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SOAS Goes to Lebanon

Amy Thomson, BA Social Anthropology

During Reading Week (2-11 November) 13 members of SOAS Ceilidh Band, SOAS Guerrilla Choir and Soas Goes to Calais and Beyond Society, travelled to Lebanon to do solidarity volunteering work in refugee camps. This included visiting both the historic Palestinian camps (since 1948) and the more recent camps for Syrian refugees fleeing the war in that country. Being a large group, one group ran musical workshops and performances at the Nahr el-Bared camp, which was destroyed by the Lebanese army after 15 weeks of fighting in 2007, whilst the other group volunteered in a camp further North with a grassroots charity that is partly founded by an ex- SOAS student. The team also spent a day at the Shatila camp in West Beirut where 2,000+ Palestinians were massacred by right-wing Lebanese forces in September 1982. One member of the group has shared some of their diary entries to account for the experience…

2/11/18 – Departure

Here it comes and there I go; that surge of adventure. That lust for life. The fear of the new and fading of the old. The change, the impermanence. The excitement and the letting go of routine; the checklist and timetables are finally forgotten and burnt under the foreign sun we run to. Timetables and diaries are replaced by a notebook, a small guitar, a drum, a slack line, a bag of tennis balls and ladies’ stockings, a jaw-harp, a set of bones, a harmonica and the youthful urge to embrace every moment.

Yadida, Emma, Julia and Julio joined Dylan and I after the security checks. Our excited energies playful bounced off of each other’s words. We were the perfect people to be together, equally rare and charismatic. Giulio’s pink lipstick that he was wearing since the duty-free shop was enough to prove it. It was clear that the experience ahead of us was going to be unique. Finally, the gate number was displayed. Giulio orchestrated the walk towards the departure gate with a steady drum beat. All he carried for his luggage was a metal Darbuka drum, the same instrument that later became the sound echoing through the arrival halls of Rafik Hariri International airport.

3/11/18 – First day in Beirut

As planned, we woke up late. We began the day with a brief meeting with the rest of the team and a basket of Zaatar Manaieesh for breakfast. We have a gig in the evening but there is nothing planned for the day, we had some free time to explore the city…

The architecture is strange here. Like our confused Arabic phrases, the cities buildings are a jumbling of dialects; art-deco windows and colonial doors, cosmopolitan towers and industrial frames, graffitied walls and derelict buildings with more bullet holes than bricks, standing like ghosts of war. There are enough contrasts in the details to sense how the land

had been fought over by its neighbours, Syria and Israel, and held under the watchful eye of the UN and the West.

Bullet-holed buildings in Beirut.

“The eight days I spent in Lebanon – meeting head teachers from Homs, survived suicide bombers, Lebanese military, international charity workers, Palestinian musicians, and so many children hopeful about returning to their homes – has taught me to question these simple narratives and the numbed images.”

4/11/18 – Shatila Camp

Carrying various instruments upon our back and under our arms, the thirteen of us strolled onto the main road to catch taxis. Together, we were heading to Shatila; a refugee camp, South of Beirut, that was originally initiated for a number of Palestinian refugees in 1949 but now, since the civil war in Syria, inhabits over 25,000 people. Compared to Calais Jungle, Shatila sounded like a small town.

Shatila is a small town. A town so big we couldn’t find the place we were heading to. A young boy, Abed1, who told us that he lived in Shatila, offered to help us find our way. ‘Shatila is here and here’. Abed stopped and pointed out two long narrow paths into what seemed like a residential neighbourhood. ‘Shatila is very big, where do you go in Shatila?’ He said.

1 This is not the real name of the person.

Still not having a formal address of the centre we were due to be at, Abed eventually gave up trying to direct us and instead tagged along with me at the back of the posse. We had a good chat; his English was definitely better than my useless Fus’a Arabic (we love you Owen Wright). I asked him whether he went to school.

‘Yes, I got to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday’ He said.

‘And what do you learn?’ I asked.

‘Everything, Geography, Maths, English… I like school’. As we turned the corner, he pointed at a building. ‘Look, here is my school’. I was surprised at how large and official the building was. Although very unlikely, considering the several mass destructions of the camp (especially by the Israeli’s in 1982) it seemed as if the school had been there since the Red Cross originally set up the camp in 1949. As we passed the school, I read its name ‘UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees): Ramallah Primary School’. As one of only two schools in the camp, Ramallah primary school offers basic education for over 800 children. Not the best of situations but obviously the right thing. I felt a discomfort knowing that at the beginning of the year the United States, the UNRWA’s largest donor, cut the fund of the agency by 70% (from $364m to $60) and last month, has cut the funds all together. It’s a sickening to think that in a few months schools, like the Ramallah Primary, will become sinking ships. Children, like Abed, will be removed from the right to education. I wonder when Abed would notice these changes in his life and the faces of his teachers and what, if anything, will be put in place after? More so who is accountable for this crime?

The gap between us and the rest of the group was getting a little too large for my liking. Although I trusted Abed as a guide, I was sure that I would not find the group if I lost them. Abed and I sped up. In a speed walk we passed a cemetery. Unlike the cemeteries back at home, most of which seem like old gravestones, this cemetery was a sea of white stones, pebbled with bodies praying beside their deceased loved ones. Looking in through the gates of the cemetery, you couldn’t see where the end lay. The horizon was a merging of trees and gravestones. It was enough to silence any passing by. Thinking that this was the only place the dead lay, I was surprised when Abed pointed to the gates of another cemetery on the other side of the road. ‘My Grandma is there’ He told me. ‘She died in war’. I wasn’t sure what to say, apart from asking of her name, that surely would explain nothing of the life struggle he had experienced.

Abed and I went silent for a while as we continued to catch up with the group. I began to wonder why he had decided to walk with us on our lost endeavouring. My question was answered after the next thing he asked me.

‘Who is the king of Israel?’ He said. By King, I assumed he meant president. Either way, embarrassingly, I couldn’t think of his name.

2 Haddad, E. 2018. Online [ 468720069] accessed 21/11/2018.

‘I am not sure’ I replied. ‘Do you know?’.

‘No’ he said. Abed then instantly asked ‘do you like Israel?’. I took a second, getting my head around what this ten-year-old boy had asked me. Never would I have imagined that a ten-year-old would ask me this. I again glanced at the cemeteries around me and glimpsed another body placing flowers beside a grave…

We continued to walk, towards the security checkpoint that marked the border of Shatila. Little did I think that this would also be the border between the short yet genuine friendship between Abed and myself. ‘I have to turn back now’ Abed said. We shook hands, and then I watched as he ran back down the road we had just walked, his white jacket fading in between the distant crowds.

Eventually our wondering posse was found by two ladies on a moped. ‘Are you coming to Bayt Itfal?’ They shouted. Of course, that was our call. ‘YALLA! You’re late!’. We finally arrived at the centre. Bayt Itfal As-Samood (The Children’s house of Steadfastness), have been running for over forty years (since 1976) across ten of the refugee camps in Lebanon. They are a charity that run educational activities and healthcare to Palestinian and now Syrian children. It is a much-needed space.

Being two hours late already, we quickly got on with the song. As many of the children were musicians themselves, the plan was to do a musical exchange. We would play a few songs and then they would. We went first…

After a couple of our songs and applauses, it was the children’s turn to perform. Their band outnumbered us in people and style with their band being a class of children and their instruments plenty. Centred right at the front of their ensemble was a young girl, looking no older than eight, with a fully sized Kanun. It outsized her and the small plastic school chair she was sitting on so much that I felt the instrument would slide off her legs at any moment…

The teacher waved his hand as a professional conductor, and they began. It was a song by Feruiz. After their song, so naturally, a set of bagpipes and a Dabqa dance followed their professional performance and the second party began…

Dancing to the song Dami Falasteeni (My Blood is Palestinian) during the Street Party in Shatila – The largest refugee camp in Beirut.

08/11/17 – Musical Schools

Today was ridiculous. We sung to three thousand children, paraded around playgrounds and set up a slackline in three schools…

The man to thank for this crazy day is Mustafa – A man who fled from Syria and, over six years, founded three schools in the North of Lebanon under the name Tuyoor Al-Amal (Birds of Hope). A name that was democratically voted upon by the one thousand students that attend the first school that was set up3. The six of our posse who had spent the day in the schools running the musical workshops were sat sipping a strong a coffee in his modest office… ‘The work that we do at the schools, in general, isn’t legal for the Lebanese government says that Syrians can’t work.’ Mustafa told us. ‘…and we don’t get any support from Lebanese government, neither from UNICEF, because the schools’ names aren’t listed on the government’s Ministry of Education’. Although the schools were sponsored by a Kuwaiti organisation, in the neoliberal world of business-like NGOs, Mustafa was rightly concerned about the school’s financial sustainability. ‘When I have started this year, the Kuwaiti NGO informed me of withdrawing from funding one of my schools and, a few days ago, when I was on my way to sign the contract with them for the other two schools, they told me that “they will fund one school and the other one they will fund 500 hundred students out of 1000 students”’. Mustafa reminded us that the schools he teaches in were technically not his. ‘We

3 This is the link to the documentary which is talking about voting in the school and how the schools started:

do not have our own schools, all of the schools you have seen today are private schools that we hire and they are not cheap. Each school costs us $5000 per month. We could shut down at any moment.’.

Another consequence of hiring the schools was that the Syrian students, most of whom were from Homs – one of the towns that had suffered the most severe violence’s of the Syrian Regime – started school only after the Lebanese students finish. Their average school day was 3pm to 7pm, separating their weekdays from local Lebanese. Even more trivial was that, even though the students study the same curriculum taught in the Lebanese schools, because the Lebanese government do not recognise the schools’ name under the ministry of education, at the end of the student’s time, they don’t receive any qualifications that can allow them to progress onto higher education or well-paid jobs. However, Mustafa admitted that this wasn’t the biggest concern on his mind. ‘The concern to me at the moment is that three thousand young Syrians in Lebanon are not receiving any education. We have one thousand students in each of our three schools and we are full’. At this moment, I thought it was appropriate to laugh at the British headlines that can’t get enough of the ‘Britain is full’ – talk. Yet despite his worries, Mustafa seemed positive about the future. ‘We will go back’ he stated. ‘And now, all we can do is educate our children and remind the world that we are not terrorists.’ With the sound of the school bell at 7pm, Mustafa, not having his own car, asked us if we would drive him back to his flat and join him for dinner.

11/11/18 – The Return

Keeping up to date with news stories and in touch with that I had met in Calais, I thought I had a sense of what was happening in Syria and, more generally, in the ‘Middle East’. My time in Lebanon taught me that I knew nothing. Since Lebanon, I have realised that my knowledge about the civil war and the ‘refugee crisis’ as a result, have been tainted by the images that mainstream western media has allowed me to see; images of bombings in Aleppo, blood stains upon children’s faces, families travelling with only basic possessions, ruined cities and American troops between its rubbles. Images that cannot be denied of their realities, yet images that somehow desensitise me to the complex, everyday human experience of war and migration. The eight days I spent in Lebanon – meeting head teachers from Homs, Lebanese military, international charity workers, Palestinian musicians, and so many children hopeful about returning to their homes – has taught me to question these simple narratives and the numbed images that have allowed me to create so many assumptions. I bless the experience I had in Lebanon, and more so the people I met, for teaching me so many things.

Action! Julio and Julia clowning in a classroom at one of the Tuyoor Al-Amal schools.

Credits: Julia Guy

In light of this article, below is the website address for more information about the Tuyoor Al-Amal School. Here you can also find a link for monetary contributions.

Additionally, during their time in Lebanon, the group decided that when they returned, they would start an Arabic Choir at SOAS, so that they can learn more Levantine songs, and be better prepared to sing them when returning to Lebanon in 2019. The next session will be held on Sunday 2nd December and it is open to all.

Anyone who would like to find out the details of this or anyone who wants to be part of the next “SOAS Goes to Lebanon” trip – whether as a musician or a volunteer – is invited to write for further details to [email protected].

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