One of Liana Badr's primary concerns has been to define women's
roles in the Palestinian resistance.
Her collection of three short novellas, A Balcony over the Fakahani
(1983), contains some of the most touching and poignant accounts of
the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon. It describes the notorious
1976 Tel Al-Za'atar massacre by the Lebanese Phalangists, from
which the following extract is taken. The book has been translated
into English by Peter Clark and Christopher Tingley.
After the assault on the Good Shepherd Monastery district, we moved
to the middle of the camp; there was no space left in any of the
shelters, where people were already packed one on top of the other.
At the side of the main road, we found an amusement room with table
games named "Flippers," and we reinforced the entrance with lentil
sacks and sand, and settled down in the place. It was opposite the
Red Crescent clinic, which had now been turned into a hospital and
was used for preparing the food there. Flippers has only one,
normal-sized room, in which the machines had been placed on one
side, and we shared it with these and the clinic's cook. People who
saw us used to ask how we could possibly install ourselves opposite
Al-Dikwana, in such an exposed position. But what else could we do?
Mother would answer, "God is our refuge." The simple truth is that
there was nowhere else to go. The lentil sacks weren't much help as
reinforcement; shells from the 500-mm cannons simply passed over
them. Once a shell came and hit the inside wall, and shattered all
over the place, one splinter sinking itself into the stomach of my
eleven-year-old brother Ali. It buried itself under the skin and
black salve was no use for getting it out. Mother tried to take him
down to the Red Cross, so that he could be evacuated to the western
area with the wounded, but she wasn't able to.
Here, in the middle of the camp, Jamila and I would go each day to
fetch water - two jerry cans, which was barely enough for so many
of us - there was Mother, Father, three girls and six boys (five
after the fall of Al-Za'atar). Living as we did across from the
emergency clinic, we'd sometimes have patients coming to us for a
drink, and at times, too, the cook would take some of our water.
Sometimes a hundred people used to gather at the water tap, at
other times rather fewer, depending on circumstances. The tap was
in a narrow alley, flanked by houses that were all empty, for the
area was constantly exposed to snipers. We'd put our jerry cans
down in a long row, then hide in the rooms nearby. When the water
came on, usually some time after two or three in the afternoon,
there'd be chaos as people rushed towards it; nobody kept their
place in the queue.
One day when I went with Jamila, the day Father was killed, the
water came on at two o'clock. There were people, and there was
water. We went to it as soon as it came on, but Jamila left, saying
she wanted to be home by six in the evening. A neighbor standing
near me asked after my father, I didn't know anything. "He's fine,"
I said, and I laughed because the man lived next door to us and I
was surprised to hear him asking after Father when he saw him every
day. Half an hour later Jamila came back, her eyes red and
"What's the matter, Jamila?" I asked. "Mother hit me," she said,
"because I wouldn't come back here and fetch water." Jamila knew
that Father had been injured, but thought the wound was a minor
one. We were still waiting for our turn around midnight, and it
didn't finally come till three in the morning. It was beginning to
get light and we were still at the tap. The neighbor came back.
"Still here?" he said. "I think you'd better go home."
He didn't want to tell me what had happened. "By God," I said,
"I'll stay till I've filled my jerry can if I die doing it! We
don't have a drop at home." I cried that night; I cried a lot. It
was chaos. Anybody with a weapon would fill up before us; it made
me feel bitterly angry. But finally, at about three, we managed to
fill up two jerry cans and leave. At home I found Mother sitting up
with my Grandmother, which was unusual.
"What's the matter?" I said. "Why are you still up?"
"We're sitting up," they said.
I gazed straight in front of me. Then I looked around. "Where's
Father?" I asked.
"He's been wounded in the foot, dear," said Grandmother.
"No!" I said. "I want to see him, now!"
"Go to sleep," she said.
I insisted on seeing him. "Where is he?" I asked. "Has he been
hit?" Jamila put her jerry can down and fell asleep at once.
"Didn't Jamila know what had happened? What is it? What's
Jamila heard nothing; she'd fallen asleep from exhaustion. I
received the shocking news. Father had been wounded soon after we
left and had lived on for another four hours. He saw everybody
else, but when they asked him, "Shall we send for Yusra?" he said,
"Let her get the water for her brothers and sisters." That's what
really hurt me. If only I'd been able to see him, to talk to him -
one word - while he was still alive. He spent four hours talking
normally with them. He'd been wounded by a bullet from a machine
gun and had bled internally. There was no first aid available; all
the medicines had run out, and there was just salt solution to
disinfect the wound. This had no effect.
Mother was at his side and he talked till he died, his wound
bleeding. He died at about eight in the evening.
Death had become familiar: there was nobody in Al-Za'atar who
didn't anticipate his own. There were two taps where we filled up
with water. Once, when I was standing there, I suddenly became
aware of a man next to me, crying out: "Aah! Aah!" I looked at him
and saw that he'd rolled over on the ground and died. Shells often
bounced into the middle of groups of people, and the only ones who
survived were those protected by fate. All you ever saw was people
carrying other people. Our home being by the emergency hospital, we
saw most of the wounded. Everyone expected death; no one in Tel
Al-Za'atar thought to live out his natural life. When Father died,
the condolence people offered was the heartfelt wish that we
ourselves would survive.
Nobody knew what would happen anymore. You'd be standing next to
someone - and an hour later, you'd hear he was dead! There was one
young man, I remember, who said, "When I die, put me in this
coffin." They made coffins from cupboard doors and there was a door
ready. "I'll measure it against my body," the young man said. A
moment later a splinter of shrapnel struck him in the back and
killed him on the spot. So they did put him in the coffin he'd
measured himself for. I'm amazed I've never been injured
It was like a dream. You'd talk to someone, and an hour or two
later you'd hear they were dead. Nada, a friend of mine, was killed
by a sniper, and she was a volunteer nurse. Death reached even
I remember Father. He worked on a building site at first, but he
was hit in the eye several times when chipping stone, and in the
end he was so badly injured he couldn't work anymore. In the last
part of his life, he started up a shop inside our house, selling
I remember Father. Once, when we were in the middle of the camp,
people discovered a water tank in one of the houses. We had a heavy
metal barrel that held one and a half jerry cans, and I would
always take that with me to make sure the trip would be worthwhile.
But on the way back I felt as if my heart had stopped beating from
exhaustion. A metal barrel! When there was an explosion I'd run and
run, yet feel I was staying in the same place. Then I'd go on
walking with the barrel still on my head. It didn't matter how
violent the explosions were - I'd hide behind a wall or in a
doorway, but it never fell off my head and there was never a single
But too many people discovered the water tank and they emptied it
of water. I went there after that with my brother Jamal who was
killed later, and we were there for about half an hour, scooping up
what was left of the water till we could fill the barrel and half
the jerry can Jamal had brought.
Then, almost as soon as we'd filled up, the shelling started. Young
fidayeen rushed round us and I felt as though my feet were walking
backwards. When we were almost home I simply felt myself being
thrown to the ground; I'd fallen over and the barrel of water had
fallen with me. I started crying. What else could I do? The tears I
wept were not from pain but from frustration. I scooped the water
up with my hand, but when I got home there wasn't a drop in the
barrel. I remember Father said: "What's the matter? Have you been
"No," I said.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
I said that I wasn't, weeping over the lost water. My knee was
bruised and my body ached, but I was weeping out of frustration for
the lost water.
From Modern Palestinian Literature, edited by Salma Khadra