The refugee camp I live in is no longer a bunch of UN tents on the outskirts of the city of Bethlehem. In fact, it sits just in between a split in the road, where the city has enveloped and grown around it. The entrance and exit to the camp are largely unassuming. One is marked by a large UN trash bin left over from the late 1940's. The other end is marked by a white sign that says Azza Camp Something-or-Another on top of a wall that has "Fatah Army" spray painted on it from God only knows when.
It would be easy to walk right by Azza camp and never know what it is. As the smallest refugee camp of the 1948 Palestinian Diaspora, it sits behind rows of Bethlehemite shops on either side, which, in my mind act like cinder block facades to the true life within. The dirt paths of the camp, as I imagine them in my mind, have been unevenly paved over with white concrete. To an outsider looking at Arab living for the first time, this is either a progressive, modern thing, or a way of solidifying a ghetto. Some people clean and sweep the concrete path outside of their home every day. Others don't. Interestingly, some people have painted murals of flowers and trees on the outside walls of their houses, others prefer the more, blanched, austere look of caked concrete. While there isn't a single blade of grass to be found anywhere in the camp, or for that matter, in Bethlehem at large, the children are constantly playing, as children do, in the narrow alley that comprises the camp's main street. Their favorite game is something with a rock or a marble. They gather in large groups of boys and girls, respectively, and play like this all day. Part of me wants to buy them large jump ropes and teach them how to double dutch. The other part of me wants to set up a free band-aid clinic for all of the scraped knees that are produced on an hourly basis by these hearty children. If anything, I have to say that it is refreshing to see kids being kids. They may not have an easy life ahead of them, but at least they aren't starting it half doped on Ritalin and absentee parental neglect. They aren't shoved in front of a television, or force-fed processed food. Instead, they are loved, held, flooded with kisses and fussing, screamed at when they are naughty, and above all else, truly cherished. The amazing thing is that while each child has one mother and maybe 3 or 4 brothers and sisters, they are simultaneously mothered by the collective of women in the community, and held in concert with the small tribe of children their age. Here, the camp life manages to maintain its own socialized, small village identity, even though the great-grandchilden of the men and women who were originally forced to flee for their lives 60 years ago will never return to the place of their ancestral beginnings in present-day Israel.
Despite the modern nature of concrete, camp living for me is much like camping out. I sleep on something like a cot and cherish a cold shower every couple of days. Because of the heat, I sleep with the windows open, and there is a rooster that lives somewhere near my window, which wakes me every day at sun-up. When the rooster settles down, the muezzin call to pray electrifies the camp at 6am. After this, the "Fruit Guy" (as I call him) comes through the camp yelling "FRUIT! FRUIT!", even though it seems like no one really cares. In the confines of my concrete room, which constitutes the original house of my amazing host family, I vacillate between an on-going debate of privacy versus air. If I close the window that opens to the street, I can pretty much be left alone, but I will inevitably turn into a hot, sweaty puddle of myself. If I open the heavy metal shutters of the window for air, I am suddenly an object of curiosity for all of those who pass by. Also, if the window is open, it means that I am home, which is taken as an invitation for people to not only want to look inside to see what I am doing, but to demand that I come out for rounds of visiting and drinking tea.
There is a certain creativity here that only true pioneers of camp life possess. From the way that the homes have been layered upon each other from the ground up, to the functional use of making the most of every ounce of food and water, nothing goes spoiled or unused. As a child, when I went camping with my father on his famous river canoe trips, my favorite meal was anything involving canned brown beans cooked over a fire. Here, because I'm walking everywhere in the sun and using every ounce of energy my body can muster to get up and down the very steep hills, I internally salivate in anticipation of a big, evening meal of rice and chicken. I have become a fanatic for putting sour yogurt on everything, and I practically cry for joy when I see that there is cinnamon in my chicken and rice dish. My other all-time favorite is a tomato based soup with okra, small bits of onion and chopped cucumber in it. Of course, when I'm not gorging on my one big meal a day, I seek sustenance in the Kroger-brand jar of crunchy peanut butter I discovered in a food market in Beit Jala, the next town over. Because I have no spoon, I eat my peanut butter with butt of ink pen that no longer writes.
I suppose there is a certain romanticism to the idea of living in the Middle East for nearly a year. I regularly encounter other travelers who ask what I am doing here, then go on to tell me how much they envy my position when I tell them. To this end, there is something even quaint about the notion of living in a Palestinian refugee camp. Given the poverty of my graduate school-induced lifestyle, I suppose the ironic thing is that I could be typing while eating generic peanut butter of a a jar here or back home. The difference is that here, in this moment, I may be covered in sweat and dirt and somewhat simple by design, but I am living my dream. I don't need a particular latitude and longitude to find my sense of purpose, but it is safe to say that I am particularly happy here, happy in this moment. Perhaps I find fulfillment in the fleeting? Or maybe I am an addict of austere adventure. Either way, my mother would say that I am truly a "pig in shit". In this case, I might even be tempted to agree.
It's one thing to walk through life without a sense of agency, letting the world swirl around us in random, seemingly complicated patterns that impress upon us the idea that we are nothing more than unimportant specks in this great, cosmic soup. I recently watched this through the eyes of a good friend who spent only a month here. While he was here, he never truly dug in. As they say, he didn't "use" the experience. Rather, he made the decision to get through his 25 days in Palestine with as much minimal sweat as possible. Rather than connecting to his larger importance, he become self-important. He let the days pass, he let experiences go by. He fussed when dinner was the same thing night after night, or when his clothes weren't cleaned to his liking, due to a lack of water. After two weeks, he made the egregious error of convincing himself that he had nothing more to learn or see. He claimed that he "got what he came for", which to me meant that he wanted to look at Palestine through a museum glass, rather than actually feel, touch, and dance through the joys and the pains of the Palestinian people. But the thing is, to one degree or another, all of us do this in life.
My point, of course, is that experiences like this may not be for everyone, but in our daily lives we make a series of deliberate choices that allow us to use the present moment to the fullest or not. It becomes a rather deceptive game that we play with ourselves, where we impose walls around our fears and weaknesses rather than simply acknowledging and addressing them and moving on. To this end, of course there are times when it is terrifying to be in Palestine. It can be asphyxiating to stop and think that I am placing not only an incredible gamble on my personal well-being, but my academic life and career as well. I have no idea who or where I will be when I return to the priviledged place that gave me the privelege of carrying an American passport. At this moment, I have no idea if I'll be financially secure, or if I'll ever marry my soul mate, or have children, or plant my own garden, or live happily ever after. But, as Coelho writes, "Let us remind ourselves that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. No heart has ever suffered when it's gone in search of its dreams." Ultimately, my choice is not to suffer or dwell in the vagueness of the menacing What-If. I won't ever look back and long for something I should have said, should have done, or even could have done if I let the world convince me that a great deal of harm comes to those who fly without a net. Maybe this is because I never had such a net in the first place, even though it is a daily choice not to lower myself to the idea that I could, conceivably fail to achieve any of my dreams. Ultimately, the choice is mine, yours, it's open to all of us. For example, your choice to read this essay to it's final paragraph says something about your own search for honesty and gentleness. This is what we are all looking for.
And so, in such a harsh place, where the sun burns through a t-shirt, and high school-aged children are authorized to carry guns, I am gentle. I have to be. Otherwise, I would easily lose my mind. As an outsider, perhaps it is easier to have this perspective, but it still helps to practice finding the hidden gentleness behind every wall that we build, in everything that we do. Like the grass-free refugee camp that happens to be bustling outside of my window right now, I could cover my heart with concrete as a way of minimizing the dust and debris that accumulates in life, but deep inside, I'll always find a way back to a sense of home, to the original place of kindness that resides in my soul. There is a purpose to this, and just like the people who have welcomed me into their small camp village, I have welcomed and invited myself to dwell within my own sense of original purpose. It may be selfish to admit this, but living in the moment is incredibly liberating.