Review of '11 Lives: Stories from Palestinian Exile'
June 09 2023

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being,” writes James Baldwin in what Maria Popova refers to as Baldwin’s “lifeline for the hour of despair.”

He continues: “I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

This collection of stories by eleven Palestinian writers living in exile in Lebanon preserves narratives about fellow Palestinians — whether these be mothers, friends, grandmothers, lovers, or fathers — by speaking out to tell their stories themselves. In doing so, they save themselves and the camps from the long-familiar narratives told by outsiders about who they are, using tender and loving language. The stories are stories of fondness; stories that are personal, but not self-centered, that weave a pattern in which storytellers have a sense of their own autonomy as individuals. They are simultaneously able to avoid the sense of alienation from their fate, reality, and environment, which can sometimes result from the opposition that autobiographies construct between the self and the wider world.

The stories offer a revisionist history of the camps and of the lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They quietly shield these over-researched refugee communities from the gaze of outside researchers, with their all too often narrow questions, microscopic visions, and externally imposed stereotypes. 11 Lives conveys an alternative way of learning about the exiled. This is a holistic vision, in which there are mutual connections and influences we discover between the camps and Palestine, the refugee and the returnee, the camps, and the wider city; the relationships between the different camps and their residents, between the real and the metaphysical, the daydreaming and the dreams that come at night.

While academics have often focused on disconnections, these stories focus on bridges and connections. 11 Lives saves the refugee community from their fate of only being research subjects for others, the book tells stories that depict Palestinian refugees and returnees as individuals, with endless processes of transformation and re-creation, rather than as people eternally fixed in time and space. Indeed, the stories save the Palestinians from being categorized and essentialized as “refugees” or “Palestinians,” homogenized through one single overarching narrative, revealing the great range of reality as lived in the camps, in Lebanon, and in the wider world beyond.

Being raised by an Arabic teacher and a former militant in the Popular Front has some inevitable consequences. For one, you’re exposed to many lectures about history and language from an early age. And you hear many unique stories about the struggle that you would never come across in a documentary film or read in a journalist’s report.,” writes Yafa Talal El Masri, one of the 11 writers featured in the book, in an observation that epitomizes the strength and contribution of this long-awaited collection. These are stories of people not generally heard about in this way, despite the fact that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon must constitute one of the most over-researched communities anywhere in the world. The stories we read about them in academic publications are often cloaked in the veil of anonymity, ostensibly to protect identities, preserve confidentiality, and avoid harm. Yet here, we find the rich act of naming — of learning the identities of the speakers, their families, and communities, of taking ownership of the stories being told. These are stories, too, that present the complexity of evolving identities, and how the experiences of older generations of exile from Palestine are relived in the camps by the new generations, through the repetitive exiles and the displacement during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Space collapses between the camp and Palestine. This space cannot contain Palestinians — the camp merges with the Palestinian bodies in exile, as in the story of Salem Yassin, Graffiti from a Time Gone By, about tattoos and the graffiti on Ayn el Helweh walls:

“Words remain tattooed plainly on arms or walls, between the Nakba and the Naksa...After their migration from people’s souls to unlined walls, they persist in feverish exile.”

Palestine is encountered in the spaces of the camp through the memories of the grandparents, the material gifts from Palestine, and the names that Palestinians in exile carry. In one story, Yafa’s father likes “to shout out his hometown’s name every morning.”  Time collapses, as the past is relived in the present. Time is not linear, as events such as the Nakba, the Israeli invasions, and other events collapse against each other.

Published originally in Arabic by the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS), it was then translated to English and edited by Muhammad Ali Khalidi and published jointly by IPS and OR Books. The idea behind 11 Lives was came from Perla Issa, an IPS fellow, who conceptualized the creative writing workshop (that produced these stories) led by Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud. After years of others coming to study and write about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, one wonders why it took so long for this collection to appear. Does publishing require titles and status, and contacts? Does it require skills that the refugees are not equipped with? How did knowledge production about Palestinian refugees lose sight of the complexities of identity, relationships, and entanglements? Is it the academic requirement to focus on certain topics only; to compartmentalize issues, and to claim expertise in discrete fields of human life? Or is it something else? Let us hope that 11 Lives won’t be the last collection of such stories.

Editor's note: In winter 2016-2017, the Institute for Palestine Studies hosted a creative writing workshop for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon — the product of which became a book, first published in Arabic and now available in English. Eleven refugees memorialize life in the camp, children playing, graffiti walls, martyr ghosts, love, labor, and dismay.

Buy the book:

About The Author: 

Mayssoun Sukarieh is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Development at King's College London. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley.  

Read more