Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Walk Through Shatila Camp

Since arriving in Iraq, I have struggled with new feelings. Longing for the winding, dusty roads of Palestine, I have largely been in mourning for a place I didn’t know I had become so connected to. I feel the rumble of the Israeli jets in my veins, the panic of gunshots still lives under my skin and my stomach still feels the stress of sound bombs. I’m not sure how to match these feelings with my new environment.


New friends here have become my lifeboats in a sea of monotony - lesson plans, discipline sheets and marking. Hailing mostly from Lebanon, my friends have become my connection to the Middle East I have fallen in love with - kisses on the cheek to greet someone, endless cups of coffee, cigarettes, laughter and kindness. My friends embody the spirit of those I encountered in Palestine: persistent in kindness, consistent concern for others and muted conversations of politics, memories of war and stories of hope.


One of these friends, Mohammad, is a Palestinian refugee who, before moving to Erbil, had been living in Beirut with his family. Upon meeting, we shared an instant connection with Palestine as our catalyst. Smoking shisha one evening at a open-roofed beer garden in the Christian district of Erbil, he sheepishly asked me to tell him stories of Palestine - a land he calls home but has never seen himself.

As time moved on, we shared more conversations about Palestine and details of how each of our lives brought us to Erbil. Planning my vacation to Beirut, Mohammad asked if I would like to visit one of the many refugee camps within the city for Palestinians. I’m not sure if he sensed my almost panicked desire for connection to a land I had been longing for or if he wanted me to see a glimpse one of the central issues of Israel’s continued destruction of Palestine - the refugee crisis, but either way, I humbly jumped at the opportunity.


Mohammad picked me up from my friend's house in the mountains of Beirut, in a town called Shuwayfat. Getting into his car, I tried to hide my nerves and make basic small-talk. As the conversation shifts towards the camp and his experiences as a Palestinian in Lebanon, I swear I can feel the familiar breeze from Mount Gerizim wash over my body in his car. The rain pours down on the car, with black clouds overhead. I couldn’t explain this to Mohammad at the time but, the weather was the perfect companion for the lump growing in my throat.


As we drive through Dahieh, Beirut’s so called ‘Hezbollah stronghold’, Mohammad explains the grossly unjust laws and policies facing Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. My cheeks burn red from my own ignorance as he explains Palestinians living in Lebanon cannot apply for citizenship, own property or even hold certain jobs. The lump in my throat grows.


We stop to pick up Mohammad's cousin Kassem, a writer and reporter living in Beirut - the man who has organized this day for me. Jumping into the car with us, he initially seems leery of me. Mohammad explains my passion for Palestine to him, choosing his words carefully and methodically. With guilt pulsing through my veins in recognition of my undeserved privilege of calling the land he calls home once my own, I tell him that I previously lived in the West Bank, in Nablus. He smiles in acknowledgement of my experience with tired eyes, glancing up at the rear-view mirror to make eye contact with Mohammad. I wonder then then how many foreigners he has met who have told him the same.

Quietly looking out my window, I see men pushing carts of fruit, vegetables, cigarettes and other sellable items in the rain. I watch women shelter their heads from the rain with newspapers and children jumping in the puddles covering the quickly narrowing streets. I see colourful paintings of Arafat and my soul smiles with a guilt I’m not sure what to do with. After winding the narrow flooded roads, Mohammad pulls over and announces our arrival in Shatila Camp.


Shatila Camp, currently home to over 22,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees, was originally constructed to house families forced to flee Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. Many of the families and children living in Shatila now are third and fourth generation Palestinians - many of whom who have never seen the country they call home. Their grandparents and parents have lived through the Lebanese civil war and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 where in just two days, Lebanese Christian soldiers murdered over 3,000 residents of the camps under the guise and protection of the Israeli army.

Walking through the camp in the rain, our umbrella proves futile. My hair is soaked and the water seeps into my boots, making a home like it belongs there. I watch shoes placed in front of doorsteps begin to float in the muddy water that flows through the maze of narrow streets. Infrastructure in the camp is catastrophic. Prohibited from building underground pipe systems, tangles of high voltage cables and black tubing used for water hang above every street. With the recent influx of Syrian refugees, residents are forced to build their homes on top of existing buildings. Not surprisingly, from time to time, entire buildings collapse under strain.

Arriving at the camp’s administration building, I find myself surrounded by men, who seem to have aged more from exhaustion than time, engaged in what seems to be a very serious and stern conversation. Translating for me, Mohammad and Kassem explain that they are speaking of their homes in Palestine that now, they speculate, either sit empty or house Israeli families. They laugh with a sadness in their eyes I remember from the worn men in Jerash Camp (Gaza Camp) in Amman, Jordan - “We even had a summer home by the beach,” laughs one of the men.

They begin a conversation about the state of the camps, explaining to me in broken English, with the help of Mohammad and Kassem, that they aren’t even permitted to have windows without iron bars covering the glass. For a moment, the men speak softly, forgetting to translate for me, and then break out into loud laughter with each other. Mohammad leans close to me and whispers the joke the men shared to me, “They might as well gas the whole camp, it would be better than living here every day for the rest of our lives.” Shaken but not surprised by their dark humour, I do my best to fake a smile. The lump in my throat grows more.

Sipping cups of tea, watching these men speak, I am transported to the Tamimi household in Nabi Saleh,a small village in the West Bank I frequented during my time in Palestine. I rub my eyes and try to focus on the men in front of me but each time I open them, I see only Bilal Tamimi and Bassem, discussing Friday’s protest and the latest violent attack from the settlers of Halamish settlement.

Dizzy and disoriented I stand to say goodbye to these men. My cheeks burn red again as I place my hand over my heart, trying in vain to express my gratitude for their kindness in speaking with me, answering my naive questions and sharing their stories of home with me.

Walking through the camp, I recognize a familiar tremble in my hands as they grip my camera. Distinctly aware of the magnitude of what I am seeing and witnessing, my eyes meet with Kassem's. His stern eyes flash me a quick smile. Without speaking, he acknowledges the clumsiness guiding my steps. I become distinctly aware of my debt to him for organizing my day within the camp. The words he so casually said in the car earlier ring in my ears: You must tell your friends and family about what you see.

Exiting the camp, we pass the memorial for the men, women and children killed during 1982 massacre, posters for the PLO and martyrs cover the walls. My heart becoming unbearably heavy with every step, Mohammad encourages me to take photos of everything - the graffiti on the walls, the mess of wires overhead. I don’t have the courage to tell him that photos could never match the heaviness and mourning expanding inside my chest. Instead, I smile and take as many pictures as my shutter speed will allow.

Driving back to Shuwayfat, Kassem asks me to choose one word to summarize my experience in the camp. Reflecting quickly with embarrassed clumsiness, I chose the word ‘overwhelmed’. Turning backwards in my seat to look at him, I ask the same of him, for one word to describe the camp. Responding with devastating clarity, he looks at me and says, “Life”.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


As the rain pours down around me, I am forced into moments of reflection that have been otherwise hard to come by here in Kurdistan. My existence has consisted largely of lesson plans, marking and worrying about classroom discipline and deadlines.

I find myself longing for the dusty, rolling hill of Nablus. Of the moments of quiet sitting in my windowsill, the glowing morning light keeping me company as the caffeine pricks me awake each morning. My existence here has left a barren hole where my creativity once flowed.

Since arriving two months ago, I have been met with a blurred mass of newness and fresh slates, their wiping clean wiping me out entirely. I have felt distant from myself, and while my words usually flow onto paper with ease, these days I struggle to write each letter.

In the quietness of this rainy night, I am processing the emotions and heartache of leaving one life behind in pursuit of another. So often, our mind automatically categorizes events and experiences without our conscious mind having input. I am coming to accept that while Palestine took my breath away, the air that flowed back into my lungs left me changed forever.

On a path of discovery that was too great to comprehend along the way, I realize now the beautiful imperfection in the months that went by where I found self-acceptance, sowed seeds and voiced dreams. I wonder now, how I will be able to settle here with an open heart when I have given it to another so completely.

I guess ultimately, that is why I have fallen quiet, because my thoughts and words have been projected inward instead of outward. I have been grieving and mourning, with quiet devotion, a place I can no longer call home. Like a scorned lover, my ears perk at every mention of its name; my heart pounds with every word of its well being.

Surveying my room now, I notice the backpack that has been emptied and tucked under my bed, its contents folded neatly on the shelves. In this fragmented and transitory existence I have chosen, in this commitment to create a new home each August, I realize the difficulty of maintaining my wholeness.

Each new person I encounter is shown the pieces I have chosen to keep at the surface throughout the years. They know nothing of the farewells, gratitude, heart-break, fears and dreams that I have unknowingly collected over the years - the ones that make me who I am. For the first time, I am realizing that if I want to succeed in creating a new home here, I have to unpack more than the contents of my backpack. I have to open myself up, shake out the crumbs, and hopefully at the end of it all, repack a little lighter.

Monday, 18 August 2014

A Life of Resistance: Conversations with Filmmaker Mustafa Azizi

Mustafa Azizi is a Nabulsi filmmaker, Executive Director of multi-media company Karakeeb, and staunch supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I sat down with him to discuss his experiences as a journalist student, film-maker and Palestinian living under Israeli occupation.

Shutting the windows of the office, Mustafa turns to me and mutters, “On a Friday they drill in the street. They should not be allowed! It is Friday, we must pray and rest. We need quiet.” Sitting to join us, Mustafa leans back in his chair and begins to speak, “I was a journalist student at Al Najah university between 2001 and 2006.” Punctuating his sentences with cautious sips of hot tea, he continues, “I was a student during the worst time - during the intifada and the invasion.”

Eyes fixated intensely on my own, he explains that in five years of studies, the journalism department lost thirteen pupils to violence. “It was crazy,” he says, his voice suddenly losing its intensity as he recounts how violence permeated into every aspect of college life.

Although Mustafa studied all journalistic mediums at Al Najah, he quickly determined himself a film-maker. Between 2003 and 2006 alone, Mustafa created five films and through various festivals held at Al Najah, was awarded ‘Best Film’ twice for his various films. 

Regaining his characteristically confident tone, he turns his gaze towards his tea cup, “After the Intifada, I realized my duty as a film-maker. It’s not a job - it is a duty.” Explaining his frustrations with simply reporting stories, Mustafa explains the empowerment that film-making brings, “When you create the film, you feel something different. You are not following the news anymore, you are creating the news. Films are strong and very honest. In the end, I chose film because of the truth.”

Mustafa Azizi fillming for a project in Al-Khalil
(Hebron); May, 2014
Frustrated with the media normalizing and sugar-coating his experiences under Israeli occupation, Mustafa saw film-making as a way of resisting the occupation. “You have to say occupation. It’s what is happening, everyone knows that but no one wants to say it.”

Expanding, he continues, “As a person who lives in the Old City [of Nablus], I have seen the ugly face of the occupation. Never can anyone imagine what I have seen.”

As he speaks, my mind wanders to the call to prayer bouncing from the buildings outside our closed office windows. I notice men shuffling quietly in the direction of the Mosque. These men are the antithesis of what I have been told to expect: the angry, violent Islam that infects Western media coverage of this piece of the world. Their unassuming and tranquil commitment to prayer washes a calm feeling over my body as my skin prickles into goosebumps.

Jolted back to the conversation, I hear Mustafa say, “Resisting is a lifestyle for us. And I support all kinds of resistance: non-violent; the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement, and even violent resistance.” Looking up from under my brow, perhaps a little too critically, he explains, “Look, my brother, he chose one path of resistance and I chose another. I tell truth with my film so everyday with my camera, I am resisting the occupation, I am resisting Israeli control over my life. Everybody has their way to resist, and I support anyone in this.”

With that, I wonder to myself about the word, ‘resistance’. Surely, in the Western world, this word leaves a bad taste in our mouths, as we are bombarded with images of suicide bombers and angry, aggressive men wrapped in kufiya [classic Arabic scarves]. But, as the word spirals out of Mustafa’s mouth, I see how in this life - a life he doesn’t even own the rights to - resistance is synonymous with hope.

“You see,” Mustafa continues, “journalism for everyone is a romantic idea. But, in Palestine, it is different. You have no independence to write your story. You need to be following someone always. But me, I am sorry, I don’t follow anyone else.”

Wanting to steer the conversation in the direction of his work, I ask, “What does this mean for your films, that you don’t follow anyone else?”

The corners of his mouth curl upwards as he pauses for a second for a sip of tea. “What it means? It means I say occupation when others don’t. I say what is happening, whether they like it in the West or not. And I love this!” His small smile turns into a large grin, accompanied by a chuckle, “I love this…I love to speak this way, very loudly!”

Asking him about the dangers of speaking loudly and openly against the occupation, Mustafa shakes his head at me, “The dangers of speaking loudly against the occupation are smaller than the dangers of not - the danger is that the occupation may continue. And ideas are more powerful than anything to fight it with.”

Recalling political artist Naji Al-Ali’s cartoon of Handala, a symbol representing the complexity of the plight of Palestinian refugees in my mind, I mention the small cartoon to Mustafa.

Naji Al-Ali's Handala
“Yes,” he responds. “Handala enlightened the minds of people. Art is very important in this and it is the choice for me. To make art that enlightens and brings people together against the occupation.”

On July 22, 1987, Naji Al-Ali was shot in London as he walked to work. He died in hospital a month later. A tragic end that is all too common for those who, like Mustafa, choose to speak loudly about the devastating effects of the occupation. Acknowledging Al-Ali’s death, Mustafa says, “But, Handala still exists today. He lives now and will live long after his Naji is gone. This is the power of ideas.”

As the afternoon sun beams heavy onto my face, I ask Mustafa what is next for him. He tells me about Karakeeb, the multi-media company he has started in Nablus. He says the goal of this company is to provide a place for local artists, musicians, writers and anyone with ideas to come together and create something. 

Remembering his own start as a filmmaker, he says, “I remember thinking, who will give me a chance?” Trying now to use Karakeeb as a vehicle for people who started like him, he promises that his company will not follow the normalization of mainstream media and will strive to change the idea of media in Nablus. He says, “It is simple. Karakeeb is to live. It’s all to live free - and we will do anything to achieve this.”

Our mouths soaked with tea and hope, we stand to say goodbye. Shaking my hand, Mustafa leaves me with words that continue to echo in my mind, even now, months later. He says, “No matter what, I am never leaving Nablus - never. I will be here forever and I will fight to win our freedom with my ideas always."

Mustafa Azizi searching for the perfect shot by the separation wall in Bethlehem; May, 2014

To learn more about Mustafa and follow his projects, follow him on Facebook:

To learn more about Karakeeb in Nablus, Palestine, follow them on Facebook:

First photo taken by Odai Qaddomi of Odai Qaddomi Photography. To see more of his pictures, follow him on Facebook:

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