DAY 11: Celebrating sacrifice in Shatila

Day 11 of CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed's blog from Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where she is making a web documentary for CBC and Radio-Canada about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Nov. 16 —  I knocked on Salima's door at 6 a.m. sharp. When it cracked open, I saw four faces beaming at me, but no one was ready yet.

"Come on in!" cried Salima. "Have some coffee while you wait. We'll be ready right away."

The Barakah women had been up all night, catching up on news and preparing to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday known as the Festival of the Sacrifice that marks the end of the Hajj period.

Salima Barakah, far left, and her three sisters mourn two of their siblings who died in the 1985-86 war of the camps. It is traditional for families to begin the first day of Eid al-Adha at dawn at the cemetery, honouring the dead. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Shortly, we were walking along with the four Barakah sisters as they made their way on foot to the outskirts of Shatila, joining hundreds of others on one of the few occasions that residents leave the camp in such large numbers.

Eid al-Adha may be a celebration for the living, but the first day always begins with an early morning remembrance of the dead.

The Barakah sisters had graciously invited us to walk along with them to the main Palestinian cemetery, which sits just outside Shatila. When we arrived, it was already heaving with people.

A man reads the Koran at the grave of a loved one in a cemetery just outside Shatila. Some of the graves are adorned with rehan, or heaven's flower, a basil-like herb mentioned in the Koran. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

Amid the throng of mourners, beggars clad in black sat at the entrance, hands extended, while others walked around with brooms and jugs of water offering to clean tombs for money. Some stalked the rows of tombs asking for cash, promising to offer their prayers for your dearly departed if you'd only show some generosity.

The air was thick with incense and rehan, or heaven's flower, a basil-like herb mentioned in the Koran that Muslims place on graves. The sisters approached several tombs with upturned palms, praying for the souls of their mother, two siblings and all those who died in past wars.

A butcher carves up a lamb minutes after it was slaughtered for the Eid al-Adha festival. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Other people swept tombs, placed flowers on graves, read the Koran or silently wept.

As the grave visitations ended, Shatila's alleys slowly came back to life.

On one commercial street, throngs of people gathered around a couple of butchers slaying lambs bought by families for the traditional sacrifice that takes place during Eid. At one stall, a man put a knife to a lamb's neck while a butcher expertly carved another animal into pieces nearby, parcelling the meat out into plastic bags to be given to relatives and the poor.

Some of the children, meanwhile, emerged from their homes wearing new clothes, hair combed, new toys in their clutches. Many of the girls wore makeup and carried small purses into which they stashed the Lebanese lira notes they received as Eid gifts. Boys jostled with each other, many of them carrying toy guns in various sizes, shooting pellets at anything that moved.

By mid-morning, dozens of children had descended upon a humble amusement park with creaky, rusting rides, to make use of their newfound cash. A short distance away, other children spent their money on horseback and scooter rides. In the background sat a decimated building, a reminder of the 1985-86 conflict known as the war of the camps. Next to that, another unofficial garbage dump simmered in the heat.

We ran into many of the people we have met and interviewed for our web documentary over the past week and a half. Several of them were off to see family in other parts of Shatila, even other parts of Beirut and Lebanon. Others were simply out enjoying a stroll on their day off work.

A girl dressed in new clothes she got for Eid al-Adha takes a picture of a merry-go-round. Children also receive money for Eid, which they spend on sweets and rides at the camp's humble amusement park. ((Nahlah Ayed/CBC))

They all beamed with smiles, shaking our hands and inviting us to their homes.

"Yinad aleekum," they said, which essentially translates as, 'I hope you see another of these holidays again.'

"Come by, so we can offer you Eid sweets."

But even with all the excitement, Shatila was still Shatila.

A woman with unruly hair wearing old clothes opened her tiny grocery store as usual, watching as dozens of people, tears in their eyes, walked in and out of the mass grave across the lane.

The "express" stalls we have come to know were open early, their owners already brewing coffee.

A handful of children played in the alleys as they always do — in dirty clothes and among already growing piles of garbage. (The six garbagemen in Shatila are on holidays for three more days, and residents told us the piles will nearly block the alleys by then.)

A woman accepts a donation of lamb sacrificed for Eid al-Adha. During Eid, organizations, businesses and even individuals share lamb with the poor and the elderly. ((Nahlah Ayed/ CBC) )

In a few days, Eid will be over. The cemeteries, both inside and outside Shatila, might not be as full as they were today, but they will remain, as always, within sight of most of the residents.

Just before we left for the day, we ran into Khaled Abu Al Noor, a member of one of the Palestinian parties active in the camp and one of the first people we met when we arrived.

"Eid is for the children," he said. "For the rest of us, the happiness of Eid is absent."

And yet, incredibly, despite everything, just about every one we met today managed a smile.

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