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Beirut books

February 21st, 2010 · 3 Comments · Culture, Lebanon

I’ve been on a Beirut-reading binge: I’ve just finished three new books set in Beirut over the past few years, and all three have astonishingly similar endings.

Sabra Zoo

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’ve been raving about Sabra Zoo since I got my hands on an advance copy last month. Here’s what I think of it:

Waltz With Bashir through Palestinian Eyes

It may be fiction, but Mischa Hiller’s making it clear that Sabra Zoo is based on reality. His reality. The English-Palestinian debut author lived through the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut and the massacre at the Sabra refugee camp. This is his story.

It’s being compared to Israeli war film, Waltz With Bashir. That movie came under fire for presenting the siege from an Israeli perspective, while playing down the voice of the victims. Sabra Zoo presents those events from the other side of the frontline.

18 year old half-Palestinian Ivan stays behind in Beirut when his parents are evacuated with PLO fighters. He spends his days translating for foreign medical volunteers where he falls in love with a Norwegian physio, and his nights working undercover for Arafat’s men. The two parts of his life collide when Bashir Gemayel is assassinated and the Israeli tanks roll in.

Part coming-of-age novel, part graphic account of the realities of life under the Israeli siege, this book covers well worn ground with fresh young eyes.

And big things are planned for Sabra Zoo. His cinematic adaptation of the book has already won a European Independent Film Festival award.

It brought me to tears in parts. Go and get Sabra Zoo right now. Straight after I finished this, I moved on to Bliss Street.

Bliss Street

I had high hopes for this book. I picked it up in Amman a couple of years ago, and it came highly recommended. But after the mindblowing Sabra Zoo, I crawled through the first 100 pages as the author very very slowly introduced all the characters. It was torture. But it quickly improved.

Bliss Street is set at the time of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The author, Kris Kenway, has clearly spent a lot of time in Beirut, and puts his finger on what it is to be a westerner in the Arab World. He picks up on all of those little Arab ticks, and phrases. It’s worth reading just for those observations.

A Good Land

Third up was Nada Awar Jarrar’s character-based novel. Although it is set at the time of the Hariri assassination, it is the least political of the three. Jarrar has a beautiful subtleness of touch as a narrator – a tone which rubs off on all of her characters, none of which is overwhelming. But maybe that was the book’s problem.

So while all three of these books were incredibly different – in format, in characters, in the story arc – they all had something in common: Beirut and its politics (the Sabra massacre, the liberation of the south, and the Hariri killing). And that’s what I took from this reading binge: the transient nature of Beirut. All three relied heavily on the theme of exile and looking for self. Sabra Zoo’s protagonist is a Danish-Palestinian who stays on in Beirut when his parents flee because of the war; Bliss Street’s lead character is a Brit who stays in Beirut as he tries to figure out who he is; A Good Land’s characters are all exiles – from family, from past, or from Palestine.

And, in beautiful symmetry, all three novels ended with a plane journey (I won’t tell you who flew, or what happened, so as not to ruin the books for you).

So just to continue the theme of exile and searching, I’ve just started reading the acclaimed A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar.


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mehdi // Feb 21, 2010 at 9.44 pm

    Just a suggestion:
    De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage

  • 2 Sasa // Feb 21, 2010 at 10.25 pm

    De Niro’s Game looks very very interesting. I think I’d assumed it had nothing to do with Beirut because of the title so it didn’t even register in my mind until you pointed it out. It’s on my list now!

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