Sabra Zoo, By Mischa Hiller

Where life's always a battleground
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The Independent Culture

In September 1982, a terrible massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim civilians took place in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

The catalyst was the murder of the president-elect Bachir Gemayel. In response, a Christian Phalangist militia rampaged through the camps while the Israeli Defense Force looked on.

The ensuing carnage provided the climax to Ari Folman's 2008 animated film, Waltz with Bashir, told from the point of view of an Israeli soldier. By way of reply, Mischa Hiller's assured debut novel offers the Palestinian perspective.

Ivan, 18, is like any ordinary kid; he drinks too much, is partial to the occasional joint and is desperate to get laid. But this is war-torn Beirut in 1982. His parents have just left the city with other cadres of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Ivan, his movement guaranteed by his Danish passport, works undercover as a courier for the PLO.

He is unofficially recruited as an interpreter by the international medical volunteers in Sabra. Much of the book is taken up with Ivan's nocturnal adventures, his encounters with volunteers and patients, and a budding romance with Eli, an attractive Norwegian physiotherapist. But a palpable sense of foreboding prevails. The slow-burning tension finally erupts with the Phalangists' sudden, brutal vengeance.

Hiller's descriptions of the victims and traumatised survivors, through Ivan's eyes, are harrowing and heartfelt but never overwrought. In a few pages, he creates a truly terrifying vision of hell. The unforgettable stench he evokes, the images of dismembered children, and the corpse of a woman who has had her foetus cut out of her, will remain with me. His simple prose is all the more powerful when compared with the almost playful tone used to recount Ivan's rites of passage with Eli. It is a bold shift into the heart of darkness.

Ivan escapes. Others do not. Sabra Zoo serves as a timely reminder of the humanitarian disaster that continues to threaten the majority of Palestinians living in camps, and the precarious existence of displaced persons the world over.

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