Review of Sabra Zoo and interview with the author Mischa Hiller 

Sabra Zoo and interview with the author Mischa Hiller 

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Book Review of Sabra Zoo and interview with the author Mischa Hiller

I value my independence as a book reviewer and rarely accept invitations to interview authors and to promote their books, but I am making an exception for Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller, published by the excellent Telegram Books.

I rate this as a very fine book which deserves as much exposure as it can get, so I shall make some opening remarks about the book and then publish Mischa’s answers to my questions.

I enjoyed reading Sabra Zoo for its fast-paced narrative and insights into an event that is fast-fading from public memory, the Sabra Refugee Camp massacre in 1982.

This fictionalised account follows a year or two in the life of Ivan, an 18 year old man with Danish and Palestinian parentage, the fortunate possessor of a Danish passport which provides him with the ability to survive the many road-blocks and searches that are an inevitable part of life during the Lebanese Civil War.

The book opens with Beirut in a state of chaos: “It was July, the siege was settling nicely into a routine that people could understand: the water had been cut off, the electricity had died, the city had been pounded with big bombs, peppered with small, a ceasefire was announced and then it started all over again”.

Ivan’s parents have returned to Denmark and he lives in the apartment they vacated, while working as a free-lance translator in the hospitals where Western aid-workers deal with the injuries arising from the conflict.  Ivan’s apartment becomes a meeting place for aid-workers and young Lebanese and Ivan finds himself sharing food and beds with a variety of people, including the Norwegian doctor Eli.

Almost inevitably, Ivan develops a strong attachment to Eli, despite a significant age-gap, but Eli finds it hard to see him as a potential lover. Mischa Hiller captures well the  longing of a young man for a more sophisticated and older woman as they work together in close contact in the hospital.  The wards are full of despair, with children and young people coming to terms with horrific injuries in various ways.

Ivan accompanies Eli on her hospital rounds and meets Youseff, a young boy who has been badly injured by kicking a cluster bomb while playing football.  Far from being grateful for the treatment he receives in the hospital, Youssef responds to attempted conversation with a range of creative obscenities. 

Despite the difficulties, Ivan finds himself befriending Youseff and encouraging him to walk again despite the immense pain this causes him.  Later we read of the BBC coming to film a story about the children in the hospital but rejecting Youssef because he is “difficult” in favour of a more visually acceptable young girl with a prosthetic limb.

The city becomes increasingly chaotic and the aid workers and their co-workers mirror the chaos in their own lives with increasing amounts of alcohol, dossing-down in various surviving apartments where food and cigarettes are shared while the opportunities to do so continue.

In the second half of the novel events escalate, with Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier at low-level above the city as a prelude to the terrible events about to happen at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. 

Western governments fail to act to prevent the ongoing terror as Lebanese Phalangist (Christian) forces, protected by the Israelis, work through the refugee camps killing whoever they find there.  Ivan and his friends and colleagues try to get into the camp but are turned away, returning after the Phalangists have left to find a scenes of horror and devastation.

This book works on several levels.  Firstly as a human story, with Ivan living as normal a life as he can while dealing with daily stress at a level few of us have to experience.  Secondly as a dramatic picture of a city under seige, its people struggling to continue with their lives despite their forced return to primitive living conditions.  Thirdly as a reminder of the terrible injustices wreaked upon Palestinians and in particular the terrible events which took place in the refugee camps in 1982.

Sabra Zoo joins the ranks of an increasing number of novels set in the Middle East.  Western readers are discovering a world very different from their own, but one which provides (as in Sabra Zoo) some compelling human stories set in a fast-moving world where guns and bombs form the backdrop to daily life.  I am very pleased that Mischa Hiller has prepared a prize-winning screenplay for Sabra Zoo and hope that a film studio soon recognises its dramatic potential.

And now for the interview with author Mischa Hiller

Were you very conscious of the Sabra massacre when you were a young man?  If so how did it affect you?

Yes, I was living in the city when it happened and I saw the aftermath. It was something that affected me greatly and that’s why I wanted to write the book.

With events in the Middle East still topical and so volatile, why did you set the book in the conflicts of the 1980s?

Because even events from 30 years ago (or indeed 65 years ago) still have an echo today. Events such as Sabra form part of the psyche of people living there, and are part of a collective consciousness. For that reason these are events that people in the West should also be aware of if we ever want an end to the volatility you mention.

My other reason for setting it then was that I thought it would make a good story. War is always good at bringing out what is real in people, whether good or bad, and is an accelerated way to get to know characters based on their actions.

A better example of how this can work is in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ which I read recently. It was great because it was set against historical events that I knew nothing about, so edifying in that respect, but also because I cared about what happened to the characters, who were agreeably complex.

The characters in the book, particularly of Ivan and Eli, seem very well-formed and are very credible.  Are they based on people you knew in the past.

A couple of the characters are inspired by real people. Some are composites in terms of borrowing a characteristic from here and a linguistic tic from there but others are completely made up.

With your multi-national background, do you find a sense of unreality when you return to Britain from the Middle East?  It must seem very peaceful here when you have observed areas where community-conflict rules.  Do you observe any parallels between modern British cities and those in the Middle East?

I haven’t returned to the Middle East since leaving Beirut in 1982. When I arrived back here I did have difficulty adjusting, simply because I couldn’t relate to people’s preoccupations with what seemed like trivia. However, that was more to do with coming from a war zone than coming from the Middle East, where you will find that ordinary people’s concerns are the same as everyone else’s. Even in war, though, universal preoccupations emerge, as with Ivan, whose initial focus is on getting laid rather than anything else.

To answer your question on parallels between cities, I’ve just done an interview with Time Out – Time Out Beirut, that is, not Time Out London, which perhaps says more about what different cultures have in common than I can.

What is your view of the Jihad-isation of young Muslims?  Is their response valid in view of Western involvement in the Middle East and its support for Israel?

I am not a Muslim so I have no insights from that perspective and certainly don’t want to set myself up as an expert. But no, their response is not valid or excusable, even if it is predictable. The reason it is predicable goes back to what I said earlier about people in the West needing to have a better understanding of Middle East history.

These young men, and now women, even though they may be born and bred in the West, know about Sabra & Shatila 1982, they know about Qana 1996, they know about Jenin 2002, they know about Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009, the ongoing blockade of Gaza, the daily grind of occupation on the West Bank, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan – and if people don’t recognise some of this list then it sort of proves my point.

This grim history (and I’ve ignored everything before 1982!) takes on an almost mythical status which informs their mindset, as indeed does the western governments’ ineffectual response to it, not to mention involvement in it.

If you take this historical context into account it isn’t a great leap to understand how a handful of young people are being led down the extremist path – fuelled perhaps by a religious fervour – where they want to do something because they feel disenfranchised. Of course, blowing innocent people up is never the answer, and achieves nothing except to create an unwarranted fear of Muslims and provide a distraction from the real issues that need addressing.

Is there any other way that young committed Muslims could act to support the Palestinian cause?

There are plenty of other ways to support the cause of of the Palestinians, like raising awareness, lobbying, joining one of the many support groups or NGOs, and of course peaceful protest. All of these apply to non-Muslims too, of course! I would also make the obvious point that supporting justice for Palestinians is also supporting a viable future for Israelis, as they are two sides of the same coin.

Moving on to your M.E.  I am very familiar with this illness because close relatives and friends have it.  You were formally diagnosed only four years ago.  Did you suspect that you had M.E. before then?

No, ME was the last thing I thought I had. I knew next to nothing about it before diagnosis and it did not feature in the the gamut of illnesses I thought I had, which included the possibility that I may be going mad! For years I was told there was nothing wrong with me so I continued to push through it.

Luckily I happened to change GPs and my new doctor immediately suspected ME, later confirmed by two specialists. I now know that carrying on and ignoring it was the wrong thing to do and made me worse. I believe if I had been diagnosed early on I may have had a better chance of recovery.

How has M.E. affected your writing?  Do you write more or less because of it? 

One of the effects of ME (and there are many) is the cognitive impairment it causes, the infamous ‘brain fog’, and this is a killer in terms of creativity, especially since on a bad day I struggle to find the right word for even the most dull of sentences.

When I am ‘well’ I work in short bursts (that’s how I’m tackling this interview) and try to do something whatever my condition, even if it is just reading for 10 minutes or mulling things over in a reclined position! I find I have to double- and triple-check things to make sure I haven’t screwed up on some plot point. Sometimes, though, I just have to succumb to long periods of not writing.

Many people find that the illness has a bit of a stigma and prefer not to mention it. Are you happy to have your M.E. mentioned in your biography on your publicity sheet?   Has being up-front about the condition resulted in any responses from people, positive or negative?

Nasim Jafry, author of ‘The State of Me’, writes that people with ME are like the Palestinians of the medical world – an apt analogy, given your earlier questions. One of the parallels is the need for a better understanding of the illness, which unfortunately has been conflated with other fatigue-causing conditions such as depression.

The result is that very little biomedical research is being done, the focus being on the psychological aspect of the illness, although this is slowly beginning to change now.

Also, having ME is a part of who I am and is something I have come to terms with, albeit after a period of denial. I have had to give up work because of it, and it limits me in so many ways that it is difficult to hide, particularly with the publication of a book and what is usually expected of an author.

For that reason I decided to ‘come out’ about having the illness. I don’t plan to go around wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that I have ME, but I’m happy to explain about it when asked. Only time will tell whether I’ve made the right decision.

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