North Africa, West Asia: Interview

Challenging traditional 'masculinity' in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon

Gustavo Barbosa, author of ‘The Best of Hard Times’, discusses the Shabab, the offspring of the Fedayeen – and how the two generations' ideals differ

Tugrul Mende
15 April 2021, 9.25am
Pigeons fly over the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon
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Hisham Ghuzlan and Gustavo Barbosa. All rights reserved

In the 1970s, the Fedayeen, Palestinian militants who acted as freedom fighters, were a prominent part of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Today, their offspring the Shabab (the ‘lads’), are coming of age in the same camps.

While the Fedayeen displayed their maturity and gender through the fight to return to their homeland, their offspring have a more nuanced relation to Palestine and articulate their coming of age and gender belonging in different ways, such as attempting to build a house, get married, and start a family.

This performance of gender is what Gustavo Barbosa, associate researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, set to explore in his book, ‘The Best of Hard Times: Palestinian Refugee Masculinities in Lebanon’. Barbosa shows not only the transformation in time of masculinity, but also suggests the need to transform and undo the scholarly concept of gender.

Barbosa embeds himself in the daily lives of the youth and the older generation in the Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon, trying to understand the relationship of these men to the camp, to Beirut, to Lebanon as a whole and to Palestine.

Tugrul Mende: Why did you decide to focus on these groups and in the Shatila refugee camp in particular?

Gustavo Barbosa: Intellectually and politically, I’m very much committed to people who end up being left out by national and international policies, and by academic and theoretical frameworks.

The Shabab struck me as men with limited or no power. And yet the expectation both in academia and beyond is that there has to be a hierarchy of power between men and women. Such a hierarchy is essential for gender discourses to work. In Shatila, I was in the presence of men with no or very limited political and economic power, who find no place in gender discourses and patriarchy frameworks.

The specialized literature normally indicates that these men live a crisis of masculinity and that, being frustrated, they’re terrorists in the making. But, by living with them, I didn’t get the feeling that they felt their masculinities were in crisis. And they are definitely not terrorists in the making.

So, instead of freezing ideals of masculinity that force the Shabab into crisis, I decided instead to promote another crisis: the crisis of gender as a binary discourse, based on different access to power by men and women.

In Shatila, I met men with no or very limited political and economic power, who find no place in gender discourses and patriarchy frameworks

Why Shatila? I guess the main reason was because Shatila got me by my guts and I think places like that do have something to teach you. In my case, the experience of living in Shatila for a year forced me to revisit many of my assumptions but also the disciplines in which I was trained: Marxism, Statistics, and Feminism. They all came out transformed from the encounter with Shatila.

Besides, Shatila has always been, in several senses, an iconic camp, with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s headquarters established in the immediate vicinity of the camp. So, it was a very good place to get to know the Fedayeen and reflect on how their lives were different from those of their sons.

TM: The Shatila refugee camp was originally set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949. In what way has it become part of the Lebanese society?

GB: This is precisely one of the issues I deal with in my book. There’s a whole trend in the literature on Palestinian camps in Lebanon that present them as states of exception, confined places where there’s no sole source of legitimate authority. What I propose in the book is that Shatila is at the margins precisely because it is part of, and communicates with Beirut, so it isn’t confined.

Shatila inhabitants are actually exposed to and have to deal with the effects of very crude laissez-faire economic policies adopted in Lebanon in the same sense that poor Lebanese are. There’s no doubt that the Palestinian refugee issue in Lebanon is one of legal inclusion – as there’s legislation that bars their free access to the labor and real estate markets. But I argue that their question is also one of economic and social inclusion and, in this sense, there may be more approximating Shatilans to, rather than separating them from the Lebanese, or at least some Lebanese.

It’s true that there are no sole sources of legitimate authority in a place such as Shatila, with several popular committees, linked to the different Palestinian factions, functioning simultaneously. But this doesn’t mean that Shatila is chaotic, or a ticking bomb, where young unemployed men are being drafted into jihadism or are terrorists in the making.

Actually, what I propose is that Shatila appears as chaotic only to those who have become so used to a state-centered perspective that they cannot see what kind of order may characterize places where the state is not obviously present.

TM: How much do you think the camp has changed during the timeframe you were working on – and how much did the dynamics inside the camp change when more refugees who are not Palestinians arrived?

GB: During the so-called ʾayyām al-thawra (the days of the revolution), the heyday of the Palestinian military resistance in Lebanon and other diasporas, roughly between 1967 and 1982, Shatila was a cradle for the Fedayeen. The chroniclers of the Palestinian saga in Lebanon suggest that the camps, and Shatila prominently among them, functioned as moral spaces during this period, providing a hospitable environment for refugees to recover a certain sense of pride.

In spite of Shatila nowadays being a very tough place to live in, and while I do not want to romanticize the camp at all, I still think that it’s worth viewing it as a space of possibility and political invention as well.

First, I think it was very interesting to observe the functioning of Shatila polity, beyond the state: Shatilans have learned how to live without counting on the support of state-like figures because they know that very little, if anything at all, will come their way. But second, I also think that Shatilans may enable us to see other forms of citizenship. They show us that there’s political life beyond the state and that other kinds of social contracts are possible that don’t demand the subjection and submission of us all to the power of the state.

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Syracuse University Press

As for the arrival of those fleeing the war currently ravaging Syria, I show how the scarred history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon may have informed the “no-policy policy” initially adopted by Beirut towards the new refugees.

The “no-policy policy” was structured around two no’s: no refugees and no camps. So, Beirut opted not to recognize the arriving Syrians as refugees, labeling them as “displaced” people instead, and not to allow the establishment of new refugee camps, fearing that they could become permanent, politicized, and eventually militarized.

TM: Do you think the term Fedayeen has the same meaning nowadays as it did in the 1970s?

GB: I think that being a Feda’i has a different meaning today than it did back in the 1970s. Together with the machine gun, the Fedayeen became icons of the Palestinian resistance.

The very word means someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves in the fight for the liberation of the homeland. But I believe the meaning of the word has changed since then. The older generation actually criticizes those who work presently for the different Palestinian factions providing security to the camp, saying that today they do that for a salary and that they don’t understand their task as a national duty and shouldn’t be called Fedayeen at all.

But, in a sense, I believe that even for the Fedayeen the meaning of having been a Feda’i has changed as well. It’s very revealing that virtually none of the Fedayeen I talked to wanted their own sons to become Fedayeen as well. So, while reminiscing on their years as fighters is important for their sense of a gendered self, I think they are also very aware of the consequences for Palestinians today, including their sons, of their defeat in the Lebanese Civil War and the demise of the revolution.

It’s very revealing that virtually none of the Fedayeen I talked to wanted their own sons to become Fedayeen as well

TM: How do the economic, political, and social development in Lebanon have an effect on the living situation inside the camp?

GB: A whole chapter of my book is dedicated to the description of the Lebanese legislation impinging on Palestinian refugees, which characterizes a situation that I describe as institutional violence. I also observe the dizzying alternation of the leniency or strictness with which such a legislation has been applied, which not only corresponds to the varying level of strength of Palestinians in the country but also attends to the evolving demands of the Lebanese economy for cheap labor in certain points in time.

So, it’s obvious that the constant economic and political turmoil in Lebanon has evident effects on the living conditions in the camp.

In any case, I also problematize the adequacy of a numbers-only economic or legalistic approach to the refugee issue in Lebanon. Accordingly, I show that I cannot automatically derive my Shatilan friends’ complex lives and desires from their legal and economic standing only. I cannot subsume their complex biographies and trajectories into the label ‘refugee’ alone.

TM: In what way did the 4 August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the pandemic manifest inside the camp?

GB: I was very worried about the impact of the explosion and the pandemic on the lives of my Shatila friends. My sense, though, by talking to them, is that they saw those as simply more of the same. Their lives have always been influenced and impacted by events completely beyond their control.

The feeling of vulnerability brought by the coronavirus is actually a novelty for us, who are used to having some kind of control over our lives. Vulnerability and difficulties to contemplate a future are not novelty for the Shabab. But, in spite of the engagement with a sense of futurity not being obvious for them, I still think that, even if elusive, hope is still there. Actually, for quite some time, I have been trying to engage ethnographically and academically with the concept of hope and this is precisely what I plan to do in my next research endeavors.

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