Sara Abou Ghazal

I’m a product of these two worlds that don’t like each other right now. The borderland is where my stories take place and where surreal things happen.

Sara Abou Ghazal is a Palestinian writer who lives in Beirut. She was in Paris, through the residencies programme of the Institut français at the Cité internationale des arts, working on her first collection of short stories.

Updated on 18/01/2021

5 min

Sara Abou Ghazal
© DR

Your short story collection ‘It’s time to go to bed’ which you will be working on at Cité internationale des arts focuses on the ‘less famous’ Beirut. Can you elaborate on this and explain why it was important for you to reveal this aspect of Beirut to readers? 

I write about areas that are not usually talked about when you’re introducing Beirut to a global audience. These neighbourhoods are usually where newcomers from the villages live, where Palestinians and Syrians co-exist. In a sense they’re very Lebanese, but also completely diverse. I like to have these neighbourhoods as my settings, particularly Tareq al Jadidah, because if you talk about these areas you automatically know how the city started expanding in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. You will understand how the Palestinians and Lebanese set up the Shatila camp. These are the neighbourhoods where it also unfolds how people survived the Israeli invasion and the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. If you talk about these neighbourhoods you’re talking about all these inter-twined histories? 

How did you come to create the AbouSukar family who most of the stories will centre on?

I write about them because I would have loved to meet them. I feel they represent so many things – the pioneers of the Shatila camp, because two of them helped establish the camp, and also the generation from the 1970s who could decide to live outside the camp because it didn’t matter where you lived as a Palestinian then. It’s the generation that experienced the civil war but produced children that had nothing to do with the war - but these children cannot fully experience Lebanon as they have so many restrictions placed on them as Palestinians. I kind of hang out with them and finish their stories one by one, starting with the main character Salwa. She’s kind of the seer, the one who understands why the family are behaving the way they do.

The character Salwa meets her dead Grandfather on a trip to Amman and he then communicates to her via dreams. Did a fantastical element like this help you to explore themes that would have been difficult in a more realistic format?

Yes, absolutely. I think every single Palestinian has questions for their ancestors. I want to understand from my grandfather how his journey happened. How did the expulsion unfold? But I also want to understand how he saw his home, which for him was so real but for me is so imaginary yet also real. There are also questions to do with those who left and those who stayed. The story helps me navigate these difficult emotional themes, but it also helps me explore different desires that I have, not only as writer, but also as a Palestinian.

How has your time in Paris enabled you to develop the project?

Since the explosion everything in Beirut has been like a mini tragedy. It was very hard for me to sit and work. I was so consumed by other things and by being in survivor mode. Here I don’t have to worry about the worst-case scenario every two minutes. I just started working and was shocked how productive I was.

The story helps me navigate these difficult emotional themes, but it also helps me explore different desires that I have, not only as writer, but also as a Palestinian.

You describe your work as the product of the position you find yourself in – a Palestinian refugee from a Lebanese mother, always living on the periphery. How has this influenced your style and subject matter?

I’m a product of these two worlds that don’t like each other right now. I belong at the point where they intersect, in the borderland. The borderland is where my stories take place and where surreal things happen - where dead bodies just appear in your living room and the only way to expel them is by finding out who they are. All of these stories couldn’t be constructed unless I am in that borderland where I can utilize different things from different worlds to serve my point of view. It allows me to play a lot, and to use humour.

For the past 15 years you have been creating spaces to produce Arabic feminist content, including articles and short stories.  Was it difficult to find these spaces beforehand, and is the situation improving?

In the 1950s and 60s women were creating magazines but as young feminist and writer I could not find a place online to publish and debate certain things. Nothing else existed online as a women’s blog or a women’s website so we created Sawtalniswa because we wanted to write about feminism, about sexual harassment, about what it means to be a woman in Lebanon, to talk about migrant workers, domestic work – typical feminist subjects. Now there are lots of websites about sexuality and feminism, and that’s nice to see, but back then there was no one except us for a couple of years.

The Knowledge Workshop that you founded archives women’s oral histories and experiences for the benefit of artists and writers who want to include female focused narratives in their work. Did you find women were enthusiastic to talk about their experiences?

Oral history is a very widespread practice. In a way people are used to it. What people are not used to is what it is to build an archive and how to index it and how to create knowledge from it. Right now I’m on a break from The Knowledge Workshop. When I set it up I saw it as a place where I could build an accessible archive. I was interested in how archives become a timeline to tell stories, and I will continue with that with or without The Knowledge Workshop because that is what I do – build timelines and explain stories.

Where would you like to see your work published in the future?

I would like to see my stories translated into English and French. It’s important for me to not only be read by colleagues and friends and Arab readers. When you are translated you discover things about your writing and narrative voice. It would be really nice to have them translated into French as one particular story takes place in Paris, but Paris as a place of transition. It talks about the city from the point of view of someone who is not a tourist and is not going to stay. I thought that might be interesting for French readers.

The Institut français and the artist

Sara Abou Ghazal was in residency in Paris through the residencies programme of the Institut français at the Cité internationale des arts, working on her first collection of short stories It’s time to go to bed.

Find out more about residencies at the Cité internationale des arts 

L'institut français, LAB