“Both of my grandmas would meet each other with tears on their tired faces and say to each other: thank God our sons are still alive somewhere and may God help the mothers of these young martyrs”
I was born in Al Yarmouk camp, in the family house. Back in the day, families used to live in the camp in a kind of extended family house. I’m saying kind of, because it was not a tradition, it was more enforced as a result of the economic situation of the Palestinians in Syria. It was hard for people to buy houses. Camps were the places where they had to build their lives from scratch. My father spent 13 years working until he could build his own apartment over his parent’s. Funny enough, he used to compare his love for his apartment with his love for us, saying that he loves this house as if it’s one of his kids.
Since arrival to Syria in 1948, borders and limitations started to be drawn – most likely unconsciously- between Palestinians and Syrians. The joke my grandparents never forgot is that they had tails. They used to tell me every once in a while that they heard many times, Syrians saying that the Palestinians have arrived, and they have tails, and some of them swore that he or she had seen them with their tails.
I really don’t understand this joke, and never heard from any of my grandparents any explanation, and I never thought to ask any of them what this joke means. And maybe I didn’t have to ask, because I felt it the first time I heard it. I felt it because I knew I was different from Syrians.
However, for a moment, you think that all refugees who left Palestine were equal and became the refugees class. Indeed this is not correct. No doubt that the Nakba shoock the Palestinian social structure, but once this structure started to fall apart, another new one started to get built up in exile, the old traditional classes were demolished, and new classes and classifications inside the Palestinian society in Syria started to appear.
UNRWA had high salaries. At some periods of time the salary of a teacher at UNRWA was 10 times the salary of a teacher in the Syrian government’s public schools, and teachers have the privilege of getting a good package at the end of their service. This package was the motivation to seek work at UNRWA.
UNRWA’s workers, especially inside the camps and specifically at al Yarmouk, benefited from their high salaries and severance packages to invest inside the camp. This investment started in the 1990s, when Al Yarmouk camp started to witness a development movement and turned quickly to one of the biggest markets in Damascus. The teachers of UNRWA started to work in real estate buying more stores in the main street of Al Yarmouk. Out of the ten teachers that taught me in the UNRWA schools in Al Yarmouk camp, 7 had investments in the markets in Al Yarmouk, and their wealth was doubled, but all these investments were inside the camp. And I grew up with confused feelings toward my teachers, since the teacher who taught me in the morning, was the owner of the clothing store that I bought my pants from, and the gift store that I bought a valentine gift from, and the owner of a grocery store where my family shopped from. And the hardest part was, that one of my teachers owned the first and only video tape store in the camp, and there was no way in hell to tell him that I wanted an adult movie. Luckily, his son was a student in the same school of mine and was able to smuggle these movies to us. It was also interesting that this wealth, despite creating a new economic class inside the camps, didn’t change the mentality or impact the lifestyle of these beneficiaries. The differentiation before 2011 was between the residents of the camp and the residents of the city.
Back to my grandmother Izdihar haj Isa. I think she was a strong free woman since she was a teenager. She finished her elementary school in Safad, and then was posted to teach in Nazareth when she was 14 years old. She used to talk positively about the British mandate in Palestine and I remember her saying over and over, that British were good and modernized Palestine, brought electricity to houses, and most importantly for her, she had the chance during the mandate to wear short skirts and no one dared to harass her.
Her husband, Fawzy al Nahawi, was the son of the Basha of Safad and the former governor of Irbid (now in Jordan). After Nakba, he became a famous Palestinian politician in Syria and he died early in 1982. And was buried in a fancy cemetery in Damascus called al Dahdah.
Anyway, my mother’s parents lived outside the camp, with good high salaries from UNRWA and a good respectful position for the family with two sons and two daughters, which was the average number of children for an intellectual modern family in Syria.
On the other hand, my father’s mom Naeima abu Adas was a simple farmer and an illiterate woman. Small, maybe 4 or 4.5 feet tall, and thin like a bamboo tree with a white scarf over her head and wrinkled skin on her hands. It feels to me that I knew her only as an old woman since I started having memories. Her husband, my grandfather Muhammad Betare, fixed watches. He was white and of average height, wore a white kufiyah and pistol on his right side, and liked hunting. He used to ride motorcycles with his friends and disappear for days, before coming back with dozens of birds, or wild animals like foxes or black hyenas, sometimes alive and sometimes dead and ready for taxidermy. They had eight sons and daughters and he never knew what grades they were in. They lived inside Al Yarmouk camp.
I can say that the camp’s residents were a class by themselves, interestingly, regardless of their economic situation. My grandmother was always angry that my father didn’t fulfil his promise when he got engaged to her daughter, my mother. He promised that living in the camp was a temporary thing, and he was waiting to buy his apartment inside Damascus city. Well, this never happened, and when he got to choose his new apartment, his mother in law (my grandmother) almost had a heart attack, because he chose an apartment in a new housing project being built inside Al Yarmouk camp. She then stigmatized me and my siblings as the children of the camp, a lower class in the Palestinian society.
Outside the camp in Damascus, there were more than a 100,000 Palestinian refugees living in different parts of the city, depending on their economic situation. But for sure they were different from those who were born and raised inside the camp, to an extent that I couldn’t recognize them. They have a Syrian accent and knew much less than what the children of the camp knew about Palestine.
In the UN college in Damascus, which was dedicated to host Palestinian refugee students (known as Damascus Training Center DTC), we used to have an annual open house party. The art department used to draw a big wall sized painting of Jerusalem, with the al Aqsa mosque. One of the students came in the morning and said to me “this is a very beautiful painting of the Ommiad mosque”. I thought he was joking, but then I discovered that he wasn’t and he had confused the Ommiad mosque in old Damascus with the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
For a long time, I thought that only Syrians were ignorant about us. They used to ask me: “how do you live in a tent?” They never knew that the camp I used to live in was a big city with multistory buildings, and many of them didn’t “risk” their lives to come and see the camp. The stories they used to hear about it were horrible. They had an impression that the camp was all gangs of drug dealers, weapons and fight. And never knew that it was full of countless numbers of doctors, professors, philosophers, teachers, engineers, working class employees, and a whole society like any other society… except that it is also home to Palestinian refugees and it happened to be called a camp.
But between those living inside the camp and those living outside the camp, there was one remarkable thing in common for Palestinians. The pain. Once those living outside the camp grow up they get called at age 18 to the military service. Many of them then feel they are Palestinians as they get posted to serve in the Palestinian Liberation Army, an army whose brigades Hafez al Assad brought from Jordan and Iraq, and formed for Palestinians to serve in under the Syrian Army command. Here the Palestinians that grew up outside of Al Yarmouk and who didn’t yet know they were Palestinian, finally did. And they might be sent to fight in Lebanon under the Syrian Army Command. And sometimes will fight other Palestinians that left Al Yarmouk camp to fight in the civil war on the opposing side. These men will literally realize they are Palestinians the hard way. And it’s painful.
I remember days in my life when I was 3 years old. My parents would leave for their jobs and leave me with my grandma (father’s mother). And every day or other day between 1982 and 1987, we would be sitting. She would be singing all these old traditional Palestinian songs, and then, hearing the drums of a funeral she knew that new martyrs had arrived from Lebanon, and were on their way to the martyr’s cemetery. I could hear her heart beating while holding my hand running to the Main Street of Al Yarmouk camp, to see if my uncle, her son, was one of these martyrs. She would run, asking people about the names of the martyrs, as she inhaled and exhaled what felt like all the air of the camp when she would learn he was not in one of these coffins. In these streets she would meet my other grandma (my mother’s mom) who was a teacher at a UNRWA school, who would also leave her class at the sound of the drums to runs into the Main Street of Al Yarmouk and see if my uncle, her son, was one of the martyrs. Both of my grandmas would meet each other with tears on their tired faces and say to each other: thank God our sons are still alive somewhere and may God help the mothers of these young martyrs.