BURJ EL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon — Nassar al-Tanji is sitting at the bar at Jafra cafe talking to friends. He is a 20-year-old Palestinian refugee originally from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. He became a refugee twice in 2011 when he fled his war-torn home in Syria. For Tanji, Jafra cafe is a unique place in the Burj el-Barajneh camp in Beirut, where he can meet with other men and women, have discussions and not be harassed, breaking the existing gender barriers in the camp. Here, he has a space where he can interact with others and not be frowned upon by onlookers.
Founded in April 2015 by Palestinian musician Ashraf el-Chouli, who invested his life savings to open it, Jafra is the first mixed meeting place in the camp. Here, young men and women can go to read in its small library, listen to music or meet visiting guests from outside the camp, many of them musicians, including Palestinian singer and international star Mohammed Assaf who sang and played music with Chouli at Jafra for an evening.
Al-Monitor met with Chouli during preparations in a special kitchen set up for food to be delivered in the coming days to 300 needy families in the camp for Ramadan. The kitchen, located in a separate building, was recently completed. "When I first opened Jafra, I thought I would be able to live off it. I soon realized that was not the case. In fact, for some time, I had to sleep at the cafe because I had invested all my savings in it and could not afford my own rent. But I cannot close it. It is important for the community to have these open meeting places. The youth in particular need it. I lose as a business, but I win as an idea," he said.
What makes Jafra special is that it is entirely privately funded. It does not belong nor is it sponsored by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or institution. Originally from the Palestinian camp of Rashidiya in southern Lebanon, Chouli, 34, is a self-taught player of the oud (a Middle Eastern stringed instrument) and a famous musician on Beirut's Hamra Street. Jafra cafe is meant to provide Palestinians with exposure to the world outside the camp and, at the same time, contribute to changing negative stereotypes about Palestinian camps with the Lebanese community. The sign over the door reads "Al-Auda" (Arabic for "The Return"), referring to the Palestinian right to return.
When Chantal Abboud first visited Jafra, her preconceived ideas about life in a Palestinian camp were completely transformed. The 22-year-old film student from Jounieh who studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut told Al-Monitor, "I come from a Christian community north of Beirut, [so] when I decided to do a documentary on the camps, my parents were sure that once I visited them I would not like it and change my mind." Contrary to her parents' prediction, the experience has changed and increased her understanding of life in the camps.
The change in perception worked both ways. While Abboud has decided to continue going to the camp and postpone her documentary in order to do more extensive work on it, the Palestinians at the camp have learned to trust her. This is unusual in Lebanon, where the Lebanese tend to avoid going to the Palestinian camps for various reasons, especially security concerns. On a smaller scale, this was one of the objectives that Chouli had when opening Jafra cafe: breaking the barrier between the camp's community and the Lebanese.
Chouli explained that he decided to open the meeting place in Beirut, and not in his native Rashidiya camp in the south, because the former is easy to access for outside visitors. For those who wish to visit Rashidiya, Lebanese army intelligence needs to give permission for those who do not live at the camp.
Chouli said he chose the name Jafra for the meeting place because it is a popular Palestinian tale and a symbol. The story narrates the displacement of a beautiful young Palestinian girl from a village near Acre, currently Israel, to the Lebanese camps and the romantic poems she inspired in the heart of a young poet. Jafra is now a famous Palestinian folk music that is played at weddings, parties and many other occasions.
Jafra cafe is a hub of ideas and cultural and social initiatives. Al-Monitor visited a recording studio that Chouli is building next door. Supporting himself now primarily from his work as a musician, Chouli sometimes receives offers and donations from the community and friends for such initiatives.
"For young musicians in the camp, it is extremely difficult to afford the rates of a recording studio outside the camp. Now that the negative stereotypes around music making are slowly disappearing, I wanted to enable local musicians at the camp to record their tracks," he said, while showing the technical equipment and recording room.
Mohamad Abu el-Heja, 20, improvises a rap session in Arabic at the studio where he soon hopes to record his track. Music can play an important role in the lives of the camp's youth. In Chouli's words, "It helped me to diffuse my stress while growing up in Rashidiya, and it can have a similar effect here."
As Al-Monitor met with Chouli and the youth, a fight broke out right across the street from the cafe. The environment became volatile as some teenagers exchanged words, though the tension was easily diffused and calm returned after a few minutes. This highlights how important it is for youth and people of all ages here to have a venue where they can step away from the difficulties of everyday life at the camp. Jafra is a place to read, listen to music, hold poetry events, learn English and exchange views with each other without the usual gender barriers that are still prevalent in Burj el-Barajneh.
While Jafra's founder made it a point to keep the cafe privately funded without affiliation to a specific political party or NGO, he has had to overcome stereotypes in the conservative environment prevailing in Palestinian camps, which are not accustomed to having public places where men and women can gather. "It is a sensitive topic. The community has its rules," Chouli said. According to Tanji, it is mostly the older generation that had difficulty seeing the benefits of Jafra for the community.
Jafra often becomes a meeting place not just for individuals, but also for NGOs and social groups that decide to hold meetings there. As Celine Akkary of the Nawaya Network NGO explained to Al-Monitor, "We are preparing to launch a program targeting youth in July and decided to meet at Jafra, which is partnering with us in our training [for a] capacity-building program."
Overcoming preconceived notions is a challenge for any community, but Chouli is convinced that initiatives like his can help to overcome them. “I am doing this for the community, not for me,” he said while holding his oud.