There was a huge bang. Twenty metres to my left, the guy cleaning an AK-47 outside his shop had accidentally set it off. Again. He’d produced the same dramatic punctuation mark to our day a few minutes earlier, and obviously wasn’t taking too much care whilst cleaning his rifle, sitting in the middle of the street. The guy sitting to my right shrugged, and carried on playing with his pistol, whilst the toddler standing next to his dad toyed with a gun too. I think it was his father’s, and apparently it wasn’t working. Evidently, this was a regular day in Shatila.
I’m not suicidal, but I do like to take a risk or two. Doing something left of the field, or going against the grain is fun. It makes one feel alive. I enjoy it. From the crazy world that is the no rules insanity of Lebanese driving, to simply crossing the street without getting run over, to negotiating a fair price for a taxi, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun in Lebanon.
Shatila began life in 1949 as a refugee camp for Palestinians fleeing persecution to the south. Originally a temporary shelter for a few hundred people, the camp has now become seamlessly incorporated into the sprawl of Beirut, and now plays host to more than 10,000 people residing there. Shatila only covers roughly a square kilometre, so the population density is through the roof. The ramshackle building efforts are, by western standards, slightly dangerous. New floor after new floor has been delicately balanced on top of the existing structures. The exposed breeze blocks (or cinder blocks) one can see on many a building is a showcase of how badly built the homes here are. I’d fully expect them to fall down at any moment.
Given the history of Shatila, there is a huge amount of Palestinian and Hezbollah imagery in evidence. Huge banners, depicting former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat adorn many a building, and there are many signs of UN projects in the area.
Having been invited for an Arabic coffee with some of the residents there, we were told about life in Shatila. Taped to the fridge of the place we were drinking were photos of three young men. They’d all recently died, we were told. Upon further questioning it transpired that death from blind bullets – shots fired aimlessly into the sky somewhere, and coming down in another area and hitting someone, is not an uncommon way to go. That’s how these guys had lost their lives. I don’t think Shatila is the safest place to live.
We wandered further, met Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians all living there. Beirut always feels like a hive of energy and activity, but in Shatila it was even more evident. The narrow labyrinth of streets was fascinating to explore. The stench of poorly irrigated sewage hung in the air, and the feeling of any personal space was left far behind. We were told, by the guys who’d invited us for coffee, that everyone in Shatila knew we were there. How? A Whatsapp group, made up of thousands of Shatila residents, was the early warning system for anything out of the ordinary. Two ajnabis (foreigners) entering the market place at the edge of Shatila was fairly noticeable, and the guys were waiting for us, armed with freshly brewed coffee, to welcome us to the neighbourhood.
We sat with them for an hour. We talked about each others lives in Lebanon, they showed us video of their make shift music group – made up of not one person who could actually play an instrument, and drunk more strong coffee. Whilst kids chased after each other in the narrow alleyways, a nargile was produced, another past-time that is fundamental to Lebanese social situations.
Another hour passed. We bid goodbye to our new friends, vowing to return one day, to watch their weekly musical cacophony one Saturday evening. Life in Shatila seemed laid back, relaxed, and simple. If only there was a working sewage system and no reckless gun firing to worry about it would be great.