Like Apricots for Hepatitis

“Apricots. Feed him apricots. Or apricot jam, since it’s just past the season for fresh Apricots.”

“I heard boiled potatoes are good, too. Just make sure to avoid anything fried or fatty!”


4 year old Juju had just contracted Hepatitus A, or sfair (“the yellowish disease”) as its known here, where it is fairly rare, and as we gather around our morning coffee, there is no shortage of advice being dished on what the proper course of treatment should be.

We are in the Wavel Refugee Camp, situation just 30 km west of the Syrian border, where my husband grew up, and where several hundred Palestinian families continue to live (a fraction of the much larger camps in the rest of Lebanon). Originally a French Army barracks, Wavel is unique in several respects: is the smallest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; the only one in the Hezbollah stronghold of the Beqaa Valley; and the one that has surprisingly experienced the least turmoil, having been spared the massacres, incursions, and family feuds of larger camps such as Nahr al-Bared and Ay nil Hilweh, and, most notoriously, Sabra and Shatilla, despite its proximity to Syria. The camp has in the past three years, however, experienced a significant spillover of other Palestinian refugees from Syria, crowding the already teeming camp, overwhelming relief agencies, and raising rentals significantly (more on this in another post). Palestine refugees now comprise about ten percent of the population in Lebanon, according to UNRWA, who overseas their care, but are infamously lacking in many basic civil rights, are forbidden from working more than 20 professions (including medicine), cannot own land, and have the highest figures of abject poverty of any other Palestinian refugees.

“What do Apricots have to do with Hepatatius A?” I inquired, curious as to whether there was some scientific foundation to this age-old folk remedy.

“You mean Sfair”

“Yes, yes, Sfair. How are they supposed to help?”

“Who knows, they say they are good. It’s a liver disease. The liver needs nutrients”. I guess not.

Well-meaning and often nosy neighbors, cousins, and extended family all offered their own familial remedies for the sickly boy, whose highly contagious but otherwise un-extraordinary virus, I learned, does not require medication nor a change of diet. But such is life in the refugee camp, where everybody assumes the role of doctor, pharmacist, and therapist all at once, and where the line between public and private space is blurred to nearly nonexistent.

The morning banter is interrupted by other, more enthralling gossip: Muhammadayn, one of two local camp bakers, has just proposed to his long-time love interest, a woman 3 years his senior, expressing his desire to take her on as a second wife, much to the chagrin of his current wife and mother of his five children, whose side most of the camp is on. The formerly obese baker (thus the nickname “Muhammadyan”, or “two Muhammads”) is now fit as a fiddle, having vowed to shed his weight after contracting diabetes from a lifetime of consuming leftover manakeesh.

Then, there is “Halawa”, the camp bad-boy, who, after many idle years spent in the camp with no work prospects, decided to make the perilous seas voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe, after collecting enough to pay smugglers a handsome sum of some $14, 000. He now waits in Beirut for his contact in the Lebanese army to accept his cut and let him on a cargo ship to Turkey, and from there, on to Greece. Just last year, a mother and her two daughters from this very camp drowned on this very journey . But with little left to lose and nothing to gain, many young people have chosen to immigrate, either to Scandinavia (Malmo, Sweden, in particular) and more recently, to Germany), sometimes by marriage, sometimes by smuggling.

There is also news of UNRWA having run out of money, that perhaps schools won’t start on time this year. Children rejoice, parents groan. The conversation ends on a somber note from which those gathered around coconut cakes, nectarines and Nescafé still manage to derive humor: the mosque loudspeaker announces the funeral of a women who died the night before-from a heart attack, as she was dancing at a wedding.

“She fell flat on her face. Nobody knew what to do with her, so they put her on a couch and covered her up, and carried on with the wedding! She’s now in the morgue freezer. At least she went happy, and probably cooler in there than it’s been here during this heat wave!”