Review of “The Best of Hard Times”, by Sa’ed Atshan, published at Arab Studies Quarterly, November 4, 2022 (in English)
This is the opening monologue of the 2001 documentary, Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, by Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri. Mona, a 13-year-old girl in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila outside of Beirut, eloquently shares these reflections in her mother tongue of Arabic. Mona speaks amidst juxtaposed scenes of her playing with birds alongside the difficult life conditions in the camp.
These words and images were with me while reading the 2022 book, The Best of Hard Times: Palestinian Refugee Masculinities in Lebanon, by Gustavo Barbosa. In his examination of how young men in Shatila come of age and inhabit their sex, Barbosa devotes a chapter to their practice of pigeon raising and flying, noting that they “have understandably come to think of pigeons, with their unencumbered freedom to fly, as irresistibly appealing” (249). Barbosa captures the poetics of self-expression among Palestinian refugees facing legal and institutional violence in Lebanon, and in turn, his ethnographic writing is poetic. For instance, he explores the double entendre of hamama (Arabic for both pigeon and penis), the metaphors of water, and the etymologies of Arabic concepts such as jins (sex).