Author Mansoura Ezz Eldin reminded me that this week marks the 29th anniversary of the horrific slaughter at Sabra and Shatila.
Like other terrible, indigestible events, the Sabra and Shatila massacres—which took place in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps between September 16 and 18, 1982—-have inspired many authors to grapple with the question of why and how and what now?
Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, trans. Humphrey Davies (2006), returns and returns to the massacres, unable to shake loose of them, unable to move forward and away. Gate of the Sun is perhaps Khoury’s most well-known and acclaimed work; it returns and returns to the site of the corpse pits. Khoury has also lately mentioned that he is working on a new novel that re-envisions the “Bab el-Shams approach.” But, before that, his classic is a must-read.
Jean Genet’s “Quatre heures à Chatila” (“Four Hours in Shatila”). Genet was among the first outsiders to witness the immediate aftermath of the massacres, and he wrote about this experience in his last great essay. If you live in London, you can visit a response to his work through October 2. In Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, trans. Sinan Antoon (2011), Darwish writes:
You see a giant tank in the middle of the street and you know not whether to retreat or keep on walking as if you did not see what you saw. You look at your watch as if you had an appointment and your footsteps race your heartbeats toward no goal. Taken by the pleasure of knowing the first Arab capital they will invade, the soldiers pay no attention to you. You will know from radio stations that the night of Sabra and Shatila was all lit up so that the killers could peer into the eyes of their victims and not miss a moment of ecstasy on the slaughtering table. You will read what Jean Genet wrote:
What partying, what feasting went on there as death seemed to take part in the pranks of soldiers drunk on wine, on hatred, and probably drunk on the joy of entertaining the Israeli army, which was listening, looking, giving encouragement, egging them on. I did not see the Israeli army listening and watching. I saw what it did. Killers had carried out the operation, but numerous torture squads were probably the ones who split skulls, slashed thighs, cut off arms, hands and fingers, and dragged the dying and disabled by ropes, men and women who were still alive. A barbaric party had taken place there: rage, drunkenness, dancing, singing, curses, laments, moans, in honor of the voyeurs who were laughing as they sat on the top floor of the Akka hospital.
You cannot cross the threshold of pain nor reach the source of the nightmare to bear witness to your body being chopped up nor peer into the eyes of your killer, whom you know very well. You cannot speak to anyone, because the world is empty of the living and filled with the dead who bid farewell yesterday to their brothers and protectors who sailed on Greek-built ships of Trojan symbolism. The victims did not finish any of their tasks: they did not finish their dinner, prayers, or nightmares.
Adania Shibli’s Touch, trans. Paula Haydar (2010). This coming-of-age (or un-coming-of-age) novella doesn’t directly address the massacres, as the narrator is only eight years old when they happen. But it paints a vivid picture of the narrator’s world as they occur, and how the narrator understands the words “Sabra” and “Shatila,” her incomprehension of the incomprehensible.
Radwa Ashour’s Specters, trans. Barbara Romaine (2010). Ashour’s work is frequently animated by a sympathy for Palestinians, which is unsurprising, as she is an activist married to the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and her son is the Palestinian-Egyptian poet Tamim al-Barghouti. In her meta-autobiographical-novel Specters, Ashour remembers how she was not following the news about Sabra and Shatila as events unfolded, as she was in transit between Budapest and Cairo. In one of the narrative’s more emotional moments, she tells of her frustration at not having been attentive to the news, despite her acknowledgement that this attention would not have changed the outcome:
Yet attention means that you are involved in the event, that the person who has been killed is yours and that you belong to him. Then again, no—not altogether. … Perhaps it is similar to what my mother-in-law felt every time she thought of her son Mounif… She tries to remember what it was she was doing at 11 o’clock on Monday night. Was she asleep? How could she have been asleep? The idea nearly drives her mad, sleep becomes a guilty act, and the fact that she doesn’t know doesn’t mitigate, but rather intensifies the guilt.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Rising of the Ashes, trans. Cullen Goldblatt (2010) is a poetry collection by the French-Moroccan author, half of which is addressed to the victims of Sabra and Shatila. It includes this beautiful segment, entitled “Fatima Abou Mayyala”:
They came in through the roof
They closed the doors and windows
They stuffed a fistful of sand into her mouth and
Their hands ripped her stomach
they urinated on her face.
Fatima took the statue’s hand
and walked lightly between the trees and the
She reached the sea
her body raised above death.