On 15 May, the world’s longest keffiyeh, or scarf, was made in Lebanon to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the naqba – the Palestinian “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel. Jack Brockbank, an adjudicator from Guinness World Records, formally announced that the chain of scarves, sewn by volunteers, measured more than 6,552 metres and had beaten last year’s Spanish entry (2,932 metres). It took him two and a half hours to measure it. The Palestinian struggle has its lighter side.
This was the first large-scale naqba commemoration event in Lebanon that was not organised under the auspices of any political faction. It was a civil and independent project, initiated by the Campaign for the Protection of the Right of Return. Its founder, Walid Taha, was aiming to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees all over the world, whose right of return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, still has not been implemented. The keffiyeh was laid out in Beirut’s Sports City football stadium in the shape of the number 194. “Palestinians insist on Resolution 194,” Taha said.
The black-and-white keffiyeh is one of many images that have come to symbolise Palestinian national identity and the struggle for human rights and independence. Others include the keys – still kept by refugees – to the homes they fled in 1948; the map of Palestine worn as a pendant; the traditional cross-stitch embroidery; and the Handala cartoon character, created by the assassinated cartoonist Naji al-Ali.
While the keffiyeh-style scarf adorns many a fashionista’s neck in the west, it has a prodigious Palestinian history. Usually worn by farmers and peasants for protection from the sun, it spread to the cities and became a symbol of resistance during the strikes of the 1930s, when Palestinians protested against accelerated Jewish immigration under the British Mandate. Country people joked that the townsmen, who normally wore a tarboosh or fez, couldn’t tie a keffiyeh competently.
Paradoxically, with its current popularity around the world, the keffiyeh is increasingly being mass-produced in China or India, putting some small Palestinian weaving factories out of business.
Besides drawing attention to Resolution 194, Taha had a secondary aim: to fight for social and civil rights for Palestinian refugees in their host countries. They suffer discrimination in Lebanon, where the half-million or so officially registered refugees are denied the right to work in a number of professions and to buy or inherit property. They have little access to the country’s health-care system. Many Lebanese oppose the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees, fearful that this would raise the number of Sunnis and reduce the Christian population to an even smaller minority.
The suspicion of Palestinians dates from the 1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) conducted its campaign of military resistance to Israel from Lebanon and played an essential role in the Lebanese civil war until Israel invaded the country in 1982, forcing the PLO into exile in Tunisia.
The refugees at the Nahr al-Bared camp, near Tripoli, have suffered further displacement and hardships since 2007, when the camp was destroyed by the Lebanese army. The armed forces claimed that it had been infiltrated by mostly non-Palestinian Fatah al-Islam militants, who were inspired by (though not necessarily organisationally linked to) al-Qaeda.
Imad Audi, from Nahr al-Bared, attending the Beirut commemoration, could not understand why the destroyed camp remains a militarised zone and why his family is still enduring indignities two years after losing its home. “Why do I need a permit just to go to my own home?” he asked. The reconstruction of the camp is being blighted by legal and political delays, as well as insufficient funding, and residents remain in makeshift homes.
Although some Palestinian refugees – especially the Christians – were granted Lebanese citizenship as early as 1948, most remain without nationality and without rights. Palestinians often feel ambivalent about naturalisation, anxious that it would somehow weaken their right to return to their homeland. By any legal and moral standard, however, naturalisation is not in conflict with either the right of return or compensation. As Taha said: “We need civil rights in order to struggle more effectively for our right of return.”
The presentation of the Guinness World Record certificate to the organisers was greeted by cheers from the crowd, which consisted mostly of children and youth groups from many of the 12 UN refugee camps in Lebanon. The party at the stadium included a programme of folk songs and dabke dancing. Although it had the celebratory feel of a national day, it was also solemn, the commemoration of a national defeat. In a stage enactment of a traditional wedding, the singing and dancing were interrupted by Israeli bombs and soldiers.
It was the second time that Jack Brockbank had been to Lebanon in the past few weeks. An Israeli claim in January to the world’s largest plate of hummus provoked the outrage of the Lebanese, whose culinary expertise is a source of pride. To redress the affront, they produced a record-breaking bowl of hummus of their own on 8 May, and topped it off with the world’s largest plate of falafel the following day. It’s one thing to occupy people’s land, but it’s a bridge too far to lay claim to their cuisine as well.