Gustavo Barbosa, The Best of Hard Times: Palestinian Refugee Masculinities in Lebanon (Syracuse University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Gustavo Barbosa (GB): I guess a book is the momentary and complex coalescence of various motivations: personal and academic, intermingling, sometimes conflicting, always disturbing and demanding to be expressed. My first contact with Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut where I lived for one year and conducted research, dates back to my teenage years. I wanted to be a journalist and pressed my parents to subscribe to Brazil’s leading news magazine. Having anxiously awaited the first issue, when it arrived the cover was a photo from the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982. That photo is still vivid in my memory.

Later as an adult, I worked for a short while in Tel Aviv, where I asked a Brazilian friend of Palestinian origin to arrange for me to visit Gaza. She did so. Gaza was a punch to my stomach. Gaza is unacceptable: we only live with it because of the effort to make it invisible. In a sense, I am still stuck in Gaza. And I had to do something to come to terms with this fact.

During my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to conduct research among Palestinians. When I started visiting Shatila, before moving there, and as I got to know the shabāb, the lads from the camp, it became obvious to me that I wanted to write something about them. As men with no economic or political-military power, the shabāb are often made invisible by both the feminist literature and the literature on Palestinian nationalism. Yet they very much deserve to be heard, including when they sing. One of the chapters of my book is precisely dedicated to their rap music.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GB: On various levels—academic, personal, and political—I am committed to those people, interlocutors in the field or in the “bibliography,” that is, other scholars, whose existence is obliterated and whose voices are silenced by dynamics of power, academic or otherwise. This is not to say I am in a position to speak for them, but rather that their voices deserve to be heard and their presence recognized.

Before moving to London for my PhD at the London School of Economics, I studied anthropology in the less secure waters of Brazilian academia. Brazilian anthropology is highly influenced by philosophy because our indigenous populations are philosophical; like Palestinian refugees, existence is not something to be taken for granted also for them. In the United Kingdom, I was exposed to what might be called “hardcore” disciplines, whose influence and power are already consolidated: Marxism, statistics, and feminism. I became increasingly convinced that the latter also deserves to be described as a “hardcore discipline”: moreover, one of a very disciplining nature.

And then I found my way to Shatila, where the foundations of my three canonic disciplines— Marxism, statistics, and feminism—were shaken. I began my investigation with a Marxist-inspired question: what happens to men who cannot provide for their future families? Such is the case of the Shatila shabāb. In Palestine, before 1948, a man came of age and displayed proper gender-belonging by marrying at the appropriate age and bearing a son. When it comes to the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon, throughout the 1970s, acting as a “freedom fighter,” or a fidāʾī, became an alternative way to come of age and mark proper gender-belonging. My research question, then, turned into the following: how do today’s shabāb come of age and display gender-belonging?

The answer to this question is not obvious, particularly given two aspects. First, Palestinian refugees, due to what I call the “institutional violence” resulting from Lebanese legislation, have neither free access to the labor market nor the legal right to acquire real estate in Lebanon. Unemployment rates remain high, hitting the shabāb particularly hard. So, the economic path for coming of age and displaying gender-belonging has ceased to be as straightforward as it was before 1948. Second, the political-military path also no longer provides an alternative solution for coming of age and displaying gender-belonging, as it was for the fidāʾiyyīn, because the Palestinian Resistance Movement, in its military dimension, has been demobilized in Lebanon.

At this juncture, I was asking myself: what happens to men with no economic or political-military power? The literature’s traditional answer is that these men live a “crisis of masculinity” that transforms them into terrorists-in-the-making. But none of this holds true for the shabāb from Shatila. So, instead of framing them as emasculated, I decided to promote another crisis, one of an epistemological nature: the crisis of “gender” itself. What happens to gender as a concept—informed as it is by differential access to power by men and women—when we are in the presence of men with no or limited power?

Gender, as an analytical tool, very much works to depict the biographies of the fidāʾiyyīn. They were all power, all gender as precisely a discourse on power, all public, all spectacle. Their narratives amalgamate everything for which the heroic 1970s stand: territorial nationalism, Third-worldism, socialism. But certain tropes and fantasies from the 1970s have become an impossibility for those coming after, like the shabāb or myself.

Accordingly, I became very interested in instances of manifestations of gender—if we still wish to keep the word—that do not necessarily imply manifestations of power as well. This was when my attention was drawn to the shabāb’s engagement (dare I say, love?) towards their pigeons. I provocatively named the chapter dedicated to their pigeon-raising “noncockfights.” Indeed, for the shabāb, much more than power struggles is at play in these engagements with animals that can fly and are free. Not all fights have to be about cock.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

GB: My first lengthy academic investment was bibliographical, exploring the books and articles of Pierre Clastres, an ethnographer who had been an adolescent passion of mine and whose work had been largely obscured in academia, submitted to a pitilessly (and, I believe, unduly) strict Durkheimian reading. One of Clastres’ main arguments is that some South American indigenous societies mobilize themselves to prevent the state’s emergence: they are societies against the state.

Although not looking for this correspondence as such, I was surprised by the functioning of the Shatila polity, which I think can also be described as an anti-state machine that, today at least, does not allow any one political faction to become dominant and impose its will on others. Indeed, there is no single source of recognized and institutionalized authority in Shatila.

This led me to an interesting question: does gender as a concept—dependent as it is on power— have links to state-machines? What kind of dangerous liaisons may exist between gender and states? And what happens to the concept when the state is not obvious and cannot be taken for granted, as in Shatila?

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

GB: I would be happy for the book to be read by those considering ethnography as a career, feminist scholars and activists, and students of nationalism, including Palestinian nationalism. I frame The Best of Hard Times as an ode to the power of ethnography, and, in very accessible language, show how it can be mobilized to force our opening to difference and to dismantle some consolidated discourses and practices, including those pertaining to liberal feminism. Because the book shows that gender—as a concept informed by important but nonetheless geographically circumscribed political struggles—does not travel well or function everywhere, it challenges some of liberal feminism’s canons and, I believe, may be an interestingly provocative reading for some feminist scholars and activists. Finally, the book also complexifies the notion of a univocal Palestinian nationalism and, in this sense, may constitute a useful bibliographic source for scholars of nationalism.

Above all, I try to render human the shabāb, these men brutalized by the media and some of the academic literature. If the impact of the book, through this humanization, is that people in Lebanon and elsewhere feel less anxiety and fear towards these men and understand some of their predicaments, then The Best of Hard Times will have achieved its political goal.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

GB: I am taking my first steps towards a new research project: assisted reproduction among gay men in Israel. Again, I will be dealing with men who are left out, in this case by Israeli policies on assisted reproduction, which still hinder their access to this modality of reproduction and force them to pursue transnational surrogacy.* Differently from the shabāb, Israeli gay men do have power, both economic and political—so I will have to engage firmly with power this time—and yet they are still left out.

I have also been grappling with hope for a while now. However elusive, hope still seems to capture shabāb’s imaginaries, as attested by their pigeon-raising and flying. Even though I have not yet begun any fieldwork with Israeli gay men, I predict that hope will inform their reproductive journeys, when they cross borders in search of much desired children. I have tried to obtain funding to organize a seminar on hope but so far have been unsuccessful: it may be telling that I can get money to investigate people’s misery and predicaments, but not their engagement with hope. Now that the pandemic has turned our worlds upside down, and hope has also ceased to be obvious for the richer part of the world, perhaps I will finally be able to secure those funds… 

J: What was the most rewarding and the most demanding feature of your fieldwork?

GB: People are bewildered that I lived in a refugee camp, but that is usually because they think of it only as a miserable place. I do not want to romanticize life in Shatila, at all, because it is challenging. But for me the camp was also a space of possibility and political invention which enabled a vista onto other (non-sovereign) futures.

And, in a sense, this brings us back to hope. Engagement with the future was never obvious in Shatila. Some of the shabāb told me that they lived on a day-to-day basis, their lives over-determined by features beyond their control. This fact—their difficulty, owing to present-day circumstances, of engaging with a sense of futurity—troubled me. And that was the reason I left the camp after a year: I fell victim to what the shabāb describe as mara nafsī, soul-sickness. One of them predicted I would leave the camp, painfully remarking on our differences: “You like Shatila, Gustavo, but actually you can’t stand it. You like Shatila because you know you can leave. For me, Shatila is not a game I can easily get out of.”


*This interview was given on November 2021, prior, thus, to the recent change in Israeli legislation allowing gay men to have access to surrogacy in the country.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, pp. 236-242)

A Workshop on “al-Gender

“I hate having to do it, Gustavo.”

My good friend Jihad, twenty-eight, was complaining about yet another workshop on “gender” that he had to facilitate. Jihad was a social worker at a local Palestinian NGO, which was hosting a series of lectures on reproductive health for young Shatila residents, both boys and girls, in cooperation with its Italian counterpart. The Italian NGO financing the exercise provided the social workers with supporting material – a DVD and a guidebook in both Arabic and English – that set out the procedures for the workshop. Jihad thought it best to make some adaptations to the general guidelines in order to render them more culturally appropriate: “I tell the participants that one of Prophet Mohammed’s wives was his boss and that it’s not a problem to have women in leading positions. The local director of our center here in Shatila is a woman. But it’s true that it’s taken even me forever to understand what ‘gender’ is.”

Jihad also used another strategy to help participants grasp the elusive concept of “gender.” He wrote the word in English on a whiteboard, Arabicizing it by placing the article “al-” (equivalent to the) in front of it: al-gender. He then invited the participants to share with others what they understood by the concept: “People come up with the most unbelievable definitions. During one workshop, a participant said that ‘gender’ is a terminal disease.”

I regretted not having taken part in Jihad’s activity: as happened all too often during my period in Shatila, it seemed I had missed yet another golden opportunity. So I did what an ethnographer has gotta do: I invited myself to the next workshop on “gender” that Jihad was due to facilitate in a couple of months.


This chapter is written from the premise that the participant in Jihad’s workshop who defined “gender” as a terminal disease may have had a point, even if the remark was probably unintentional. Although the notion of “gender” may correspond to the power relations known by the older male refugees, who acted as fidāʾiyyīn […], its utilization is less appropriate when dealing with their offspring, the shabāb of today, with their very limited access to power. In this chapter, I make use of the workshop conducted by Jihad, the one I eventually attended, as illustrative of the highly stereotyped and moralized views that NGOs hold of so-called gender systems in settings considered conservative, such as Shatila. I then present an arena of sociality where the Shatila shabāb displayed sex roles until recently: the raising and hunting of pigeons. I explore the differences between this “noncockfight” – pigeon raising among the shabāb – and the Balinese cockfights (Geertz 2000): though both involve men and birds, they diverge profoundly, among other reasons because Shatila today houses several anti-state trends, whereas Bali is very much a “state machine.” Thus, I ask what happens when a state is not present to “organize” a “sex-gender system” at the local level and suggest that more studies are needed to clarify the exact relation between “gender” and “state machines.”

“Gender Troubles”

In contrast to what happened in Jihad’s previous workshop, no dramatic definitions were offered when he wrote al-gender on the whiteboard during the workshop I attended. The guidebook prepared by the Italian NGO did anticipate that participants may not be sufficiently acquainted with the concept and reported that in pilot sessions some guessed that “gender” was a telephone model, a name, a law, a provocation, and a competition – though, again, in the latter three cases I suspect that the participants may not have been entirely wrong. Jihad confided to me that his own organization’s contribution to the workshop was half-hearted at most. His boss, a Shatila resident too, once expressed to him her frustration with the topic: “Oh, these Europeans! They should give us their lives so that we can implement their agenda. We lead lives very different from theirs!”

Some twenty camp residents took part in the workshop, both boys and girls, some of the latter wearing head scarves, ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-four. The boys clustered at the two ends of the table, with the girls in between; a female facilitator, Rola, worked with Jihad to direct the discussions. Only one of the participants, a boy, volunteered that al-gender was about roles (al-ʾadwār), which Jihad diligently wrote on the whiteboard. The others were somewhat more candid, stating that they simply did not know what it was, that it was the first time they were hearing the term, and that al-gender was the same as al-jins (sex).

[…] For my present analytic purposes, it is the workshop’s third activity that is particularly relevant. Jihad and Rola distributed blue and green cards to the participants, irrespective of sex. He explained: “Those with the blue cards can’t do anything except remain seated. Those with the green cards can do whatever they feel like.” A […] male green-card holder opted to tease an unlucky girl holding a blue card. “Now, you’ll swap your cards,” Rola instructed. It was the girl’s turn to take her revenge.

Once the activity was over, Jihad prompted the participants to share with others how they felt when in possession of the differently colored cards. Faithfully observing the manual’s guidelines, Jihad once more divided the whiteboard into two columns, labeled “No Power” (aʿīf, literally meaning “weak”) and “Power” (Quwwa). Participants stated that while in the quwwa position they felt special (mumayyazīn), gained their rights, and were able to express themselves. […] The content under the heading “No Power” was considerably more dramatic. When holding the blue cards, the Shatila boys and girls reported that they experienced al-malal (boredom), al-dhill (humiliation), al-quyūd (restrictions), al-ʾinfiʿāl (emotional stress), al-ghaḍab (rage), al-ʾiḥtiqān (frustration), and al-ṣamt ([enforced] silence). In the end, Jihad and Rola had conducted the activity precisely as intended, and the Italian NGO’s objective had been attained. Indeed, the manual reads: “Make the point that gender relations are power relations and that subordination (power-over) should be replaced by cooperation (power-with) and empowerment (power-to).”

On my way out of the center, I bumped into another friend, Omar, a twenty-eight-year-old greengrocer, in the alleys of Shatila. He had grown up hearing about workshops similar to Jihad’s and asked where I had spent the morning.

Me: I’ve attended a workshop at an NGO.

Omar: Oh, what was the workshop about?

Me: Al-gender.

Omar: And what’s that?

Me: [Under the influence of Jihad’s workshop, replying with an expression probably even more bizarre in Arabic than it is in English] It’s the “social sex” [al-jins al-ʾijtimāʿī].

Omar: [In English] “Ah, that bullshit.”


Difference does not necessarily lead to the establishment of hierarchy, and even when it does, the ranking of superiority may contradict the outsider’s expectations and change over time and context, even within the same community. Shatilans do not require a workshop to teach what is tautological to them: that men and women are different, both physically and socially, whether they have a word for the latter or not. Rather, it may be the case that some of us need a workshop to understand how Shatilans conceptualize and practice that difference.

During a previous meeting I attended at Jihad’s NGO, a group of Norwegian photography students came to make their first acquaintance with camp residents before wandering around Shatila taking shots for an exhibition back home. After making us wait for a couple of hours, the students, some fifteen boys and girls, finally arrived: to general bewilderment, almost embarrassment, all the Norwegian girls were veiled, while barely half of their female Palestinian hosts were dressed the same way. Awad, in his midtwenties, could not resist the obvious joke and whispered to me: “I didn’t know that Norway is a Muslim country!” At a certain point, a female organizer discreetly encouraged one of the Norwegian girls to remove the ḥijāb: all the others followed, revealing a fiesta of different haircuts and colors—including pink—much to the amusement of the Shatilans.

For its part, the workshop on sex/gender described earlier is indicative of some of the international NGOs’ expectations concerning sex/gender systems. First, the workshop was part of a series on “reproductive health”: it medicalized sexuality in a setting considered conservative, such as Shatila. Second, all the activities of the workshop followed a strict dichotomizing logic—sex/gender, Jad/Hala, power/no power—as if difference necessarily entails an opposition and the creation of a hierarchy. Last, the utilization of the colored cards introduced the idea of gender as a disparity in terms of access to power. This is a hasty transposition of a notion of gender informed by important but nevertheless geographically circumscribed political struggles in Euro-America. The automatic transplantation of the notion into settings such as Shatila, where both women and men today have very limited access to power, raises serious issues. Indeed, not all fights are about cock.