Telegram, the literary fiction imprint from Middle-East non-fiction specialists Saqi books, is an imprint that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while now. Their list looks interesting, and their titles—All My Friends are Superheroes, Metropole, etc—seem to get quite a bit of attention.
I first heard of them last year on Twitter (where I am @thefictiondesk, and they are @Saqibooks), at a time when they were justifiably pleased with themselves for having won the 2009 Diversity in Literature Award, and by the beginning of 2010, I even managed to have one of their catalogues in hand—I got all the way to page 3 before finding something I wanted to read.Sabra Zoo is Mischa Hiller‘s debut novel, a coming-of-age story set in the period surrounding the 1982 massacre at Sabra refugee camp near Beirut, when a Christian Lebanese militia group killed hundreds or possibly thousands of people over the course of three days. (The massacre was also the subject of the film Waltz With Bashir.)
In Sabra Zoo, Mischa Hiller shows us the events through the eyes of Ivan, a teenage boy who chose to remain in Beirut after his parents left. He wanders the city, helping out underground organisations, translating for doctors in a Sabra hospital, and creaking under the weight of his own virginity.
Hiller’s Beirut is a city of transients and people confused over their identities: the international aid workers are in town for a variety of personal reasons; old friends from before the summer’s war reappear, only to bring new prejudices and brutalities with them; Ivan, whose mother is Danish, contemplates the potential significance of the Danish passport in his pocket, embarks on a tentative affair with a foreign doctor, and keeps a gun hidden in the shutter of his room.
John, exclaiming that he’d nearly forgotten, handed me a plastic bag. Inside were little square bars, each in white cellophane wrapping. John took one out and held it up between his fingers.
‘Red Cross survival bars: one of these a day will satisfy all your daily nutritional requirements,’ he said in a cheesy American voice, like in a TV advert. The joint came back to him. ‘Wherever there is war, famine or disease, all you need is one of these to forget your woes. Poverty doesn’t matter any more with the Red Cross nutrient bar, designed to counter even the most deprived diet. Unable to prepare a meal due to bombing and shelling? Then the Red Cross nutrient bar is the answer.’ He recovered his normal voice, ‘Anyway laddie, make sure you have one of these for breakfast every day.’
Sabra Zoo really is an excellent book, combining solid and insightful characterisation with a fully realised environment, and moments of powerful tension. Had it been written fifty years ago about World War Two, it might now be seen as a minor classic.
I’ll keep Hiller on the radar for whenever his next book comes out, and in the meantime, I’ll get back to exploring that Telegram catalogue.