Translated by Sinead Crowe and Rachel McNicholl
Published by World Editions (4 April 2019)
Ebook and paperback
About the Book
The enthralling search for a missing father
Samir leaves the safety and comfort of his family’s adopted home in Germany for volatile Beirut in an attempt to find his missing father. His only clues are an old photo and the bedtime stories his father used to tell him. The Storyteller follows Samir’s search for Brahim, the father whose heart was always yearning for his homeland, Lebanon. In this moving and gripping novel about family secrets, love, and friendship, Pierre Jarawan does for Lebanon what Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan. He pulls away the curtain of grim facts and figures to reveal the intimate story of an exiled family torn apart by civil war and guilt. In this rich and skillful account, Jarawan proves that he too is a masterful storyteller.
From Chapter 4
Father was quick to realise how important it was to learn German. After fleeing burning Beirut in spring of 1983, the first refuge my parents found in Germany was the secondary school’s sports hall in our town. The school had been shut down the previous year when routine inspections during the summer holidays had revealed excessive levels of asbestos in the air. But there were no other options, so the sports hall ended up as a refugee reception centre. Father soon managed to get hold of books so that he could teach himself this foreign language. At night, while others around him slept wrapped in blankets on the floor, he clicked on a pocket torch and studied German. By day, he could sometimes be seen standing in a corner, eyes closed, repeating vocabulary to himself. He learned fast. Soon he was the one the aid workers sought out be their interpreter. Then he’d stand, a circle of others around him, and explain to the aid workers in broken German which medicine people needed or what it said on the certificates and documents they held out to him. My father was no intellectual. He’d never been to university. I don’t even know whether he was smarter than average. But he was a master of the art of survival and he knew that it would be to his advantage if he could make himself indispensable.
The atmosphere in the sports hall was often strained. People who had arrived here with no possessions, nothing but hope for a new life, were now condemned to wait for their fate to unfold. The air was stuffy, the space cramped. A constant hum of voices hovered beneath the ceiling; there was never complete silence. At night, you’d hear children crying or mothers weeping, and the snoring, scratching, and coughing of the refugees. If one got a cold, many were sick a few days later. The aid workers did their best, but there were shortages of everything: medicine, toiletries, food, not to mention toys for the kids, or ways for the grown-ups to keep themselves busy.
Losing their homeland was a fate everyone shared; they were all refugees. But a residence permit was also at stake, and not everyone would be allowed to stay; they knew this too. Everyone had witnessed scenes in which screaming mothers clung to the poles holding up the basket-ball hoops as they resisted being carried out of the hall along with their children. Here, one person could be the reason why another didn’t get to stay. That made fighting a serious problem. But settling fights was another thing Father was good at. He’d talk calmly and persuasively to the irate parties, stressing how important it was not to cause trouble, how it helped to make a good impression, because news of what went on in the hall would inevitably find its way to the outside world. Sometimes there were indeed people outside the hall, holding placards that said there wasn’t enough room in this town for so many people.
There were others too, people who brought bags of clothes—even if they were in the minority. And many of the refugees began to see my father as an authority, someone they could go to with their worries. “We’re people too,” they’d complain, “not animals, and yet we’re locked up in here.” Or, “In Jounieh, I was a lawyer. I had a practice that got destroyed. Where am I meant to go if I they won’t let me stay here? Go back? There is no going back. I have no house, misfortune— for having lost everything, for being refugees, for having to live in a sports hall.
My father’s friendship with Hakim was another thing that lent him authority. Hakim and Yasmin, who was barely two at the time, were Muslims. My parents were Christians. They had all fled Beirut together. Hakim and Yasmin were camped right beside my parents—in the Christian sector of the hall, so to speak. But Hakim encouraged his daughter to play with all of the kids, making no distinctions. My father and Hakim would say to the others, “We’re not in Lebanon anymore. We all came here because we want peace, not war. It’s not about Christians and Muslims here. It’s about us. As Lebanese people.”
But sometimes words were in vain. One night, Father was woken by a dull thumping, the sound of something hard rhythmically pounding something soft. Fumbling in the dark and aware of my mother breathing gently beside him, he sat up. All he could hear in the dark hall was that noise. He made his way towards its source, putting one foot carefully in front of the other to avoid stepping on sleeping bodies. In the dim shadows he could make out one figure bent over another. But he was too late. Father could see the battered face even as he leaned in to grab the shoulder of the man who was straddling his victim and punching him like a man possessed. The woman closest to them began to scream. Someone turned the lights on and people sat up suddenly, looking around in shock. More and more people started screaming. There was blood not just on the floor, but all over the hands and clothes of the man who had killed the other. Four men grabbed him and pinned him to the ground until the police arrived.
For a while, the dead man’s place in the hall remained empty, and his death seemed to put an end to the fighting too. But more people were arriving in the sports hall every day, so it wasn’t long before someone spread his blanket in the free space to lie down and sleep. After a few days, it was impossible to say where exactly the empty space had been.
My thanks to Julia of Ruth Killick Publicity for the invitation to take part in the tour and for providing the extract.
About the Author
Pierre Jarawan was born in 1985 to a Lebanese father and a German mother and moved to Germany with his family at the age of three. Inspired by his father’s imaginative bedtime stories, he started writing at the age of thirteen. He has won international prizes as a slam poet, and in 2016 was named Literature Star of the Year by the daily newspaper Abendzeitung. Jarawan received a literary scholarship from the City of Munich (the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis) for The Storyteller, which went on to become a bestseller and booksellers’ favorite in Germany and the Netherlands.
A link to the author in a two-minute clip talking about his novel: