My first steps in Qasmiye: flags, signs and territories

9 July 2014
“Logos indicate presence and can tell a lot about who is powerful”
Nadia – Qasmiye, 2 July 2014

 

Since a few days, I live in Qasmiye, a quiet, rural community in South Lebanon which is quite a change of pace from life in Lebanon’s bustling capitol. However, even more challenging than the shift from my cosmopolitan life in Beirut to the daily routine of (host) family life in Qasmiye, is to actually get started with the ‘real’ research, going from Beirut-based ‘expert meetings’ to observations and in-depth interviews in the ‘field.’ Where to start? With whom to talk? My natural (Dutch) tendency would be to stuff my agenda with interview appointments to keep at bay the feeling of futility that easily creeps up on the researcher in the early stages of research, when everything – and hence nothing – seems relevant. However, afraid that I would lose out on the more inductive tenets of fieldwork, I instead decided to begin my stay here with a casual walk through town, beginning in ‘Upper Qasmiye,’ at the house of my research partner Nadia, from where we meandered our way through Qasmiye’s different neighborhoods, ending at the residence of my host family in ‘Lower Qasmiye.’

In general, the first thing one notices when entering Lebanon is the abundance of political signs, banners, plaques, posters and flags that pledge allegiance to this or that Lebanese coalition, support or agitate against the Syrian regime or sing the praise of politician or sheikh such and so. Despite Lebanon’s entrepreneurial and capitalist reputation, parties and martyrs seem to outnumber brands and models. Dutch election-time public notice boards with their perfectly arranged political posters have never been quite the same after my first encounter with the aggressive visibility of politics in Lebanon.

foto 5In a way, the Palestinian gathering of Qasmiye is a micro-cosmos of this Lebanese environment, albeit with a distinctly Palestinian touch. During our tour through Qasmiye, we came across the regular ‘Amer was here’ and ‘I love Asma’ graffiti as well as a wonderful mural made by school children. There were signs offering plots of land for sale – slightly ironic in an environment populated by Palestinians who are legally prohibited to own land in Lebanon – as well as advertisements for a restaurant and some new apartment buildings (‘Abu Dhabi style’) in the neighboring village. Yet by far most of the plethora of signs and banners we encountered on the one kilometer stretch of road that separates Upper from Lower Qasmiye belonged to (I)NGOs and political parties. The sidewalk we walked on was, according to an accompanying plaque, realized by the European Committee. The array of traffic signs meant to slow down Lebanon’s over-enthusiastic drivers (‘speed is a killer!’; ‘learn from other people’s mistakes!’) and the complementary speed humps were brought to us by Terre des Hommes and their donors according to the stickers that adorn the signs. As we walked past the clinics that serve the gathering we learned they were created by UNIFIL* and UNRWA respectively. Further down the road, UNDP also pitches in with a plaque at the entrance of the gathering, indicating that it conducted shelter repair activities. With two immense signs, the water tower that serves the gathering tells the world it was CISP and ECHO that repaired the tower and the well it pumps from. The kindergarten, finally, brandishes no less than two big signs professing thanks to ECHO and COOPI.

foto 6Next to this ubiquitous public signposting of humanitarian organizations and NGOs, political and religious organizations make their presence in Qasmiye known in a similar way. Photos of martyrs who died in the struggle to liberate Palestine, mostly embellished with the logo of Hamas, decorate lantern and electricity poles. Then there are the posters announcing activities for Land Day (yoom al-ard) and Catastrophe Day (yoom al-nakba) put up by Jihad al-Islam and Hamas that plaster every free space. Several banners wishing people Ramadan Kareem (bright Ramadan) were put up by the Gathering of Muslim Clerics in Lebanon. They are accompanied by flags that celebrate the resistance, which apparently do not have a direct origin. As I shared this with Nadia, however, she laughed and said ‘if the word resistance appears, you can be sure it’s Hamas that put up the sign.’

Upon leaving the main road, it immediately became clear that the signs, or at least the political ones, do not just serve to manifest a presence vis-à-vis the residents of Qasmiye, but also towards rival parties: much of the visual zeal is, essentially, a rather crude territorial demarcation. As we entered the Lower part of the gathering, Nadia joked that from now on we will only find Fatah flags. Indeed, deducing from the imagery, it soon became clear that the Upper part of Qasmiye seems more inclined towards Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whereas the Lower part adheres predominantly to Fatah – an inference confirmed by the offices of the parties and the houses of their leaders: murals and flags, national and partisan, ‘welcome’ visitors from afar. Upon closer inspection, however, there appears to be a hierarchy rather than a monopoly of party presence. In Lower Qasmiye the gathering’s main entrances are dominated by a saint-like Arafat and the checkered yellow of Fatah. But once inside, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their own arcades. Similarly, in the Upper part of Qasmiye, the most eye-catching signs from the perspective of the main road are the green banners of the Islamic parties. Yet beyond these, a more diverse picture emerges and Yasser Arafat and sheikh Yassin co-exist seemingly without problems.

foto 7What is problematic, or at least interesting, from the perspective of my research, which focuses on the relations between Lebanese state institutions and Palestinian ‘civil’ authorities, is that both the Lebanese state and the Palestinian Popular Committee are almost invisible in the visual cacophony of Qasmiye’s public space. While there are ample signs referring to Non-Governmental Organizations, the only reference to a government I encountered was not to the Lebanese one: a billboard next to the road identified the highway as a ‘gift from the government of Iran to the people of the resistance.’ Perhaps the lonely Lebanese flag that we saw flying over one of the houses in Lower Qasmiye can be interpreted as a tribute to the Lebanese state, but it was its exceptionality in the abundance of Palestinian flags that made it stand out in the first place. The kiosk on the roadside offers German flags in every size (the entire gathering fervently supports Germany in the World Cup as nearly half of their relatives live in Berlin) and one Hezbollah flag too, but apparently the shopkeeper saw no market for a Lebanese one. In a similar vein, while Qasmiye is teeming with posters of Palestinian parties, not a single plate or sign indicates the presence of the Popular Committee, the local governance entity that, although composed of party representatives, is responsible for civil matters and service delivery. This while, according to Nadia, it is the members of the Popular Committee that put up the party paraphernalia that do permeate Qasmiye.

Depending on one’s perspective, the absence of both the Lebanese state and the Palestinian para-state – the Popular Committee is consistently described as a ‘municipality-like’ institution –, and the concurrent dominance of political parties, either signifies the irrelevance of my research or underwrites its pertinence. For obvious reasons, I go with the latter point of view. For me, the apparent absence of the state from Qasmiye’s public stage only entails encouragement for a further exploration behind the scenes.

* Abbreviations used refer to:
UNIFIL = United Nations Interim Force for Lebanon
UNRWA = United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
UNDP = United Nations Development Program
CISP = Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli
ECHO = The Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission
COOPI = Cooperazione Internazionale