In more ways than one, Shatila is a place of intensely constructed feeling. The entire camp is a manufactured refuge – an improvised and makeshift home whose tragedy is deepened by accumulation: each successive year marks another iteration towards unintended permanence. Even now, Palestinians fleeing violence in Syria are seeking refuge in the camps of Lebanon (whose numbers have been compounded over the decades with other now doubly-displaced Palestinians). Both my emotional and physical feelings there seemed forced, channeled, and conditioned by the environment that has been carved out to contain everything Shatila is.
This installment of my series of posts on sensory experiences in Shatila (I’ve already written about sight and smell) will discuss feelings of all varieties, attempting to recount some of the things I felt – not just physically, but emotionally – in Shatila.
And just for fun, I’m sorting my feelings into the same categories used to describe the four Galenic humors…
Cool and dry: at the end of each long day of teaching, I’d climb up the five flights of stairs to the roof of our apartment building. As the sun set, the air’s temperature dropped as it pushed against the still-warm earth, whooshing past us to calm and cool us (and dry us out) for the most peaceful moments of the day.
Cool and wet: whenever I walked through the camp, inevitably I’d have the sensation of being rained upon. But just as I learned that birdsongs were really whistles in Shatila, I quickly realized that these non-raindrops came either from the leaky pipes that traversed the alleyways or clothesline full of wet clothes that had been hung to dry above.
Warm and wet: my life in Shatila was a life of sweat – literally. The homes and buildings are so close together that air simply has nowhere to go, and without fans (which would cut off for hours at a time because of severe electricity shortages) my classroom could literally make the sweat roll down my face within five minutes of my arrival there each morning (and that’s before the students showed up). The manufactured breeze of the fan in my classroom was one of the starkest memories of teaching; I felt it all the more acutely in its absence. The hot sweaty stillness produced by the cement and cinder block constructed around us made us realize what we were missing all the more. On the hottest days it was all I could do to keep the kids from melting into chaos – they’d tell me it wasn’t fair that they had to sit and study in such an environment, and I, powerless in my powerless classroom, had to agree.
Warm and dry: alongside the hard work and sweat was another kind of warmth radiating through Shatila: the kind that evaporates your sweat, cools you down, and sustains you like the sun. It’s the warmth from your students, whenever they try so hard you can see it in their forehead, break into a smile, gain confidence in speaking in class, wow you with a new vocabulary word, concentrate over an art project, snap an extraordinary photograph, run up to hug you, or kiss you on the cheek.
Yes, we learned in graduate school that everything is complicated and political; that to simplify and depoliticize is to do violence to truth. We read Foucault and understood that power is pervasive, that it can’t be bottled up like some elixir or separated from the field of knowledge. But bathed in this particular warmth, it is also clear that while things are inexplicably and impossibly complicated, they are also quite simple. To teach a child is not to better the world, but to broaden their world and your own; to complicate it. This is the warmth that makes you feel that it was all worth it – even if you still don’t quite know what it was.
You can read all posts about teaching in Shatila here.