Monday, February 15, 2010

'sabra zoo': palestinian writer mischa hiller's debut novel

New Arab literary talent pens ‘Sabra Zoo’
By Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 15 Jan 2010
This month marks the publication by London-based Telegram Books of the debut novel of a striking new talent in Arab fiction, the Anglo-Palestinian writer Mischa Hiller. “Sabra Zoo” is a searing and accomplished novel that takes the reader back to the bloody events in Beirut in summer 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Hiller was born in Hull, northern England, in 1962 to a Palestinian father and English mother. He grew up in Durham, London, Beirut and Dar Es Salaam and currently lives in Cambridge, England.

The engaging first-person narrator of his novel is the 18-year-old son of a Danish mother and a father who is a PLO official. Ivan’s parents have left Beirut in the evacuation by sea of PLO forces after the two-month Israeli siege and bombardment of the city.

The novel opens three days after the evacuation. Ivan is euphoric: “The war was over and I was parent-free for the first time, with my own apartment. I couldn’t ask for more.” But his optimism is premature, and he will soon find himself caught in a perilous situation.

Ivan works as an interpreter at a Red Crescent hospital at Sabra Palestinian refugee camp, which is treating victims of the siege and bombardment. During the siege, nearly 7,000 people were killed and 30,000 wounded, more than 80 percent of them civilians from West Beirut. More than 2,000 of those seriously wounded were burnt by phosphorus bombs.

Ivan is street-wise and witty, yet vulnerable. He is constantly distracted by the attractions of women and is eager for experience. He is particularly drawn to Norwegian physiotherapist Eli, an older married woman with a son. Ivan is, to some extent, an outsider, with his mixed parentage, part-European looks and education at a school in Copenhagen. Those meeting him for the first time often ask about his Russian-sounding name.
Hiller lived in Beirut himself for 10 years on and off, leaving in winter 1982. In writing the novel “I used some of my experience briefly interpreting for foreign medics and journalists in 1982, although I want to be very clear that this is definitely a work of fiction and not my story,” he told Saudi Gazette. “My experience did provide the feel, emotion and even humor of the situation and hopefully allowed me to create a compelling point of view in Ivan – although I suspect his preoccupations are the same as teenage boys everywhere.”
Hiller delineates his characters, even minor ones, with skill, and the dialogue is expertly pitched. These qualities are apparent in Ivan’s interactions with the team of international medical volunteers. They include diminutive strong-minded Dr. Asha Patel and Scottish doctor John. The medical team members work intensively in the day and party hard at night.
One of Ivan’s closest buddies is his Lebanese driver, Samir, who had also been the driver of Ivan’s father. Samir also runs a little café, taking pride in his “special sauce.” He may have a crude womanizing side, but he is at the same time a warm and endearing character.

Ivan gradually reveals to the reader that his parents’ marriage has been crumbling since the accidental death some years earlier of his younger brother Karam in a fall from a balcony.
When Eli asks Ivan to help with a patient Youssef, a patient in his early teens whose foot has been badly damaged by an Israeli cluster bomb, Ivan is reminded of Karam who would have been of a similar age to Youssef were he still alive. Youssef is reluctant to try using crutches, and Ivan manages to get him to have a go. He becomes increasingly involved in helping Youssef back to recovery.
Ivan is leading a compartmentalized life, of which his work at the hospital is only one part. He has remained in Beirut at the request of a PLO official so as to courier forged documents and passports between PLO cadres who are living in hiding. Ivan’s Danish passport allows him to move relatively easily around the city. But there is a traitor among the comrades.
At the same time he works for an American TV company which brings him into the world of international journalists crowded into the Commodore Hotel. This adds a dimension to the novel of seeing the violence through the eyes and recordings of Bob, the American for whom Ivan translates.
Matters become increasingly precarious after the Commander of the Lebanese Forces and President-Elect Bashir Gemayel is assassinated. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invade West Beirut and their Phalangist allies conduct raids. There is tension on every corner, and hooded informers betray people at roadblocks. An atmosphere of paranoia and danger builds up.
The Palestinian refugee camps after the PLO withdrawal have been left exposed and defenseless. The violence culminates in one of the most ghastly episodes in the modern history of the Middle East: the massacre of hundreds or thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, under the noses of the IDF.
The Israeli government’s Kahan Inquiry of 1983 concluded that while the Phalangists were directly responsible for the massacre, Israeli forces were indirectly responsible. The report ultimately forced the reluctant resignation of Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister, but this was only a temporary blip in his brutal record in relation to the Palestinians.
“Sabra Zoo” is a fast-paced read with an economical style, and readily lends itself to a film treatment. Hiller wrote a film adaptation after completing the novel, while waiting for it to be sold to a publisher, “simply because I had always wanted to write a screenplay and love film as a story-telling medium.” In 2009 his screenplay won the European Independent Film Festival script competition.
Hiller says: “I did not study creative writing as such, but read a lot of screenplays to see how it was done. Since my writing style is sparse anyway, I was attracted to the idea that you can tell a story in 90 to 120 pages of double-spaced type, which is the ultimate in stripped-down writing.”
Hiller is now working on his second novel, in which “an orphaned survivor of the events of Sabra and Shatila is groomed and recruited by a mysterious PLO member to work for him secretly in Europe.” The sale of the book has yet to be finalized, but Hiller hopes that it will be published next year.

No comments: