Sabra and Shatila in Literature and Memory, 31 Years Later

Recently, I have been working with a Palestinian author on his memoirs, which includes a heart-breaking section on Sabra and Shatila (yes, indeed, I have an existence outside this blog):

Dia al-Azzawi's "Sabra and Shatila Massacre"
Dia al-Azzawi’s “Sabra and Shatila Massacre”

This author writes about how his first response to the massacres — which took place between September 16 to 18 — was denial, and how, even though the massacres came after several long years of Civil War, how they felt like a new and much deeper evil; they called up a rage he had not felt before.

It is difficult to write about Sabra and Shatila, or even to edit someone else’s writing about the massacre. Elias Khoury has returned to this theme in The Kingdom of Strangers and Gate of the Sun: the impossibility of authentic memory, how the listener changes the event, and the distortions of memorialization.

As Jeremy Harding writes in the London Review of Books:

[A group of French actors] have come to Lebanon to research a stage interpretation of ‘Four Hours in Shatila’, Genet’s commemorative text about the massacre. By acting as a reluctant tour-guide, [Khaleel] establishes a relationship with Catherine, the only woman in the group, and relives his own memories of the mass graves in Shatila, where he was obliged to check that no one was still alive. These difficult passages are carefully negotiated with the reader to minimise the horror and maximise the meaning. One of Khoury’s significant devices is Dunya, a mutilated girl retrieved from the quicklime pits who survives to serve the Palestinian cause, in Lebanon and elsewhere, as a ‘fund-raising tool’, hobbling forward in meetings and TV shows to speak in uninflected tones about how she sustained her injuries.

So, if not like this, how then do we remember Sabra and Shatila? How is it possible to memorialize a great tragedy without turning it into a fund-raising tool, a mutilation, or a call to nationalistic fervor?

Time passes, and authors do see the massacres afresh. For instance, Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour in Spectres, trans. Barbara Romaine (2010). 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.

There’s also 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:

The girl tried to understand the meaning of the words Sabra and Shatila. Maybe they were one word. The word Palestine was unclear, expect that it was forbidden. The color of the green board resembled that color of cactus.

And there is Mahmoud Darwish’s “Sabra and Shatila,” written I’m-not-sure-when, here trans. Saad el Kurdi and below recited by Mahmoud Darwish. I find it difficult to reconcile the music.

Also of interest:

Aesthetics of Memorialization: The Sabra and Shatila Genocide in the Work of Sami Mohammad, Jean Genet, and June Jordan
— by Zahra A. Hussein Ali

On the art posted above: Dia al-Azzawi’s “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” — by Maymanah Farhat