Thirty five years ago, Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated. In response, a militia associated with the Lebanese Kataeb Party, called Phalange, began massacring thousands of innocent Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shiites, aided, in part, by Israeli forces who provided night-time illumination and failed to prevent a massacre that occurred on Israeli-occupied ground. The result was what we now call the Sabra and Shatila Massacre—a dark, lamentable chapter in an Arab history full of dark, lamentable chapters.
Here are some works—not all, and only the ones I know—inspired by and based on that tragedy.
Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury
A man lies on a makeshift hospital bed in Shatila—a former freedom fighter named Yunes who may never regain consciousness. His companion, a doctor named Khalil, begins a one-sided conversation narrating his storied past, the story slipping into and out of the present in Khoury’s stunning examination of memory’s relationship to violence.
Khoury, born in Lebanon, spent time in the camps to write this book, drawing on the stories of the Palestinian diaspora to try and weave his Palestinian Odyssey. The New York Times said the book, “[holds] to the light the myths, tales and rumors of both Israel and the Arabs with…discerning compassion. In Humphrey Davies’ sparely poetic translation, Gate of the Sun is an imposingly rich and realistic novel, a genuine masterwork.”
Waltz with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman
This one’s really interesting.
An Israeli Flash cartoon, for starters, narrated by (get this) actual IDF soldiers who witnessed the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Concerning a soldier named Folman who knows he has witnessed the massacre but can’t recall anything about it, Waltz with Bashir pieces together the story of Sabra and Shatila from the memories of his former fellow soldiers, told in little interviews. It’s a compassionate attempt.
Although largely factual, the film is more akin to a fictionalized adaptation of a real event than it is a documentary. This blending of reality and fiction works wonderfully; when I watched Waltz with Bashir at the cinema, my fellow audience members—mostly Canadians removed from the disaster that is the Middle East—greeted the end credits in hushed, almost awed silence.
Four Hours in Shatila, by Jean Genet
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing about Sabra and Shatila.
Genet (author of Prisoner of Love, another book about the Palestinian cause) was among the first foreigners to enter the camps in the wake of the slaughter, and experienced the horror firsthand. His vivid, awestruck description of what he witnessed struck a chord—and, lucky you, can be read here for free.
The Woman from Tantoura, by Radwa Ashour
Radwa Ashour was one of the great treasures of Arabic literature, and this, one of her two major works, attempted to tell the entire life story of a Palestinian refugee.
The Sabra and Shatila section is small, but powerful, and I won’t discuss it here for fear of spoiling it. Needless to say, give Ashour’s books a read if you can.
Touch, by Adania Shibli
Adania Shibli is the author of two novellas, We Are All Equally Far from Love and her superior effort, Touch.
Touch is an autobiographical book about a young girl who, like Shibli, attempts to understand what Sabra and Shatila actually mean. That’s a subsection of the actual book, which is really about the power of experience—the unnamed narrator’s examination of rust and grass and sunlight. It is the story of a Palestinian family in exile.
Children of Shatila, directed by Mai Masri
Masri hands a camera to two children and lets them tell their stories in this examination of grief, displacement, and horror.
Issa has trouble learning because of a car accident; Farah lives with her family. Both, however, are well-versed in tragedy and loss, children of 1948 and then of 1982 burdened with carrying the memory of Palestine with them, even as the entire world seems to want them to forget.
You can watch Children of Shatila (1998) for free on YouTube.
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