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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I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw

Optician of LampedusaThe Optician of Lampedusa
by Emma Jane Kirby

This book, like The Gurugu Pledge falls somewhere between journalism and novel – a true story retold in novel form.

Lampedusa is an Italian island that is closer to Africa than Europe. Though refugees crossing the Mediterranean rarely aim intentionally for Lampedusa, it has over the last decade become a common site for boats gone astray. A few years ago Lampedusa’s optician Carmine Menna was taking a pleasant boat trip with his wife and friends when they heard the screams of hundreds of drowning men and women. He was reluctant to speak to reporters, but BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby talked him into this method of telling his story.

“I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to…You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching…Birds. Just birds. We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.”

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Whichever history the whites chose for you

The Gurugu PledgeThe Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated by Jethro Soutar

This is the first of three books I read last weekend that create fiction from real-life accounts. It hadn’t even occurred to me before that was a genre!

On the Gurugu mountain in Morocco next to the border with the small Spanish enclave of Melilla, people from all over Africa hide in caves and tents in a makeshift camp, waiting to make their attempt on the border wall that could get them to European soil. To pass the time, the people on Gurugu mountain tell stories about where they have come from and play football (which also keeps them warm on this northerly point of the continent).

“There are some five hundred of us, black Africans all, and we just want to live, you know? We just want to live, but living is a serious business in Africa, for it’s often very hard and lots of people barely manage it…we need to eat. Do you understand me, Sir? Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you.”

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Politics are what brought us together, in this room

asylum and exileAsylum and Exile: the Hidden Voices of London
by Bidisha

I picked this book up at its launch in London last week after hearing a few samples from it read aloud. It’s a short, jauntily written memoir that is deceptive in the power of what it has to say.

Bidisha is a British author, journalist and broadcaster who in 2011 started to run creative writing workshops for asylum seekers and other migrants in London, organised by English PEN. She quickly realised that most people who turned up for the class were not interested in becoming writers – they were there to improve their English or to spend some time with people in a similar situation or even to receive the free tea, cake and £8 travel subsidy provided by the charity. But she also found that didn’t matter because she discovered amazing people and had her preconceptions of refugees challenged.

“On the board, I draw a sun with a smiling face and rays and all its clichés flowing out from it: warmth, light, shininess, redness, yellowness and gold, nourishment, hope and life and growth, tanning and health, sunset and sunrise. These are all banned.

A woman with a canny face, gleaming jet skin and matte black eyes chuckles as she prepares to read hers out. Grandly, emphatically: ‘I miss the African sun because it made me sweat out all my African fat.’

Clapping, laughter and loud agreement from everyone.”

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