by RAJA SHEHADEH
[from the March 6, 2006 issue]
Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews have fundamentally different attitudes toward the origins of the conflict that at once divides and binds them. The number of Israeli books about the early settlements and the 1948 war–histories, memoirs, novels–exceeds by far the number of those written by Palestinians. In the face of a work like Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, which drew upon spurious demographic “data” to deny that Palestinians were ever the majority in their own land, a Palestinian is angered but not moved to action. Indeed, the rebuttal to Peters came not from a Palestinian but from Norman Finkelstein, an American Jew.
This may seem strange, but it is not. For the question of whether Palestinians did or did not exist in Palestine when the first Zionist settlers arrived is more of an American/Israeli issue than a Palestinian one, as is the question of whether Palestinians were driven from their homeland. Among Palestinians there is no debate about their roots in Palestine, or about the causes of their dispossession. They either had family living in 1948 Palestine or heard from those who had family about what life was like and the circumstances under which they were forced to flee. A Palestinian author writing in Arabic for an Arab audience is not weighed down by the burden of having to prove anything about the Nakba, “the catastrophe.”
Not so for Palestinian authors writing in English for a Western audience. This may explain why much of the historical work on the Nakba by Palestinians such as Walid Khalidi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was written originally in English–and why the Israeli “new” historians who reached the same conclusions much, much later found it easier to persuade readers in the West that the 1948 refugees had not simply left of their own accord. As Edward Said frequently observed, part of being Palestinian is being denied the right to narrate one’s own experience.
The same burden of proof under which Palestinian historians have labored applies with equal force to novelists and poets, whose evocation of the Nakba is almost always approached with suspicion–the suspicion being that the objective behind the work is propagandistic rather than artistic. As a result, imaginative writing by Palestinians is often assessed by Western critics according to narrowly political rather than aesthetic criteria, something few novelists would welcome, even if the reviews were favorable. It is no wonder that the number of literary works by Palestinians that have been published and become well-known in the United States is very small indeed.
This political rather than literary reception is likely to be the fate of Elias Khoury’s epic novel Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams), first published in Arabic in 1998 and just released in English by Archipelago Books in an excellent translation by Humphrey Davies. Khoury is a Lebanese writer who has listened very carefully to the testimony of people who have been living in refugee camps in Lebanon since they were driven out of Palestine by Zionist forces in 1948. His novel is inspired by these accounts. When Gate of the Sun was published in Hebrew in 2002, the veracity of Khoury’s chronicle of the Nakba stirred controversy (although the book was praised by some Israeli critics), and this could become an issue in the United States. That would be unfortunate, since Khoury’s novel is a work of literature, not oral history.
When Gate of the Sun was first published, it received high praise in the Arab world, especially among Palestinians. (It was also adapted by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah into a four-hour film, shown at a few festivals in the States.) Palestine has produced some distinguished novelists, notably Emile Habiby and Ghassan Kanafani, both of whom explored the Palestinian condition of statelessness, exile and dispersion. Yet neither Habiby, with his absurdist vision of the experience of Palestinians who stayed behind in Israel (The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist), nor Kanafani, with his bitter tales of Palestinian laborers in the Gulf (Men in the Sun), wrote directly about the Nakba, preferring to examine its reverberations instead. Indeed, there are so few novels about the Nakba that many Palestinians were grateful to Khoury simply for giving voice to their memories of the most traumatic and defining moment in their history.
The Nakba has achieved such mythic dimensions in the Arab world that many Arabs are tempted to believe the events took place in one blow: One day there were Arabs in Palestine, and the next they were gone. In fact, for at least three months after the 1949 armistice the borders between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors were open and Israel lacked the means to prevent infiltrators (the overwhelming majority of whom were simply seeking to return to their land, not to carry out guerrilla attacks). “Slipping across from Lebanon to Galilee,” Khoury suggests, continued until the mid-1950s. He writes not only of the expulsion of the refugees but also of those who, once in Lebanon, smuggled themselves back into Palestine for short periods of time.
Arab governments did not encourage these efforts, as my father learned. After the Palestinian exodus from Jaffa, many of the townspeople, including our family, ended up in Jordanian-ruled Ramallah, as did many of those driven from Lydda and Ramle. Soon after, my father helped organize a meeting where a mass return of the refugees was proposed while the borders were still porous. The next morning, the Jordanian military arrested my father and warned that he would be kept behind bars if he ever floated this proposal again. The Arab regimes, for all their rhetorical bravado, agreed to the creation of Israel. They helped prevent the return of the refugees and the reversal of the 1948 Israeli military conquest.
The secret history of Palestinian border infiltrations into Israel in the early years of the state is a central element of Khoury’s story, and it gives Gate of the Sun much of its novelty and power. The protagonist, Yunes al-Asadi, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, makes a number of secret trips to Deir al-Asad, the village he was forced to leave in 1948. During these infiltrations he has to watch out for both the Lebanese and the Israeli armies. As the novel shows, for those who, like Yunes, were willing to risk the journey in order to attend to unfinished personal business, the Nakba did not immediately create an irreversible situation. By imagining the movement across the open border between Lebanon and the newly created state of Israel, Khoury brings out the complexity that is often suppressed in the official narratives of 1948.
On one of his first infiltrations, Yunes is reunited with his wife, Nahilah, who stayed behind. She tells him how the Israelis took the land and how their son’s head was crushed by “a huge stone [that] had fallen on him” while he was playing with the children in the nearby settlement. She runs to the military governor’s headquarters and asks for a permit to take her son to the hospital in Acre. There she is interrogated about her husband for three hours. Meanwhile, her son dies. After learning of Ibrahim’s death, Yunes is eager for revenge, but he decides that individual reprisal is “worthless” and goes back to Lebanon to organize Palestinians into a guerrilla army. He chooses war over revenge and emerges as a legendary resistance leader. But Khoury is not uncritical of the Palestinian resistance, which he portrays as purely reactive. He takes us through the movement’s different phases, from the days when its headquarters were in Jordan to the Lebanese Civil War, when Yunes serves in the Lebanon Regional Command of the Fatah Movement. Each phase leads “back to the beginning,” as Yunes frequently laments, leaving him to pick up the pieces and start over again.
Yunes’s story is recounted by Khalil Ayyoub, his caretaker at the Galilee Hospital in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where Yunes has been rushed following “an explosion in the brain causing permanent damage.” Khalil is called a doctor but really isn’t one. He is, in fact, a former PLO political commissar who studied field medicine in China. He has been talking to Yunes for the past three months, trying to rouse him from his coma. “Is he dead or alive?” Khalil wonders. “I don’t know–am I helping or tormenting him?”
Frustrated by Yunes’s silence, Khalil seeks the advice of Umm Hassan, the only midwife in Shatila, who despite her own childlessness is described as the “mother of all our mothers” from the Galilee. In the opening pages of the novel, we are told that Umm Hassan is a woman who “always told the truth.” She knew, for example, that the 1967 war would only bring disaster, and she predicted that “Palestine would not come back until all of us had died.” When Khalil complains that Yunes can’t speak, she insists that he can: “It’s up to you to hear his voice.” Although Khalil still can’t hear Yunes, who according to his real doctors is “clinically dead,” he refuses to give up hope, promising to “hold conversations with you and tell you stories. I’ll tell you everything. What do you say–I’ll make tea, and we’ll sit on the low chairs in front of your house and tell tales!”
Thus begins the novel’s Scheherazade voyage, which stretches out over 539 pages. But whereas the tales in Thousand and One Nights are funny and bawdy, here the tales are recounted to a dying, if not already dead, man with great solemnity, as if the narrator speaking on his behalf were taking part in a religious ceremony. There is none of the black humor and irony that have inflected the Palestinian response to many generations of interminable suffering. And Khalil’s second-person narration of the dying man’s life often results in awkward constructions that can test one’s patience, making it even harder for the reader to find his way in this labyrinth of overlapping stories. The silence of the man to whom the stories are told can also be infuriating. But then, Khoury may have intended to provoke such a reaction, for the comatose man–a leader of a national liberation movement, still in exile and unable to speak–is laden with symbolism.
As this scenario suggests, Gate of the Sun is a novel of prodigious ambition, seeking to evoke the full sweep of Palestinian history. Most Palestinian novelists have preferred to illuminate specific aspects of the Palestinian experience, and for good reason. That experience has been so eventful, so turbulent, so fragmented and so complicated–intertwined with the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the cold war, inter-Arab politics, the events of Black September in Jordan, the Lebanese Civil War and the 1991 Gulf War–that it seems to defy dramatization, even while inviting it. The story unfolds on an almost mythic plane, a plane much vaster than that of the novel. Khoury seems aware of this problem; his narrator observes at one point that the novelist Ghassan Kanafani didn’t write about Yunes’s experience of the Nakba “because he was looking for mythic stories, and yours was just the story of a man in love.” Yet Gate of the Sun is not so much the intimate story of a man in love as the allegorical tale of an entire people.
The novel opens, significantly, on November 20, 1995, two months after the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) was signed between the PLO and Israel, an agreement that addressed the condition of Palestinians in the occupied territories while leaving out the Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world. Oslo II was met with cries of betrayal in the camps, which have evolved into a permanent home to several generations of Palestinians, especially in Khoury’s Lebanon, where as many as 350,000 Palestinian refugees wait to return home. In a sense, Yunes stands for all those refugees abandoned by the Palestinian negotiators at Oslo, with the stroke of a pen. (It is this same leadership that suffered a resounding defeat in the general elections on January 25 in the occupied territories.)
When Yunes is brought to the hospital at the opening of the novel, he is immediately pronounced dead, and hospital administrators don’t want to assign a room to him. Khalil, however, rejects this judgment and, invoking a medical authority he does not actually possess, finds a room for him. By telling Yunes stories, the “doctor” hopes to resuscitate his patient. But can narrative and remembrance provide the sustenance of Palestinian survival and endurance? Khalil, exasperated, asks Yunes:
Do you believe we can construct our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to construct it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the peoples of the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?
Khoury’s answer seems to be that story-telling is a defeated nation’s way of preserving its memories, keeping itself alive and reminding the world of its existence, its refusal to surrender. Despite the tragic history it recounts, Gate of the Sun is an affirmative book, insisting that despite the recent betrayals of its leaders, Palestine is not dead, that, in Khalil’s words, Palestinians continue “seeking the aroma of life and are waiting.” Yet Khoury seems to admit the limits of storytelling as an act of resistance, since it can draw one further away from the reality it is intended to recall. And for Yunes, reality seems to be slipping away. At one point, Khalil asks him whether he knows where he is now, and then answers:
Everything here isn’t itself but a simulacrum of itself. We say house but we don’t live in houses, we live in places that resemble houses. We say Beirut but we aren’t really in Beirut, we’re in a semblance of Beirut. I say doctor but I’m not a doctor, I’m just pretending to be one. Even the camp itself–we say we’re in the Shatila camp, but after the War of the Camps and the destruction of eighty percent of Shatila’s houses, it’s no longer a camp, it’s just a semblance of a camp.
It is hard to resist the temptation to read such passages allegorically. The hospital could represent Palestine (or the PLO) after Oslo II, a sick house run by a sham doctor, a semblance of a hospital where everything is breaking down and where the residents are nurtured by listening to stories that have no beginning or end–a “country of words,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish bitterly wrote.
At the risk of contradicting my own warning against reading novels about Palestine for their political rather than literary merits, I could not help bristling somewhat at Khoury’s depiction of Palestine as an endless hall of mirrors with little or no relationship to reality. To be sure, this is the experience of Palestine for those refugees who have been stranded for more than half a century (and, perhaps, for those Palestinians who have remained in what is now Israel, and watched their country progressively disappear over time), and Khoury’s intention to assert the reality of the refugees and keep their stories alive is admirable. But he overlooks those parts of Palestine that remain formally outside Israel and where the majority of Palestinians are still living under occupation. For Palestinians in places like Ramallah, where I live, Palestine is a physical reality, not simply an endless web of stories.
The proliferation of stories also presents a problem for Gate of the Sun as a work of literature, and it is as a novel, not as a political commentary or oral history, that Khoury’s book must be assessed. Just before the end of Part One, Khalil stands up and declares: “For three months I’ve been telling you stories, some of which I know and some of which I don’t. And you’re incapable of correcting my errors, so I make mistakes once in a while…. My throat’s dry from so much talking. I’m dried up, I’ve become desiccated.” Khalil says he feels as if he is “a prisoner of the story. I’m drowning. Water surrounds me. I swallow water and swallow words and tell the story.” These words could express the state of the reader, who feels just as lost in a maze of stories without the firm command of an author in control of his material. The idea for the book is brilliant, but the execution is uneven at best.
In the second part of Gate of the Sun, Khalil expresses his fear of “a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death.” Perhaps it was to avoid this that Khoury ventured into territory rarely visited by Arab novelists: the Holocaust. Khoury describes his narrator imagining Umm Hassan “wandering in the fields among the thousands of others without homes.” This waking nightmare continues, but the scene suddenly shifts from Palestine to Nazi-occupied Europe: “I see her, and I hear the whistle of the train…when the refugees were rounded up and distributed around the various suburbs, which then turned into camps. The whistle rings in my ears. I see the people being led toward the final train. I see the trains, and I shudder. Then I see myself loaded into a basin and carried on a woman’s head. I confess I’m scared.” He declares: “You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner. Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us…we–you–were outside history, so you became its second victim.”
Since Israel depicted itself as the redemption after the European catastrophe, Khoury suggests, Palestinians were suddenly forced to see themselves through the prism of Jewish history. Here Khalil, until now a confused and broken man, suddenly overcomes his paralysis and improbably turns into a seer, a prophet, telling Yunes, “We mustn’t see ourselves only in their [the Jews’] mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story [the Holocaust], as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them. Please, Father–we mustn’t become just one story. Even you, even Nahilah–please let me liberate you from your love story, for I see you as a man who betrays and repents and loves and fears and dies. Believe me, this is the only way if we’re not to ossify and die. You haven’t ossified into one story. You will die, but you’ll be free. Free of everything, even free of your own story.” Earlier, he says, “You saw your own image in their mirrors…. I do see a mirror broken into two halves, which can only be mended by joining the parts together. Dear God, this is the tragedy: to see two halves that come together only in war and ruination.”
This image of Palestinians and Israelis as two halves of a broken mirror is striking, but the change in tone is jarring, the narrator’s revelations unconvincing. Nor are the encounters with Jews who have left Lebanon to settle in Israel any more convincing. In one of Khalil’s tales, Umm Hassan returns home to what has become the northern Israeli settlement of Beyt ha-Emek, where she meets Ella Dweik, a Lebanese Jew living in the house that once belonged to her. Dweik welcomes her, saying, “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.” When she discovers that Umm Hassan now lives in a camp in Beirut, her eyes fill with tears, and she says that she too is from Beirut. “They brought me from there when I was twelve,” she recalls. “I left Beirut and came to this dreary, bleak land.” When Umm Hassan asks her how this happened, she replies, “What do you mean, how did that happen? I’ve no idea. You’re living in Beirut and you’ve come here to cry? I’m the one who should be crying. Get up, my friend, and go. Send me to Beirut and take this wretched land back.” While Israeli Jews from Arab and Muslim countries are known to long for their ancestral homes, Ella Dweik’s cry that she has “no idea” why she left Lebanon for Israel strikes a false note, as does her remark that she has been “waiting” for Umm Hassan, a woman who, after all, has the keys to the house Dweik now occupies. The point Khoury is making is an admirable one: that the destinies of these women, secret sharers of the intimate history of Palestine, are intertwined, and that the events of 1948 shattered the ties between Arabs and Jews native to the region. Yet the women are ciphers, embodiments of ideas rather than fully realized characters. As a result, the scene is contrived and sentimental rather than moving.
Reading Gate of the Sun, one has the impression that Khoury was so haunted by the anecdotes he was told that he could not bear to part with any of them–the story of the woman who left her home while the zucchini was still on the fire, the woman who lost her children while fleeing Palestine, the adventures of those who stayed behind and the hardships they faced, the journeys of those who acquired foreign passports in the West that enabled them to visit Israel. Palestinian refugees are all too familiar with these tales, but the urge to tell every one of them has produced a cluttered, crowded book. And the narrative conceit of having Khalil speak for the man in the coma and convey to us what he did and what he must have thought and felt, while repeatedly asking for his reactions and posing questions that never get answered, makes this long novel feel very long indeed.
The Nakba was the formative event for the Palestinians as a nation, particularly for the refugees in Lebanon who remain in camps and whose fate has been darker than that of any other Palestinian group. Khoury listened to their tales with compassion and commitment. He is among the few who have given literary expression to their memories. Palestinians tend to expect that every work about Palestine must encompass the whole of the Palestinian experience. It is unfortunate that Khoury, who is not Palestinian, was also motivated to achieve this impossible goal. Still, Gate of the Sun is important for trying to capture the Palestinian experience during and after 1948. Although it overreaches, the novel is unique and powerful, and Archipelago Books is to be commended for making it available to an American audience.