on stage to weep about the origin of their exile almost 70 years ago.
Having little else to do in the way of identity activism, Nakba remembrance seemed a good thing for a while. But another generation or two later, remembering what it was like before Israel was established through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine has now become well-rehearsed. The author found the residents tired of being called on stage to weep about the origins of their exile almost 70 years ago. It is not as if they have had nothing to mourn since.

The populations of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have grown due to European countries' failure to offer asylum, and the arrival of war-induced double-refugees expelled from camps in other countries. Even UN evaluations of their legal status are vague, apparently because most Palestinians profess to be seeking the right of return to Palestine rather than the sanctuary of any foreign residency.

If Lebanon was willing to naturalise Palestinians some respondents in this book would accept it and get on with their lives. This would give them the right to work and other legal rights. Would you want to go through the indignity of begging asylum from an EU bureaucrat in a uniform?

A chapter discussing the possibility of return unpacks the tension between saying what Palestinian refugees are supposed to say and what is actually felt.

This is written in academic English with, for example, some responses termed "synchronic and associative", but Allan is brought down to earth by everyone she meets.

She describes the local shop economy: How loans are made, and how people are forced to repay them out of a fear of being ostracised in the intimate atmosphere of the refugee camp. The downside is that much of life is monetised, NGO coins fill the pockets of the political elite, and few people outside shouting distance will help the destitute.

However, when the corruption of officialdom gets too much there is the resourcefulness of good old fashioned anarchist ingenuity. Some take to hotwiring to access the electricity grid. If a family member makes good in Germany and sends money, a bit of local power against the elites is always welcome.

As Refugees of the Revolution shows, the views of exiled Palestinians in the refugee camps are different from those in the Israeli-occupied territories and foreign cities. The stories in this book are made up of many voices that are not necessarily unified, but some will surprise you.

Remembering the Nakba? "We've heard all these stories before. I'd rather be watching Umm Kulthoum."

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.