The Arabs of Palestine

MARTHA GELLHORN, novelist, journalist, and former war correspondent, has recently returned from a journey to the Middle East, where she went to see the "Palestinian Refugee Problem" in terms of real life, real people. Here she reports how the Arab refugees and the Arab Israelis live, and what they say about themselves, their past and their future.

BEIRUT is a lovely boom town, an entrancing mixture of Asia Minor and France, with scenery to lift the heart and glamour hotels all over the lot and more abuilding. We set off, my Palestinian guide and I, in a shiny car for an UNRWA camp in the Lebanese hills. My guide, like his colleagues who accompanied me elsewhere, was an executive, responsible for an UNRWA department, dressed in a Western business suit, a self-assured, middle-class Organization Man. The refugees are not only individuals, but they come from widely different social backgrounds. Men of the class of my guides would not be living in refugee camps; they might work in them as doctors or teachers.

This camp was inhabited exclusively by Christian Arabs. I wondered aloud at a separation by creed. My guide was a Muslim and said that Christian camps were always cleaner and superior to Muslim ones, and besides, very few Christians lived in camps; they arranged their lives better on their own.

The camp consisted of little cement or frame houses rambling over the hillside, a village of poor people, disorderly and beflowered and cheerful. School was letting out for lunch; troops of children, dressed in the pinafore uniform that small boys and girls wear in Italian schools, meandered home, shouting bye-bye at friendly, giggling length. They are Roman Catholics here, but the young teachers are refugees, not priests. They have to teach the children about Palestine, since most of them have never seen the country and even the oldest cannot remember it. The children are taught hate, the Garden of Eden stolen from them by murderers; their duty is to live for Return and Revenge.

The miniature white clinic had only one customer, a nice-looking girl of twenty-one who had brought her fourth baby for a checkup. Her husband works in Libya; she too lived there for a few years but returned. Libya is very expensive; she can live here with his parents and thus save money for the future. The resident nurse, a buxom elderly woman, said they had no real sickness; in summer, the children got a bit of conjunctivitis and diarrhea; oh, no, trachoma is very rare, and besides, we cure it; there's some chicken pox now. My guide announced that if any refugee needed an operation he was taken in an ambulance to a hospital in Beirut where UNRWA reserved beds and paid for everything; you would have to be a rich man in Lebanon to get such good and speedy treatment. Her fourth baby, I mused, and she only twenty-one. Yes, yes, said my guide, the refugees have a higher birth rate than any other Arabs, and healthier children.

Refugees receive a monthly basic food ration of flour, pulse (dried peas, beans, lentils), sugar, rice, oils, and fats; this amounts to 1500 calories a day per person, increased in winter to 1600 calories a day, and it is not enough. The refugee must find some way to earn money to increase his diet, or keep poultry or rabbits, or grow vegetables. Many had planted tiny gardens here, but charmingly and with more enthusiasm, they also grow flowers for the joy of the thing. There is a daily milk ration for children and pregnant and nursing mothers; and hot meals are served in the "supplementary feeding station," to those who need them, on the doctor's order. In this camp, said my guide, 85 per cent of the people have work. If there are hardship cases, when no one can bring money to the family, UNRWA's Welfare Section steps in. This pattern is universal.

If you think it your duty, I said, to make everything seem better than it is, don't. I'm not on an inspection tour, I only want to get some idea of what life is really like. He stopped, offended, in the middle of the stony path and explained: here, in Lebanon, 80 per cent of the refugees are better off than they were in Palestine. Twenty per cent are not. The 20 per cent were small capitalists, and there is much rivalry with the Lebanese in business, they make obstacles. Also it is political; they do not give the refugees citizenship, you understand, because the main part of the refugees are Muslims and that would upset the balance here, where the Christians rule. I do not speak to you of the rich Palestinian refugees; they are richer than before, they are very happy.

WE WENT to pay the required visite de politesse to the camp leader. Every camp leader acts as an appointed village mayor; he has to keep the place running, serve as liaison officer with UNRWA local headquarters, and handle the complaints of his own people. Sitting in his neat office, with my guide, the principal of the school (a former member of the Palestinian police), and the camp leader, I listened to the first of what became an almost daily Mad Hatter conversation.

It went like this:

"The Arab countries invaded Israel in 1948 to save the Palestine Arabs from being massacred by the Jews."

"Were there massacres? Where?"

"Oh, yes, everywhere. Terrible, terrible."

"Then you must have lost many relatives and friends."

This, being a tiresome deduction from a previous statement, is brushed aside without comment.

"Israel overran the truce lines and stole our country. We left from fear. We have a right to our property, which brings in 47 million pounds a year in income. If we had our own money, we would need nothing from UNRWA. Our own money is much more. We do not have to be grateful for the little money spent on us. We should have our own."

"Then, of course, you want to return to your property and to Israel?"

"Not to Israel. Never to Israel. To our own country, to our own part."

"But didn't the Jews accept Partition, while the Palestine Arabs and the Arab governments refused?"

"Yes, yes. And England protected the Jews. An Arab was arrested if he carried a pistol only to defend himself, but Jews could go through the streets in tanks and nothing happened to them. Also, England told the Arab states to attack Israel."

The principal of the school then spoke up. "In our school, we teach the children from their first year about their country and how it was stolen from them. I tell my son of seven. You will see: one day a man of eighty and a child so high, all, all will go home with arms in their hands and take back their country by force."

On this warlike note, we left. My guide had seemed a sober contented fellow until our little meeting, whereupon he sounded like a politician running recklessly for office. He then astonished me again.

"It can all be solved with money," he said. "Now the people have nothing in their mouths but words, so they talk. Money fills the mouth too. If every man got a thousand dollars for each member of his family, for compensation to have lost his country, and he could be a citizen in any Arab country he likes, he would not think of Palestine any more. Then he could start a new life and be rich and happy. And those who really do own something in Palestine must be paid for what they had there. But those are not many. Most had nothing, only work."

HIGH on a mountaintop, with a down-sweeping view of orange groves and the satin blue of the Mediterranean, is a small Muslim camp named Mia Mia. Here one whole Palestinian village, amongst others, had landed; they came from a mountaintop in Galilee, a place called Meron. Their headman, or village leader, the Muktar, plied us with Coca-Cola and Turkish coffee in his exile's parlor. He is a beautiful man, perhaps sixty-five years old, lean, with exquisite manners. He wore the handsome white Arab headdress, held in place by the usual black double-corded crown; he was dressed in a well-preserved cream silk jacket, a white silk shirt, pressed gray flannel trousers, polished Italianate black shoes.

Whilst we sucked Coca-Cola through straws and studied his son's pitifully bad but lovingly executed paintings—a portrait of Nasser; Christ and the Virgin—the Muktar talked. Seventeen people of his village were massacred, which was why they fled, but an old blind woman of 104 was left behind and the Jews poured kerosene over her and burned her alive. How did they know, if they had all fled? Well, then the Jews went away and some villagers crept back and found her, and besides, the United Nations Truce Commission also found her.

My guide looked embarrassed. The Truce Commission was a shaky point. It was a strain to believe that the UN military observers, occupied with armies and frontiers, would have had time to investigate each atrocity story in the country. I wondered where the families of the massacred and the cremated were; everyone knows everyone else in a village, surely the surviving relatives were the best witnesses.

"I could tell you many such stories," said the Muktar.

"I am sure of it," said I. "But please tell me about Meron."

So I heard of Meron, their beautiful stone houses, their lovely, groves, their spacious and happy life in Eden; all lost now. I could readily imagine this aristocrat living in a palace on a mountaintop and decided that I would later go and see his home; but for the moment I accepted a rose from him, and we set off to pay calls in the camp.

A woman of forty or so, with a face like the best and juiciest apple, and lively eyes, seized me and hauled me into her house. She began, with gestures, to deliver an oration. She touched the ceiling with contempt, pulling bits away; she called upon heaven to witness her misery. Her voice soared and fell in glorious rhythms. She loved doing it and I loved watching it. In mutual delight, we smiled more and more as the tale of woe unfolded, until she could keep it up no longer, burst into roars of laughter, and kissed me copiously. My guide seemed unduly glum about all this, perhaps because this day we were three; a European UNRWA official had joined us.

"She is a big liar," said my guide, when we had left her house. "She lies as she breathes. We gave her all the material for a new roof. She sold it. She is so poor that she is going to make a pilgrimage to Mecca this year. She does not have to make a pilgrimage. Do you know what that costs? One thousand pounds."

In Lebanese money, this amounts to about $350 -- a fortune.

"Oh, she is a terrible bad one."

"I loved her," I said. "She's one of my favorite types of people in the world. A really jolly open crook. I hope she has a wonderful time at Mecca."

"But we have to fix her roof anyhow," said the UNRWA official.

In our suite of followers, I had noticed a tall boy of sixteen or seventeen, with fine intelligent eyes, a happy face, and a fresh white shirt. I spoke to him in English, and he understood; I asked whether we could visit his family. His house was no larger than any other, but clean, peaceful, and touching, with orderly furniture and picture post cards tacked to the walls. His mother was blind from cataract, and his grandmother seemed older than time, of a generation so old that she had tattoo marks on her cheeks.

The boy had graduated from high school and now worked as manager of the food distribution center in the big camp (14,000 inhabitants) on the plain below. He must have been very competent and very reliable to merit this job. He hoped to become a TV-radio engineer. He did not speak of Palestine. There was work he wanted to do, wherever a man could do such work. UNRWA is now building a vocational training school in Lebanon; it should be open in the autumn. With any luck, this boy will learn the technical skill he so desires and make his own life independent of anyone's charity.

We heard shrill painful child's crying and went toward the sound. A child of about two was tied by the ankle to a chair, howling the same word over and over. A younger child was silently trying to hold its body up, clinging to the arm of another chair. On a clean mat, on a clean little sheet, a baby twisted its body restlessly, but its legs lay still. All three were remarkably good-looking, all seemingly husky and well formed.

The camp leader carried on a short barking exchange with their young mother and reported: "She is twenty-five. None of the children can move their legs; the legs will not hold them. The child is tied because he can pull himself out of the house and get hurt. She says, please, will you help her?"

Speaking French to the UNRWA official, because no one else there knew the language, I said, "She can easily have five or six more children like this. It is terrible for her. The visiting nurse ought to explain about birth control."

"You don't know what you're saying. UNRWA could not touch such a thing, not even mention it. Here are these people, and the name of their country does not exist on the map any more. If we start teaching them birth control, we will be accused of trying to wipe out the people too. Besides, the men would never allow it. They want to have a lot of sons; it is a matter of pride with them. And politics enters too, as into everything; I've heard them say it. We need to have many children and grow and increase so that the world will never forget us."

"They're doing well, from what I've seen."

"About 30,000 babies a year."

The camp leader, escorting us to our car, remarked that no one here had any work. He delivered a short speech in English; he was a very nice, gentle man. "All the men do is sit in café and suffer, suffer. A young man sees time running, running, and he gets old with no years. If I did not got my land to hope for, I lose my brains."

On our way to Beirut, the UNRWA official said, "Eighty per cent of the men in that camp work. It's quite a prosperous little camp."

"Do they lie just for the fun of it?" It had been a long day.

"Well, it's natural in front of us. If they earn too much, they are taken off the ration lists. If they earn above a certain amount, they aren't eligible for the services. Free medicine and doctoring and schooling. So, obviously they, don't want us to know."

"Like non-refugees with the income tax collectors?"

"That's it."

"Do you know what they are earning?"

"Not really. How could we? Of course, if anyone has regular employment, we eventually learn of it and cut down the rolls."

The refugees, in camps as well as outside of camps, do find work of some sort; otherwise, on 1500 calories a day, they would soon become and look like a severely undernourished, sickly group UNRWA's health statistics can be relied on; they know how many refugees use their medical services and for what reason and with what results. The standard of health is unusually high and is one of UNRWA's finest achievements.

On the plain below Mia Mia, the land is green with citrus groves, banana plantations, where nothing grew before. This is the work of refugees; someone should be very grateful to them. Refugees who were city dwellers in Palestine gravitate to city work: taxi drivers, employees, merchants. No matter what official attitudes are, all of these people tend to seek their own previous level, under the universal refugee handicap of starting from scratch, of being exploitable, and in competition with established locals. Besides, they are living in a part of the world where poverty is an endemic disease and it is hard for anyone to make a good living, unless you are born into a silver-spoon family.

Out of the blue, my guide announced: "There is no crime in the camps. No thefts, no fires, no blood feuds. It is much better than it was in Palestine. They know they are all brothers in refuge. There were a few murders some time ago; someone raping, something like that. It is natural. But no crime."

And this is true. In all the camps. Exile has taught one valuable lesson: how to live peacefully and lawfully together.

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