Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2019

Shatila Stories, a collaborative writing project (2018) edited by Mieke Ziervogel, translated by Nashwa Gowanlock

In June last year, ANZ LitLovers reached its ten year anniversary, and among the kind wishes from around the world came a very special gift to mark the occasion, from Kim at Reading Matters in London.  The book is Shatila Stories, a slim novella of interlinked short stories which was written in a most unusual way.

Meike Ziervogel explains its genesis in the Introduction.  Founder of London-based Peirene Press which specialises in translated fiction, she undertook this ambitious project in Lebanon, where she worked with an NGO called Basmeh & Zeitooneh (“the Smile and the Olive”) to create an authentic story from the Shatila Refugee Camp which was set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949 after the formation of Israel, but is now swollen with refugees from the war in Syria.  Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and with the help of London-based editor Suhir Helal, the project ran a three-day creative writing workshop to teach basic story-writing skills to a pre-selected group of participants.  The individual stories which resulted were to become subplots woven into a narrative structure devised by Helal and Ziervogel.

The nine participants, aged 18 to 42 wrote under enormous difficulties.  The Shatila camp is chaotic, and lawless, governed by opposing Palestinian groups.  Attendance was patchy for some participants…

One participant’s niece was killed by the low-hanging electrical cables, a grandmother slipped badly in one of the camp’s muddy alleys and someone else’s father died in Syria. (p.18)

The writing space at the Basmeh and Zeitooneh community centre was cramped and stuffy, shared a wall with a dancing class, and there were no computers, only pen and paper. Some of the writers had never completed formal schooling and quite a few had never read a novel in their lives. 

Ziervogel’s confidence waned in the face of these difficulties, but she persisted and after the workshops, the participants had six weeks to complete a 4,000 word draft, queuing up at the centre to use WhatsApp on the centre’s sole computer to confer with Ziervogel and Helal back in London.  The results were four good stories and five interesting drafts and Helal and Ziervogel then returned to work with the writers on these stories and integrate them into a single narrative.

Switching between first and third person narratives, the linked stories provide a vivid picture of life in the camp.  Reham’s story begins her arrival in Shatila from Damascus.  We then learn about her marriage to Marwan and the difficulties that arose when she gave birth to a disabled child and he rejected it.  The narrative then switches to the third person to tell the story of Youssef a standover thug preying on the people in the camp.  He comes back towards the end of the story as a predator wanting a child bride, and the child’s parents marry her off to a frail old man in order to protect her from much worse.  There is a love story too, between Reham’s son Adam and a young musician called Shatha, who faces down her father’s objections to take up a scholarship in Canada, only to fall victim to the everyday perils of living in Shatila.

While the plot is engaging and it’s easy to become invested in the characters, it’s the depiction of life in a refugee camp that is most powerful.  We tend to hear about flight stories, or stories of refugees in their resettlement phase, often making good in their new homeland.  But though people can’t get jobs, basic infrastructure is an unfunny joke, and the squalor is breathtaking, Shatila is a place of permanant refuge.  Shatha’s father doesn’t want her to leave home because to be in Shatila is to be part of the Palestinian movement.   People have been there for a lifetime…

My eyes latch on to a large iron key fixed to the UNRWA water tower opposite the building we are sitting on top of.  This key symbolises all the keys that our Palestinian families took with them in 1948 when they had to leave our homeland, believing that they would soon be able to return and once again unlock their front doors.  Every family I know still has their old house key.  (p. 98)

Each writer received an advance, and will be eligible for royalties; 50p from each book sale will be donated to the Basmeh & Zeitooneh charity.

Authors: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Marei.
Writing project leaders: Meike Ziervogel (founder of Peirene Press) and Suhir Helal
Title: Shatila Stories
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock
Publisher: Peirene Press, (Peirene Now No 3), 2018, 125 pages
ISBN: 9781908670489
Source: Gift from Kim at Reading Matters, thanks Kim!


  1. Pleased to see you read it! I helped crowdfund this and received a copy I am yet to read. I subscribe to Peirene and have the entire back catalogue (which is 25+ books) but have only read a handful 🙄


    • I knew you’d like this post. The story of how it was done is just amazing.
      How are you coping with the heat, fresh from a London winter?


      • Meike is an amazing woman! She’s now moved to Beirut for a year to focus on helping refugees.

        As for the heat, I’ve had time to adjust… 9 days in the UAE with temps in mid-to-high 20s, then Cambodia for a week in mid-30s, so it’s not like I’ve gone from freezing to boiling in one hit. Admittedly, I am hiding inside today in air-conditioned comfort, albeit my parents only put the AC on for an hour or so just to cool the house down.


        • I’m hiding indoors too. I’m just writing my third review of the day because I’ve spent most of it reading:)
          (We haven’t needed to put the AC on yet, ceiling fans are fine so far though it’s 39 outside, because we sealed up the house this morning.)


          • House closed up here too but no ceiling fans… a quick blast of the AC sorts things out. I’ve been reading all day too… and just in the throes of putting a few reviews together!


            • We’re playing tag, I just retweeted your review of The Cry (Wot cunning timing, eh!)

              Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great project. I am forever saying that I prefer my fiction to come from ‘inside’ and what could be more inside than this, and have had a longstanding interest in the Palestinian cause. I will have to add Shatila Stories to my order at the bookshop – for myself or for PhD daughter who is increasingly working with refugees (in Oz).


    • I would offer to share mine, but no, I want you to buy this one… profits royalties go to a good cause:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] a kind of miracle to me.  It’s not the first book from Syria that I’ve read: that was Shatila Stories sent to me by Kim from Reading Matters and it was special because it was a collaborative writing […]


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