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My offering to the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres

September 16, 2012

Two thousands? Three thousands? Why are Palestinian lives so cheap, that we don’t know, will never know, the number of besieged refugees massacred 30 years ago in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps? And what about their names? Why do the words Sabra and Shatila simply line up alongside other names of locations: Deir Yassin, Tell el-Zaatar, Qana, Jenin, Gaza, a chain of massacres punctuating the miserable lives of the Palestinian people, ever since the Zionist colonial vision of turning Palestine into a Jewish homeland first took shape? We do not have to pledge “never forget.” We do not need to make that pledge, because we cannot forget, we do not have that luxury, not with the daily reminders, the scars, the longing, and the ongoing slow genocide in Gaza. What we must pledge is to have the vision and determination to put an end to this dehumanization. We must pledge to be the people who make “Never Again” come true. And not just for the Palestinian people.

I write about Palestine because I am Palestinian, and I know the experience of displacement and dispossession in my gut. I grew up in Beirut, mostly passing, fearful of the few tenacious Palestinian-inflected words that would give me away as a Palestinian. A purse for me was always “Juzdahn,” I could not form my mouth around the Lebanese pronunciation, “Juzdane,” so I did not use the word. Blanket was “Hrahm,” not the Lebanese “Hrame,” so I chose the safer “ghata” (cover), which would not give me away. There are words I simply dropped from my vocabulary, one of them being the Palestinian word for “slippers,” which I cannot even remember now. I knew as a kid not to say it, and now, it’s gone…

In 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which culminated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, I wanted to stay in West Beirut, where I felt safest (never quite safe, but safer), but my mother insisted on us all leaving and going to Broummana, in the “Christian side” of the divided country. We did, and I spent many days with my long-time Christian friends, whom I trusted. I met their friends. One guy had trained his two ferocious guard dogs—-truly killer beasts–to attack trespassers. His command for “attack” was “Get the Palestinians.” Another of my friends was very good friends with the granddaughter of Suleiman Franjieh, the former president, and I visited Zghorta with her. There are some days I will never forget in my life, days when I felt sure I was going to die, it was just a matter of minutes, the next rocket, the next checkpoint, the next militiaman or soldier to ask me another question… That day in Zghorta was one of these days. I did not speak a word, for fear of sounding Palestinian. My Lebanese ID would not have protected me, it was well-known that some Palestinians had obtained Lebanese papers, many long years ago. In restrospect, I cannot but wonder why I agreed to go to Zghorta. All I can say is, when you’re young, and nowhere is safe, and you feel your life is worthless, you take greater risks than if you think you matter. And a part of me thought that by hanging out with Maronite Christian friends, I would pass better than if I were with my usual Muslim and Palestinian crowd.

How many died in the Sabra and Shatila massacres 30 years ago today, while I passed for Lebanese Christian that summer? Why do we not know their names? Why are Sabra and Shatila merely names of locations, that line up alongside the names of other locations, all memories of massacres punctuating the miserable lives of a people who existed, and did not pass?

I do not think the circumstances of the Palestinian people are unique. I believe our history is merely one manifestation of the many faces of racism, imperialism, colonialism, intolerance, heterosexism, that have culminated in massacres against other people, other peoples, around the globe: Native Americans, enslaved Africans (sixty million, or more), gays, European Jews, Roma, Vietnamese, Filipino, Japanese… No list I draw could be exhaustive, because we do not have the names of entire communities who were massacred for being who they were.

Shortly after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, I pledged never to pass again. I knew passing was a privilege I had, which most did not, and I did not want to live a privileged life, I committed myself instead to working so that those without privilege could live. When my Lebanese passport expired, a few years later, I did not renew it. This time, my mother’s pleas went unheeded, because I had determined that I was going to devote myself to making sure that we do not need a fake passport to secure survival. We were not going to erase ourselves, forget our words.

I did not witness the Sabra and Shatila massacres. But what I experienced that summer, in the knot of fear that gripped my gut as I passed, is what prompts me to work, until my very last breath, to ensure that “Never Again” comes true in my lifetime, not just for my people, but for all the people who are deemed “undesirable” by the evil forces of hatred disguised as self-preservation.

Because the Palestinians who were massacred in Sabra and Shatila 30 years ago today, the thousands whose names we do not know, matter.


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