Fiction — print. Peirene Press, 2018. Translated from the Arabic by Nashwa Gowanlock. Purchased.
For Shatila Stories, the publisher commissioned nine Palestinian refugees — some born in the camp, some who fled to it from Syria — to tell the story of the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. Their short stories were then interwoven together to create a narrative that follows Adam and his extended.
Adam’s older sister finds liberty within the camp; the economic freedom of having her own job allows her to leave the husband who refused to acknowledge their daughter, who has down syndrome. But most of the young people, including Adam and his singing partner Shatha, struggle to find opportunities beyond the drug and prostitution rings within the camp and some of the women and young girls, like Shatha’s aunt-in-law and cousin, still have their lives dictated by the decisions of their husbands.
A Palestinian born in the refugee camp, Shatha is denied a work permit by the Lebanese government. Her only hope to further her career and her education is a scholarship to university in Canada, but her father does not want her to leave as he believes it to be a sign that she’s giving up on the family’s plan to return to lands lost during the 1948 war with Israel. And Shatha struggles with the idea of leaving because of her budding relationship with Adam, because the camp is a place she simultaneously loves and loathes.
“I tell him how I feel deeply conflicted when it comes to the camp. That I both love and despite it, that it bores me yet I long for it, how I reject it and desire it. In spite of its crumbling homes, streets, and pavements, it oozes a substance that is capable of alleviating pain. It warms my heart when I see one of our number so innocently picking up a dropped morsel of food from the ground. How they give this wasted blessing a small kiss as they place it by the edge of the street so that no one steps on it, begging Allah for forgiveness.” (pg. 87)
In the introduction to the novella, the publisher wrote that they wanted to offer stories about the refugee experience that aren’t marked by stereotypes or assumptions about their loves. Yet, one of the stories plays right into the stereotypes about Muslim men — Shatha’s uncle marries off his pre-pubescent daughter to a much older man — and its inclusion is a jarring reminder that some stereotypes are rooted in truth.
The other truths in this novella, though, are jarring and unflinching in their portrayal of life in a refugee camp. There are obvious dangers — the underground economy driven by desperation and few economic opportunities, the boundaries that the Beirut police will not cross– and then there are those that are rarely addressed in news reports, including the haphazard way camps become permanent settlements.
Shatila is not a series of tents, but rather a compound constructed of scrap materials that is left with open sewer pits and un-grounded electrical wires. And, despite the varying abilities of the nine writers, the stories are held together by the description of this setting, by the common desire to explain this place as a real home. Which is, ultimately, the beauty of this novella.
I signed on to be a backer of this novel on Kickster hoping that it would offer me the opportunity to experience what is often explained through the eyes of aid workers or European and American journalist. In that regard, it is absolutely lived up to expectations. But the overall quality of these interwoven stories — the beautiful phrases and new perspectives they contain — made me even prouder to have played a small part in this novella’s publication.