We are the ones who have to support our walls

Shatila Stories
a collaborative novel from Peirene Press

Authors: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Mareb

Editors: Meike Ziervogel, Suhir Helal

Translator from Arabic: Nashwa Gowanlock

This novel is the outcome of a series of writing workshops that Peirene Press and the NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh held at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, which is home to up to 40,000 refugees, largely Palestinian and Syrian. Nine refugee writers wrote their own fictional stories set in Shatila, which the editors helped them to hone and weave together into a single narrative. The outcome is a piece of fiction that gives a true flavour of life in Shatila.

The story, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a series of vignettes. The same characters start and end the story, and others do recur, but some sections are more loosely connected – a name mentioned in one chapter becomes central in another chapter, but then we don’t meet them again.

Where this book’s strength lies is the Shatila setting. Throughout, Shatila is ever-present and brought to life in all its terrifying – and life-threatening – ramshackle chaos. Whether the chapter is about romance, or debt, or bullying, or careers and education, the facts of living in a refugee camp – in this refugee camp – are never forgotten. The photographs at the start and end of the book by Paul Roman also help to place the physical reality of Shatila, though only the writers can establish its emotional truth.

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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A break from the norm

by Joe Sacco

This is an unusual, interesting, informative but potentially inflammatory work from journalist Joe Sacco. It’s an account of two months spent in Palestine (and occasionally Israel) in 1991–1992, told in graphic novel form.

It’s an interesting idea, this “comic-book journalism” and one that has won Sacco awards, including the 1996 American Book Award for this work. He’s an intelligent man, from what I can tell, and Palestine is a difficult situation that could potentially be too complex or political and therefore dull to many readers. This book is certainly not dull. It’s political, sure, but also moving, graphic, disturbing and compelling.

As journalism goes, this isn’t the third-person, bias-free, author-free account you might expect. The book stars Sacco, following his time in Palestine, his interviewing technique, his thoughts, fears, boasts and worries. Sacco does not do himself favours in his self-depiction. Comic-book Joe is both physically and at times morally unattractive. He admits to craving sordid details that will enliven his journalism. He pushes interviewees for the most disturbing stories and shows little emotional reaction while his translator or host is weeping at what they have heard. He also, unusually for an American, places himself solidly on the Palestinians’ side.

Now I’m not sure if this is a position he took in retrospect, after spending months in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem. He certainly went there with the intention of getting the Palestinian side of the story, because the US tends to only ever hear the Israeli side. It’s a reasonable background to have for his trip. And he clearly knows that he comes across as biased because toward the end of the book we see him spending time with two Israeli women and failing to engage with their arguments. But it did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Very few of the characters he meets are blameless. Yes, the small man on the street, even the soldiers, are ultimately in thrall to what the politicians do or say, but when everyone is throwing stones…who is innocent?

I don’t know a great deal about this situation, a situation that started long before I was born and continues now. I know a lot more than I did before I read this book and I feel both incensed and helpless. Because so many people are trying, have tried, to help. The events of this book happened 20 years ago and it still goes on; people still die, are thrown in jail, live in abject poverty.

Sacco’s artwork is excellent. He draws in black and white, packing in the detail, with lots of big half-page or full-page scenes. He recounts atrocities without getting too graphic, tending instead to concentrate on what he himself saw – one room after another full of people telling him their stories. Which sounds dull. Luckily his humour, in addition to further details from his trip (hazardous roadtrips, riots, menacing soldiers in the street) and the occasional depiction of a story he is being told ensure that this book never gets boring. It is genuinely gripping, in part because from what we learn it seems likely that some of the people we meet will not survive until the end of the story.

I do have a couple of gripes. In a few places early on, Sacco packs a lot of text in to contextualise. Which is necessary and helpful but it’s visually offputting, because to retain the comic-book feel without having many or any pictures he presents the text in various skewiff, haphazard arrangements, sometimes hard to follow. And these are historical events being described which I felt could have been, maybe should have been, illustrated.

Secondly, there’s no real narrative arc. It’s just Sacco’s time in Palestine start to finish. Except not quite because a couple of times he breaks from chronological order to talk about something thematic. But there’s no lessons learned, no how it affected or changed him, no “this is what I’m going to do now I’ve seen what’s happening for real”. Maybe that can’t be helped. If all the world’s politicians can’t figure out what to do then why should I expect an American journalist to have the answers? But somehow I did. The closest he comes is to quote one (Israeli) man he met in Jerusalem:

“Ultimately I don’t think peace is about whether there should be one state or two. Of course that issue is important, but what is the point of two racist states or one racist state…or one racist state dominating another? The point is whether the two peoples can live side by side as equals.”

Of course, what Sacco did was to write and draw this comic series, to spread the word about what life is like in Palestine, what really goes down day-to-day. That’s what journalism is about and it’s an important role. He actually went back and produced a sequel to this, Footnotes in Gaza, in 2009. I definitely want to read it. And that’s saying something. This is not an uplifting read and I don’t expect the sequel to be, but it’s enlightening and if there’s one thing I read for, it’s to be enlightened.

First published as a nine-issue comics series in 1993–1996. Reissued as a single volume with a new introduction in 2001. Published by Fantagraphics Books.