Little Palestine 04

Yarmouk Camp in Damascus was once Abdallah Al-Khatib’s home. Established in 1957, ‘Little Palestine’, as it was known, was home to the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees—some 180,000 people in 2012. [1] Yet, the word ‘camp’ is misleading—Yarmouk was (is) a district of the Syrian capital, a well-known neighbourhood predominantly populated by Palestinians. With bakeries, hairdressers, a medical centre, a mosque, schools. The intentional temporality of the word ‘camp’ underscores a key aspect of the refugee condition: the right to return.

The fate of most of Yarmouk’s inhabitants has, however, only been further displacement—for those lucky enough to have survived the siege. Many will know of Yarmouk’s story before watching the film; if you don’t, its devastation is confirmed as soon as the film’s introductory words flash up in the past tense. As such, this diary is immediately established as document, testimony, evidence. This is a story of what happened in Yarmouk at the hands of the Assad regime, while the world looked on. What happened when, in 2013, perceiving the camp as a refuge for rebels of the Syrian ‘revolution’, the Syrian regime blocked all routes in and out of Yarmouk. Under siege, its inhabitants were deprived of food, water, medicine, electricity and contact with the outside world.

Extreme deprivation and starvation continued for months. One image has often been used to represent the siege—it shows a difficult to fathom conglomeration of faded bodies vying for food against the backdrop of destroyed buildings. It is extraordinary to see that very image come to life through Al-Khatib’s lens—as if re-embodied, after having been stilled into a news snapshot. But the film does much more than expand one shocking, recognisable frame into a world. Al-Khatib’s camera enables a walk through the alleys of Yarmouk. Streets flesh out the notion of home; laughter, song, solidarity expand the understanding of life in the camp. This broader context is also clear acknowledgement of the disparity between temporailty and permanence, of documents and memory, of history and erasure.

Filming from the beginnings of the siege, Al-Khatib’s intuitive camerawork places the viewer at the heart of people’s conversations and daily lives. He chose to not sell any of his footage to news media and despite not quite knowing that he would end up making a film, his frames feel intentional: built around people, interactions. Preserving a sense of dignity was paramount, which also meant acknowledging that not everyone wants to be seen or visible. These become visuals that are unlike news footage of the siege as his images depict casual, everyday realities at an extraordinary time: ‘people in regular life, how they sat together, how they spoke together’. He often left the camera rolling in the middle of the street to provide a frame that anyone could enter as they pleased. This is striking not least because of the intense scarcity of the siege: SD cards were finite, electricity patchy, power cuts rife. Al-Khatib deploys his camera as a form of resistance against both the sleight of memory and the wilful erasure of the ordinary that was being targeted long before the news cameras arrived, and long after they’d disappeared again. [2]

Though he had never made a film before, the opportunity to do so arose when a filmmaker friend, Hassan Hassan, decided to leave Yarmouk, and bestowed Al-Khatib with his camera. Using it with purpose felt a responsibility already, even more so when Hassan was detained by Syrian regime forces shortly after leaving the camp, and killed under torture. ‘There has been a long history of massacres against Palestinians—in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, in many places. And there hasn’t always been a camera present to document this,’ he tells me. ‘The power [of the film] is in the fact that the person behind the camera is living this reality. Nothing is made up. It’s simply what I saw with my own eyes.’

At the heart of the film is Al-Khatib’s mother, Umm Mahmoud, who at the beginning of the siege started volunteering as a nurse, regularly calling in on elderly neighbours with great warmth and optimism. Through Umm Mahmoud, we meet an elder who was 15 years old when her family first found refuge in Syria. Hearing her memories is a way of preserving her history, whilst also paying respect to those who—we realise with creeping horror—will not have survived the brutality of the siege, of starvation and relentless shelling. She talks emphatically about intentionally holding on to her accent, even though she understands that kids growing up in Yarmouk will inevitably speak like their Damascene peers, because of school and more general everyday interactions. She talks of neighbours fleeing when they heard the first of the Syrian regime’s bombs drop—reminiscent of 48, of course—but she will not leave. ‘Me, leave? Our first wound was not enough for you, dear?’ she asks Al-Khatib behind the camera. An echo of Reem Kanazi’s words (from Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up From Brooklyn to Palestine)

she had not forgotten

we have not forgotten

we will not forget

veins like roots

of olive trees


we will return

that is not a threat

not a wish

a hope

or a dream

but a promise

The power of words placed decisively, defiantly, is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Writing and filming were also concurrent acts. Written in fragments and initially conceived as conversation with himself as the siege unfurled, Al-Khatib penned an organic text that came to be known as The 40 Rules of Siege. The kernel of each Rule was an event or an observation, gleaned each day or week. He posted the Rules on Facebook one by one in Arabic, for his friends. They quickly garnered attention for their candid and astute depictions of life under siege and were translated by friends to reach even further audiences. Seven of these were later reworked (with the support of a friend, Ahmad Amro) to form a backbone of the film, in which they are spoken in Al-Khatib’s own voice. Here the Rules offer additional context, underlining how incongruous situations become under the Siege. In one scene where, with nothing to sell in the marketplace and cactus is being suggested as a replacement for potatoes by a weary vegetable seller, Al-Khatib’s voice over intones:

When the future sticks out its tongue sarcastically

When the most obvious answers to simple questions

Are a rare as a lump of sugar

In an interview with curator Rasha Salti, Al-Khatib explains: ‘the very first rule [in the text] is specifically about time. Because the siege is time. The notion of a day changes. The day doesn’t begin with sunrise, nor does it end with sunset. The day begins with the first morsel of food you eat and ends with the last. Under siege, people no longer refer to the usual greetings for morning or evening, instead they ask: “What did you eat today?” It no longer matters whether it’s Friday or Saturday. People’s movements are connected to finding food, and time is linked to food. Time under siege is long and morbid. The day does not always end. But if you find food, then time accelerates and the day concludes.’

This is a lesson learnt early in life. Children wise beyond their years tell us where they find meaning; their dreams all involve food. Bread, milk, eggs, shawarma with meat, roast chicken. Their energy bubbles through much of the film: joyous, bright, playful and also prepared to eat anything that might fill their bellies. In one affecting scene, a little girl, Tasneem, patiently picks verbena, an edible weed if you know which part of it to avoid. As food shortages reach alarming levels, the regime’s bombing campaign also intensifies, and Al-Khatib finds Tasneem picking verbena painfully close to the demarcation line. She barely flinches as shelling resounds close by, admitting that she is scared only when he tells her that he is.

In ‘bird survives the death of Nature’, the poet Zaina Alsous writes:

Before I leave, I have a demand; a poem against

extinction. It begins in the bellies. It begins in

endings. Underneath a plume of fascismo

is another atmospheric condition—all pink,

ascending pitch, hatching eggs of laughter.

A blaze of new sunlight repairing an archive

of unseen beams, knit together in mingled breath,

here we come to we.

Resistance demands commitment to We. It echoes in the impulse to survive, in the act of documentation, in the process of filmmaking. ‘We’ is present in the film’s practical, logistical genesis: the film’s introductory lines present the act of filming as one that began and was carried out with friends. When leaving Syria, Al-Khatib took the camera that was bestowed to him by Hassan all the way to Turkey but left it there because, ‘it was logical for Hassan’s camera to remain active in the hands of those who stayed in the north of Syria, rather than accompany me to Germany’. Similarly, he didn’t travel with any of the hard drives of material he had filmed (for safety)—they were all relayed over to him by friends once he’d reached Germany.

In the dance between image and word, Al-Khatib also invites us to consider how we use (our) words. By the time they’ve been transposed to screen, the Rules are no longer an internal monologue written for personal survival, they become epistolary. They speak in expectation of answers. What is the power of words and (y)our responsibility in using them? What daily sleights and erasures do you contribute to? How do they impact the narrative of Palestinian self-determination? How do they enable the Syrian regime to keep bombing, starving, detaining and disappearing people? How can you/we stand in solidarity from different vantage points, be it in writing, in media, in the images we create, share and consume? [3]

In one scene, Al-Khatib speaks to a group of young girls outside their school. They’ve been instructed to draw pictures on their school wall. When he asks them who they are drawing the pictures for; one girl answers ‘whoever’s blocking peace’—an answer which, in its simplicity, underlines the sheer futility of the violence. When I spoke to Al-Khatib about the notion of audience, he reflected that he was merely filming to document as the siege unfolded, but it was as he began to assemble the material into a film from 2016 in Germany that he began to conceptualise an audience: one that he projected as a European or American, ’ …because they’re responsible for their governments, and their governments are also responsible for the situations that are happening outside… of course it was the Syrian regime that put Yarmouk under siege, who were responsible for these crimes but it was other international governments that let them get away with these crimes.’

And indeed, in its translation from Arabic into English, from the personal space to the wider audience, Little Palestine does becomes hampered with the need to explain, the same necessity that accompanies any film that fleshes out (for a ‘wider audience’) a human reality first learnt via news cycles. In an article for the LA Review of Books entitled ‘My Palestinian Poem that “The New Yorker” Wouldn’t Publish’, the prolific Palestinian-American poet and translator Fady Joudah reflects on this incisively: for the past few years I have rarely “submitted” my work to publications and mostly responded to editors who solicited my work. I live Palestine in English. But in my heart Palestine is Arabic. And Palestine in Arabic does not need to explain itself[4].’

The Palestinian-American poet George Abraham recently wrote for Guernica: ‘As much as this cycle is a problem of “diplomacy,” and Western failures therein, it is also a problem of (colonial imaginations of) language itself. Within this cycle, Palestinians witness repeating patterns of both-sides-isms and revisionist erasures of our struggle’s ongoing memory emerging from the American media. In their syntactical patterns and use of passive voice, in every statement divorced from the transparent and well-documented reality of Israeli ethnic cleansing, in every failure to contextualize the ongoing history of Palestinian resistance, the US media contorts the English language into a supremacist enactor of the colonial project.’ [5]

We now know that that revolution will need be more than televised. Recent months have also underlined the ways in which the words are actually causing a shift, a change. Human Rights Watch named Israel as an apartheid state, responsible of crimes of persecution, for the first time in its April 2021 report entitled ‘A Threshold Crossed’. [6] The significance of terminology has been significant in shifting understanding and wider discourse. At the same time, through social media and more traditional media appearances, twins Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd not only ‘provided the world with a window into living under occupation in East Jerusalem this spring’ but actually through sheer relentless eloquence and steadfast commitment to speaking truth to power, helped ‘to prompt an international shift in rhetoric in regard to Israel and Palestine’ as Sanya Mansoor noted in her profile of the siblings for Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2021’. [7] Note that Mohammed El-Kurd, like Cathy Park Hong who heads this year’s list, and like Abdallah Al-Khatib, is a poet.

When we spoke about the sense of responsibility that transforms the poetic or written ‘I’ into a space of collective imagination, particularly for Palestinian poets (whether in Palestine, displaced or in the diaspora) by the very nature of the ongoing Palestinian struggle, Al-Khatib reflected that ‘this is a very difficult, complex question… it’s hard for me because when I was writing the Rules of Siege, I was very much focusing on ‘I’ - myself. It was very much about coming to terms with the siege, understanding the siege… ‘. The brutality of a siege draws from the first colonial rule of divide and conquer—survival by necessity becomes an intensely personal reality. He reflected on this bluntly in his conversation with Salti, ‘the instinct for survival prevailed our behavior during these circumstances, it dictated who will live and who will die. I myself was not innocent from committing small acts of betrayal that I’m ashamed of today. Did I not eat a can of tuna all by myself and refrained from sharing it with my friends? Yes, I did. Did I disclose my secret to them? Obviously not! I am confessing now. And I’m certain all my friends did similar acts of betrayal during the siege. In the end, we’re all human, and we can’t make value judgements about those who lived the siege.’

Indeed, you can only survive hunger for so long; 181 people died of starvation during the siege of Yarmouk. Beyond the camp, one million people were living under siege in Syria by 2017, with no access to food, medication, water, electricity. [8] In 2017, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, specifically underlined the Syrian government’s ‘surrender or starve’ strategy, involving ‘a devastating combination of sieges and bombardments’ in order to ‘vanquish opposition fighters’ amounted to crimes against humanity. [9] The siege was also exacerbated by the failure of words—it represented the failure of the UN Security Council to actually enact permission for aid trucks and planes to access areas besieged by the Assad regime.

Incinematography’, Zaina Alsous writes:

In the demolished projection room of Al-Assi, live

Remnants of yellow frames. Marx and this poem fail

To fully explain the actions of workers watching film alive

Under occupation. Poetry and film survive as incomplete

Forms of description. A vaccine of distance.

To locate a self in study, is to chase an orchestra of the dead.

The summoning music often too faint, too far away

To tend to the tensions of the work and seen.

In the conjunction between words and images, Al-Khatib has created a unique and important document—a devastating record of crimes against humanity, whilst also a testament to the beauty and dignity of the human spirit. As cinematic time passes through the film, the light of hope progressively fades—a reminder that the world will keep going while you are being starved to death. Although Al-Khatib and his mother eventually managed to escape the siege, it is palpable that the state of siege will somehow never leave him—the existence of the film is itself testament to that. The final rule underlines it further:

There are no rules under siege, just the experience.

***

[1] Yarmouk was one of over 60 camps across the region, between them housing some 5 million Palestinian refugees registered by the The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

[2] Beyond the classic newswire approach to reporting at the height of drama (responsively rather than longitudinally), Jonathan Steele’s long read for The Guardian in March 2015 hints at manifold considerations when it came to media and reporting on the siege, underlining in particular the temperamental power of the Syrian regime and the need for agencies to be portrayed in a particular way, noting in relation one of UNRWA’s attempts to provide food and aid, ‘they had not publicised it in advance—there was concern that excessive attention would anger the Syrian government—and were reluctant to invite journalists to observe a mission that might have been aborted for security reasons.’ Full article: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/mar/05/how-yarmouk-refugee-camp-became-worst-place-syria

[3] A few weeks ago, an editor queried my use of the words ‘occupied Palestine’ in an article referring to one of Lebanon’s borders. ‘I’m no expert,’ he wrote ‘but as I understand it—per the UN—we should refer to the Blue Line/Israel here? These seemingly small adjustments are in fact erasures, often diplomatically conveyed; some may even say expertly so. After some back and forth, we ‘settled’ on Palestine/Israel. Is this good enough?

[4] Link to full article: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/my-palestinian-poem-that-the-new-yorker-wouldnt-publish/

[5] https://www.guernicamag.com/teaching-poetry-in-the-palestinian-apocalypse/

[6] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution

[7] https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2021/6096098/muna-mohammed-el-kurd/

[8] https://diary.thesyriacampaign.org/siegeartwork/

[9] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2017/11/syria-surrender-or-starve-strategy-displacing-thousands-amounts-to-crimes-against-humanity/

***

Elhum Shakerifar is a BAFTA-nominated producer, curator and writer working through her London-based company Hakawati (meaning ‘storyteller’ in Arabic). Hakawati’s core ethos is that a good story is in the telling, and that we are the stories we tell. She is currently a programmer for London Film Festival, advising on films from the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf.

Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege is showing at the London Film Festival on 13th and 15th October in presence of Abdallah Al-Khatib. It will also screen at the London Palestine Film Festival on 30th November.