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Palestinian LivesMaria Söderberg Elias Khoury
GATE OF THE SUN
By Elias Khoury.
Translated by Humphrey Davies.
539 pp. Archipelago Books. $26.
Elias Khoury is one of a handful of contemporary Arab novelists to have gained a measure of Western attention. He is also one of the few to write about the Palestinian experience, albeit from the perspective of an outsider. As a Christian born in Beirut in 1948, at the moment of Israel's inception, Khoury was too young to know firsthand the events that "Gate of the Sun" encompasses. Unlike the Palestinian novelists Emile Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani, who were born earlier in the century, Khoury could not rely on his own memory. To write this novel, he spent considerable time in the camps - more accurately, concrete exurban slums - throughout the Middle East, interviewing Palestinian refugees.
Narrated by a peasant doctor talking to a comatose, aging fighter, "Gate of the Sun" relates a swirl of stories: of grandmothers and grandfathers, midwives and children, wives and lovers - the lucky and the hapless, the mad and the hopeful. Employing a strategy that's an inversion of "A Thousand and One Nights" (whose narrator, Scheherazade, tells stories to save herself), Khalil half believes that these stories are keeping his dying friend Yunes alive.
Between November 1947 and October 1950, some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes as the British departed and the Israelis took control. Disputed and complicated, the refugee problem has been a sticking point in more than five decades of war, terrorism and failed peace talks.
But while Khoury's narrator explores Palestinian privation and Israeli cruelty, this is not a predictable novel of despair and accusation. It contains, for example, a story about the madwoman of Al Kabri, a reputed bone collector who actually searches for wild chicory. There is a wedding-night farce involving a cotton swab. And a dark story of infanticide - and pita bread.
Khalil assembles these vignettes with a clumsy talent, digressing as often as he gets to the point. His moods are many. One minute, he's swooning about a French actress, the next he's saddened by the antics of a shampoo seller. He crows about Yunes's wife telling Israeli interrogators she's a whore in order to hide Yunes's whereabouts. And he gives another man's wife the last word on what happened to his prized buffaloes: "I'm certain the Jews didn't kill them. . . . Why would they kill them? They'd take them. And how could they have killed the buffalo and not him with them? No, the Jews didn't kill the buffalo. I'm certain his cousin stole them. Took them and disappeared. The man must have waited a month at the border, then despaired and had no choice but to make up the story of the buffalo massacre. Everything foolish we do, we blame on the Jews."
Interspersed with Khalil's stories is his one-sided conversation with Yunes, which gradually reveals the history of a friendship where nothing is withheld. The two men "discuss" everything and nothing, but always they return, with respect and wonder, to the women in their lives. Early on, Khalil recalls that the novelist Kanafani interviewed Yunes but decided not to write about him because "he was looking for mythic stories, and yours was just the story of a man in love. Where would be the symbolism in this love that had no place to root itself? How did you expect he would believe the story of your love for your wife? Is a man's love for his wife really worth writing about?"
This love roots itself in Bab al-Shams, the cave where Yunes and his wife, Nahilah, met secretly over the decades of their marriage. Bab al-Shams (Arabic for "gate of the sun") is where they made love, shared meals and discussed their children. It is also the scene of Nahilah's loving exposure of Yunes's self-delusion, an inspired monologue that chastens and enlightens him. The cave is the novel. At one point, Khalil explains this to Yunes: "We've made a shelter out of words, a country out of words, and women out of words."
All of which is not to say that historical events are absent from Khoury's fiction. But he confines them to the conversation between Khalil and Yunes. Speaking about the Holocaust, Khalil tells his friend: "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."
On the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Khalil tells Yunes: "I know what you think of that kind of operation, and I know you were one of the few who dared take a stand against the hijacking of airplanes, the operations abroad and the killing of civilians."
On Palestinian identity before 1948, Khalil admits to Yunes: "Palestine was the cities - Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Acre. In them we could feel something called Palestine. The villages were like all villages. . . . The truth is that those who occupied Palestine made us discover the country as we were losing it."
Asking why the Palestinians fled their land, Khalil demands: "Tell me about that blackness. I don't want the usual song about the betrayal by the Arab armies in the '48 war - I've had enough of armies. What did you do? Why are you here and they're there?"
There has been powerful fiction about Palestinians and by Palestinians, but few have held to the light the myths, tales and rumors of both Israel and the Arabs with such discerning compassion. In Humphrey Davies's sparely poetic translation, "Gate of the Sun" is an imposingly rich and realistic novel, a genuine masterwork.
Lorraine Adams is the author of a novel, "Harbor."
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