BOOK: “Four Hours in Chatila” by Jean Genet December 16, 2009


TIME cover, September 27, 1982*

(This is the complete version. The sentences which have been shamelessly
deleted by the cowardly editors of the Revue d’Etudes palestiniennes in Paris, in
its number 6 published in 1983, have been restored here. The missing
sentences, visible here in TT (typewriter police) have been published in the
footnotes of the text in the posthumous volume called L’Ennemi déclaré,
Gallimard, 1991, p. 408. The English translation has been done by Daniel R.
Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud.)

“Goyim kill goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.”
Menachem Begin (Knesset, September 1982)

No one, nothing, no narrative technique, can put into words the six months,
and especially the first weeks, which the fedayeen spent in the mountains of
jerash and Ajloun in Jordan. As for relating the events, establishing the
chronology, the successes and failures of the PLO, that has been done by
others. The feeling in the air, the color of the sky, of the earth, of the
trees, these can be told; but never the faint intoxication, the lightness of
footsteps barely touching the earth, the sparkle in the eyes, the openness
of relationships not only between the fedayeen but also between them and
their leaders. Under the trees, everything, everyone was aquiver, laughing,
filled with wonder at this life, so new for all, and in these vibrations
there was something strangely immovable, watchful, reserved, protected like
someone praying. Everything belonged to everyone. Everyone was alone in
himself. And perhaps not. In the end, smiling and haggard. The area in
Jordan where they had withdrawn for political reasons extended from the
Syrian border to Salt, and was bounded by the Jordan River and the road from
Jerash to Irbid. About 60 kilometers long and 20 deep, this mountainous area
was covered with holm oaks, little Jordanian villages and sparse crops.
Under the trees and the camouflaged tents the fedayeen had set up combat
units and emplaced light and semiheavy arms. The artillery in place,
directed mainly against possible Jordanian operations, young soldiers would
take care of their weapons, disassemble them to clean and grease them, then
reassemble them quickly. Some managed this feat of disassembling and
reassembling their weapons blindfolded so they could do it at night. Between
each soldier and his weapon a loving, magical bond had developed. Since the
fedayeen had only recently left adolescence behind, the rifle, as a weapon,
was the sign of triumphant virility and gave assurance of being.
Aggressiveness disappeared: teeth showed behind the smile. The rest of the
time, the fedayeen drank tea, criticized their leaders and the rich,
Palestinian and others, insulted Israel, and above all they talked about the
revolution, the one they were involved in and the one they were about to
enter upon. For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the
body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a
specific spot – jordan – and at an easily determined date: October, November,
December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there
that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution. The extraordinary evidence
of what was happening, the intensity of this joy at being alive is also called
beauty. Ten years went by, and I heard nothing about them, except that the
fedayeen were in Lebanon. The European press spoke offhandedly, even
disdainfully, about the Palestinian people. Then suddenly, West Beirut.


A photograph has two dimensions, so does a television screen; neither can
be walked through. From one wall of the street to the other, bent or arched,
with their feet pushing against one wall and their heads pressing against
the other, the black and bloated corpses that I had to step over were all
Palestinian and Lebanese. For me, as for what remained of the population,
walking through Chatila and Sabra resembled a game of hopscotch.
Sometimes a dead child blocked the streets: they were so small, so narrow,
and the dead so numerous. The smell is probably familiar to old people;
it didn’t bother me. But there were so many flies. If I lifted the handkerchief
or the Arab newspaper placed over a head, I disturbed them. Infuriated by
my action, they swarmed onto the back of my hand and tried to feed there.

The first corpse I saw was that of a man fifty or sixty years old. He would
have had a shock of white hair if a wound (an axe blow, it seemed to me)
hadn’t split his skull. Part of the blackened brain was on the ground, next
to the the head. The whole body was lying in a pool of black and clotted
blood. The belt was unbuckled, a single button held the pants. The dead
man’s feet and legs were bare and black, purple and blue; perhaps he had
been taken by surprise at night or at dawn. Was he running away? He was
lying in a little alley immediately to the right of the entry to Shatfla
camp which is across from the Kuwaiti Embassy. Did the Chatila massacre
take place in hushed tones or in total silence, if the Israelis, both soldiers
and officers, claim to have heard nothing, to have suspected nothing
whereas they had been occupying this building since Wednesday afternoon?
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death.
Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from
one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon
occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of
the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by
coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it
carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it,
move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly.
Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is
written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and
the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide:
positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and
to the other. The body of a man of thirty to thirty-five was lying face
down. As if the whole body was nothing but a bladder in the shape of a man,
it had become so bloated in the sun and through the chemistry of
decomposition that the pants were stretched tight as though they were going
to burst open at the buttocks and thighs. The only part of the face that I
could see was purple and black. Slightly above the knee you could see a
thigh wound under the torn fabric. Cause of the wound: a bayonet, a knife, a
dagger? Flies on the wound and around it. His head was larger than a
watermelons black watermelon. I asked his name; he was a Muslim.

— ”Who is it?” “A Palestinian,” a man about forty answered in French. “See
what they’ve done.” He pulled back the blanket covering the feet and part of
the legs. The calves were bare, black and swollen. The feet, in black
unlaced army boots, and the ankles of both feet were very tightly bound
together by the knot of a strong rope–its strength was obvious – about nine
feet long, which I arranged so that Mrs. S. (an American) could get a good
picture of it. I asked the man of forty if I could see the face.

— ”If you want to, but look at it yourself.” — “Would you help me turn his
head?” — “No.” — “Did they drag him through the streets with this rope?” —
“I don’t know, sir.” — “Who tied him up?” — “I don’t know, sir.” — “Was it
Haddad’s men?” — “I don’t know.” — “The Israelis?” “I don’t know.” —
“The Kataeb?” “I don’t know.” — “Did you know him?” “Yes.” — “Did you
see him die?” — “Yes.” — “Who killed him?” — “I don’t know.” He hastily
walked away from the dead man and me. From afar he looked back at
me and disappeared into a side street. Which alley should I take now? I was
drawn by men fifty years old, by young men of twenty, by two old Arab
women, and I felt as if I were the center of a compass whose quadrants
contained hundreds of dead. I jot this down now, not knowing exactly why
at this point in my narrative: “The French have a habit of using the insipid
expression ‘dirty work.’ Well, just like the Israeli army ordered the Kataeb
or the Haddadists to do their ’dirty work,’ the Labor Party had its ’dirty
work’ done by the Likud, Begin, Sharon, Shamir.” I have just quoted R., a
Palestinian journalist who was still in Beirut on Sunday, September 19. In
the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of
this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him
and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever
have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of
the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American
Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up
an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by
ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours
before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on
the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really
wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned
to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the
Kataeb headquarters?

They left very quickly and very early. Israel brags and boasts about its
combat efficiency, its battle preparedness, its skill in turning circumstances
to its favor, in creating circumstances. Let’s see; the PLO leaves Beirut in
triumph, on a Greek ship, with a naval escort. Bashir, hiding as best he can,
visits Begin in Israel. The intervention of the three armies (American, French,
Italian) comes to an end on Monday. On Tuesday, Bashir is assassinated.
Tsahal [Israel Defense Forces] enters West Beirut on Wednesday morning.
As if they were coming from the port, Israeli soldiers were advancing
on Beirut the morning of Bashir’s funeral. With binoculars, from the eighth
floor of my house I saw them coming in single file: one column. I was
surprised that nothing else happened, because with a good rifle with a sight
they could have been picked off. Their brutality preceded them. The tanks
came after them. Then the jeeps. Tired out by such a long early-morning
march, they stopped near the French Embassy, letting the tanks go on ahead
of them, going right into Hamra. The soldiers sat down on the sidewalk
at thirty foot intervals and leaned against the embassy wall, their
rifles pointed straight ahead. With their long torsos they looked like boas
with two legs stretched out in front of them. “Israel had promised the
American representative Habib not to set foot in West Beirut and especially
to respect the civilan populations of the Palestinian camps. Arafat still
has the letter in which Reagan made the same promise. Habib supposedly
promised Arafat that nine thousand prisoners in Israel would be freed. On
Thursday the massacres in Chatila and Sabra begin. The ‘bloodbath’ that
Israel claimed it would prevent by restoring order to the camps . . .” a
Lebanese writer told me.

“It will be very easy for Israel to clear itself of all the accusations.
Journalists of all the European press are already at work clearing them: no
one will say that on the nights from Thursday to Friday and from Friday to
Saturday Hebrew was spoken in Chatila.” That is what another Lebanese
told me. The Palestinian woman – for I couldn’t leave Chatila without going
from one corpse to another and this jeu de l’oie would inevitably end up at
this miracle: Chatila and Sabra razed to the ground and real estate battles to
rebuild on this very flat cemetery – the Palestinian woman was probably
elderly because her hair was gray. She was stretched out on her back, laid
or left there on the rubble, the bricks, the twisted iron rods, without
comfort. At first I was surprised by a strange braid made of rope and cloth
which went from one wrist to the other, holding the two arms apart
horizontally, as if crucified. Her black and swollen face, turned towards
the sky, revealed an open mouth, black with flies, and teeth that seemed
very white to me, a face that seemed, without moving a muscle, either to
grin or smile or else to cry out in a silent and unbroken scream. Her
stockings were black wool, and her pink and gray flowered dress, slightly
hiked up or too short, I don’t know which, revealed the tops of swollen
black calves, again with the delicate mauve tints matched by a similar
purple and mauve in the cheeks. Were these bruises or the natural result of
rotting in the sun? “Did they strike her with the butt of the rifle?” —
“Look, sir, look at her hands.” I hadn’t noticed. The fingers of the two
hands were spread out and the ten fingers were cut as if with gardening
shears. Soldiers, laughing like kids and gaily singing, had probably had fun
discovering and using these shears. “Look, sir.” The ends of the fingers,
the top joints, with the nail, lay in the dust. The young man, who was simply
and naturally showing me how the dead had been tortured, calmly put a
cloth back over the face and hands of the Palestinian woman, and a piece of
corrugated cardboard over her legs. All I could distinguish now was a heap
of pink and gray cloth, hovered over by flies. Three young men led me down
an alley. “Go in, sit, we’ll wait for you outside.” The first room was what
remained of a two-story house. The room gave an impression of serenity and
even friendliness, of near happiness; perhaps real happiness had been
created out of others’ throwaways, with what survives from a destroyed piece
of wall, with what I first thought were three armchairs, actually three car
seats (perhaps a Mercedes from a junkyard), a couch with cushions covered
with gaudy flowered material with stylized designs, a small silent radio,
two unlit candelabras. A fairly quiet room, in spite of the carpet of spent
shells. The door swung, as if there were a draft. I walked on the spent shells
and pushed the door, which opened towards the other room, but I had
to push hard: the heel of a boot blocked the way, the heel of a corpse lying
on its back, near two other corpses of men lying face down, all of them
resting on another carpet of spent shells. I nearly fell several times because
of them. At the back of the room another door was open, without lock
or latch. I stepped over the bodies as one crosses chasms. The room
contained the corpses of four men, piled on top of each other on a single
bed, as if each one had taken care to protect the one under him, or as if they
had been caught in a decaying orgiastic copulation. This pile of shields
smelled strongly, but it didn’t smell bad. The smell and the flies had, so it
seemed, gotten used to me. I no longer disturbed anything in these ruins,
in this quiet.

During the night from Thursday to Friday, and during those from Friday to
Saturday and Saturday to Sunday no one had kept vigil with them, I thought.
Yet, it seemed to me that someone had visited these dead men before me and
after their death. The three young men were waiting fairly far from the
house with handkerchiefs over their noses. It was then, as I was coming out
of the house, that I had a sudden attack of slight madness that made me
almost smile. I thought to myself that there would never be enough boards or
carpenters to make the coffins. But then why would they need coffins?
The dead men and women were all Muslims, who are sewn into shrouds.
How many yards would it take to enshroud so many corpses? And how
many prayers? What was missing here, I realized, was the rhythm of prayers.
“Come, sir, come quickly.” It is time to note that this sudden and quite
momentary madness which made me count yards of white cloth gave an
almost brisk liveliness to my step, and that it may have been caused by a
remark I heard a Palestinian womanfriend make the day before. “I was
waiting for them to bring me my keys (which keys: to her car, her house, all
I know now is the word keys) when an old man went running by. ‘Where are
you going?’ ‘To get help. I’m the gravedigger. They’ve bombed the cemetery.
All the bones are uncovered. I need help gathering the bones’.” This friend
is a Christian, I think. She continued: “When the vacuum bomb, a so-called
implosion bomb, killed two hundred and fifty people, we had only one box.
The men dug a mass grave in the Orthodox Church cemetery. We filled
the box, and went to empty it. We back and forth under the bombs, digging
out bodies and limbs as best we could.” Over the last three months, hands
have had a double function: during the day to grasp and touch, at night,
to see. Electricity cuts made this “school for the blind” necessary, as it did the
climbing, two or three times a day, of that white marble cliff, the eight-floor
stairway. We had to fill all the containers in the house with water. The
telephone was cut off when the Israeli soldiers entered West Beirut along
with their Hebrew inscriptions. So were the roads around Beirut. The
Merkava tanks which never stopped showed they were keeping an eye on
the whole city, and at the same time one imagined those inside scared they
would become a fixed target. They no doubt feared the activity of the
Murabitoun and the fedayeen who might remain in sections of West Beirut.
The day after the entrance of the Israeli army we were prisoners, but it
seemed to me that the invaders were less feared than despised, they caused
less fear than disgust. No soldier was laughing or smiling. No one was
throwing rice or flowers. Bashir’s father, [Pierre] Gemayel, appeared on
Lebanese television, thin-faced with eyebrow arches very shallow and full
of shadow, and very thin lips. The only expression: naked cruelty. Since
the roads had been cut off and the telephone was silent, deprived of contact
with the rest of the world, for the first time in my life, I felt myself become
Palestinian and hate Israel. At the Sports Stadium, near the Beirut-Damascus
highway, which was already nearly completely destroyed by aerial
bombardment, the Lebanese deliver piles of weapons, all supposedly
voluntarily damaged, to Israeli officers. In the apartment where I am
staying, everyone has a radio. We listen to Radio-Kataeb, Radio-Murabitoun,
Radio-Amman, Radio-Jerusalem (in French), Radio-Lebanon. They are
probably doing the same thing in every apartment. “We are linked to Israel
by many currents which bring us bombs, tanks, soldiers, fruit, vegetables;
they carry off our soldiers, our children to Palestine, in a continual and
unceasing coming and going, because according to them, we have been
linked to them since Abraham, in his lineage, in his language, in the same
origins. . .” (A Palestinian fedai). “In short,” he adds, “they invade us, they
stuff us, suffocate us and would like to hug us. They say they are our
cousins. They’re very sad to see us turn away from them. They must be
furious with us and with themselves.”


The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises
many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or
adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body,
movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be
explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new
freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will
have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in
the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971,
in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by
the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty
prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps
received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it
would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even
more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian
women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the
changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the
customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil,
their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices
steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in
the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order,
but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a
glowing pride for the men. They were ready to become both the wives and
the mothers of heroes, as they already were for their men. In the woods
of Ajloun, the fedayeen were perhaps dreaming of girls though it seems,
rather, that each one conjured up or shaped a girl lying against him, hence
the particular gracefulness, the strength – with their amused laughter – of the
armed fedayeen. We were not only at the dawn of pre-revolution but in
a sensual limbo. A cystallizing frost gave a gentleness to every action.
Constantly, and every day for a month, always in Ajloun, I saw a skinny but
strong woman crouching in the cold, crouching like the Andean Indians
or certain Black Africans, the untouchables of Tokyo, the Tziganes at market,
ready to take off suddenly in case of danger, under trees in front of the
guardhouse, a small, hastily erected permanent structure. She was waiting
barefoot in her black dress trimmed with braid at the hem and on the edge
of the sleeves. Her face was serious but not ill-tempered, tired but not
weary. The commando leader would prepare a nearly empty room, then he
would signal her. She would enter the room, closing the door, but not
locking it. Then she would come out, without a word or a smile, and
barefoot and very erect, would return to Jerash and to Baq’a camp. I found
out that in the room reserved for her in the guardhouse she used to take
off her two black skirts, remove the envelopes and the letters sewn inside,
bundle them together and knock once on the door. Turning the letters over
to the leader she would go out and leave without saying a word. She
would come back the next day. Other older women would laugh because
for a home they had only three blackened stones which, at Jebel Hussein
(Amman), they gleefully referred to as “our house.” They showed me the
three stones, and sometimes the glowing coals, with such childlike voices,
laughing and saying: “darna.” These old women belonged neither to the
revolution nor to the Palestinian resistance: they were mirth which has lost
all hope. The sun above them continued its journey. An arm or an extended
finger created an increasingly thin shadow. But what land? Jordan,
through an administrative and political fiction created by France, England,
Turkey, America… Mirth which has lost all hope, ” most joyful because
it is the most desperate. They still saw a Palestine which no longer existed
when they were sixteen, but finally they had a land. They were neither
under nor on top of it, but in a disturbing space where any movement was
a wrong one. Under the bare feet of these octogenarian and supremely
elegant tragediennes was the earth solid? It was less and less true. After
having fled Hebron under Israeli threats the earth here seemed solid,
everyone was lighthearted and moved sensuously in the Arabic language.
As time went by the earth seemed to experience this: the Palestinians were
less and less bearable at the same time as these same Palestinians, these
peasant-farmers, were discovering movement, walking, running, the
pleasure of ideas dealt out nearly every day like playing cards, the weapons
assembled, disassembled and used. Each of the women speaks in turn.
They are laughing. One of them is reported to have said: “Heroes! What a
joke! I gave birth to and spanked five or six of them who are in the jebel.
I wiped their bottoms. I know what they’re made of, and I can make some
more.” In the ever-blue sky the sun has continued its journey, but it is
still warm. These tragediennes remember and imagine at the same time. To
emphasize what they say they point their finger at the end of a sentence and
stress the emphatic consonants. Should a Jordanian soldier happen by he
would be delighted: in the rhythm of the sentences he would rediscover the
rhythm of Bedouin dances. Without the sentences, an Israeli soldier, should
he see these goddesses, would empty his automatic rifle into their skulls.


Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women
hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very
young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular
community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people;
this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that
justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community
take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction;
I am French, but I defend the Palestinians whole heartedly and automatically.
They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice
had not turned them into a wandering people? Almost all the buildings
in Beirut have been hit, in what they still call West Beirut. They crumble in
different ways: like puff pastry squeezed between the fingers of some
indifferent and voracious giant King Kong; other times the top three or four
floors lean deliciously in an elegant pleat, giving a sort of Lebanese draping
to the building. If one facade is intact, go around the house; the other
walls will be shell-pocked. If the four walls are standing with no cracks,
the bomb dropped by the airplane fell in the center and made a hole out of
what was the staircase and the elevator shaft. In West Beirut, after the
Israelis arrived, S – told me: “Night had fallen; it must have been seven
o’clock. All of a sudden there was a loud clank, clank, clank. Everybody, my
sister, my brother-in-law and I ran out on the balcony. The night was very
dark. And every once in a while there was something like lightning less
than a hundred yards away. You know that almost across from us there is a
kind of Israeli command post: four tanks, a house occupied by soldiers,
officers and guards. Night. And the clanking noise is getting closer. The
lightning; a few lit torches. And forty or fifty kids about twelve or thirteen
years old beating rhythmically on little jerrycans, either with rocks or
hammers or something else. They were screaming, chanting: La ilah illa
Allah, la Kataeb wa la yahoud
(There is no God but Allah; no to the Kataeb;
no to the Jews.)” H. said to me: “When you came to Beirut and Damascus in
1928 Damascus was destroyed. General Gouraud and his troops, Moroccan
and Tunisian infantry, had been shooting and cleaned out Damascus.
Whom did the Syrian people accuse?” Me: “The Syrians blamed France for
the massacres and the destruction in Damascus.” He: “We blame Israel for
the massacres in Chatila and Sabra. Don’t only blame the Kataeb who
replaced them. Israel is guilty of allowing two companies of Kataeb to enter
the camps, of giving them orders and of encouraging them for three days
and nights, of bringing them food and drink, of lighting the camps at night.”
H. again, professor of history: “In 1917 Abraham’s trick was brought up to
date, or if you prefer, God was already the prefiguration of Lord Balfour.
The Jews used to say and still say that God had promised Abraham and his
descendents a land of milk and honey. But this land, which didn’t belong to
the God of the Jews (this land was full of gods), this land was inhabited by
the Canaanites, who had their own gods, and who fought against Joshua’s
troops and ended up stealing the famous Ark of the Covenant, without which
the Jews would never have won. And England, in 1917, didn’t yet rule over
Palestine (that land of milk and honey) since the treaty giving it a mandate
had not yet been signed.” “Begin claims that he came to the country . . . .”
“That’s the name of a movie: The Long Absence. Does that Pole strike you as
the heir to Solomon?” In the camps, after twenty years of exile, the
refugees dreamed of their Palestine, and no one dared to think or say that
Israel had destroyed it from top to bottom, that where the barley field had
been there was a bank, and a power station where a climbing vine had grown.
“Shall we replace the gate to the field?” “We’ll have to rebuild part of the
wall next to the fig tree.” “All the pans must be rusted: buy an emery-cloth.”
“Maybe we should hook up electricity to the barn.” “Oh no, no more hand-
embroidered dresses: you can get me one machine for sewing and one for
embroidering.” The old people of the camps were wretched; they may also
have been so in Palestine but there nostalgia played a magical role. They may
remain prisoners of the camp’s unhappy spell. It is not certain that this
Palestinian group will leave the camps with regret. In this sense, extreme
destitution makes you yearn for the past. The man who has known
this, along with bitterness has known a joy which is extreme, solitary and
impossible to communicate. The Jordanian camps perched on the rocky
slopes are bare, but around them there is a more desolate barrenness:
shanties, tents with holes in them inhabited by families whose pride glows.
Anyone who denies that men can become fond and proud of their obvious
destitution understands nothing of the human heart; they can be proud
because this obvious destitution veils a hidden glory. The solitude of the dead
in Chatila camp was even more palpable because they had gestures and
poses which they had not planned. Dead any old how. Dead and abandoned.
Yet around us, in the camp, all the affection, the tenderness and love floated
in search of Palestinians who would never answer. ” What can we say to
their families who left with Arafat, trusting in the promises of Reagan,
Mitterrand and Perini, who had assured them that the civilian population of
the camps would be safe? How can we explain that we allowed children,
old people and women to be massacred, and that we are abandoning their
bodies without prayers? How can we tell them that we don’t know where
they are buried?” The massacres did not take place in silence and darkness.
Lit by Israeli flares, the Israelis were listening to Chatila as early as
Thursday evening. What partying, what feasting went on there as death
seemed to take part in the pranks of soldiers drunk on wine, on hatred, and
probably drunk on the joy of entertaining the Israeli army which was
listening, looking, giving encouragement, egging them on. I didn’t see this
Israeli army listening and watching. I saw what it did. To the argument:
What did Israel gain by assassinating Bashir: entering Beirut, reestablishing
order and preventing the bloodbath. What did Israel gain in the Chatila
massacre? Answer: what did it gain by entering Lebanon? What did it gain
by bombing the civilian population for two months; by hunting down
and destroying Palestinians? What did it want to gain in Chatila: the
destruction of Palestinians. It kills men, it kills corpses. It razes Chatila. It is
not uninterested in the real estate speculation on the improved land: it’s
worth five million old francs per square yard still in ruins. But “cleaned up”
it will be worth … ? I am writing this in Beirut where, perhaps because death
is so close, still lying on the ground, everything is truer than in France:
everything seems to be happening as if, weary and tired of being an example,
of being untouchable, of taking advantage of what it believes it has become
– the vengeful saint of the Inquisition – Israel had decided to allow itself
to be judged coldly.

The Jewish people, far from being the most miserable on earth – the Indians
of the Andes sink deeper in misery and neglect – pretend to be a victim of
genocide, while in America, rich and poor Jews have sperm reserves for the
procreation and continuity of the “chosen” people. Thanks to a skillful but
predictable metamorphosis, it is now what it has long been becoming:
a loathsome, temporal power, colonialist in a way which few dare to imitate,
having become the Definitive judge which it owes to its longstanding curse
as much as to its chosen status. This loathsome power, once more in its
history, is pushing so far as to deserve unanimous condemnation; and one
wonders if it does not want to recover its destiny of a wandering, humiliated
people, with secret power. This time, it is exposed in the terrible light of
massacres that it is no longer undergoing, but that it inflicts on others; and
it wants to recover its former image to become again the “salt of the earth” –
assuming that it ever was. But then, what an approach! The Soviet Union
and Arab states, spineless as they were in refusing to interfere in this war,
have allowed Israel to finally appear to the world and in a bright light
as insane among nations. Many questions remain. If the Israelis merely lit up
the camp, listened to it, heard the shots fired by so many guns, whose spent
shells I kicked underfoot (tens of thousands), who was actually firing?
Who was risking their skin by killing? The Phalangists? The Haddadists?
Who? And how many? What happened to the weapons responsible for all
these corpses? And what about the weapons of those who defended
themselves? In the part of the camp which I visited, I saw only two unused
anti-tank weapons. How did the assassins get into the camps? Were the
Israelis at all the exits to Chatila? In any case, on Thursday they were already
at the Akka Hospital, across from one camp entrance. According to the
newspapers, the Israelis entered Chatila camp as soon as they knew about
the massacres, and they stopped them immediately, that is, on Saturday. But
what did they do with the slayers and where have they gone? After the
assassination of Bashir Gemayel and twenty of his friends, after the
massacres, Mrs. B., a member of the Beirut upper class, came to see me when
she found out I was coming back from Chatila. She climbed the eight floors
of the building — no electricity; I suppose she is elderly, elegant but elderly.
“Before Bashir’s death, before the massacres, you were right to tell me that
the worst was about to happen. I saw it.” “Please don’t tell me what you saw
in Chatila. I am too highly strung, and I must keep my strength to face the
worst which is still to come.” She lives alone with her husband (seventy
years old) and her maid in a large apartment in Ras Beirut. She is very
elegant. Very refined. Her furniture is antique, Louis XVI, I think. “We knew
that Bashir had gone to Israel. He was wrong. An elected head of state
should not associate with people like that. I was sure that something awful
would happen to him. But I don’t want to hear about it. I have to save my
strength to withstand the terrible blows that are yet to come. Bashir was
going to give back that letter in which Mr. Begin calls him my dear friend.”
The upper class, with its silent servants, has its own way of resisting.
Mrs. B. and her husband “don’t quite believe in metempsychosis.” What
will happen if they are reborn as Israelis? The day of Bashir’s burial is also
the day the Israeli army enters West Beirut. The explosions get closer to the
building where we are; finally everyone goes to the shelter in the basement.
Ambassadors, doctors, their wives and daughters, a UN representative
to Lebanon, their servants. “Carlos, bring me a pillow.” “Carlos, my glasses.”
“Carlos, a little water.” The servants, too, are accepted in the shelter as
they also speak French It may be necessary to look after them, their wounds,
their transport to the hospital or the cemetery, what a predicament! You
have to know that the Palestinian camps of Chatila and Sabra are made up
of miles and miles of narrow little alleys – for here, even the alleys are so
skinny, so threadlike that sometimes two people cannot walk together
unless one walks sideways – strewn with rubbish, cement blocks, bricks,
dirty multicolored rags, and that at night, under the light of the Israeli flares
which lit up the camps, fifteen or twenty even well-armed fighters would
have been unable to carry out this slaughter. The killers worked and they
were numerous, and probably accompanied by torture squads who split
skulls, slashed thighs, cut off arms, hands and fingers, and dragged the
dying at the end of a rope, men and women who were still alive since blood
had flowed from the bodies for a long time, so much that I was unable
to determine who, in the hall of a house, had left this trickle of dried blood,
from the end of the hall where there was a pool as far as the doorstep
where it disappeared into the dust. Was it a Palestinian man? A woman?
A Phalangist whose body had been removed? From Paris, one can entertain
doubts about the whole thing, especially if one knows nothing about the
ayout of the camps. One can allow Israel to claim that the journalists from
Jerusalem were the first to report the massacre. How did they phrase it
for the Arab countries and in Arabic? And how in English and French? And
exactly when? Just think about the precautions surrounding a suspicious
death in the West, fingerprints, ballistics reports, autopsies, testimonies and
counter-testimonies! In Beirut, scarcely had the massacre become known
than the Lebanese army officially took charge of the camps and immediately
eradicated the ruins of the houses and the remains of the bodies. Who
ordered this haste? Especially after this statement had swept the world that
Christians and Muslims had killed each other, and even after cameras had
recorded the brutality of the slayings. Akka Hospital, occupied by the
Israelis, and across from an entrance to Chatila, is not two hundred yards
from the camp, but forty. They saw nothing, heard nothing, understood
nothing? Because that’s just what Begin declared to the Knesset: “Goyim kill
goyim, and they come to hang the Jews.” I must conclude my description
of Chatila, which was briefly interrupted. Here are the bodies I saw last, on
Sunday, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the International Red
Cross came in with its bulldozers. The stench of death was coming neither
from a house nor a victim: my body, my being, seemed to emit it. In a narrow
street, in the shadow of a wall, I thought I saw a black boxer sitting on the
ground, laughing, surprised to have been knocked out. No one had had the
heart to close his eyelids, his eyes as white as porcelain and bulging out,
were looking at me. He seemed crestfallen, with his arm raised, leaning
against this angle of the wall. He was a Palestinian who had been dead two
or three days. If I mistook him at first for a black boxer it is because his head
was enormous, swollen and black, like all the heads and all the bodies,
whether in the sun or in the shadow of the houses. I walked near his feet. I
picked up an upper dental plate in the dust and set it on what remained
of the window ledge. The palm of his hand open towards the sky, his open
mouth, the opening in his pants where the belt was missing: all hives where
flies were feeding. I stepped over one corpse, then another. There in the
dust, in the space between the two bodies, there was at last a very living
object, intact in the carnage, a translucent pink object which could still be
used: an artificial leg, apparently in plastic, and wearing a black shoe and a
gray sock. As I looked closer, it became clear that it had been brutally
wrenched off the amputated leg, because the straps that usually held it to
the thigh were all broken. This artificial leg belonged to the second body, the
one on which I had noticed only one leg with a foot wearing a black shoe
and a gray sock. In the street perpendicular to the one where I left the three
bodies, there was another. It was not completely blocking the way, but it was
lying at the entrance of the street so that I had to walk by it and turn around
to see the sight: seated on a chair, surrounded by fairly young and silent men
and women, a woman – in Arab dress – was sobbing; she could have been
sixteen or sixty. She was crying over her brother whose body almost blocked
the way. I came closer to her. I looked more carefully. She had a scarf tied
around her neck. She was crying, mourning the death of her brother next to
her. Her face was pink, a baby pink, the same color all over, very soft, tender,
but without eyelashes or eyebrows, and what I thought was pink was not
the top layer of skin but an under layer edged in gray skin. Her whole face
was burned. I don’t know by what, but I understood by whom. With the first
bodies, I tried to count them. When I got to twelve or fifteen, surrounded
by the smell, the sun, stumbling over each ruin, it was impossible; everything
became confused. I have seen lots of crumbling buildings and gutted houses
spilling out eiderdown and have not been moved, but when I looked at
those in West Beirut and Chatila I saw fear. The dead generally become very
familiar, even friendly to me, but when I saw those in the camps I perceived
only the hatred and joy of those who had killed them. A barbaric party
had taken place there: rage, drunkenness, dances, songs, curses, laments,
moans, in honor of the voyeurs who were laughing on the top floor of Akka
Hospital. In France, before the Algerian war, the Arabs weren’t beautiful,
their gait was awkward, shuffling, they had ugly mugs, and almost suddenly
victory made them beautiful; but a little before victory was assured, while
more than half a million French soldiers were straining and dying in the
Aures and throughout Algeria, a curious thing happened to the faces and
bodies of the Arab workers: something like the intimation, the hint of a still
fragile beauty which was going to blind us when the scales finally fell
from their skin and our eyes. We had to admit it: they had achieved political
freedom in order to be seen as they were: very beautiful. In the same way,
once they had escaped from the refugee camps, from the morality and the
order of the camps, from a morality imposed by the need to survive, once
they had at the same time escaped from shame, the fedayeen were very
beautiful; and since this beauty was new, shall we say pristine, naive, it was
fresh, so alive that it discovered at once what connected it to all the beauties
of the world, freeing themselves from shame. Lots of Algerian pimps
walking through Pigalle at night used their charms in the service of the
Algerian revolution. Virtue was also there. It is Hannah Arendt, I believe,
who distinguishes between revolutions according to whether they aspire to
freedom or virtue – and therefore work. Perhaps we should also recognize
that revolutions or liberations aim – obscurely – at discovering or
rediscovering beauty, that is the intangible, unnameable except by this
word. But no, on the other hand: let us mean by beauty a laughing
insolence goaded by past unhappiness, systems and men responsible
for unhappiness and shame, above all a laughing insolence which realizes
that, freed of shame, growth is easy. But on this page we should also
address the following question: is a revolution a revolution when it has not
removed from faces and bodies the dead skin that made them ugly? I am not
speaking about academic beauty, but about the intangible – unnameable –
joy of bodies, faces, cries, words which are no longer cheerless, I mean a
sensual joy so strong that it chases away all eroticism.


Here I am again in Ajloun, in Jordan, then in Irbid. I remove what I believe
is one of my white hairs from my sweater and put it on the knee of Hamza,
sitting near me. He takes it between his thumb and middle finger, looks at
it, smiles, puts it in the pocket of his black jacket, and pats it saying:
“A hair from the Prophet’s beard is worth less than that.” He takes a slightly
deeper breath and starts over: “A hair from the Prophet’s beard is not
worth more than that.” He was only twenty-two years old, his thoughts
leaped easily high above the Palestinians who were forty, but he was already
bearing the signs – on himself, on his body, in his actions — which linked
him to the older ones. In the old days farmers used to blow their noses in
their fingers. Then they flipped the snot into the thorns. They wiped their
noses on their corduroy sleeves, which at the end of a month were covered
with a pearly luster. So did the fedayeen. They blew their noses the same way
noblemen and churchmen took snuff: slightly stooped over. I did the same
thing, which they taught me without realizing. And the women? Night and
day they embroidered the seven dresses (one for each day of the week) of the
engagement trousseau given by a generally older husband chosen by the
family, painful awakening. The Palestinian girls became very beautiful when
they revolted against their fathers and broke their needles and embroidery
scissors. It was on the mountains of Ajloun, Salt and Irbid, in the forests
themselves that sensuality had come down, freed by the revolution and by
guns, let’s not forget the guns. That was enough, everyone was happy.
Without realizing it, the fedayeen – is it true? – were perfecting a new
beauty: the liveliness of their actions and their obvious fatigue, the quickness
and brightness of their eyes, the clearer tone of voice harmonized with the
swiftness and brevity of the reply. With its precision too. They had done
away with long sentences, learned and glib rhetoric. Many died in Chatila,
and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense,
because I had known them. Blackened swollen, decayed by the sun and
by death, they were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on
Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a
jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?”
“English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start.
He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been
there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” —
“Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport.
He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours
in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them – and I
mean all – had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness,
song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was
probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women
still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen),
but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered
this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would
have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or
thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore,
had all that taken place? I had explored, and poorly at that, only a twentieth
of Chatila and Sabra, nothing of Bir Hassan, nothing of Bourj al-Barajneh.
It’s not because of my leanings that I lived through the Jordanian period as
if it were a fairy tale. Europeans and North African Arabs have told me
about the spell that kept them there. As I lived through this long span of six
months, barely colored by night for twelve or thirteen hours, I discovered
the ethereality of what was happening, the exceptional quality of the
fedayeen, but I had a premonition of the fragility of the structure.
Everywhere in Jordan where the Palestinian army had assembled, near the
Jordan River, there were checkpoints where the fedayeen were so sure of
their rights and their might that the arrival of a visitor, by night or by day, at
one of the checkpoints was a pretext for tea, for talk mixed with bursts of
laughter and brotherly kisses (the one they embraced would be leaving that
night, cross the Jordan River to plant bombs in Palestine and often would not
return). The only islands of silence were the Jordanian villages; they kept
their mouths shut. All the fedayeen seemed to be walking slightly above the
ground, like the effect of a very light glass of wine or a drag on a little
hashish. What was it? Youth, oblivious of death and with Czech and Chinese
weapons to fire into the air. Protected by weapons that talked so big, the
fedayeen weren’t afraid of anything. Any reader who has seen a map of
Palestine and Jordan knows that the land is not like a sheet of paper. Along
the Jordan River the land is in high relief. This whole escapade should have
been subtitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream in spite of the flare-ups
between the forty-year-old leaders. All that was possible because of youth,
the joy of being under the trees, of playing with weapons, of being away
from women, in other words, of conjuring away a difficult problem, of being
the brightest and the most forward point of the revolution, of having the
approval of the population of the camps, or being photogenic no matter
what, and perhaps of foreseeing that this revolutionary fairy tale might soon
be defiled: the fedayeen didn’t want power; they had freedom. At the
Damascus airport on my way back from Beirut I met some young fedayeen
who had escaped from the Israeli hell. They were sixteen or seventeen.
They were laughing; they were like the ones in Ajloun. They will die like
them. The struggle for a country can fill a very rich life, but a short one. That
was the choice, as we recall, of Achilles in the Iliad.

Translated by Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud
* Copyright © 2009 Time Inc


Jean Genet (1910-1986) was a prominent and controversial French novelist,
playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was
a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing. His major works
include the novels Querelle of Brest, The Thief’s Journal, and Our Lady of
the Flowers
, and the plays The Balcony, The Blacks, The Maids and The Screens.

From the late 1960s, starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the
events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in
demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in
France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA where he stayed
for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey
Newton, and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he
spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser
Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan and the
USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, A Prisoner
of Love
, which would be published posthumously. Genet also supported
Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel
Defert’s Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to
protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since
the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found
floating in the Seine. In September 1982 Genet was in Beirut when the
massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila.
In response, Genet published “Quatre heures à Chatila” (“Four Hours in
Shatila”), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event.
Excerpted from Wikipedia:

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