Breaking through the wall
Neighbours: A series of seven stories
Wherever we are in the world – home or away, in the place we were born or somewhere else – there will always be someone next door. A neighbour, a person living by our side. We may differ in manners and ideas of how things should be done, but we will remain closely connected – because borders and walls, bushes and fences from metal or wood, connect us more than keep us apart.
Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the others by olive, orange and wheat fields, may have complicated, if not outright thorny, official relations with its neighbours today. But the relationships nurtured by people are different. By their very essence they traverse borders, and connect what is on one side with the other.
There is also a distinct neighbourly culture within Lebanon, which connects people living in the same street or building: a culture of chatting, sharing and helping one another. Some might argue that this is fading away with time; that close neighbourly relations are something of the past. Either way, there seems to be an inherent nostalgia associated with the concept of neighbours, and we are interested in finding out its current relevance.
The seven stories in this series on Neighbours, all written or produced by former participants to our workshops on journalism and writing, set out to do that.
First out is the tender memory of Sarah Khazem of early morning rituals with a temporary next-door neighbour; following that is Abby Sewell’s conversations with Syrian activists on the revolutionary events in Lebanon. Layla Yammine’s meeting with an antiques dealer in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood comes third; fourth is Andrea Olea’s notes of kitchen conversations with two Palestinian friends.
Hamoud Mjeidel then takes us to the families residing in Umm Ali’s building in Shatila, and Ghadir Hamadi invites us to hear her family history spanning Lebanon and the Gulf. Rayan Sukkar and Samih Mahmoud, finally, brings us voices from those who may be considered neighbours of the ongoing Lebanese uprising.
When the second intifada broke out in Palestine in 2000, Nida Yousef was still a child. Yet, she remembers it as if it was yesterday. A five-year old; half amazed half terrified, glued to the television screen showing protests, fighting and gunfire.
The effects of that popular uprising continued to resound for years in the streets of the West Bank. Nida has vivid memories of herself as a kid, tirelessly playing the fedayeen-soldiers game. Or of the day when an Israeli helicopter passed over the heads of her and her friends, who chased after it shouting “Out! Out!” until her throat was dry, her legs exhausted and her heart pumping, about to explode.
Less than 100 kilometers away, perhaps only a few days (or was it weeks) apart, Iman Al Burbar’s heartbeats marched at the same speed, as she played hide-and-seek with the Israeli army in Shujaaya in Gaza, a place of regular confrontations in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She lived there until the age of six.
At 11, Nida left Ramallah to spend several years in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while Iman’s family moved twice to different areas in Gaza, looking for a safer place to stay. Both were raised by single mums – courageous women – and were exemplary students who later on decided to study law, then began working at the university, eventually specialising in human rights.
The lives of the two girls have run strangely in parallel, just like railways.
The lives of the two girls have run strangely in parallel, just like railways. But they would never have crossed paths had it not been for a moment of happenstance, a twist of fate: they both chose Lebanon as the place to continue their studies. The moment they met in Beirut, they looked at each other, smiled, and have not been apart since.
This third country and temporary host, which played a vital role in the lives of these daughters of a fragmented nation, is home to some 175,000 Palestinian descendants of the Naqba. As a point of transit, Lebanon has allowed Nida and Iman, just like many more neighbours condemned to never meet, to become friends.
I got to know them at university, around the same time that they first met one another. Except for their huge warm smiles, they were like day and night. Nida has a secular mindset, Iman is more focused on tradition and faith; the former is calm and reflective, the latter excitable and mercurial. Yet the complicity between the two could be spotted from miles away.
As a point of transit, Lebanon has allowed Nida and Iman, just like many more neighbours condemned to never meet, to become friends.
On a calm, sunny November afternoon in Beirut, in the midst of the turmoil and protests that have been shaking the tiny Mediterranean country for over four months now, they told me about their lives and dreams, and what divides and brings them together.
“My whole life is an adventure – I’m from Gaza,” Iman laughs as she finishes serving us coffee in the kitchen of her house in the Ras Al Nabaa neighbourhood of Beirut. Iman, like Nida, came to Lebanon to study for a master’s degree in democracy and human rights. Both consider it a small miracle that they, as Palestinians, were granted a visa. “It looked impossible to me,” Iman says.
The 24-year-old had never left Gaza before, except for a short study trip. She was born and lived all of her life on the strip sieged by Israel for as long as she can remember. At her side, Nida nods sympathetically. She can relate. Nida, 25, is originally from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, and although she moved to Jordan and later to Dubai (where she would spend several years before returning to her hometown for university) with her mother and younger brother, she keeps fresh memories of her early years in Palestine.
Both consider it a small miracle that they, as Palestinians, were granted a visa.
Together, their ages do not add up to half a century, yet between them, they have lived through three wars, one intifada and years of blockades and occupation. Their childhoods, they explain, have been indelibly stained by the conflict.
“Ramallah is surrounded by mountains. and when I was a kid, my friends and I used to go out into the wild. The game was almost always the same: soldiers and fedayeen. How to hide from the army, how to attack. How to be ‘the resistance’. We made slingshots, that revolutionary tool, from branches of trees,” Nida explains jokingly.
“I think we were both good at throwing stones,” Iman says in a new outburst of laughter. Shujaya, where she lived until the age of six, saw endless confrontations between the army and the Palestinian resistance. Aiming at soldiers with rocks was the local sport; attending martyrs’ funerals a weekly activity like any other.
Shortly after her father’s death, and in the face of growing tensions in the area, Iman moved with her mother and two brothers to Al Zahraa, a town only meters away from the Netzarim settlement. From her window she could see Israeli tanks protecting the colony facing her building. “Every time they perceived any movement as unusual, they would just shoot. The façade was full of bullet holes,” she recalls.
“I got my grades in the middle of the war, and all I wanted was to cry.”
Revisiting memories together invites a shared reflection on the normalisation of violence. “It was normal for us. But how could it be considered normal to live with guys under your window pointing tanks at you?” Iman says.
Nida remembers the time Israeli soldiers entered the house in the middle of the night and took her father away. The worst, she says, is that this experience is shared by so many Palestinians. “They break into your house as they break into your country,” she says. “They occupied every part of our lives, even our childhood was occupied by them.”
Just like Nida’s early years were marked by occupation, Iman’s were by war. First in 2008, then in 2012, later in 2014. And with every outbreak: devastation, lost lives, broken dreams. In 2014, she had just graduated from high school. “I got the best results in my city,” she says. “I had dreamed so long about that moment and how it would make my mother proud. I got my grades in the middle of the war, and all I wanted was to cry.”
Experiences like these stay with you – and sometimes it is not until you step outside that you discover just how much they create bonds. Although the two young women had never met before, their connection was immediate.
“I just felt comfortable with her, as if I knew her from before,” Iman says. “She is from Palestine.” Despite cultural or religious differences, they share a common heritage that creates a natural connection. “If Nida doesn’t attend class, I need to check in on her to make sure she’s ok. We have a mutual responsibility towards each other.”
“We have a mutual responsibility towards each other.”
Something similar happens to Nida. “When we first started talking, I realised that she’s a very emotional yet courageous person,” she recalls. “Although we don’t share the same ideas and have different backgrounds, she’s a part of me. I need to protect her somehow. Like she’s my other shape of Palestine.”
A house divided
The encounter between two people from the same nation is usually a nondescript event. Not in this case. At its narrowest point, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are barely 40 kilometres apart. But the myriad of checkpoints, settlements and needless administrative restrictions make movement from one side to the other – and in the case of the West Bank, within it – limited and laborious, sometimes impossible. Visiting a friend or a relative on the other side becomes an odyssey.
Visiting a friend or a relative on the other side becomes an odyssey.
For Iman this is a blatant, painful and constant reality. Thanks to her excellent grades, she obtained a scholarship to study at Birzeit University near Ramallah, the same as Nida. But she was never able to go: the Israeli authorities denied her permission. A good friend of hers has cancer and is being treated in the occupied territories; she hasn’t been able to see her in two years.
The “protective” wall erected by Israel has also given way to invisible schisms between the two Palestinian communities. Both feel that they don’t know enough about what happens on the other side, and this increasingly tears them apart. Silences and misunderstandings, and with each new war, more division.
“I find it painful when I speak to people from Gaza online – how else than online? – and see that they have become so protective of their Gazan, not Palestinian, identity,” Nida says, saddened that the physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank keeps invading their shared vision of Palestinian identity. She believes that Gazans increasingly invest in their local identity.
Iman gets her point, she says, but regrets that “some people from the West Bank make Gaza their issue, while they are not suffering the way we do. It’s just hard for us.”
“I’m not blaming you guys. Gaza suffered a lot, maybe more than us, because you had to endure the actual war,” Nida says. “We are under occupation and face many difficulties in our daily lives but it’s not the same. Yet, we shouldn’t compete on which pain is worse.”
Despite having met wonderful people there, prejudices, they say, come too often in Lebanon.
More than a decade after the two main Palestinian political factions broke ties, division has come to distinguish the struggle for emancipation. “And the problem is not only Israel. Fatah and Hamas also capitalise on the cause and use it to serve their own interests,” Nida says.
Knocking down the wall
As for their temporary host country, both entertain a somewhat conflictual relationship: despite having met wonderful people there, prejudices, they say, come too often in Lebanon. Some taxi drivers grimace when learning about their nationality. Other well intentioned persons recommend them to say that their accent is Jordanian rather than Palestinian. “Every time I’m abroad, I feel that I need to scream out my ‘Palestinian-ness’ and let others know about our fight. Here I felt that I couldn’t act like that”, Nida says. “You tell people you’re Palestinian and the expression on their face change”.
“That’s because they assume you’re a Palestinian refugee,” Iman replies.
“Another categorisation. I’m tired of being labeled and divided,” Nida regrets.
Both Nida and Iman are part of a generation of young Palestinians trying to make their way through violence, siege and occupation, struggling to knock down the walls imposed between them.
“Another categorisation. I’m tired of being labeled and divided.”
Freshly arrived in Lebanon, the ongoing “thawra” (revolution) caught them – like everyone else – unprepared, and made them reflect on the situation in their own country. “I think the youth here [in Lebanon] is different [just like the youth in Palestine]. They saw the suffering of their elders and want something different. And it’s beautiful to see this unity,” Nida says.
The current fight in Lebanon is somehow similar to what Iman and Nida struggle against in Palestine: the fracturing of their homeland. Before they were strangers; now, they hope that common memories shared in Beirut will maintain their friendship and help others see how differences can be overcome. Even if – once back home – the two neighbours might not be able to see each other again.
Neighbours was produced as part of the 2019-2020 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Ismaël Abdallah.