Peirene Now! No. 3

Shatila Stories – Arabic Edition


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  • Description

    Please note: this is the Arabic edition of Shatila Stories, for the English version of this book click here.

    ‘This remarkable novel isn’t about the refugee voice; it is born from it and told through it. On every page, the glint of hope for dignity and a better life is heartbreakingly alive.’ Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

    Most novels are written by professional writers using second hand material. Not this one. Peirene commissioned nine refugees to tell their ‘Shatila Stories’. The result is a piece of collaborative fiction unlike any other. If you want to understand the chaos of the Middle East – or you just want to follow the course of a beautiful love story – start here.

    Adam and his family flee Syria and arrive at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Conditions in this overcrowded Palestinian camp are tough, and violence defines many of the relationships: a father fights to save his daughter, a gang leader plots to expand his influence, and drugs break up a family. Adam struggles to make sense of his refugee experience, but then he meets Shatha and starts to view the camp through her eyes.

    Why Peirene chose to commission this book:

    ‘I want to hear their stories and see if their imaginations can open up a new path of understanding between us. Collaborative works of literature can achieve what no other literature can do. By pooling our imaginations we are able to access something totally different and new that goes beyond boundaries – that of the individual, of nations, of cultures. It connects us to our common human essence: our creativity. Let’s make stories, not more war.’ Meike Ziervogel

    If you want to learn more about how this book came into being, please see our project page here.

    Written by nine Syrian and Palestinian refugee writers.
    Translated from the Arabic by Nashwa Gowanlock.

    Peirene Now! series
    150pp, paperback with flaps, £12
    ISBN 978-1-908670-48-9
    eISBN 978-1-908670-49-6

  • Authors

    Nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees took part in a creative writing workshop run by Peirene in 2017 in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Afterwards, the participants were commissioned to create a piece of collaborative literature. The group consists of six women and three men between the ages of 20 and 43. Most have arrived in Beirut from Syria over the last five years, and a couple are second and third generation Palestinian refugees who were born in Shatila. Their names are: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Marei.

    Omar Khaled Ahmad is Palestinian Syrian. He was born in 1998 in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. In 2013 he fled the Syrian crisis and moved with his family to Shatila, Beirut. In 2016 he studied video journalism with the German Academy of the Deutsche Welle and now works for Shatila’s Campji, a youth media electronic platform for refugees. Omar has also directed a short film about life inside the Shatila camp.

    Nibal Alalo is Syrian. She was born in 1975 in Deir el-Zour. She obtained a master’s in sociology and worked for eleven years as a psychosocial support worker with Iraqi refugees in Damascus. She moved to Beirut in 2015 because of the war and is now working with Syrian refugees in the Shatila camp.

    Safa Khaled Algharbawi is Syrian. She was born in 1990 in Damascus and has lived in the Shatila camp since 2013. She has a higher national diploma in economics.

    Omar Abdellatif Alndaf is Syrian. He was born in 1989 in Idlib, where he also obtained a diploma in aluminium and glass production. He fled to Lebanon in 2011. He loves Arabic poetry.

    Rayan Mohamad Sukkar is Palestinian Lebanese. She was born in 1995 in the Shatila camp. She currently studies media at the Arab University of Beirut. In 2016 she completed a one-year course in video journalism with the German Academy of the Deutsche Welle and now works for Shatila’s Campji. She has also co-authored the play Tarah Bedda with the Ebaad organization and worked as an assistant director for a play at the American University in Beirut.

    Safiya Badran is Syrian. She was born in 1986 and came to Beirut in 2011. She works for the NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh in the Shatila camp.

    Fatima Omar Ghazawi is Palestinian Lebanese. She was born in 1997 in the Shatila camp. She is currently studying psychology at the Lebanese University and is a freelance writer for the magazine Wammda.

    Samih Mahmoud is Palestinian Syrian. He was born in 1998 in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. He moved with his family to the Shatila camp in 2013. In 2016 he completed a one-year course in video journalism with the German Academy of the Deutsche Welle and now works for Shatila’s Campji.

    Hiba Marei is Palestinian Syrian. She was born in 1987 in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. For three years she studied psychology at the Faculty of Education in Damascus before the Syrian crisis forced her to move to Beirut in 2012. She now works as a tutor in adult education in the Shatila camp. Hiba also co-authored The History of the Puppet Theatre in Lebanese Arabic Theatre.






  • Translator

    Nashwa Gowanlock is a British Egyptian writer, journalist and translator of Arabic literature. She is the co-translator with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp of The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria by Samar Yazbek. Her translation of Abdelrashid Mahmoudi’s novel After Coffee is published by HBKU Press.



  • Press

    ‘This remarkable novel isn’t about the refugee voice; it is born from it and told through it. On every page, the glint of hope for dignity and a better life is heartbreakingly alive.’ Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

    ‘As an enjoyable read, as literature, and as a work of witness, Shatila Stories is a resounding success.’ Melissa Harrison, The Guardian 

    ‘This is a triumph of collaborative, creative storytelling…the chapters are so painfully and astutely written ‘from inside’, the lives, loves and losses so authentic and unfabricated, that you are in deep mourning by the end – because this exquisite novel is over’ Rosie Goldsmith, EBRD Prize Jury

    Shatila Stories offers a template for encouraging writers from other backgrounds …  its unique, collaborative approach gives authentic voice to these refugees and their lives.’ The Economist

    ‘What I see is the power of voices coming together…this is not a charity read, this is a book that you would pick up to understand more…its very compelling.’ Nilanjana Roy, BBC World Service

    Shatila Stories breaks through the natural detachment we feel seeing images of families in boats or dressed differently. For many of us this is where we feel comfortable … perhaps pushing past and feeling uncomfortable is where we ought to be.’ Ruchira Sharma, iNews

    ‘Both from a humanitarian standpoint and an artistic perspective, Peirene are doing invaluable work in finding new voices who open our eyes, ears and hearts to worldly reality in all its profound suffering, joy, community, isolation and complexity.’ Bidisha, Writer and Broadcaster.

    ‘Compassion for our fellow humans fosters change. Shatila Stories allows us a window into the lives of those fleeing a war zone and their attempts to find a safe sanctuary.’ Lucy Popescu, Critic and Writer

  • Reading Sample

    Chaos everywhere. Thundering sounds rip through my ears. I blink and blink again. I take snapshots with my eyes. Racing feet, dragging feet; old people, young people; cars of different colours, of different shapes; grey sky, swaying trees. Hundreds, thousands are waiting at the closed gate, paperwork in hand, hoping to pass through. They want to cross the border. A scene worthy of the Day of Reckoning. Worry and fear are paramount. A pallor has settled across everyone’s face, no matter how dark or fair their complexion. Desperate eyes.

    I bid farewell to the country that I have lived in since my very first day. We are leaving for a safer place. We are on our way from Damascus to Beirut.

    The confusion around me helps to dispel anxious thoughts about the future. I distract myself by contemplating my reflection in the car window. The mirror image shows a young woman with large, tired eyes. She wears a brown scarf and a brown coat. My gaze travels down to her feet. The red winter boots look out of place considering the circumstances.

    And so our journey begins. First to the Hermel border region, an agricultural area surrounded by mountains, with the River Asi running through it.

    Afterwards all I will remember is the small white car we leave in and how we have to squeeze into the back seat, sitting on our hands because there is no room for our arms. I’m next to my younger brother, Adam. Next to Adam sit our parents. Marwan, my husband, is in the passenger seat beside the driver, who tries to deal with his fear by cracking jokes that no one pays any attention to. He has a black beard, wears glasses and uses a white rag to wipe the windscreen, which is fogging up from our breath. Eventually I can free my hands and I drape Marwan’s black jacket around me, hoping it will form a barrier between my ears and the pounding of my heart.

    Scenes of shooting and shouting and panic and fear and blood flicker through my mind, like watching an old television set connected to a faulty aerial. Yet I manage to fall asleep, and as I drift off I suddenly feel pleased that I’m able to do just that – close my eyes and succumb to oblivion. But soon I’m stirred again by the sound of a frightened dog. Every now and then, I hear the melodic call of a cricket trying to attract a mate. Then once more the night wraps me up in a black blanket.

    ‘Thanks be to Allah for your safety.’

    The driver’s voice reaches me from far away, followed by my mother’s gentle nudge: ‘Reham, we’re here.’

    I get out of the car and walk towards the black door. Carefully, I slide my feet across the muddy ground. An old peasant woman greets us, laughter lines etched on her wrinkled face as she welcomes us into her home. We climb marble steps lit by the yellow glow of a lantern that brightens and dims as we move.

    After only a few hours’ sleep we are on the road again, long before sunrise. Our destination is the Shatila camp in Beirut, our new home.

    We hope that Shatila will be our refuge. Because we believe blood is thicker than water. We know we will be living among fellow Palestinian refugees. And we are convinced that we won’t feel like strangers.

    I know very little about Shatila, only that it’s a camp that was established in 1949 in the south of Beirut on agricultural land to house Palestinian refugees. In 1982 the area entered history as the site of the horrific massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps.

    My husband, Marwan, has worked on a number of restoration projects in the Lebanese capital so he knows people who live in Shatila. We will stay with one of them for the first few days. But Marwan has promised that he will soon get us our own apartments, one for him and me and one for my parents and Adam.


    Our attempts to convince a taxi driver to take us inside Shatila fail again and again. Eventually we are dropped in Jalool Land, the camp entrance. It’s now seven in the morning and the streets of the camp are still asleep.We approach a café where Marwan tells us we will meet his contact.

    A young man, almost a boy still, about Adam’s age, is scrubbing red paint off his fingers under a tap. As he’s drying his hands he introduces himself as Muneef. He offers us coffee, which we gratefully accept. As we sip it, I notice from the corner of my eye how he takes a gun from a small shelf underneath the sink and slides it into the back of his trousers. For a second my heart stops. In a panic I glance at the others. Didn’t we come here in order to escape from guns and violence and war? But no one except me seems to have noticed and Muneef appears friendly.

    As we leave the café he tells us we’d be better off carrying our bags on our backs. At first I don’t understand what he means, but with his next instruction it begins to make sense.

    ‘Stomp your feet as you walk. It’ll frighten the rats.’

    Marwan has never mentioned rats!

    Muneef has plenty of advice, behaving just like a good guide for tourists. He also informs us that today the electricity will be off from six to nine.

    ‘That’s good,’ he says, nodding enthusiastically. ‘Often it’s out for much longer.’

    We march through dim, muddy alleyways where hardly any light penetrates even though the sky above us is now brightening. Tangled electrical cables run everywhere above our heads and wrap themselves around water pipes, climbing up the precariously assembled buildings that look like giant matchboxes stacked on top of each other. I gasp at the sight of an exposed copper wire at the end of a sagging cable. Is it live? What if one of our heads skims it as we walk past? Suddenly I struggle to breathe. As if there’s no oxygen left in these alleyways.

  • For Reading Groups

    Reading Shatila Stories in a book group? Here’s some questions to get the conversation going:

    1. Shatila Stories is one book made up of nine different voices. How does this affect the way you read the story?

    2. Shatila Stories takes place in present day Beirut inside the Shatila camp. How does this book change the way you perceive the modern refugee experience?

    3. How do the photographs at the beginning and end of the book enhance your reading experience?

    4. On page 27, Muneef leads the new arrivals to the camp past a “huge, freshly painted slogan” reading “Don’t talk about the camp unless you know about it” (27). How would you “talk about the camp” after reading this book?

    5. Does Marwan and Reham’s relationship fit the stereotypes of Middle Eastern marriages? In what ways is it similar or different?

    6. What does Shatha’s reluctance to tell her family about the scholarship say about inter-generational differences in this society?

    7. What is the significance of music in the camp?

    8. Is Ahmad’s decision to marry off his daughter justified?

    9. What is your impression of the book’s ending?

    10. Which character did you connect with most strongly, and why?