Nov. 6, 2010 — The young man cleaning his front stoop was polite, but firm.
"Don't take my picture," he said as soon as he noticed my camera pointing in his direction. I lowered the lens with a smile, and we walked past.
In another alley, two teenage boys also stopped us to ask the same. They had been innocuously dodging passersby while playing a game of soccer when we brandished our cameras, and they didn't like it.
It is not an unfamiliar situation: as journalists we often come across people — from Haiti to India to the streets of Montreal — who are camera shy. But it seems the people of Shatila are particularly so.
In the case of that first young man, I thought I understood why: perhaps out of embarrassment for his situation, maybe even a bit of vanity. Who would want to be photographed or filmed while doing chores, never mind in the midst of a slum? Wouldn't be my first choice. Nor was it for a throng of Haitian women I once saw washing their clothes out on the street soon after January's earthquake. It was early morning and the line of them sitting on the sidewalk in the first rays of sun made for a breathtaking image, and we stopped to capture it. They promptly shooed us away.
Nahlah Ayed's Shatila blog
- Day 1: En route to Beirut
- Day 2: Small signs of progress
- Day 3: Sharing details, but with dignity
- Day 4: Artifacts of exile
- Day 5: Shatila's space problem
- Day 6: Camp politics
- Day 7: A litany of woes
- Day 8: Talking about Arafat
- Day 9: Dreaming big in Shatila
- Day 10: Living with the trauma of camp life
- Day 11: Celebrating sacrifice in Shatila
- Day 12: Stuck in Shatila
I get that. But what's wrong with playing soccer in an alley? Why did the elderly woman selling vegetables at one shady corner of Shatila insist I take my camera and go away?
The answer came up in an unrelated conversation today with the director of the Children and Youth Centre in Shatila, Mahmoud Abbas (yes, like the Palestinian Authority's president).
"For 62 years, we have been the target for cameras," he said in between several interruptions from people who needed his attention. "We have people coming from all over the world, some of them it's like they're coming on safari."
He patiently explained that we were just the latest of a slew of filmmakers, journalists, politicians, diplomats, aid workers and tourists who have wandered through the camp to "tell its story," or just to gawk and snap photos. That last bit is especially irksome to the residents, he says.
People here — Abbas included — also harbour a healthy skepticism about the point of such exposure.
"We are marginalized, rejected, thrown aside," he concluded. "People say they're here to tell our story. Sixty-two years later, and they don't know about our people yet?"
The question people ask, adds Abbas, is "What is coming out of all this? What are we getting back?" Still, as busy as he was today, Abbas spent more than an hour telling us about Shatila's sorry condition.
Later, members of a poor family welcomed us warmly into their dank home, and very quickly slipped into a conversation about the poverty they live in, and the health problems they endure.
After sunset, we were invited into a small café. Wisam, the young owner, candidly answered all our questions — explained the hardships young people face, and yet still expressed a surprising amount of hope. An hour later, he insisted we come back again for another chat.
Despite being inundated with visitors, "according to Arab tradition … we always say, 'Welcome'," Abbas had told us.
But the people of Shatila want visitors to treat them with dignity, to allow them to tell their stories on their own terms — if they want to tell them at all.
It does seem that despite their distaste for cameras, people here are eager to talk about their plight, even after all this time.
In other words, things might have turned out differently had I walked up to that young man cleaning his front stoop, and started a conversation first.