Karantina: City of Outsiders
I only knew of Karantina because as an undergrad student trying to get to university in Beirut, I used to drive through it in order to bypass the suffocating traffic that builds up around the bit of Emile Lahoud highway stretching from the sea side road exit, till the Forum de Beyrouth. Back then, zigzagging through Karantina got me all the way to the road past the Lebanese immigrant to Mexico memorial, passing the harbor and major traffic. I must have used that route a thousand times, maybe more, but it’d be disingenuous if I said I properly knew what was in Karantina, or what it had meant over the years.
Fast forward a few years, and a couple of political awakenings, and I found myself in Karantina again, this time with a friend of mine trying to purchase some wood pallets. We were told we could find them there on the cheap. Karantina sits just south of the port of Beirut, on the western bank of the Beirut River, and is riddled with harbor and shipping material, abandoned freights and so on. We bought a couple, loaded them up in the jeep, and began to slowly drive out of the neighborhood when I noticed something out of place.
Written in black graffiti, on the wall of what appeared to be a worn down garage was the word Dara’a درعا , at first I was vexed as to why the name of the southern Syrian city which launched the Syrian revolution and subsequent crisis can be found on the wall of some decrepit old building on the edge of Beirut. It seemed out of place, I stepped out of the car, took a photograph of the wall, then, tempted to know more, I walked into a nearby convenience store and spoke to the owner, who was Syrian, and so was everyone else inside the store, one thing led to another and then I realized the entire area housed Syrian refugees that had been displaced due to the conflict. They were almost hidden. On another corner in Karantina you could also read in black graffiti, slogans denouncing Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah which has been a participant in the Syrian conflict and ardent supporter of the Syrian president Bashar el Assad. The only thing out of place it seemed was my lack of basic history.
Karantina is no stranger to refugees, in 1915, fleeing persecution and genocide at the hand of Ottoman forces, Armenian survivors settled on the extremities of east Beirut, just below the port where they were quarantined in makeshift tents, hence the name Karantina . The land was mostly made up of marshes, it had a small Bedouin population and a slaughterhouse which you can still find there today but has been shifted to the eastern banks of the Beirut river. A second wave of Armenians landed on the shores of Karantina in 1922 as part of the Treaty of Ankara which meant French authorities would cede control of Cilicia to Turkey in exchange for its approval of French control of Greater Syria . These refugees had powerful backers such as the Armenian Catholic Church and the League of Nations , and soon with help from Lebanese authorities, achieved full citizenship rights and relocated throughout the 1920s and early 1930s to more stable and permanent grounds just east of the Beirut river to an area called Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon’s modern Armenian cultural hub. A fire broke out in 1933 destroying the last remaining housing units left in Karantina .
It wasn’t long before new populations moved into the area however. In 1948 with the declaration of the State of Israel, thousands of Palestinians were exiled, forcedly displaced outside of Palestine as a result of the subsequent Nakbah. Many relocated north towards Lebanon, setting up multiple refugee settlements. One of these settlements was established in Karantina, which between 1948 and 1975 mushroomed into one of the more prominent Palestinian refugee camps in the country. However, these refugees did not receive a similarly kind welcome by their Lebanese hosts, despite a few exceptions they were mostly barred from having citizenship rights and were confined to owning property solely inside the camps . The onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and flare up of tensions between Christian Maronites and Palestinian militias brought the war to the doorsteps of the camp. On January 18, 1976, the camp was raised by the combined Christian forces of the Lebanese Front , massacring over 1500 residents some of whom were Lebanese Muslims as well. One of the militia commanders on that day, Dany Chamoun, son of former Lebanese president Camille Chamoun, claimed that his forces were simple trying to reclaim private property, that the refugees had been trespassing and jeopardizing the economic value of the land. Chamoun even did an interview after the massacre, denying it ever took place, chillingly stating, in his commanding low pitch British educated English accent, “A very concise military operation was taken and they were given free access and transportation out of here. What made it seem ruthless because we cleared the shanties out of here. This is private property and now it can be used for development. We are desperately short of land and I’m sure the people will use it for proper development.”  Armed Palestinian factions later retaliated to the Karantina massacre by committing one themselves a few days after in the Christian village of Damour .
40 years later, Karantina still attracts refugees, this time Syrian, who settled here in early 2013 as part of the first mass movements of Syrians fleeing the conflict back home . They’ve largely received the Palestinian treatment rather than the Armenian one. Though four decades have passed the prevalent narrative surrounding Syrian refugees is eerily similar to that concerning the Palestinians in 1976.
Ever since Syrian refugees relocated to Lebanon, its politicians and stakeholders willingly chose not to react or set up some form of contingency plan, all the while saturating the airways with tropes and tempestuous remarks claiming their very presence endangered the fragile notion of Lebanese identity and fortitude. According to them these refugees live off Lebanese lands, consuming Lebanese resources, barely contributing to Lebanese society. They were trespassers free loading over the generosity of their hosts. A burden, a ticking time bomb, some even exclaimed, they must be dealt sooner rather than later, or else nothing will be left of Lebanon or its Lebanese. Yet they did nothing settling on the dumbfounding strategy that if you ignore a problem it might miraculously disappear. All that vitriol was bound to lead to some form of concrete action. Today we have Lebanese towns imposing curfews on all Syrians residing within their boundaries, preventing them from moving around freely, every now and then you come across on social media of a new video showing Lebanese people harassing or beating up some Syrian refugee, all the while you recently learn that refugee camps in Beqaa mysteriously catch fire some way or somehow forcing already desperate people into even graver circumstances.
Chawki Azouri, a Lebanese journalist, described Karantina as a “city of outsiders”. Over the past century it has received countless of those fleeing harm and persecution, but it has born witness to the horror inflicted on those fleeing by a community unrelenting in its objection to face its past or question the foundations of its identity. The heavy sense of history in Karantina, is only matched by Lebanese community’s denial of what had occurred there or that it even exists. American essayist and novelist James Baldwin once said something along the line that history is not some mere impersonal repertoire of events one archives and cites for pleasure but rather that it is a force, like gravity, that is constantly around us and manifests itself within us. History pins us down and won’t let us go. Unless we are willing to reckon with our past and recreate ourselves within it, we might soon find history knocking on our door. Until then, I can only hope that the current dwellers of Karantina remain hidden.
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