This is the first collaborative novel on my website, though it will not be the last. It was set up by Meike Ziervogel, a German-born, London-resident novelist in her own right and the founder of the excellent Peirene Press.
Her idea was to get together a group of Syrian writers, teach them the principles of storytelling and then publish a book of their work. She decided to set this project in the Shatila refugee camp, home for many Palestinian refugees, but which now houses many refugees from Syria and which was the site of the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre. The full story of how she set it up is explained in the foreword to this book but, basically, with the help of London-based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, and Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an organisation which has set up community centres to assist Syrian refugees in various places, including Shatila, a workshop was organised. Each of the writers contributed a story. The best were translated into English by Nashwa Gowanlock, a UK-based Egyptian writer, translator and journalist. The stories were then edited into a novel.
The novel essentially tells a series of interlinked stories – most of the main characters appear in more than one story. All the stories are set in Shatila and all involve Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Apart from the very beginning, where we see a Palestinian-Syrian family fleeing Syria to come to Shatila, the novel is not concerned with flight but with their lives in Shatila and, of course, their memories of Palestine, Syria and/or both.
The picture we get of Shatila is not pretty. It is run by the refugees themselves. The Lebanese authorities, medical services and transport services do not and will not enter the camp. The dead and ill have to be picked up outside the camp as do taxis. Inevitably, those that run the camps are associated with one of the Palestine factions and/or are thugs. Young men run around carrying guns and, more and more frequently, openly carrying drugs. Drug and alcohol addiction as well as crime, petty and more serious, are problems. Children are often used by criminals and, of course, prostitution is rife.
Other conditions are poor. Electricity is often cut off and cables hang loosely and dangerously all over the streets. One of the characters in this book is electrocuted. Rats abound. Plumbing is poor. The walls of the houses are paper-thin, so you can hear what your neighbours are up to and they can hear you. This is an issue in this novel. One of the characters arriving from Syria says We have arrived in a prison which we have entered of our own free will, or so it appears. Sentenced without any charge.
Many of the residents are well educated. UNWRA runs a school. However, education is of limited use. The refugees cannot get permits to work in Lebanon so, unless they can somehow get access to education or employment elsewhere, they are stuck. One of the characters in this novel is seeking to go to a Canadian university.
Clearly, living in the camp is very stressful and we see that some of the residents do not function well. Drug and alcohol addiction is a problem. Some of the characters become violent as a result of the stress and do things that they would not do in a normal life.
Not surprisingly, women do not do well with sexism very much to the fore. We see a girl who has barely reached puberty being married off to an old man. Women are expected to obey their men and often do. There is a drug rehabilitation centre. The young men who are there are not condemned while the two women are and have been disowned by their families.
There is still a sense that things can change. Nearly all the Palestinian refugees have kept the keys to their houses in Palestine. The young woman who wants to study in Canada is told by her father that she is abandoning the Palestinian cause. However, the overall picture is not promising. We know it from the news and they presumably know it in their heart of hearts.
It is not all gloomy. One of the women plays a musical instrument, which she can practise away from her unpleasant step-mother in the community centre. She is joined by a young man (one of the incomers we met at the beginning of the book) who has a fine singing voice and, together, they rehearse, enter a contest and, of course, fall in love.
It really is a superb achievement to have got this together and produced what is a coherent, well-written, well-structured and fascinating novel. It certainly makes for interesting reading though you cannot help but come away from it feeling so sorry for the refugees and their plight and wonder if the vast majority have any prospects of a reasonable life at all.
Ziervogel has clearly made an effort to avoid politics. There is, as far as I can recall, no mention of Israel, Assad, the various Lebanese factions and only a passing reference to the various Palestinian factions. While there is, as mentioned, a sense of missing their homeland, the refugees seem more concerned with fighting one another than fighting Assad, the Israelis or the Lebanese militias.
This is a superb achievement and all credit to Meike Ziervogel, Suhir Helal, Nashwa Gowanlock and Basmeh and Zeitooneh for setting it up and all credit to the writers – Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohammad Sufar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Chazawi, Samih Mahmoud and Hiba Mareb. Those in italics are men and those in bold women.
First published 2018 by Peirene Press
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock