Stylus in Gaza
Nothing hangs on the walls of the old, dying fedayee’s hospital room, no posters bearing the young faces of martyrs, green bandannas tied across their foreheads, no map of historic Palestine spreading from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. There is only the word Allah, written in Kufic lettering and hung above the comatose man’s head by his younger friend, Khalil, who tends to him like a son, washing his deteriorating body and telling him story after story in a desperate attempt to draw him into consciousness.
The entirety of Elias Khoury’s newly translated novel Gate of the Sun (first published in Arabic as Bab al-Shamsin 1998) takes place within these four peeling, waterstained walls. Through Khalil flows a strong current of Palestinian stories—the woman who left zucchini cooking on the fire when she fled her home in 1948, the survivor of the 1982 Shatila massacre who becomes a media star by telling her horrific story over and over again, the old man who guards a single lotus tree for two decades. Yet these stories dance and sometimes drag on the edges of Khalil’s main project, reconstructing the life of Yunes and his half-century entanglement with Palestinian history. But Khalil reveals more than just one man’s life; the Palestinian experience emerges here fully: the humiliation and emasculation, the burden of history, the yearning for a world one knows is long gone, the claiming of victimhood coupled with the desire not to be victims (“We wanted to become martyrs without dying!” Khalil exclaims). Yunes’s armed struggle began on May 1, 1948, when Ain al-Zaitoun, his village in eastern Galilee, was “wiped out of existence” by the Palmach, the main prestate Jewish militia. That day, he took a piece of smoldering iron and tattooed the date onto his left wrist. Many of the villages of Galilee fell that spring, and the Palestinians who fled or were forced out would join the 700,000 refugees that the war created. This chaotic series of events is the scarring origin myth of the Palestinian people, and Khalil’s stories sift through the accumulated memories of massacres and gun battles, some fantastical, others brutally realistic. “Don’t believe, Son, that the Jews won the war in “48,” Yunes tells Khalil. “In “48, we didn’t fight. We didn’t know what we were doing. They won because we didn’t fight, and they didn’t fight either, they just won. It was like a dream.” Yunes then became a full-time fedayee, living in Lebanon and attacking Israel from the border. But it becomes clear that Yunes is more than just the “Wolf of Galilee,” that he is not just the hero seeking vengeance. Khalil, explaining why the famous Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani—whom Khoury injects into his novel—never wrote about Yunes after interviewing him in the mid-“50s, observes that “he was looking for mythic stories, and yours was just the story of a man in love.” For three decades, until 1978, when Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon made it impossible, Yunes regularly crossed into Galilee at night to make secret visits to Nahilah, the wife he left behind in Israel. They would meet in a cave called Bab al-Shams so as not to be seen. There, in what Nahilah called the “only liberated plot of Palestinian land,” they made love, ate, and talked about their children. More than any yearning for Palestine, Yunes’s drama is defined by this inability to stay within the orbit of Nahilah’s love, partly for fear of putting his family at risk and partly because to do so would mean surrendering the fight and admitting that the Palestine of his dreams may be lost forever. “A country isn’t oranges or olives, or the mosque of al-Jazzar in Acre,” Yunes says. “A country is falling into the abyss, feeling that you are a part of the whole, and dying because it has died.” With Gate of the Sun, Khoury wants to give us a national epic—the Great Palestinian Novel—and Yunes carries the heavy burden of an Aeneas or an Augie March in that his own life and disposition inevitably become a reflection of his people’s story. The danger, of course, in creating a character that embodies the national narrative is that he can become more diplomat than human being. For the Palestinian writer, this task is doubly problematic. Without a land of their own, Palestinians have clung to one overarching narrative: their epic history of dispossession and occupation. But Khoury does not suffocate Yunes with this weight. He makes him fully human and ultimately more emblematic of Palestine than any map or martyr’s poster. By imbuing Yunes with such complexity, Khoury also makes a larger point about the Palestinian relationship to history. To preserve their humanity even as they make their case as a people, Palestinians must not allow a thousand varied stories be subsumed by one, must not let the political trump the nuance of the personal. Khalil, then, is a Scheherazade, saving not only himself but also the life of his king, knowing that to redeem them both, as well as their people, Yunes’s existence must have more meaning than just that of a fighter, more even than that of a lover. “Please, Father—we mustn’t become just one story,” Khalil implores Yunes. “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.” Gal Beckerman is a Brooklyn-based writer. His history of Soviet Jewry is forthcoming next year from Houghton Mifflin.