Living in Palestinian Yarmouk

13 Sep 2009 admin

We moved to Yarmouk Camp the other week.

The first month in Damascus, I lived in an ancient house in the middle of the Old City in Damascus, half a block from the enormous Omayed Mosque. Sitting on our roof terrace at dusk, I blogged while watching the bats swoop and dive around the Bride’s Minaret and Jesus’ Minaret, chasing bees only slightly smaller than my thumb. The mosque was the academic and political centre of the Omayed’s empire, as the armies rode west, conquering all of North Africa and Spain (even reaching the Rhone valley in France) in the 7th and 8th century.

But now I’ve moved to Yarmouk – a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus. I can still watch the bats swooping from my balcony. Though here they circle over streets packed with shoppers and kids at 1am, out shopping till late to make the Ramadan fast that bit easier. Palestinian camps – whether in Lebanon, Syria or the Occupied Territories – are densely-crowded suburbs with high buildings and narrow alleys. Good for escaping invading soldiers, but bad for avoiding damp walls – those living on the ground floor can easily feel that the sun doesn’t shine in the camp.

Population estimates for Yarmouk vary widely – it was already the largest camp in Syria with 150,000 Palestinians and a similar number of poor Syrians living here as well. Then the arrival of tens of thousands of Iraqi families after the 2003 US invasion probably doubled the residents.

Our flat is on the permanently jammed up main thoroughfare through the camp, right next to the large Waseem Mosque (“Handsome Mosque”). The call to prayer feels at points like it will shatter my eardrums, though the hour-long amplified chanting at 3am is surprisingly soothing. The shop below us specialises in coffee and chocolate, so coming home I’m invariably greeted with the smell of freshly-ground Brazilian and Guatemelan beans – lovely if only I didn’t have a deep distaste for coffee.

As anywhere, Yarmouk is a jumble of different tastes, noises, emotions and people: mosques surrounded by jasmine bushes, fancy clothes boutiques, many scrawny little kids begging, sweet shops selling delicious Nabulsi knaffe, 24-hour internet cafes, 24-hour weed sellers, 2 alcohol shops that close for the whole of Ramadan, trees full of turtle doves gobbling berries, leftist film-screenings and parties, pious men in white jelabiyas heading to the mosque, crazy cyclists careening the wrong way down the road without brakes, Fateh, Hamas and PFLP posters, and a longing to go home to Palestine.

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