Mahdi Fleifel is the film’s guide to the camp. “My friends in Europe have never understood why I’d spend my holidays in a place like this,” he says. Born in Dubai and raised mostly in Denmark, he had a privileged Western upbringing. While Fleifel was obsessed with television, his father was obsessed with his video camera, making dozens of home movies. It was his way of staying in touch with relatives in Ain el-Helweh. “Dad would send home movies from Dubai, and my uncle would send his little films about life in the camp,” Fleifel recalls. That gave rise to Fleifel’s yearly trips to Lebanon and his own obsession with documenting life there.
Ain el-Helweh (literally “Sweet Spring”), set up in 1948, is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with more than 70,000 people. During the first few years of the camp’s existence, its residents made a point of not building anything resembling a permanent structure, because to do so would have been an admission that there was a chance they were not returning home.
Samer in Camp as a child. Credit: Nakba FilmWorks
Over time, assigned plots of land were divided as sons and daughters got married and had children. Young families began building their homes on top of their relatives’ houses, creating a warren of twisting alleyways that only those who live there are able to navigate. It is an island of Palestine surrounded by Lebanese army checkpoints. Inside, the Fatah faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) controls security and gives residents small stipends.
A World Not Ours is remarkable for the unvarnished, inside view it provides of life in Ain el-Helweh, from amusing family foibles to residents’ anger and disappointment. “No jobs, no education, no future, no nothing,” says Fleifel’s best friend in the camp, Abu Iyad, a respected but disillusioned member of Fatah. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no rights. They are barred from working in most professions. Lebanese soldiers control entry and exit from the camp. Lebanese and Palestinian people are allowed to come and go, but Palestinians cannot work or live outside the camp.
Fleifel and Abu Iyad became friends during the World Cup. Every four years, when this global soccer competition takes place, Ain el-Helweh — its isolation, its tensions—seems “turned upside down,” Fleifel says. Residents gleefully choose sides, becoming self-declared Italians or Brazilians, celebrating over victories and suffering over defeats. As Fleifel sees it, only during the World Cup do refugees feel they belong to the world.
But increasingly, Abu Iyad has grown tired of life in the camp. He is convinced that a corrupt P.L.O. elite siphons off most of the aid and other resources. Fleifel’s visits remind him of what life outside the camp could be like, while his own day-to-day existence makes him reflect on the values of revolution and question the sacred notion of a return to Palestine.
Fleifel’s grandfather, Abu Osama, 80, settled in Ain el-Helweh in 1948, when he was 16, and has lived there ever since. Since his wife passed away, he has led a quiet life, mostly living between the mosque and his home, where he prays, watches Al Jazeera news and sits in the alleyway outside his front door, observing life and shooing away the neighborhood’s boisterous kids. He has an open invitation from Fleifel’s family to join them in in Denmark, but he refuses to leave.
Fleifel’s uncle Said, on the other hand, would love nothing better than to get out, and resents that relatives won’t help him. A loner and neighborhood eccentric, he breeds pigeons on his rooftop and collects aluminum from the streets to earn a living. In times gone by, he was very different. He and his brother Jamal became local legends during the civil war in the 1980s, but when the Lebanese army entered the camp and Jamal was killed, part of Said seemed to die with him. But life goes on and he, too, finds humor in everyday situations.
When Fleifel was 7, his parents left Dubai and moved the family to the camp. Later, while growing up in Denmark, he would visit the camp every year. Fleifel’s personal relationship to the camp is shaped by memories of youthful fun and a feeling of belonging. He remembers when playing in the streets during summer visits trumped politics. “To me, going to Ain el-Helweh was better than going to Disneyland,” he says. His recollections reveal the twin pulls of memory and forgetfulness.
As time goes by, Fleifel’s friend Abu Iyad, whose father was a fighter for the Palestinian cause, grows by turns angry, bored and disillusioned. “I bet most of the guys who blew themselves up felt the same way I do,” he says. “They just used Palestine as an excuse to end their lives.” Astonishingly, he quits Fatah and moves out of his house, narrowing his options even further. “We’re not allowed to work at all,” he complains, “not even if you have a college degree. Can you imagine how that feels?” But in another startling turn, Abu Iyad reveals an exit strategy that no one saw coming.
As Fleifel says goodbye to his friends and family, he records a snapshot of their lives at that moment in time: a grandfather in declining health who still puts way too much sugar in his grandson’s tea — an uncle who wishes his nephew the best before telling him, “Get lost!” and a friend who is about to discover what life may hold for him outside the Lebanese camp.
“My film is about memory and the need to remember,” says Fleifel. “Forgetting for us Palestinians would simply mean ceasing to exist. Our fight throughout history, and still today, is to remain visible. Making this film is a way of reinforcing and strengthening our collective memory. But most important, it was a way to make a record of my own family history.
“I guess, having grown up in Ain el-Helweh before moving to Denmark, I have coped with transition in my life by seeing the world in a rather comic and cynical way. I believe that my stories reflect my history, while at the same time being influenced by London, the place where I currently live and work.”