ithout a doubt, Jamal Krayem Kanj has had an interesting life. He was born 10 years after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and grew up in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. As a youth, Kanj flirted with the idea of joining the armed resistance in Syria, survived Israeli airstrikes and fled war-torn Lebanon to finish schooling in Iraq, before eventually settling down in the USA. If Kanj were to put all this down in writing, then it’s definitely worth the read.
To our benefit, Kanj recently published his book, Children of Catastrophe: Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America, which documents his experience as a Palestinian refugee from a personal perspective. On the book’s Facebook group, which has just under 2,000 fans, Kanj says that “connecting people in the West with the personal experience of Palestinians in refugee camps was my main motivation [for] writing the book.”
Kanj details, but does not dwell on, the harsh conditions growing up in the camp. “Many nights [I woke] up with headaches and blackened nostrils from breathing the kerosene smoke while we slept,” he writes, since at the time his family lit their home using kerosene lamps, but he has “no memory of lacking any of life’s pleasures.” This, he explains, is due to the fact that “it is not possible to lack what you have never experienced.”
Indeed, his childhood seems to have been mostly a happy one. His accounts of fishing with dynamite, having close encounters with sharks, enjoying early “wink relationships” with girls and hunting birds using a muzzle-loading rifle give the book a lot of color in the opening chapters. But more gripping is his account of leaving the camp, unbeknownst to his family, at the age of 11 with several other children to join the military wing of the Fatah Palestinian group in Syria. After being rejected, Kanj and his fellow aspiring revolutionaries find themselves penniless in a foreign country, having no idea how to make it back to the camp.
Politics is central to his early experiences that shaped his political views, and these resonate throughout the book. The introduction, for instance, gives a brief account of the factors that led to the establishment of the Nahr al-Bared camp. It also includes a stern criticism of early Zionist leadership, saying Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben Gurion “consciously or unconsciously assigned jargon tantamount to ethnic cleansing to [Israel’s] military operations.”
The author then describes in great detail an event, which, he argues, has not been adequately covered internationally. Following the infamous kidnapping of Israeli Olympics athletes in Munich in September 1972, Israel raided Nahr al-Bared in an operation it called “retaliation,” but Kanj claims it was “an act of vengeance intended to cause the most damage to another civilian target.” This event is captured in a chapter that focuses entirely on Israel’s military raids.
Kanj also says that the Lebanese army was bent on the destruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp from the outset of the 15-week battle against Fatah al-Islam militants in the summer of 2007. He claims that after entering the camp, the army “looted” houses, painted “racist graffiti” on walls and destroyed or burned down many homes that were still intact. His anger toward those who destroyed his childhood home comes across clearly. On the other hand, he voices admiration for the perseverance of fellow camp residents, who “were able to laugh and even make jokes about their predicament.” In an online interview, Kanj points out that laughter became an “escape [and] a therapeutic” way to get through personal hardships.
But while these political issues are inextricably linked to the author’s identity, some of the passages read more as an academic paper than as a memoir. Undoubtedly, Kanj’s personal experiences shaped his political opinions, but the flow of the book suffers at times as it jumps from personal narrative to historical account to political opinion. This is exacerbated by the fact that the chapters are themed, resulting in the book’s confusing chronological order.
A bigger criticism, perhaps, is his failure to elaborate on aspects of his life that would have been of interest to his target niche, that is, the Western audience. The most glaring of these is his omission of any detail concerning his arrival to America. Although Kanj attempts to pre-empt this by agreeing that “the story of my life in America […] deserves more than a chapter in this book,” Children of Catastrophe would have benefited from an explanation as to why he decided to go to America specifically, why he applied to a school in Texas and how he ended up settling down in San Diego. An insight into his early memories of America and his perception of it as a Palestinian refugee would have given more depth to the story.
That being said, the book remains a valuable purchase as it is rich in personal experiences and gives interesting insights into the hardships and struggles of Palestinian refugees. It humanizes a place and a people that, as Palestinian-American author and journalist Ramzy Baroud put it, “have been seen for too long as mere subjects of statistical data and academic discussion.”
Children of Catastrophe is available at all major bookstores for $21/ 31,500 LL.