Camp Shatila

A Writer’s Chronicle by Peter Mortimer

Five Leaves, £8.99

In 2008 the author and playwright Peter Mortimer spent two months in Shatila, the notorious Palestinian refugee camp in outer Beirut which is home to 17,000 men, women and children. Ostensibly he was there to write a book about his experiences living inside the camp and to set up a children’s theatre group. His trip was made possible by Najdeh, a Palestinian NGO based in Lebanon. But it took him three weeks to get the necessary permissions to work with the kids. So the first half of this book details daily life in the camp: “Its teeming, claustrophobic antlike activity, its fractured sense of isolation from the outside world, its constant noise, its shell-blasted buildings, its dirt and stench, its lack of open space…”

Despite the heartbreaking poverty, Mortimer is overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the camp’s inhabitants who insist on feeding him at every opportunity and ensuring that he has a regular supply of freshly laundered clothes. He also sees the funny side when he learns that some of the local youths are referring to him as a cocksucker because of his earring. Later, he plays billiards with them and is bemused by the lack of rules: “Unlike pool in the UK, either player here potted either colour at will, and the winner was whoever potted the black, thus making all previous pots an irrelevancy. This idiosyncrasy was never explained to me.”

The second half of the book reads more like a rehearsal diary, but gives a vivid sense of what it is like for children to live and learn in Shatila. Mortimer’s attempts to stage a play were beset by problems, not least that the 11 and 12 year old girls spoke limited English and had no experience of theatre.

The task often seems hopeless, the culture gap too wide, and you have to admire Mortimer’s tenacity. I love a description when he has clearly had enough – the children are playing up and reading books when they are supposed to be rehearsing – so he snatches the books out of their hands and sends them sliding across the floor. “A hushed silence fell to the room. One of the books was the Holy Quran, any manhandling of which was high sacrilege, especially by a non-believer such as myself. Everything I had tried to achieve in that instant risked destruction as I stood before them, the infidel, the betrayer, the unbeliever.”

Part of the book’s charm is Mortimer’s humility and his recognition that failure is around every corner. Having myself taught drama abroad, I have sympathy for him when his over-excited young charges run riot around the classroom screeching and babbling incoherently. It is hard not be moved when, at the end, Mortimer pulls off the impossible. Not only does he stage two performances of the show to rapt audiences in the camp, but the following year he raises the necessary funds to bring over ten children and their teachers and repeats the feat in the north-east of England.

first published in Tribune Magazine, 4 June 2010

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