Final Weeks in Shatila/Goodbye, Beirut

I’ve said goodbye to Beirut (for now) and have arrived in Amman. I’m writing this sitting on a balcony overlooking the Abdoun bridge. It’s a nice night and while I don’t give Amman credit for much, after a summer in the humidity of Beirut, I will give it a LOT of credit for days of dry heat and nights with a cool breeze through its hills. Now, most people that know me are well aware of my dislike of the city, but to be fair to this odd hodge podge of a place – it also never stands a chance to impress me given the times in my life when I end up here. I mean after this past summer, which I don’t think I will have processed for many weeks to come, and then to have had to say goodbye to so many new, amazing people in Beirut…all the while knowing that I’m not even really going home. I am just going back to DC to say goodbye to some more people I love. I mean, really, how happy am I going to be in this place? It’s travel purgatory. Jordan is travel purgatory for every Palestinian. You want to know why Jordanians don’t smile enough? Because 70% of them are Palestinians and they have been in my now annual two day purgatory for 64 years. Hell, no wonder they’re miserable…

Anyways, let’s return to the main theme, shall we?

The events, observations, and emotions of the last two weeks in Shatila and the following week meandering around Beirut are near impossible to convey. The third week of the program consisted of a lot of inner-camp volunteer drama that I don’t care to repeat. It was also one of the most exhausting weeks of teaching. Classes and extracurriculars hit some sort of inexplicable climax of stress and frustration, both for the students as well as the teachers. We all pushed ahead though, and the final week – the first week of Ramadan which everyone was worried would be an attendance nightmare – actually ran like a dream. And by a dream, I mean typical hiccups, but still attendance was high and the kids were engaged. Ramadan also meant precious invitations to kids’ homes for coffee and dessert and iftars. They are so cute and excited to have you come over that one can’t help but love even the kids that make you want to pull your hair out 5 days a week.

It seemed impossible to sit and write through anything that was going on after the second week, and so I made a list of things I wanted to include in some long final post. Tonight, it finally seems quiet and cool enough to take a breath and give it a whirl. But, even sitting here and looking at the list, it seems like an impossible task to tackle. So, I have decided to literally tackle the list, bit by bit.

But here goes:

1. Mai Masri film screening with volunteers
How do I explain what it’s like to watch a movie on children in Shatila going to the border with Palestine and meeting their pen pals from the Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem…children who are the older brothers and sisters of your students and your friends? How do I explain what it’s like to see your classroom on a movie screen with kids from 20 years ago that might as well be your students? Because nothing has changed…not their dreams or their obstacles. The quiet, collective weep is of no comfort to me.

2. Brumana
A haven in the mountains provided by the ever lovely Rawan. Amazingly enough, we spent our night up in Brumana working on the LEAP yearbook the night after the Mai Masri film screening. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster and recovery. We went grocery shopping in this adorable little town tucked away in the mountains and Anny and I made dinner for everyone. We ate together on the balcony looking out onto the most amazing view, breathing in fresh air that we’d almost forgotten existed. There’s no way to explain it other than a total escape from what was our current reality, and that in itself made it a night of protracted shock…something that tended to happen a lot with the in and out of the camp. It’s also these nights that made me grateful for so many of the people that came in and out of my life to share those moments with.

3. Friends School
So, we’re still on the same day (I know, big day, right?!). A few hours before Brumana and after the movie, I accepted a job that I had been offered just the night before. I will officially be teching 9th grade English at the Friends School in Ramallah at the end of this month. I had totally written off this possibility, as I was supposed to find out weeks ago. But suddenly, on a routine quick stop in Sabra to check email before heading back to Shatila, I found the email in my inbox that I had been waiting almost a month for. I got the job. And despite the shock and hesitation, that was instantly it. I knew I’d take it…because well, I didn’t have it in me to say no. Given the initial shock of re-wrapping my mind around moving to Palestine and leaving DC (and all that entails), Anny, Rawan, Eileen, and others were often more excited than I was. It’s settling in now though, and off I go on the next adventure. Stay tuned. I am going from teaching in one of the worst off Palestinian refugee camps in the world to teaching at arguably the most privileged High School in Ramallah. Yeah, that’s not gonna mess with my head or anything…

4. Family near and far
So my brother Fady, his wife, son, and stepdaughter were all in Beirut my last couple of weeks there. Fady and my niece came by Shatila on one of our last days and got to witness a disaster of a morning…typical stuff, no electricity for planned activity (that day, a movie), so “Teachers, back to class and think on your feet, you have…one minute to lesson plan.” After that fun time, it was time for extracurriculars. I went off to photography and Fady headed down to the writing class. The girls loved him and recited the poetry they wrote and translated that day at the end of semester show. Too cute for words. During the lunch break, Mahmoud walked the three of us down to the memorial/grave of those killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, proceeded by walking by the memorial for the 1985 massacre on our way to walking them out of the camp. I had not been to the ’82 memorial yet (I walked by the ’85 one every day) and I gotta say, going with him somehow made it easier. Whether it was Fady coming by for a few hours to see the camp and help out or show my niece around or the phone calls from my parents or emails from my other siblings, it’s amazing the strength we find in our family at times when we’re not even looking for it.

5. End of school show and saying goodbye to the kids
The end of school show really can’t be described. Pictures are forthcoming though, I promise!! Aside from the typical mayhem of hundreds of children running around in a small space, it really went phenomenally well. The photographs we printed and mounted for the wall were beautiful. The theater kids stole the show with an amazing performance and adaptation of the “it’s time for Africa” song, now “it’s time for Palestine” and interludes of beautiful statements they’d written about their dreams. Dabke, is always a treat of course. Many of the classes had learned songs throughout the month and performed those..everything from “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” to the Jackson 5’s “ABC”…amazingly precious! The kids had a blast and after all the whining and shushing and “No, you can’t quit now”‘s, they had an amazing time. The day was exactly as it should have been – an opportunity for them to celebrate themselves, their work, and us all to say goodbye to each other. It’s no surprise that as soon as Miss Jamila (the headmistress at Beit Atfal…one not to be messed with I might add) was done saying some final words, the kids looked to Rawan for permission and she gave them the nod – and off they went – DURBEKE TIME! lol…the drums masterfully sending us off into the final phase…appropriately sending us off with a dance party and lots of hugs and tearful goodbyes. Most were expected of course…kids from your English class, your extracurricular class, or just some kids who somehow regardless of whose class they were in, every teacher got to know were running around getting our emails and giving us hugs. But what I will never understand are the girls who I never spoke more than 2 words to…usually involving nothing more than go upstairs or go downstairs when they were trying to cut class…all came and gave me the most serious hugs. Now you want me to know you like me? Come on, girls. Where was this love when you made me lose my voice, huh?

Ok, there’s more on this list…but I am now skipping things.

The last week after leaving Shatila, I spent mostly at Rawan’s and then the last 2 days with Fady and fam a little outside Beirut. Time with my nephew was priceless and a perfect way to end a week that I can describe as nothing more than a bizarre recovery. I had plans to spend my last week traveling more, seeing what I didn’t have time to during the program, but ultimately, I found myself in this sort of paralysis …and I was happily resigned to spending my last week with certain people, at a certain pace, and with a sort of total disregard for whatever I wasn’t going to get done. I didn’t want to run around and be a tourist and I knew it would be too much to try and make myself process everything, so instead I did neither. And I’m grateful for having done that and having had the space to do so while surrounded by great people. Saying goodbye to new friends who live in Beirut was the hardest of all, perhaps because they are also the ones who couldn’t brush off a goodbye with “we’ll come see you in Ramallah” and instead had to pull a “we’ll meet in Amman.” I told you – travel purgatory this place.

Signing off, here’s to a day when we can have our Beirut Summer 2012 reunion and say “see you in Akka”…


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