Travel: Suffocating under the deadweight of Palestine in the camp outside town

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The Independent Travel
"BECAUSE I'm lusty," he explained, irritably. It was breakfast time on the balcony of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo and my waiter Mahmood was peering into the bedroom windows - home to a number of Russian ladies.

I suggested he sit down for a coffee. He had a better idea: Would I like to go back to his house? "I'm from Acre," he explained, meaning (hint hint) that he now lived in a Palestinian refugee-camp.

This was Syria but - as in so many Arab cities of the Levant - the Palestinians were all crowded into a camp outside town. In the case of Mahmood's camp, there turned out to be 20,000 crammed into a single square kilometre of low houses, green trees, smooth cement, fresh air, and clean lanes so narrow you had to turn sideways on to pass people. Pleasantly surprised at the contrast between this and the ghastly Lebanese camps I had seen, I foolishly told Mahmood that it all seemed rather nice.

"Too small!" he groaned. We came to his parental house, a series of endless rambling balconies and extensions, surrounding a fragrant courtyard open to the blue sky and planted with olives, apricots and grapevines. A perfect, miniature Palestine?

Mahmood's father appeared in a silk dressing gown and declared his intention of making me a "proper" cup of British tea with milk. This was embarrassing. Had he not had more than enough of the British? "The British!" he kept exclaiming. "Yes, we were there with the British in Acre!" The misty memory of that childhood had decorated even the old colonial power with a golden hue. He laughed loudly and added that the Syrians were nowhere near as good. But Mahmood was bored by this idle banter. He wanted to take me on a tour of the camp. We moved on to the local shop. "Here supermarket small," growled Mahmood, leading me into a tidy room with clean carpets, low cushions, a fridge full of pepsis. As we stood there, we were suddenly intercepted by the local English teacher, hot on the trail of the rare foreign visitor.

"Ah! We hear the most welcome news of your arrival!" sang out the teacher, his lips and eyes twitching disconcertingly. He promptly began testing my English. "Repeat three times," he squeaked. "She sells seashells ... Come on! And when is `we' not a personal pronoun?" Mahmood was throwing up his hands irritably in the background. "Please," the teacher went on, urgently. "I am a VIP. I am a PLO agent. Can you get me a job as an English teacher in England?"

Looking at this emaciated, unshaven man with no front teeth, it was hard to imagine the UK immigration authorities agreeing to let him in. Even if he was the best educated person in the camp.

"He speaks English very good," whispered Mahmood. "But too much. Let's go."

But where to? As the child of an unwanted refugee where do you go? "Are you interested in visiting Jericho?" I asked him later, wondering how much he cared about Yasser Arafat's fiefdom.

"Jericho SMALL!!" Mahmood almost shouted. Biting back frustration, he saw me off on a local bus, thoughtfully restraining the English teacher from accompanying me. I continued my journey. Mahmood continued suffocating under the deadweight of Palestine.