‘What greater sorrow is there”, the ancient Greek playwright Euripides had a character declaim in Electra, one of his tragedies, “than being forced to leave behind one’s native earth?” Two-and-a-half millennia after this was posited as a rhetorical question, let’s here ask a follow-up one: What kind of sorrow do people endure if, after “being forced to leave behind their native earth” and to find an alternate haven elsewhere, they are driven out again? Refugees one more time.
To discover what it means to go through an experience like that, to be forced, in other words, to leave behind a locale that had provided your need for a sheltering sanctuary from the agonies of exile, ask any of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who in recent months were evicted from Yarmouk, the refugee camp on the southern edges of Damascus, that the Economist last May described as “Palestine’s capital in exile, once the Palestinians’ largest and liveliest refugee camp”. Little remains of the place today, reduced as it is to rubble after weeks of relentless bombing by the regime and its Russian backers.
And the Syrian president has made it clear that Yarmouk will be redeveloped for use only by Syrians. Palestinian refugees who had lived there since it was established more than six decades ago, may as well find themselves compelled to wander the earth or dwell in the open fields, in partial return to the manner of beasts. “Some suggest relocating the Palestinians to distant scrubland”, reported the Economist in the same report.
Yarmouk is no more. But what in essence was this place? What do we mean when we — or, more accurately, when Palestinians — refer to this enduring phenomenon in modern Palestinian history called a “refugee camp”? Leave aside the definition of the term in your lexicon. A Palestinian refugee camp is not so much a place of refuge for a displaced people as a “world” — an encapsulated world of one’s own making, where virtually everyone you encounter is like you a Palestinian, someone with whom you share the painful memories of the nakba (the catastrophe of Palestine’s dismemberment in 1948) and the unendurable torments of otherness in the ghourba (diaspora).
In a Palestinian refugee camp, Palestinians need only give you “that look”. That look — the look that Palestinian exiles give each other. A look that says, hey, being from the “Crowd of ‘48” — that is, those who were on the trek in the refugee exodus in 1948. I too carry on my back the same cargo as you do. I too have acquired my past in the ghourba and been rendered insane by constant assaults on my being. So here’s the thing: If you have grown up in a Palestinian refugee camp, and are the product of its process of socialisation, you begin to recognise the look from an early age. It has a sorrowful eloquence to it, a kind of darkness around it, as if it were a pitiful echo from your history. Its shared meaning is intimate and warm, even playful, like private jokes and photo albums.
Beyond leaving your lexicon aside, leave equally aside the image of a Palestinian camp as the negative symbol of Palestinian life.
The single-most important feature of this habitat, the one that makes it distinctive and unique, is that it declares its own form of being as “little Palestine”, an island of privacy transplanted from the old country, a world of its own. And Yarmouk, a mere two-square kilometre strip of land, was one such. This columnist’s own visits there in 1965 and then again in 1978 simply reinforced his impression that Palestinian refugee camps, wherever located, mirror each others’ teleological spirit of history.
For even in the midst of poverty and destitution, life in Yarmouk was in full tide and beat forward with wild gaiety. People smoked water pipes in their cafes, and listened to local poets recite their verse, political activists deliver their diatribes, bands play their music and storytellers tell their tales in ramshackle, whitewashed meeting halls. Meanwhile, there were those men who plied their trade as peddlers, artisans, tailors, shopkeepers, bricklayers and shoemakers out of rickety stores off narrow lanes, along with those old men — the grizzled old men with memories stretching back to Ottoman rule in Palestine — who carried with them, within them, shattered yet rich fragments of their violated culture and bitter thoughts of the murderous shadow cast by the perpetrators in their subverted history.
And always, the aura of a communal sense of reference would surround everyone, protectively engulfing everyone — till the frenzied packs came, to Gaza, to Tel Zaatar, to Sabra, to Shatila and, more recently, to Yarmouk. And recall how the effort by the Syrian regime to transform Yarmouk from a refugee camp to a death camp so rattled the world that the image of crowds of starving Palestinians lining up for United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) food handouts — an image that became a symbol of the camp’s unspeakable suffering — simultaneously went on display on the massive electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square and its Asian equivalent in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
Yarmouk is no more. But the sad part of it is that no first-person accounts, to the best of one’s knowledge, have been composed to tell of the rhythm of the camp’s halcyon days, how people there lived its moments of joy and grief, how as a habitat it transformed and was transformed by its denizens, and how the camp’s ethos — a quantum of energy transplanted from Palestine — enabled diaspora Palestinians to maintain their routes to roots. Pity, isn’t it?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.