AN UPDATE FROM THE FIELD: A NAKBA COMMEMORATION AT SHATILA CAMP IN BEIRUT by Sarah Marusek


Every May, Palestinians around the world commemorate the 1948 Nakba, or disaster, that forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland, including around 120,000 who found refuge in what were originally intended to be temporary camps in Lebanon. Since then, the situation for Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon has been marked by violence and oppression during times of both war and peace. In fact, saying that Palestinians even ‘live’ in Lebanon is quite misleading as they are not entitled to work outside of the camps, let along access public services such as education and healthcare. In Beirut, collective memory is also deeply scarred by The War of the Camps during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war, as well as the 1982 massacre of civilians at the Sabra and Shatila Camps. Considering these dire circumstances, an outsider might imagine that Palestinians in the remaining Shatila camp would be bereft of any hope for a better future. But doing so would be another injustice, as illustrated by the vibrant celebration of history, tragedy, resilience and faith during a special Nakba commemoration Palestinian youths organized on May 22, 2010 in Beirut’s Shatila Camp.

On this warm Saturday afternoon, hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the Youth Center. They were a diverse crowd comprising babies, children, adults and the elderly, all boisterously assembled in front of a small stage. Neighbors were leaning over balconies and peering through windows to watch the event. As a foreigner to the camps, women welcomed me with warm smiles and greetings. Children stared at me with wide eyes before breaking into infectious laughter, either then asking my name or shyly looking away. On stage young men and women were interpreting a series of traditional Palestinian songs and dances as modern reflections on how they live the Nakba through their own lives as well as through their parents, grandparents and the wider community. In these actions, they communicated a powerful message of soli- darity.

The enormously talented youths sang poetic songs about the Nakba while several women danced in front of the stage waving kafiyehs and Kalashnikovs, capturing the defiant spirit of the performances by the resolute smiles on their lips. After each song the youths performed a dance wearing beautiful traditional cos- tumes borrowed from the nearby Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). The PRCS was founded in 1968 to alleviate suffering in the Occupied Territories and the Diaspora. One of their current projects involves teach- ing women in the camps how to sew and embroider and encouraging artisanship which the PRCS then sells at a museum and showroom just outside of the Sabra and Shatila camps. According to one of the dancer’s sisters, the youths had been staying up until eleven every night leading up to the commemoration. This hard work was apparent in a series of dances that were emotional, athletic and full of grace. They performed the Palestinian debka and choreographed a retelling of the Nakba, a story of love that is taken away but if remembered together will never be forgotten.

Between every song and dance, those members of the community who were forced to leave their homeland 63 years ago were recognized for their perseverance and strength. These inspirational men and women were given a plaque while the crowd showed their appreciation through cheers and applause. Behind the stage was an artistic graphic montage of Palestine, and above that a poster with images, under- neath a large Palestinian flag, of those martyred in the struggle for their homeland. Together these scenes captured the contradiction of the Nakba and the spirit of Palestinians in the camps today: tragedy and loss accompanied by hope and defiance.