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An Other in Her Own Society: What It’s Like To Call Ouzai Home

Originally intended to be developed as a massive touristic site, the area of Ouzai, located on the outskirts of Beirut’s southern suburbs, has become defined by a large, impromptu settlement of people who had originally fled to the area in search of refuge from the violence of Israeli airstrikes in southern Lebanon during the civil war. The illegality of these settlements, paired with occasional violence and poverty, has subsequently manifested an exceedingly negative stereotype of the inhabitants of Ouzai. In an effort to deconstruct such overarching generalizations, I conducted an interview with an Ouzai native, Amina Khansa.1)Name has been changed. Born and raised in Ouzai, Amina has successfully obtained a degree in English literature and works at a school teaching children with special needs. She is no stranger to the discrimination and prejudice that comes along with calling Ouzai, “the slum of Beirut,” home. The following is Amina’s story in her own words.

One of the things Ouzai is most associated with, I suppose, is the big fights that happen from time to time between major families. These clans, they are big, well known, they are very protective of their members. The smallest problem becomes very big if it happens between one clan and another. These well-known families, they seem to make the biggest fights about the smallest things. A car parked in their spot, some bad words said to them, it is stuff like this that they cannot accept. When this happens they want to show they are powerful, they want to show they are men, so they use their weapons. It doesn’t mean they are not good, kind, people, but, I don’t know, this way of thinking, it makes these problems that everyone thinks of when you say Ouzai.

I tell you of these big problems between families, but I’ve lived here my whole life, and not once did I ever not feel safe. You hear these bad stories every once in a while, but my day to day reality living here is one that I love. There is a real sense of family, of community here. All the neighbors know each other, there is always activity, there is never a boring, lonely minute. People, they say Ouzai is not safe, they always speak of thugs and violence, but I disagree. I was never scared while growing up here because I know that there is always someone willing to help. I can give you the simplest example. When I was young, the electricity began to spark while my siblings and I were alone at home. I ran to the window and called out “Please, please help! The electricity is shorting out!” I am not joking when I tell you at least twenty people ran up as fast as they could to help us. There is a beautiful sense of community here. People rush to help and don’t ask for anything in return. In other places this is not so. People see you in trouble, they continue on, they say it is not their business. Not here though. We still have that neighborly kindness that the inner city people have lost.

With this kindness, there is also a great value for respect. I am a girl living here in Ouzai. I know for most people they have this idea that the only thing worse than living in Ouzai, is being a girl and living in Ouzai. There is this stereotype that it is so dangerous for girls, especially, to walk through these streets. They say you will be attacked and disrespected and so on. But believe me, this was never the case! In my entire life here, I can honestly tell you I have never so much as experienced a catcall while walking through the streets. People always say that the men of Ouzai are thugs, they are dirty, they are disrespectful. But I have never experienced anything of the sort in all the time I’ve lived here. Sure, there are the problems I mentioned before, but hurting an innocent person or disrespecting a passerby? Never. You ask me if it is scary living here? Abadan. Not in the slightest.

But maybe, if I think about it, this big sense of family and community can have a negative effect sometimes. It is very easy to fall in love with a community that cares for you so much that you don’t leave, you don’t search for better things. A father will build another floor above his own home for his son. They say, “There is water, there is electricity, he is close to us, it is a home.” There is no need to waste money renting elsewhere. Living like this made way for many different levels of people. There are some very wealthy people living here! They have the most beautiful villas in the southern villages, but they stay here. They say, “We cannot leave… we are used to life here; I am used to my neighbors.” But then there are also the very poor people who live here because they have no other choice, it is the only home they know. These different levels make the area look very weird, and I guess I can understand why it frightens some people. You can be walking by a very nice house and then suddenly everything transforms. Broken buildings from the war, curtains everywhere, no single building is colored the same. People will say wow, these are like the refugee settlements.

“Who lives here? How do they live here?”

But, I mean, it is not fair that people directly think the conditions are like this because we are dirty, or because we don’t care. These issues, they go back to the beginning of the making of Ouzai. Originally Ouzai was meant to be a tourist area. It is located on this beautiful stretch of coastline. It is right by the airport, only a short distance from the famous Rouche. There is even a famous coffee shop named Riba that people always come back to visit. Those in power, the elite, they wanted to develop it for tourists. But, you know, the wars came. People from the South, they came to the city to escape Israeli attacks at the border. Whole villages in the South, they were gone overnight from these attacks. These people, they had nowhere to go, nowhere. So, many began to settle here in Ouzai. Over time, it grew and grew, and people stayed because they made a life here. But the problem that continues today is that these buildings were never licensed, they’re illegal. So, there is always that comment made about us, that we took land that was not ours to take. But what do you tell a family running from war? To stay put? To not seek refuge elsewhere? And when those years and years of war are finally over they should just run back home to nothing even though they were able to make something here? That is a hard thing to say, and so many people say it without truly understanding what it means to be in this position.

So even though we have a home here, we are not allowed to fix it, to improve the way it looks. For example, when we want to fix our home up, to make additions, or even just to repaint it, the police will come and put a stop to it. These maintenances, they are not allowed. They say it implies a permanency to the home, when actually these homes should technically not be here. And so, you either bribe the police with money to ignore this addition, something they gladly accept all the time, or you focus on improving the interior of the home. For many homes, the inside speaks of a completely different story. The interior décor can be in the nicest villas, but because of these restrictions, we can’t improve the outside to match. We are given somewhat of a “pass” to live here, but that is it. There can never be improvement, we can’t improve our lifestyle even if we have the means. We thankfully live in a good neighborhood here, but if you, for example go to another part, like Malaab al Aahid, all of the dirt from the fields flows down during the heavy winter rains and floods the homes of the poor people living below. Imagine that! A whole neighborhood flooded to their knees in dirt, water, and waste. And still, year after year, nobody does a thing to change it. The municipalities of Ghobeiry and Al Burj that are responsible for Ouzai, they let things continue like this. But those poor people. It is not right.

So this terrible stereotype that we are dirty, lazy people who can’t be bothered to fix their homes is unfair and wrong. We do our best with what we can. But we all know that one day, the government will finally force us to leave. To where, I don’t know. But we grew up knowing this fact, that one day our homes will be taken from us. I think some people will try to fight it, but others, like my family, we’ll find a way elsewhere. We’ll just have to move on.

But even with all these problems I am not shy to say I am from here. If people ask I will tell them, without hesitation, that yes, I live here in Ouzai. There are good, kind people everywhere. This place is no exception. But do the problems bother me sometimes? Do the stereotypes get to me? I’d be lying if I said no. We, all of us living here, we have friends from elsewhere who believe they are of a higher, better class. They will always look down on us. But, I am a teacher! I have a college degree. I work with children who have special needs. I am just as intellectual and educated as they are. But, if there is an argument with colleagues, if we disagree on things, they will say “Anyways what do you know? You come from Ouzai, you think you are something?” And they disregard you in that way. It is not a nice feeling. Add the negative thoughts about Ouzai to the fact that most of us living here are Shi’a, and the stereotypes only get worse. If people hear that we who live in Ouzai are violent and radical, hearing also that you are Shi’a, for them, confirms it. The common idea about Shi’a people is they are loud, and rowdy, and violent, so you get this double negative reputation that people put upon us. Why do they see us like this? I don’t know, this is Lebanon. We all like to see ourselves better than the other.

So, if you ask if living here in Ouzai defines me, I would tell you no. No, it is not the place that defines me, but it is people’s thoughts, their discrimination that does. There are people who have in their minds these stereotypes. They are not willing to let go of them. They make this negative image of life here. It is not so. These ideas make it seem as though I am so terribly different from you, that you are so different than me. But that is not true. It is these false images that promote these comments I always hear. “Oh you live there? How?” Yes we have problems here, there are many, but this is Lebanon. Tell me one place that doesn’t have such problems here. The people, their wrong opinions, they must change. We forget so easily that there are good, kind people everywhere, and here, in Ouzai, it is no exception.

Contributor
Meriam Soltan

Meriam Soltan was born and raised in San Diego, California, and is currently studying architecture at the American University of Beirut. She has a twin sister, a younger brother, and an awesome mom and dad.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1. Name has been changed.
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