The Derivative is a bi-annual online publication launched in October 2020, in the midst of unprecedented political, social, economic, and environmental collapse in Lebanon. It is an attempt at building collective vocabularies, registers, and practices able to account for and run against the systemic onslaught we are faced with.

The Derivative is a student of the uprising of Oct 17, 2019; it is first and foremost a rhizomatic object around which to mobilize a diversity of praxes. Experimenting with collective editorial models, each issue is above all an excuse to think and make together and a way to expand and strengthen networks of friends and allies through divergent modes of address, thought, and action.

Every issue of The Derivative starts with three guest editors, each assigned a theme in the form of a three-letter root word (جذر) in Arabic. Each editor then collaborates with five contributors to help unfold the various facets of each theme, as well as an artist contribution responding to each text.

Our Little Palestine: Excerpts from the Diary of a Siege

Abdallah Al-Khatib

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

Abdallah al-Khatib was born and raised in the Yarmouk camp that houses Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. His friend Hassan Hassan was actively involved in the peaceful uprising that swept Syria in 2011. An aspiring filmmaker, he also assiduously documented the uprising in and outside the confines of the Yarmouk camp. On the day he attempted to leave the camp, Hassan entrusted Abdallah al-Khatib with his camera. He was seized shortly after by the security apparatus of the Assad regime and died at their hands. Al-Khatib filmed until the residents of Yarmouk were evacuated. Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege premiered in April 2021, what follows are excerpts from the notes al-Khatib drafted during the film’s fabrication.

– Rasha Salti


“Siege is a long and dull imprisonment that does not end behind the iron tracks of a cell, but rather stretches out like a desert on a summer’s day. Siege is a path that leads to madness or suicide; to be saved, you have to find an idea worth living for”.

I wrote these sentences at the beginning of the siege; they were perhaps one of the most compelling motivations for me to film and document daily life in the Yarmouk Camp. I wanted to document the impact of the siege, psychologically and socially, on its inhabitants, how it transformed their temperament and contrived their lives down paths they had not imagined, compelled from a mundane quotidian to harsh and ruthless schemes.

I was certainly not the only person to pick up a camera and wander the streets of the camp, looking for a scene ripe for capture. However, I was the only person who refused to disseminate my footage on social media and news outlets without reference to the context and the stories of the victims I was filming, victims I count myself among. The film seemed the only way for me to lodge the memory of the Yarmouk Camp in the world’s consciousness as a brand of shame in the twenty-first century. My grandmother told me once: “If you don’t continue to remember the dead and talk about them, they die a second time, my dear.” In order for the friends I lost during the war and the siege not to die again, I made a film. In order to remember how the people of Yarmouk lived, what they did during the siege, and how many gave their lives for a cause they believed in–or died for, tortured in the prisons of Assad’s regime– I made a film.

The film is the victim’s right to not die silently, to not be a mere number mentioned in a news segment. The people murdered in Yarmouk have names, stories, private lives, and a world of hopes and aspirations. The film was also my right to tell my own story, a means to reclaim the psychological equilibrium I lost during the war, to protect my own memory from slipping into forgetting and my mind from slipping into madness. The film is a missive from the inhabitants of Yarmouk Camp, they resisted the siege until it ended, and they did not end with it.

***

Some claim that the Yarmouk Camp is the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. This so-called camp, stretching south of the Syrian capital Damascus, was not made of stones or tents. Rather, it was (and remains) an idea that resists explanation just as stubbornly as it resisted death. Before the Syrian Revolution, Yarmouk was a place bursting with love and creativity, a reservoir of energy, housing the largest concentration of Palestinians outside of Palestine. At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March of 2011, the camp sheltered thousands of displaced Syrians and provided a haven for many activists. In 2012, assisted by Russian MiG jets, the Syrian regime launched a campaign of aerial bombardment and set up checkpoints to place the camp under a siege that would last for five and a half years and end with the forced expulsion of the camp’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the siege began when all the roads were blocked and incoming traffic to the camp was prohibited, or it might have started when bakeries and shops were forced to shut down and all food and medicine disappeared. Strangely, these actions did not seem to prevent people from going about their daily lives, as if all these measures were not directed against them. Every morning, they’d go out on hours-long journeys to get the five loaves of flat bread and the kilo or two of vegetables permitted per household. The goods were allowed into the camp after administering humiliation, briefly or at length depending on the mood of the masked security personnel who manned the checkpoint at the entrance to the camp. The checkpoint became symbolically known as the “Rafah Crossing Number 2”.

On the first day of Ramadan in 2013, without warning, the security officers prohibited people from returning to the camp after their trip to the market. A decree had been issued to close off the camp entirely and prevent any food and medicine from becoming available inside. The pleas of the women and men (among whom was my father) were useless. Many had left their children alone inside the camp while they journeyed outside to find food. The following day, the supply of electricity and water was cut off. The camp was locked shut with thirty-thousand residents inside it, many of whom were children and elderly. And so, simply through the writ of a decree signed by someone from the regime, the Yarmouk Camp was transformed from a civilized urban space that breathed the same air as Damascus into a scrap of geography outside of time–the inhabitants were sent back to an era that preceded the Middle Ages. This decree transformed me from a sociology student with plans to research post-modern societies into an observer of societal collapse and pre-state-formation relations.

***

The word siege acquired a different symbolic significance; when people uttered it, it was as if they had become detached from its reality. They were no longer talking about toppling the regime, building a new world, or any of the other things that were supposed to happen in the aftermath of our insurgency. They even stopped thinking about their destroyed homes. Instead, everyone talked about one thing, the simultaneous absence of certainty and absolute conviction that the siege would be defeated. It was as if they were battling a sort of mythological beast named “the siege”–which they really were. That’s how things started. None of us thought that we were on course for a series of defeats that not even our worst nightmares could ever upstage or wipe away.

Perhaps I too was as enthusiastic as they were. Towards the beginning of the siege, I repeated the famous verse: “Surround your siege with madness…and more and more madness still”. But I had not realized at the time that madness would become much more than a metaphor; everything certain about reality became distant, and madness would come to fill this symbolic distance. A voice inside me began to tell me that defeating the siege of Yarmouk would be an act of reclaiming history, since this siege stretched back to those that were crushed in the Tel al-Zaatar camp in 1976 and in Beirut in 1982. Similarly, and without any prompts, most of the elderly who had left Palestine seventy years earlier announced spontaneously that they refused to leave the camp because it had transformed into a new Palestine, besieged by an enemy that had finally revealed its true face. That’s how the symbolic vocabulary of Palestinians inside the camp was re-assembled to overcome the siege.

The perception of the challenge spilled everywhere, to the extent that we organized a football tournament inside the camp at the same time as people collapsed from hunger. It was as if we were wilfully ignoring death and refusing to show our tears when confronted with our enemy. The regime responded by placing baskets of bread outside the entrance to the camp in an astounding display of sadism to punish those who dared to exhibit signs of happiness within the camp.

Still from “Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege”, 2021. Courtesy of the director.

***

History cannot lie to me. From the stories of the siege of Tel al-Zaatar and Beirut, images surged in my consciousness, and I could see them in front of me in Yarmouk. People began to starve, they looked for dogs to eat, which in turn were starving and looking for cats to eat, which were also starving. At night, the wailing of hungry children prevented us from sleeping. Men left their houses fleeing hunger in anger, walking alone or in groups to the place where the vegetable market once stood. They vacillated, hunched from hunger in deserted and empty streets that were once filled with food, searching for edible weeds. Eventually, they found cactuses and prepared them for eating.

Whenever I thought we had hit rock bottom, I would be surprised by how the next day would turn out to be worse.

***

Death became a constant visitor. The trip to the cemetery became a daily ritual that people grew accustomed to, just as a child becomes habituated to going to school every day. Everyone thought they would die the following day.

***

The siege became our daily companion; we stopped thinking about how to rid ourselves of it or whether there was any way to do so. Everyone learnt to cope with it. We didn’t know that by doing so we were also resisting, each in our own way.

***

The increase in the rate of marriage, hardly in keeping with reality, was befuddling. Perhaps it was one of the ways ordinary people expressed their desire for life in the face of the death machine. As if they told the killer: “If you scorch the earth, we’ll still plant on the sides of the road. And if you kill our children, then we still have mothers who can give birth to more.” Marriage was the secret aspiration of the besieged: both men and women yearned to gather their quotidian losses and disillusionments and bury them in a bed of love. It was their desire to publicly mock the whole world. It was the camp shouting: “You killed me, and I forgot to die.”

***

Between the end of the day and the coming of another, there were evenings of music and song spent in temporary houses, those of us activists; between the end of a round of shelling and another oncoming, between the end of a spell of hunger and another oncoming, between mourning of one death and the next one oncoming.

***

The Yarmouk Piano was mounted on metal wheels and transported through the streets of the camp, accompanied by a group of young musicians singing, playing, and filming among the destruction. Those images were then uploaded to YouTube in the hope that the world would watch and listen, in the hope that they might provoke some kind of action to end the siege and save us from death. But nothing happened…

***

The siege shattered all sorts of social relations. Nevertheless, my mother and all the other women working in the camp whose roles had changed drastically, became like battering rams to break the siege. It was as if the people were understanding just how tough they were for the first time. In spite of the weight of patriarchal values reinforced by the war, these women were able to say and do whatever they wanted without the slightest fear or shyness. My mother did not hesitate to drive around on her little motorbike to reach the old people scattered throughout the camp, oblivious to social pressures weighing down on her.

***

My mother, Umm Mahmoud, was separated from her husband after he was forbidden from entering the camp and subsequently arrested. My mother, like many others, had been a housewife before the siege. She raised her sons, overseeing their education, spending her time moving between the different rooms of her home, managing with care and calm everyday life in her household. Suddenly she was transformed; first, she became Umm Mahmoud the nurse. She would set out on a tour of all the camp’s wounded first thing in the morning, offering jokes, food and medicine. Shortly thereafter, she set up an organization to take care of the camp’s elderly, the generation that survived the Nakba, displaced from Palestine seventy years earlier. They were amazing at spreading hope, and they were the very same people who refused to leave their houses in the camp, having learnt, all too well, that those who leave their houses never return.

***

Abu Ra’fat was part of that group. Abu Ra’fat was the kind of person who could make you cry and laugh at the same time. He was a summary of disparate bygone eras, the Nakba, the Naksa, the siege of Beirut, and all the other woes that have buffeted Palestinians over generations. Abu Ra’fat incarnated a concentrate of what it means to be a Palestinian refugee over the course of decades and one of the faces of hope that promises life and joy in the shadow of death reigning over the skies of the camp. With Abu Ra’fat, we laughed until we cried and we cried to the point of laughter.

***

There were days during the siege when pessimism grabbed a firm hold of me, and despair plunged me to the lowest of depths. I became cranky, irritated by the pettiest things. When that state overwhelmed me, my antidote was to go to where children gathered, to observe their laughter and the manner in which they mocked the siege. I would film them and film myself with them, laugh with them and let them laugh at me; then, I would return home and bellow “I am optimistic!” A word of caution however: cheerfulness may calm hunger and thwart it, but it will never succeed in silencing it. A hungry child can only be silenced by food. You can run away from a rocket and hide in a bomb shelter, but you can’t flee hunger, there’s no shelter from it, there is no haven from its pounding.

***

The siege will force you to eat anything, even rotting bread; or cactus leaves; grass deemed fit for cattle grazing only, and grass that even livestock refuse to eat. You will learn to treat weeds as if they were something sacred, a blessing from above, because weeds will faithfully be there for you up until your death. You learn not to step on anything because you might have to eat it a few days later.

***

The siege taught me to film and write. The daytime was for filming and night time for writing. I enshrined these tasks to myself so that my experiences would not be fleeting. They were also the lifejackets saving me from madness. The siege made me wear a clown’s mask to make the children in the camp laugh; in return, they taught me to appreciate the spontaneity of life which I was on the verge of forgetting. As it dragged over countless days, the siege had the capacity to drain the optimism from your face and fill it with despair.

***

The film ends with the end of the siege, when the camp’s inhabitants are forcibly expelled. In mid-May 2018, the Syrian regime supported by their Russian allies, launched a battle that they claimed was intended to liberate the camp from the hold of ISIS, that had seized control on April 1st, 2015. That battle did not end until the entire camp was destroyed, dozens of innocent residents killed, and the remainder of the inhabitants forcibly displaced to other areas in Syria. My mother left for Yalda, a suburb of Damascus, after her friend Abu Khalid, the ambulance driver, was killed. ISIS fighters were escorted by the regime to Suweyda in southern Syria, in airconditioned busses.

***

Today, the camp is a pile of rubble comprised of debris and the dreams of the besieged camp’s inhabitants. To me, as to the residents of the camp, Yarmouk is Palestine until we can return to Palestine.

***

I left Damascus to northern Syria, and from there I continued to Turkey. My journey ended in a camp in Berlin, Germany, exiled from my land and from my language.


I would like to thank Ahmad Amro for his valuable contribution assisting with writing and editing the original text of this dossier.