art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Samar Hazboun On Living And Working Under Occupation.

samar1/Before The Wall, image © Samar Hazboun/

Born in Jerusalem and raised in the West Bank, Samar Hazboun, who uses photography as a tool to tell stories, first explored photography while pursuing a degree in International Relations in Prague. I first got to know her through her wonderful project Palestinian Women and after that tried to follow the work she did throughout the years.

Most of her projects have focused on women’s rights, particularly in the Middle East. As she says it herself, her authentic interest in political expression through art and her personal relationship with the Palestinian case has led her to successfully fuse subject matter and medium into a budding practice of photojournalism. Many of us who follow her work are thrilled she managed to do that.

I was lucky enough to catch Samar this month,  establishing a virtual relationship between Zagreb and Jerusalem – we’ve talked about her inspiration, life under the occupation, and joys and sorrows of the work she does. With her honest smile and wise insights, Samar proved to be exactly the kind of person I would imagine behind the work she creates – the work which is always filled with depth, thought and empathy.

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How did you start taking photos, what inspired you to take the camera and make it your world?

I was born and raised in Palestine, and then went to study abroad. I wanted to study photography, but my parents weren’t really encouraging for fear of not being able to earn a living with it. So, I didn’t study photography and I am actually happy I didn’t. I still ended up doing photography in my free time. For me, it began as a healing journey. I was very depressed and had a lot of emotions I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Growing up in Palestine, under the occupation and witnessing its violence, had a lot to do with it. I had a lot of stress, tension, and I began isolating myself a lot. Somehow, when I got a digital camera, I started taking self-portraits and photos of different things in the house, it was like a therapy. So that was when and how my relationship with photography was born.

Was there a moment, a photo or a project, that made you feel like what you are doing is important – not just to you, but also to other people? When you felt the power of it?

Because of how it all started, in the beginning I took a lot of self-portraits. I had my first solo exhibition in Jordan and there was a lot of people and media attending. That was one of the moments when it struck me – why are we doing this? Why are these people looking at the photos of me and my emotions? It’s not important. I felt kind of sad, because at the end of the day I am someone who has a good life, when you compare it to other people’s lives.

So I understood the power that photography gave me and I decided to use it in a different way, in a way to allow other people to express themselves and tell their stories. And really, for me storytelling is all I care about now with photography.

What was the first project you did after realizing that?

The first project I did was actually an experiment, I wanted to do something with people and see if I’d be able to actually do it. That’s how Palestinian Women came to life. I wanted to find answers answers to questions people often asked me. They often say to me “you don’t look like a Palestinian” or they ask me “what are Palestinian women like?”. Situations like that made me do that project.

I wanted to show how we are diverse as women, as human beings. You can’t really define a Palestinian woman, the same way you can’t define a Croatian woman. Your experience in life is what shapes you. So I started looking for women in Palestine, that are from all kinds of background and do all kinds of things. I’ve photographed a minister, a doctor, a footballer, a housewife, a circus performer…

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The project dealt with stereotypes about Palestinian women and Arab women in general. Do you think the situation has changed during the last couple of years when it comes to that? Are Palestinian and Arab women in the mainstream western media still presented in one–dimensional manner?

I think it has changed, Palestinian women have done really well lately. They’re present and vocal, they’re breaking taboos and stereotypes, being the teller of your own stories is really what changes the narrative. I really hope that the situation in the region doesn’t take away from that progress, that it won’t remove the focus from the positive things that are happening and exist in the region.

People who have never met Arab women have a certain idea about them, and it’s very tricky to talk about it without falling into stereotypes.  For me and for other artists dealing with such issues, we have to be very careful, because we don’t want to be looked at as something different, exotic, or victims even. We don’t want to be represented as one thing only. Yes, we live in a male dominated society, but I’ve lived in Europe and saw that that is not just an Arab issue, it’s a global problem for women.

One of the most important things for good photography is earning the trust of the people you are taking photos of. How did you manage that, is there a certain process you go through with people when you start a project, or do you find it different every  time?

I think it really depends on what you want to do, but I know that for me it goes really slowly, because I need the time, I want to take the time, and give the time to people. I don’t want to just come somewhere, take a photo and leave. I don’t know how to do that. When I do that, I’m never happy with the result. So, I really like to spend time with people, and the most time I’ve spent with people is when I did a project about women who were sexually abused…

That was the project Hush, right? Those are such delicate issues, and it is captured so well in your photos. Was it hard to get the women in shelters to open up to you, how was that experience?

I spent two months working on that project, the first month I was just going to the shelter without my camera. I was going there on a daily basis, spending six to seven hours with the women, just playing games, doing workshops, talking about everyday things, having them ask me questions too…

I created a sort of friendship and then, when I came back with my camera, it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t feel like I was taking something from them, it was a mutual relationship. They started telling me their stories without me even asking. So, yes, trust is very important.

And also – you really need to be genuine and interested in what you want to do, and in what people have to say. With Hush, the reason why I wanted to do it is because sexual violence is a big problem that nobody wants to talk about, in our society the honour of the family often depends on the woman and that is why it is such a sensitive issue.

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I was really tired of people not wanting to talk about this subject. The main thing for me was that these women are often blamed for the violence done to them, you know “it’s her fault” kind of a thing.  The project was a real challenge, it took me a year to get a permit to enter the women’s centre and I faced a lot of problems – some of the women who worked in the shelter didn’t want to do their shifts when I was there.

I needed to make sure I didn’t reveal anything about the location of the shelter, the architecture of it, and so on. A lot of challenges, but I managed it somehow.

How do you cope with all the challenges? For some projects, even in regular conditions,  it takes away so much time and energy, and in Palestine, under the occupation, I assume it’s much worse – due to all the restrictions and inability to plan things ahead. How do you manage to stay motivated, to keep on doing the work you do?

I think the main thing that I remind myself of is that it is a project, and not a product. At the end of the day, I know it is a project and it will take me a long time to finish it. And you have to come to terms with that because if you want to work on a project and finish it in a month or a week, I don’t think it is going to work, you might be disappointed. You have to have it in your mind that it is an ongoing thing, a learning experience.

For example, I did a project Beyond Checkpoints, about Palestinian women who were forced to give birth on Israeli checkpoints. With this project it was even more challenging because I was trying to portray a story that was from the past, something that already happened, but there was very little visual evidence left from these crimes. I had to travel long distances around Palestine to find women and manage everything. When I think about that, I don’t know how I manage to continue and motivate myself…

Believe me, sometimes I just sit and cry, but then I get up and continue because I love the challenge. With every project that I’ve done I didn’t feel like I am repeating somebody’s work, I felt like I was doing something new, like I was paving the way. It’s like learning to walk, you need to fall many times to find your balance and do it properly.

Women are often in the focus of your projects. They are also in the focus of the project Before the wall. Could you tell me more about that project and do you think some of these generations will also live to be the in the phase without the wall?

I really hope they can be the people living without the wall, I hope we will witness the fall of the wall in the near future. Before the wall was an answer to this situation where the wall was presented as a sort of indifferent thing – nobody really knows why it is there, nobody understands what it really does to people.

I felt intimidated by the way all of this was presented and I thought to myself – ok, the wall is here and the people who are supposedly the terrorists, which the wall prevents from moving from one side to another – are also here, so I might as well put them in front of the wall and photograph them.

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I wanted to show how it is really sad because this was the last generation of people before the wall was closed off completely, built. I wanted them to be dressed as plain as possible to show the contrast between them and the wall, to show how small and fragile they are against the wall. All the people affected by the wall are regular civilians, going about their daily lives, and the wall prevents them from doing that.

The wall is just one of the horrible aspects of the occupation. The other aspect you’ve dealt with in your work are Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel, shown in your project Detained: Confessions of Palestinian Children. How big of an issue is this in Palestine and how hard it was to talk to children about their experiences?

I was really surprised when I did this project – that there were so many children imprisoned by Israel. I thought it was going to be hard to find them, but there are so many of them! The hardest thing was getting them to open up about their experiences, there were many who couldn’t talk about it, children who were so traumatised by what had happened to them that at the age of ten or twelve they would still wet their beds and would not be able to speak properly. Children who isolated themselves, had nightmares…etc.

Many of the children I met weren’t included in the project. They simply couldn’t talk about what had happened to them. You can’t force somebody into telling their story if they are not comfortable or confident about it, or if you feel like it might traumatise them even more. So I didn’t push, I let it go. Although many of these stories were not in the project in the end, they were still an important part of my experience.

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In connection to that, could you tell me what are the worst things occupation brings to your everyday life, emotional states it evokes? How would you summarize it, what would you share as a message to people – about occupation and the state Palestinian people live in?

To be honest, I feel sorry for the occupier. They will wake up one day, when it is already too late, and realize that what they’ve done is beyond destroy other people’s lives. I can’t imagine myself being a soldier or a person who’s occupying another person, or someone who took somebody else’s house, or kicked the family out of their land, or burned somebody’s trees.

At one point Israel and its people will wake up to question their actions and it will be an ugly feeling. Palestinian people will live and they will survive, we’ve been through a lot. In the end we are the ones who suffer the injustice, and not the ones doing the injustice – and I think that is something that with time will be even more clear to the outside world.

Is there any sort of a cooperation that you did with Israeli artists and photographers, is there a dialogue on that level?

I don’t think these things are as beneficial as they might seem, at least at this point. It’s hard to work on projects when we are not equals. Some things need to change before that happens.

I am always fascinated by the Israeli society – nowadays, when you have internet, when it is easy to be informed and get more sources of information, you would expect them, and that would be my dream, to just take the hammers and tanks and destroy the wall. You would expect them to say – enough with this bullshit, we don’t want this anymore.

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Could you tell me something about your inspiration – when it comes to Palestinian artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers? Is there anybody you really love and get your inspiration from?

That’s interesting. I love a lot of filmmakers and authors, and we have a great art scene growing constantly. But my inspiration always comes from the people I meet doing my projects, people with everyday struggles, people who barely survive but still keep on doing it.

People I met while working on my projects are really my biggest inspiration because they went through so much. I now started working on a project with the Syrian refugees and that has been so important to me, life-changing and inspirational. I was in houses of people that have no water, no furniture, nothing to offer me to drink, yet their generosity is beyond descriptiom.

These are the moments that change you and make you look at your life in a different way. And that is essential – the way your work reflects on you, and how it makes you more emphatic.

I actually wanted to ask you what you are working on at the moment, so tell me more about that project, it sounds really intimate and important to you, but it could also be important to many people, especially with all of what Syrian and other refugees face today.

I’ve received a grant from the Prince Claus Foundation, the grant is called Culture in defiance. My project is called Past preserved. I’m meeting with Syrian refugees who fled the war and we’re trying to recreate  the photos they’ve lost and preserve the memories they have from their past.

All of them left Syria without any photographs and the main idea is to find an object that holds a memory very dear to the person and also to photograph them the way they would like to be photographed, not as refugees.

At one point they were like you and me, and yes – at this moment they are refugees, but they are also much more than that, and they deserve to be seen as who they are, not as who the war has made them.

//all photos © Samar Hazboun//

For more on Samar’s work, visit her official website.

• • •

P.S. Happy New Year! ♡

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Option Of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees.

ira8/photo © Gabriela Bulisova/

There is something special about Gabriela Bulisova’s photography. She documents wars, conflicts, exiles. Her subjects go through tragedies, they are extremely vulnerable and extremely powerful at the same time. Like the countries they come from, they are war-torn. Like the countries they come from, there’s more to them than just war.

The great thing about Bulisova’s photography is that she manages to capture the internal struggle – longing, desperation, sadness, void. It’s in the faces and movements of the people she portrays, but also in everything around them – light and the absence of light, unclear lines, shadows.

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In her series The Option of Last Resort Bulisova follows the stories of Iraqi refugees in United States. Why such a name for the project? For people who seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees.

“The masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride, the future of Iraq. Many of them, stigmatized by unforgettable violence, will never return to their homes”, Bulisova writes.

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Many of these refugees dreamed of America as a promised land, but the reality turned out to be very different from that. Once in the United States, they encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America.

“Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and risked their lives for; many are unemployed and facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and the safety of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names”, Bulisova writes.

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“I want to feel like a human being again” is a sentence you can hear refugees repeating. It made me think of so many other refugee and exile stories – captured in stories, poems, novels. The same thought is present in all of them. Human being. To feel like a human being.

But for many – it just doesn’t seem to happen. There are no changes. They are, like Nadia Anjuman wrote – “lost in a sea of darkness, emptied of the thought of time, that eternal pit”. They are asking, like Mahmoud Darwish asked – “are we to remain like this, moving to the outside, in this orange day, only to touch the dark and vague inside?”

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In 2015, the escalation of armed conflict across the central governorates of Iraq, and the constantly changing security situation, resulted in new and secondary movements of internally displaced people across central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

UNHCR reports that newly displaced people in Iraq find their limited financial resources quickly depleted by the increasing costs of accommodation and basic foods. The number of Iraqis seeking refuge in other countries is still rising and it will not stop, atleast not considering the (political) solutions we have so far.

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It makes me think of Riverbend, again and again. “In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t.

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, ‘Things will improve immediately.’ The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, ‘Things won’t improve for at least five years. And the pessimists? The pessimists said, ‘It will take ten years. It will take a decade'”, she wrote in 2013.

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Years went by, more than a decade passed. Iraq Body Count still counts the bodies, they still have a lot of work to do. The website says: Tuesday, 29 December: 36 killed. Monday, 28 December: 65 killed (30 children executed in Qayyarah).

Civilian deaths are almost doubling every year. What will the new year bring us? What will we bring to it? What will we do with all the possibilities? Can we make people feel like human beings again?

//all photos © Gabriela Bulisova//

For more on this and her other projects, visit Bulisova’s official website.

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art of resistance, Syria

The Book To Read: A Hand Full Of Stars.

Rafik_Schami/Rafik Schami, photo by Andreas Pohlmann/

First of all, I have to say that I am so happy I discovered Rafik Schami and Syria through his eyes. A Hand Full of Stars (published in 1987) is a book about a teenage boy who wants to be a journalist. The book is actually his diary, in which he describes daily life in his hometown of Damascus.

Inspired by his dearest friend, old Uncle Salim (a man whose great love for telling stories reminded me of another uncle – Uncle Jihad from Alameddine’s Hakawati), he begins to write down his thoughts and impressions of family, friends, life at school, political situation in Syria, working in his father’s bakery and his growing feelings for his girlfriend, Nadia.

With time, the diary becomes more than just a way to remember the daily adventures; on its pages he explores his frustration with the government injustices he witnesses. His courage and ingenuity finally find an outlet when he and his friends begin a subversive underground newspaper.

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Born in Syria in 1946, Schami is the son of a baker from a Syriac Christian family. Much of the story in A Hand Full of Stars seems autobiographical. From 1964 to 1970 he was the co-founder and editor of the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalak (The Starting-Point) in the old quarter of Damascus.

Like his main character in A Hand Full of Stars, he faced regime’s oppression on daily basis. In 1970, he left Syria for Lebanon to evade censorship and the military draft, and the following year he moved to Germany, where he still lives today.

Storytelling and writing books remain one of his biggest passions. A Hand Full of Stars is a simple and sweet book. In all its simplicity it manages to make you happy, angry, sad, but most of all – aware and hopeful.

I love that it’s an obligatory read in some elementary schools in Croatia (which was also a discovery to me, since I didn’t encounter it during my formal education years).

It is a great way to inform children and young people about other societies (in this case oppression and political instability in Syria), but also help them discover the beauty and diversity of different cultures – Schami’s Damascus is a great window into that.

And maybe the most important thing – it teaches children (and all of us adults – because everyone should read it) about compassion and solidarity, about the little ways we can help each other and help our society. It tells us that being kind and corageus in small, everyday situations, actually goes a long way.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

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art of resistance

Playlist: Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

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Here’s a true gem. It is the traditional music (isswat) of the Adrar D’Ifoghas in Northern Mali (and broader Sahara region), and the soul of it is brought to us in the voice of the lovely Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud. This is her debut recording, a local production from 2008.

Isswat is the music of the night – it’s when the young people sneak off, meet up and make sweet music. The music of is characterized by the sigadah, the low humming of the men, which provides a bass, and the woman who will sing the melody.

It’s also an opportunity for the youth to meet and flirt, and in the periphery of the performance, it often happens that the young boys and girls whisper to one another. Playing and singing takes them to another level – the rhythms and hand claps punctuate the meditative hypnosis.

Enjoy the music of isswat through the music of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

Previous Playlist:

Khebez Dawle

Checkpoint 303 – The Iqrit Files

Mashrou’ Leila – Straight from Beirut

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art of resistance, Syria

(Interview) All That’s Left Is Women Wearing Black.

_alice_pasquini_syrian_protest-women/image © Alice Pasquini, Syrian Protest Women/

I met Aida Baghdadi* in Beirut, at a conference we were both attending. She was one of the first people I noticed, standing confident, with long beautiful hair and determined look in her eyes. Baghdadi is a feminist, a lawyer working with Syrian political prisoners and abused women in refugee camps and shelters. She is well educated, passionate and strong.

I can see it in her face, the way she talks, how excited she gets when we discuss the situation in Syria and possibilites for a change. It is not easy developing civil society under the regime’s ever-present watch, but she and her fellow activists already got used to it – they meet in private apartments, basements, and sometimes – in other countries, like here, in Lebanon.

I tried to catch her to take away some time from her busy schedule and managed to spend some hours talking to her last couple of days. She tells me she has been a lawyer since 2007, and is working for the Equal Citizenship Center in Damascus.

“We work on many things, like the projects with EFI Initiative, but also different workshops and trainings. We try to educate people in Syria, talk to them about international and human rights, and build a new base, a platform for civil society. I provide legal opinion and also defend people, primarily women, in courts, informing and empowering them, to know about their rights and ask and fight for their rights”, Aida tells me.

Her eyes are fixed on an inivisible point ahead of her, like she’s remembering all the people she works with and trying to bring them to life in our conversation. She tells me how it is particularly hard to work in refugee camps inside Syria, because there’s often wrong information from the regime about the number of camps and people in them.

Women have it really hard, they are not only exposed to violence, but also discrimination in laws and the constitution. For human rights organisations it is hard to do any activity at all, human rights and women’s rights remain unimportant issues under the regime’s control or/and under the control of armed Islamist groups.

“That is what we really want to change – our laws and our constitution, because they are the basis of our society. We are working on new, better laws, for men and for women. I hope we’ll get a chance to implement them one day”, Aida explains to me.

She describes how some places in Syria have left women totally deseperate: “Women are the biggest losers of this war, and all wars, I think. Young men die, or they fight or  leave the country, all that is left in some places now are women wearing black. These are women that lost their children, their husbands, women who try to do anything, work were they can and how they can – to survive and provide for themselves”.

She explains how these issues demand changes on all levels. Her association is focused on the separation of the religion from the state – secularism and democracy, and in relation to that they work hard to introduce the concept of citizenship to Syrian people. I aks her about cooperation with religious leaders, and her answer begins with a deep sigh. “Cooperation with the religious leaders is almost impossible, it doesn’t exist. It is because they don’t want to change the situation, this is good for them, it is an envinronment in which they prosper”, she tells me.

Regime already arrested some of the people from her team, but she was lucky so far. Still, there is a constant fear that haunts her. “I am scared every time I am giving a passport at the border control – I might get arrested and just disappear and nobody will know what happened to me”, she explains.

The situation is the same for a lot of activists in Syria, and many of them are in even worse situations – at risk of arrest and murder cover-ups, not just by the regime but by Islamist groups. Comparing life in Syria now and before, she insists that good life for all people was never a reality, good life was a reality only for people with special connections, religious background, or lots of money.

She asks how it is possible that during the last ten years of Assad’s rule there were outside impressions that the economic situation is good, when there were more than two milion people below the poverty line. Talking about economy, she reflects on the economic sanctions EU imposed on Syria.

“Those sanctions did nothing to hurt the regime, it was left standing strong, because it has found other resources. But sanctions did have an impact on regular people, the poverty spread out, people were suffering, in many hospitals there was no medicines. There was a big pressure on  people in their everyday life, it’s hard to even imagine how some of them managed to survive”, Aida tells me.

She tinks that the control and support of individuals, certain groups and privileged parts of society, is what saved the regime all these years. When mentioning Daesh, she says Assad is to blame because dictators bring problems, they allow the space in which terrorism is born, and that is when the money flows in and weapons flow in.

“Daesh is a complicated web, a lot of foreigners fight for Daesh, they have good financing and, among other things,  they control a substantial amount of oil. But, you know, I don’t think it is the main problem. Keep in mind that many of their supporters are recruited from the outside, so if there is a real intention to get rid of them, it could be done.

But why is that not happening? Let’s start from 2011, when the revolution started. People went out to the streets, and the regime sent the army on the streets. As time moved on, we realized that there are rebels and radicals provided with money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and citizens who really wanted changes found themselves between them and the regime, between two evils, two fires.

And now all of these countries joined in – Iran, Russia, Turkey, US, France – all of them with their particular interests in Syria. US and Russia mainly kill civilians with their strikes, they barely did any harm to Daesh. All of these interests are what frightens me. Even when the war ends, there is a possibility that Daesh will stay, less powerful but present, like a destabilizing factor many are counting on, like a match that can be lit up when necessary.

And all of this war, it’s all profit for the military–industrial complex, and it’s a profit many our counting on and will not be willing to let go of it. It’s also about showing off power and establishing power relations between countries, so – we have to consider so many things and not look at one thing isolated, like Daesh”, Aida explains.

She compares the situation with Iraq, saying both countries have a lot in common and might go through the same process – Syria could also have decades of instability and crippling conflicts, even after the war ends. She thinks political solutions might solve the war, but they will not heal the country, and the big question is – what will remain off the country after the war.

When talking about healing the country, she emphasizes on the issue of political prisoners Syria had  for many decades (and still has), and the massacre in Hama (1982) that is still unresolved. “Hama is important in the collective memory of the Syrian people, taking responsibility for the massacre is an important step in moving forward in our future”, she says.

In her work, she met many political prisoners. It made her realize that many people no longer find meaning in life in Syria, they feel completely helpless, and it pushes them to the edge.  “Some of them may have done some bad things, but you realize that in many cases they actually had no way out, their choice was total blackness, no matter where they turn. When you realize that, it just breaks you”, she tells me, her voice quavering. It’s hard for her to talk about all this without getting emotional.

She tells me about her friend’s husband, Bassel Safadi, a prisoner who was held captive for three years. His wife Noura knew where he was and she could visit him from time to time, but almost three months ago “somebody” came to the prison and took him away – nobody knows where he is now.  His wife was told only that he was deleted from the list of prisoners in the prison in which he was before.

waiting/Waiting by Noura Ghazi Safadi/

She and Bassel’s friends started a petition, wrote to the UN, made hashtag #freeBassel and a facebook page, in order to put pressure on the Syrian government to get an answer about his disappearance, but all efforts have so far been unsuccessful. Bassels’s wife Noura, human rights lawyer, is still relentlessly searching for answers. During the waiting period she has written a wonderful book of poetry Waiting, in which she writes, lifting her voice and recording their love story and the story of Syria.

Aida continues explaining the situation: “People get taken away and you don’t know where they are… People are leaving the country, this is like a big fire that is spreading out, all over the country, with every new country involved and fighting in Syria. You can take a couple of years of war maybe, but more than that, I don’t know.

With every new year, it gets harder and harder. There’s only as much one can take. Civil society is losing people every day, and that is why it is important to work with the young people, but you cannot insist or ask of anyone to stay in the country. People’s lives are at stake, their future is at stake. You have to understand when they say that  they want to leave. That is why it is so important to stop this war”.

Her complaint is that nobody deals with the main issue, with the source of the problem. If Europe really has issues with the refugees, she says,  if they want to stop refugees from coming to Europe, they need to do one thing  and one thing mainly – stop the war. Syrian people will stay in their country, Syrian people will come back to their country – if there is future, Aida is sure about that.

Her special hope are the women – a lot of women, strong women, women that still have some resources and are engaging in civil society efforts, but also women who are unprotected, poor women without anything and anybody – those barely surviving, but still fighting.

She wants to continue studying international law and will go for an exchange programme to Italy to study for five months, and then come back to Syria and continue her work. Finishing our conversation, she takes a deep breath. We both have tears in our eyes.

“Time goes by, with every new hour and day more people die, their lives are destroyed… I don’t want to see anyone die, not ‘regular’ people and not the regime people. I just want to work and live without the constant fear, without thinking of me or my family going to prison or dying, I want to be able to think and talk about Syrian future without sadness”, Aida concludes.

*Name changed due to security issues

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This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Jungjin Lee: Unnamed Road.

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Unnamed Road is a book by Korean photographer Jungjin Lee, in which she approaches the territories of Israel and the West Bank by turning to the landscape. After reading Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks , Unnamed Road was a book that allowed me to continue the journey – this time by looking, not reading.

Lee turns to the landscape in a similar way Shehadeh does. She explores spaces more than people. Her black-and-white images are self-contained worlds of stillness and wonder, as she searches for something constant in the life of the landscape.

Unnamed Road

Her approach is not documentary (atleast not primarily), it’s more like meditation – a search for the spiritual potential with(in) the landscape. In a way, that approach is a luxury international photographers (or people visiting the West Bank) can afford to have, because of their fresh relationship with the landscape.

For the locals, that relationship involves so much more, it is a burden in so many ways (Shehadeh writes about it very well). It becomes hard to enjoy it or just be present in the moment.

Unnamed Road

That being said, I still really like going through images in the Unnamed Road. Not just because they are a great work of art. I like it because it makes me think of a scenario in which some fundamental truths do not alter – even in the West Bank and the Occupied Territories. I like to picture it as true, as possible.

I like to imagine people (those who live there and those who come to visit) looking at the landscape, walking, breathing – just being present and nothing more. No burdens, no thinking, no fear. Just people and the land – pure, authentic, everlasting relationship.

Unnamed Road

Unnamed Road

Unnamed Road

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//all photos © Jungjin Lee//

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Shatila, Still An Open Wound.

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Just two weeks ago I visited Beirut, the city I’ve been waiting on for so long. Being there, my big wish was to explore Dahiyeh, the southern part of the city. I’ve realized it is an area totally separated from the rest of the city, an area in which the oppression and segregation of Shiites and Palestinians continues.

What really struck me was the visit to Shatila. I thought I was well prepared for it. After all, I did read all of those books and articles, I’ve listened to numerous lectures, watched movies… I knew what the world of Waltz with Bashir looked like, I knew the streets on which the characters of De Niro’s game were walking on, I knew all about the piles of bodies from the Gate of Sun, I knew about the dirt Beirut’s elite refused to see – like Lamia Ziadé wrote:

“But we still want to think that our country is the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all in one, and what’s more, we want to enjoy it. From the cafe terraces of Raouche or Ain Mreissels, where we sometimes go for a banana split, we can’t see the Shiite ghettoes or the Palestinian camps. And when we wear sunglasses we can’t spot all the dirt.”

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Well, atleast I thought I knew… Coming to Shatila made me realize that nothing can really prepare you for it. Most of the things we know about Shatila are connected to the massacre of Sabra and Shatila (1982) and the War of the camps (1984 – 1989). Since all of those events took part during the Lebanese civil war I think our brain tends to put them in the “past” department. But there is no “past” departments in Shatila, everything spills into present.

The most tragic thing is not that nobody was really brought to justice for the horrible crimes committed in Sabra and Shatila more than three decades ago, the most tragic thing is that people still live there – in refugee camps, in dirt, poverty and desperation.

I was standing on the place where the massacre was committed, a small area of orange and brown dirt, thinking how it wasn’t until recently that a small memorial plaque was put to commemorate the victims. It seemed so unfair – for this place to look so everyday like, to feel so ordinary, a patch of land close to a small building, where chickens and turkeys sometimes come out to have a walk.

But that is what also makes it symbolic on so many levels – this suffering that goes on, continues and deepens, but still goes somewhat unnoticed, still gets perceived as a normal state of things. That is what Palestinian people understand the best, hardly anybody can relate to it as much as they can – life of suffering continuously followed by ignorance, by status quo.

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In Shatila, more than twenty three thousands of people live in the area of one square kilometre. There are families of fifteen living in small room for years. Camp was built in 1949, and in the first years refugees lived in tents. In 1949 that piece of land was rented by UNRWA on a 99-year lease which proves it was known already at that point that the Palestinian refugees will stay outside Palestine for a long time.

In the 70’s, when many of the refugees lived in Shatila for more than twenty years, they started building first houses and small buildings. With time, people expanded the houses, doing it mostly themselves – which is a problem because the constructions in the camp are quite cheap and poorly made, and it feels like everything could just collapse one day. The very sad thing is that, if something like that happened, the world probably wouldn’t care.

I asked the translators that were with us in the camp if they had ever been in this part of the city before. They were Lebanese and lived in Beirut. They said this is their first time, adding that they hope it’s also the last.

In discarded Shatila, the view of the sky is prevented by the intricate web of electricity cabels, connecting all of the buildings and houses. Everybody is stealing electricity here, and a man recently died due to a dangerous encounter with the web of cables. But it’s nothing new here, people already got used to such stories.

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There are special educational issues in Shatila connected to the school in the camp, financed mainly by UNRWA. Lovely people from the Association Najdeh explained to me how every year there is a battle about the finances for the next school year and UNRWA claims they are not able to finance it anymore.

At the moment there are around fifty students in every class and next year there might be more – due to budget cuts. Activists from Najdeh tell me that the big shift happened after the Oslo Accords, when UNRWA decided to focus more on the West Bank, while the Palestinians in Lebanon were left almost forgotten.

Health service is also on the long list of the things not functioning well in Shatila. “Panadol for everything” is already a famous saying in the camp beacuse it illustrates the situation well. The only help people get is mainly connected to food – certain amounts of flour, rice, oil, gas. But there are almost no efforts to move beyond the relief phase.

There are also a lot of Syrian refugees in Shatila nowadays, but also some of the Lebanese refugees who arrived to the camp during the Civil war. At the moment, there is still around one thousand people in the camp who have been there since 1949. They’ve spent their whole lives there and welcomed their old age there. I cannot even begin to imagine what their life was like, but I am sure it took enormous amounts of strength and resilience to survive through all of that, to still find a reason to live and look forward to every new day.

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Some of them still keep the keys of their houses in Palestine, together with the small things they took when they were leaving – every year on Nakba day they take it out of their drawers, under their pillows and from their walls. They sit and talk about their memories and the right of return. But it seems like the world keeps on laughing in their faces.

Palestinians really have it the worst in Lebanon. They cannot get the citizenship, they cannot work, or own a property. Basically, all they can do is to be in a refugee camp, and/or turn to criminal or radical activities.  As we walk through the camp, I see children playing with small wooden planks on the dusty streets, pretending they have guns and are in a war, behind a house that has Rachel Corrie graffiti painted on it.

In every corner there is a small dedication to Arafat, a relic from a long time ago – when Arafat was still young and cool, when he stood for something.  The flea markets we pass by are modest, people are trying to sell whatever they can to earn some money. There is garbage in all colors everywhere, and the smell is far from nice.

I gaze up to the sky and think about the children we met at the Centre for psychosocial support. I think about the way they showered us with smiles and joy. They are children like all children – same in the way they treat the world, but different in the way world treats them.

What will happen with them when they grow up? What can happen with somebody who grows up in this environment? Walking on these streets it is easy to understand how one can turn to radicalism – when your life doesn’t have a purpose, you might wish to find it in your death.

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That’s the south of Beirut, separated by another Green line, still unnamed and not very much talked about. Beirut, a city that sleeps above the ancient Rome, still doesn’t like to learn from its mistakes.  Like the lyrics say – Make me forget myself, I want to be like Beirut. But the thing is – we’ve all forgotten too much, and some days it seems like all we do is forget.

//all photos © Ivana Perić, MER//

If you find issues in Shatila important, please see more about Association Najdeh  and the work they do in Shatila and in other camps.  You might ask them how you can help. Because there’s always something we can do and a way we can help. Hey, maybe you can collect some money among your friends and donate it to Najdeh?

Or you can try to inform the people in your country about this, protest and put pressure on your government to do something about Shatila and other camps (and Israeli – Palestinian conflict)? Or you can maybe even go to Shatila for couple of weeks and volunteer? Maybe you could teach English, or prepare some creative workshops? These are just some of the first ideas I had. Whatever you do, it’s important.

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