Book Review - Shatila Stories

In 1949, Shatila was established in Lebanon as a refugee camp for Palestinians. In 1982, hundreds of its inhabitants were slaughtered by the right-wing Christian Phalange militia, allies of the Israeli Defence Forces. In recent years, Shatila has seen a huge influx of refugees from Syria.

It was a brave decision by Peirene Press to run a series of writing workshops in the camp in the hope of extracting stories that could be transformed into a novel. Editor Suhir Helal and publisher Meike Ziervogel were initially downcast by the inadequate facilities, power cuts and erratic timekeeping of the attendees and feared the project would never get off the ground. Against all odds, they coaxed 4000 words from each of their nine, inexperienced writers and Shatila Stories, an insightful piece of collaborative fiction, is the result.

Helal interweaves three principle storylines, and various offshoots, to create a chilling portrait of an overflowing refugee camp. Reham cannot forgive her husband Marwan for rejecting their baby daughter who was born with Down’s Syndrome and later died. Ahmad is a drunk and drug addict. To pay off his debts, he sells his eleven-year-old daughter, Jafra, in marriage to an elderly grocer. His wife is helpless to intervene. The final strand describes the brief, ill-fated love affair of teenagers Shatha and Adam.

The harsh lives of refugees, struggling to keep their self-respect, is a difficult subject to tackle. In Shatila Stories the most memorable male characters are unsympathetic. Rehman, beaten by her husband, comments: “many people turn violent here – men against women, women against their children – as the only means of exerting their control...”

Shatha works in a drug rehabilitation centre and her devastating conclusion about the clinic echoes the terrible reality for many traumatised people living in Shatila: “Born bearing the burden of the Palestinian cause into a country which refuses to accept them as citizens, keeping them as refugees, as outcasts, they have grown up suffering. And once they complete their education with no hope of legal work, they find themselves on a dark and mysterious path where addiction is their only refuge.” 

Originally published in the TLS