Tales of Strength and Danger: Sahar and the Tactics of Everyday Life in Amari Refugee Camp, Palestine

Tales of Strength and Danger: Sahar and the Tactics of Everyday Life in Amari Refugee Camp, Palestine
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  [ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society   2007, vol. 32, no. 3]   2007 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2007/3203-0006$10.00 P e n n y J o h n s o n Tales of Strength and Danger: Sahar and the Tactics ofEveryday Life in Amari Refugee Camp, Palestine  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place . . . it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order toturn them into “opportunities.” The weak must continually turn to theirown ends forces alien to them.—Michel de Certeau (1984, xii) S ahar, thirty-four years old , was born, grew up, married, and bore herfive children in Amari refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah, aPalestinian town nine miles northwest of Jerusalem in the West Bank. 1 During the last two of three interviews conducted with her in 2003 and2004 by a research team from the Institute of Women’s Studies at BirzeitUniversity, Sahar was pregnant with her sixth child. 2 Sahar’s father fled The research for this article was enabled by the support of theInternationalDevelopmentResearch Center (Ottawa) for the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit Universityresearchproject “Three Communities in Wartime” and by a grant from the MEAwards Program inPopulation and the Social Sciences. 1 Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees. 2 Three interviews were conducted with Sahar and her family at their home in Amarirefugee camp by the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University in 2003 and 2004as part of a project researching three neighboring Ramallah-area communities during the warlikeconditionsofthesecondintifada,whichbeganonSeptember29,2000,andcontinuesas of this writing. Selwa Jaradat and Shadi Al Khawaja conducted the first two interviewson September 21, 2003, and April 2, 2004, for the Institute of Women’s Studies researchteam,whichsharesallinterviewsconductedinthisproject.Thethirdinterviewwasconductedby the author, Lamis Abu Nahleh, and Rula Abu Dahu on July 8, 2004. In the firstinterview,fieldworkers were instructed to interview a number of informants in each community con-cerning key events in each of their communities, using and comparing the periods of thefirst intifada, the years of interim Palestinian self-government (the Oslo years), and the yearsof the second intifada. In the second interview, Sahar and her family were selected for anin-depth family interview. These interviews aimed at discovering the social world that in-dividuals and families inhabited and the social and physical changes—in place, marriages,  598  ❙  Johnson as a child with his parents in 1948 from Na’ani, a village near the townsof Ramla and Lydda on the central coastal plain of historic Palestine,during a siege by the Haganah, the chief military force of the nascentIsraeli state (see Morris 1987, 127). The family settled in the then newly established Amari refugee camp sometime in mid-1949. Sahar’s motheris a refugee from the same coastal region; however, her family ended upin Gaza, where she lived in the Shatti refugee camp until her marriage.Born in 1972, Sahar grew up during the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Her teenage years were spent during the firstPalestinian intifada, and she dropped out of secondary school in Ramallahduring the long curfew Israel imposed on Palestinians in the OccupiedTerritories during the first Gulf War in January and February of 1991.She was then engaged to Marwan, a neighbor six years her elder whosefamily srcinated in Lydda. She describes her marriage to Marwan (aconstruction worker and a then-recent graduate of Israeli prison), withsome regret, as a “traditional” marriage. Sahar married at eighteen, themedian age of marriage for Palestinian women in the occupied Palestinianterritories; however, she considers hers an early marriage and mourns herlost education and the opportunities it might have yielded. War, conflict, and military occupation, on the one hand, and early marriage, child bearing, and family duties, on the other hand, have beenshapers of the major events of Sahar’s life. Refugee camp life is markedby the contours of both past and present conflicts. Amari, a camp with apopulation of about six thousand in 2004, has a history of both politicalmilitancy and heavy-handed Israeli repression: in the first intifada (De-cember 1988–September 1993), for example, the Israeli army sealed thecamp’s main entrance for over four years; this action was an eerie precursorto the regime of closures, blockades, and checkpoints of today.On the face of it, Sahar has had little space for independent action; herlifeisnotrepletewithlifestylechoicesoropportunitiesforself-development. Yet this is a view decidedly from a distance. Close up, after over a decadeof marriage and five, going on six, children, Sahar seems a powerful figurein her family and kin circle—and perhaps in the community that surroundsher. The setting in the third interview in the summer of 2004 is telling.Sahar, heavily pregnant and dressed in a purple and pink dressing gown with short sleeves, sits in her small, whitewashed salon surrounded by her  work, household composition, family relations—that families have experienced since 1948,punctuated by wars and shadowed by occupation. The third follow-up interview piqued my curiosity. After reading the texts of the first two interviews, I was intrigued as much by Sahar’s dramatic storytelling (including what might be called tall tales of moral danger) asby an interest in learning more about the events she described.  S I G N S Spring 2007  ❙  599 children and accompanied by her sister Ruba, a shy woman who wears a mandil   (head scarf) and works running errands for the staff in the camp’sgirls school. Sahar’s ten-year-old son, who has a learning disability, leanson her knee, protected by his mother. Sahar has persistently intervened withcamp organizations to ensure his enrollment in special education programsand sent a daughter with him to summer camp with orders to make sure“no one laughs at him.” She has taken on a role particularly important forcamp families—and one that often falls to women: to secure as many en-titlements as possible from the institutions that serve refugees, whether theUN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that administers the camp ornongovernmental organizations operating in the camp. Her husband, Mar- wan, admits in a separate interview that he has nothing to do with insti-tutions (or even visits to his own family); all that is left to Sahar.In the precarious and insecure conditions of life in a Palestinian refugeecamp, women’s responsibilities to, and activities for, children and familiesmay take them far beyond the threshold of the home. In a 2005 interview  with Um Taysir, another woman from Amari, we learned how the terribleevents of the past years (her fifteen-year-old son was killed by an Israelisniper at the Ramallah City Inn checkpoint in November 2000, and fourother sons were subsequently imprisoned) have propelled her into a seem-ingly endless round of visits and contacts with every human rights orga-nization,questsforpermitsforprisonvisits,andacampaigntogetmedicineand treatment for one son in prison who is seriously injured. 3 Her husband,bowed with grief and arthritis, seems unable to assist but proudly urges herto exhibit her impressive notebook full of phone numbers and contacts. When she recounts her appearances on television stations to appeal for hersons, he reminds her, “You were also on Japanese and Algerian television.”Um Taysir has extended her maternal duties of care—and perhaps has takenon the paternal duties of protection as well—into the public realm. None-theless, her ceaseless activity is often fruitless: prison visits are denied, med-icine does not get to her injured son, and human rights organizations andlawyers have no real power to intervene. Her situation points to the “linkedfailures in protection” (Johnson and Kuttab 2001, 37) during the secondPalestinian intifada, in which both families and society and polity as a wholeare unable to truly protect their children. 4 3 Interview with Um Taysir, conductedatherhomeinAmarirefugeecampbytheauthor,Jamil Hilal, and Rula Abu Dahu, January 27, 2005. 4 In a disturbing reversal, Palestinian parents, particularly mothers, were subjected toallegations that they sent their children to die in the highly unequal confrontations at check-points during the first months of the al Aqsa intifada. In fact, parents often desperately went  600  ❙  Johnson Sahar frequently refers to the necessity of protecting her family: in thecircumstances of Amari today it is not an easy task. “You are the cleverestchild [ ashtar walad  ],” Sahar tells Mohammed encouragingly, giving hima half shekel to buy a treat. The rest of the children need only a nod fromSahar to bring cold drinks or perform other hospitable tasks; two daugh-ters, ages twelve and nine, are perched on a nearby sofa and listen atten-tively to their mother’s stories—stories in which she is quite definitely thehero. Her husband occupies an adjacent hallway for most of the interview,only entering when Sahar’s stories exasperate him to the point of inter- vention. Marwan’s role as an irritable audience is a useful reminder that“storytelling is strategic. Narrators tell tales in order to achieve some goalor advance some interest” (Ewick and Sibley 1995, 206). Although, as we learn, Marwan has twice been angry enough to pronounce a  talaq   todivorce Sahar, she nonetheless proceeds consciously to provoke him by noting his jealousy of her strength of character and ridiculing his attitudetowardwomen. 5 “Hesayswomenarelikeaspring;theyneedtobesteppedon,” she caustically tells us, causing Marwan to rush into the room in hisown defense. Sahar may partly be trying to wear down Marwan in a battleover her behavior and her desire to advance a somewhat vague plan of hers to open a shop in the house. However, she is also treating us to abravura performance of a self-described but socially defined character trait:being   awiyye   ( qawiyye  , strong).How did a young bride become a strong adult in very constrictedcircumstances? What does it mean to be a strong woman in Sahar’s con-ditions, and what mark does she make on the canvas of family life andrelations? How does she incorporate the hostile world around her intoher family and social world, and how does she interact with it? In whatI term the  domesticated tales   of the third interview, Sahar delights indisplaying her personality as   awiyye  : her narratives yield a repertoire of rhetorical and life tactics (closely related)—including boasting, exagger-ation,deflation,domestication,andinversion—wherethestructuraleventsthat dominate and often constrict her life and the hostile world that sur-rounds her are domesticated into Sahar’s world, or even overturned, if  to the checkpoints to try to save their children—as Abu Taysir did unsuccessfully with hisson, who “slipped out of his grasp” and went to throw stones at the soldiers. 5 Talaq   is the unilateral divorce of the wife by the husband, but only when a  talaq   ispronounced three times (generally on separate occasions) is it irrevocable. Divorce laws inthe West Bank and Gaza are based on Islamic law.  S I G N S Spring 2007  ❙  601 only for the duration of an anecdote. 6 These victories are more like punchlines, however, than steady advances in her or her family’s welfare. Hermost stable achievement—acquiring after nine years of living and quar-reling with her in-laws the independent house in which we meet—is thesubject of a triumphant tale but is also, as we shall see, overshadowed by the large and catastrophic public events around her: her house as a refugefrom the instabilities and interference of the public world may be increas-ingly important, but dangers encroach nonetheless.ByexaminingthreeofSahar’sdomesticatedtales—herstruggletobreak free from living with her in-laws and to establish an independent home,her arrangements for the marriage of her brother to a holder of a prizedIsraeli identity card, and the recent arrest of her husband at the Kalandiacheckpoint—I will attempt to understand how Sahardeploysbeing   awiyye  as a narrative and life tactic that turns to her advantage, in a phrase of Michel de Certeau, the abundant and diverse “forces alien or hostile”(1984, xii) to her, whether in-laws who deplore her loud voice and quar-relsome ways or the Israeli occupation forces who imprison her husband.But Sahar also tells other kinds of tales—dark tales of public immorality,dissolution, and danger, both in the city of Ramallah and on the homeground of the camp. From other interviews in the camp, we know thatthese tales, in numerous versions, circulated incessantly through the campfor several years: a tentative hypothesis is that these tales are in some sensecollectively produced by a community trying to come to terms with thecollapse of political (and moral) authority around them and with omni-present danger. The concluding section of this essay will explore the re-lationship between Sahar’s narratives that celebrate her own strength anddomesticate or subdue the hostile world around her and these collectively produced legends of danger and immorality. The latter invoke a logic of necessity whose everyday effect is to convince Sahar to confine her daugh-ters to the house after school and impose restrictions on their freedomdespiteherambitionsfortheirfuture.Saharseemspartlytobereproducingin her daughters the subordination she has suffered in her own life.  awiyye : Strength as a tactic against adversity Sahar’s is perhaps a typical life for a married Palestinian woman living ina refugee camp, constricted as much by war and occupation as by matters 6 I am here indebted to Michel de Certeau’s notion of tactics as everyday practices of the weak that manipulate events—here through speech—to win a temporary advantage overthe dominant powerful.
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