CHAPTER II: THE BEKAA VALLEY
“The rules you knew don’t matter; where you come from means nothing; observe and learn your new normal.”
Every country has its own set of rules. The degree to which you are destined to experience discomfort will always be contingent upon the speed at which you can abandon whatever you understood about the last place you were. The rules you knew don’t matter; where you come from means nothing; observe and learn your new normal.
A cigarette dangled from our driver’s lips, smoke wafting out of the car window as Beirut’s skyline shrank in the rearview mirror. I felt my head cock to the side and my face dawn an uncontrollable look of confusion at the sight of a car stopped in what would normally be the fast lane of a highway. The driver had decided this was a fitting place to change a flat tire. Michael, our driver and second fixer, simply swerved around them at a speed I dared not estimate. I looked at him disbelievingly; his answering look said, “What’s odd about this?” New location, new normal.
We wove through traffic on highways whose lanes were more suggestions than laws for over an hour, heading east toward the Bekaa Valley. Before I arrived Suzan and I had agreed it would be cheaper and better for me to base myself in Beirut and drive to the various locations each day to film. My plan was to allocate certain days for filming and certain days for shooting stills. To try and tell the story of long-term displacement, I was hoping to spend time with two different groups in Lebanon. The first were the Syrian refugees.
“…an estimated 1.5 million Syrians have been forced to flee into neighboring Lebanon. The Bekaa Valley sits just at the threshold…”
Since 2011 an extraordinarily violent and complicated civil war has been unfolding in Syria. Consequently, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians have been forced to flee into neighboring Lebanon. The Bekaa Valley sits just at the threshold of the border, and has thus become one of the highest concentration points for the Syrian diaspora.
Unfortunately, this already terrible humanitarian crisis is wrought with additional layers of complication. Because of political alliances between the Lebanese government and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the citizens fleeing into Lebanon are not officially recognized as refugees, and thus exist technically as illegal immigrants.
To make matters still more complicated, there is no central authority attempting to house the millions of people fleeing. Instead, individual NGOs from different countries operate unofficial camps. These organizations often rent out portions of land from local farmers and, depending on their budget, erect somewhere between 50 and 200 tents or shacks. The refugees themselves have to pay rent for these tents because the NGOs often lack the funding to fully support the influx of people trying to escape the war.
But the Syrians, being neither official refugees nor legal citizens in Lebanon, are not legally allowed to work. The politics of their legal status has therefore created a desperate black market labor situation where most Syrians are forced to take unlawful low-wage jobs just to make enough money to pay rent on the tents they are housed in.
“The refugees themselves have to pay rent for these tents because the NGOs often lack the funding to fully support the influx of people trying to escape the war.”
As we descended the winding road into the Bekaa Valley the bite of the air grew sharper. Here on the east side of the country, far away from the sea, the breeze steals water from your skin and the sun lays down what feels like a chorus of hammers. Every surface seems to shimmer with heat.
To gain access to each small camp, Suzan and I would have to repeat a dance I was soon to become familiar with. Each camp is overseen by a “shawish”, traditionally a man, who acts as the leader or president of each individual camp. He alone has the right to determine if you can enter and work in the camp, which means that at each camp we would have to first consult the shawish. This played out like a form of courtship. Suzan would explain things about me, the nature of what I was trying to understand, and would often crack jokes with him. We would all frequently share cigarettes and sometimes coffee. My job was to appear at once confident that I deserved to be there and utterly humbled to be a guest in this person’s village, a feat I attempted through an elaborate display of smiling, being exceedingly gracious about the quality of the coffee, and giving them as many cigarettes as they liked.
If our choreography was successful, we were free to go and I could ask and film whatever I wanted within the realm of the small camp. But if and when I wanted to film at the other small camp across the street, the whole process had to start again.