Elias Khoury’s landmark novel of the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’ traverses 50 years of trauma and abandonment, with most of its criticism focused inward.
“Umm Hassan is dead.” The story starts with an air of finality and doom, although, like a dream, this saga has no clear beginning or end. Umm Hassan, an aged Palestinian refugee, matriarch and midwife who helped bring forth life amid the desolate ruins of the Shatila camp on the outskirts of Beirut, has passed away. And with her go the memories. By now, the generation of Palestinians who ended up in Lebanon in 1948, and who are old enough to have some firsthand recollection of the Galilee they left behind, is fading away. The link with the lost land becomes more tenuous, only to be replaced by a creeping nothingness. The remaining exiles are dislocated, forlorn and oddly incapacitated. Tied to a disappearing past, their flights of imagination become increasingly surreal. InGate of the Sun, Elias Khoury has woven a lush tapestry of haunting beauty, of mystery, fantasy and raw truth. The winding threads and the myriad characters, whose tales are mostly tragic, spin a literary odyssey of extraordinary breadth and depth. First published in Arabic in Beirut in 1998, the novel, though a work of fiction, is based on research and anecdotes accumulated by Khoury, an acclaimed Lebanese author, over the years. A committed advocate for Palestinian rights, he was involved through the 1970s with the PLO-affiliated Palestine Research Center in Beirut. Humphrey Davies’s often poetic English translation sparkles like a jewel. Gate of the Suntells the story, or stories, of the Palestinian exodus—the nakba, or “catastrophe”—of 1948, and the consequences stemming from the establishment of the Jewish state. It is a chronicle of love and death, wars and shattered communities, fragmented families and ambiguous identities. Protagonists go by multiple names, and even the “I” switches characters mid-episode, as the narrator, Dr. Khalil, seems to get absorbed into the jumble of memories he conjures up. Dr. Khalil, like a modern-day Scheherazade, is trying to stave off death. In this version of the Arabian Nights, he hopes to breathe new life into his comatose mentor, Yunes, a locally renowned Palestinian fighter with the fedayeen and a latter-day PLO minor “official” who has suffered a stroke. Everyone else in Shatila has given up on Yunes, and treats him as if he is already a corpse as he lies in the camp’s Galilee Hospital. Khalil, however, a one-time junior fighter, feeds him, cleans him, tends to his sores, and, mostly, attempts to rouse him with incessant talk. “If talking were a cure, we’d have liberated Palestine long ago,” Dr. Khalil’s corrupt boss berates him mockingly. As Yunes’s story unravels through Dr. Khalil’s monologue, so does Khalil’s own and those of countless relatives, neighbors, lovers, comrades and acquaintances. Echoes from the distant past mingle with the present. At the core is Yunes’s lifelong affair with Nahila, his child bride, whom he grows to love only when it is almost too late. After their Galilee village, Ain al-Zaitoun, is destroyed by the Jewish Palmah forces in 1948, Nahila moves with her parents-in-law to nearby Deir al-Asad, another village that survives to this day, while Yunes goes to join the fighters in Lebanon. For years, he slips across the border for visits with Nahila, and fathers a small tribe. Because Yunes is a fugitive from the Israeli authorities, the pair meet in a cave on the outskirts of Deir al-Asad that they have named Bab al-Shams, Arabic for “Gate of the Sun.” Nahila’s presence transforms the dank cavern into a palace. For Yunes, Bab al-Shams is more than a refuge: It is a secret village, a country, a world; it is a liberated patch of Palestine. The book’s narrative strands span across time, with no particular chronology or order, traversing 50 years of trauma and abandonment with nostalgic empathy and compassion. Yet Khoury does not wallow in sentiment. Dr. Khalil, a self-deprecating, 40-year-old who was born in the camp, holds a mirror up to the cause and is far from convinced by what he sees. He realizes that his erstwhile hero Yunes, like the unfortunate captives in the allegory of Socrates’ cave, has been observing life through the shadows of images. When Nahila finally forces Yunes into the sunlight to face reality, pouring out her heart to him about how he left her to raise a brood of children alone, he finds the truth perplexing. After that visit, it is unclear whether he ever returns. Dr. Khalil, abandoned by his own mother as a child, questions the heroic version of Palestinian history that he’s been fed. “Like all the other children who grew up in the camps, I heard all the stories, but I never understood,” he relates. “Do you imagine it’s enough to tell us we weren’t defeated in 1948—because we never fought—to make us accept the dog’s life we’ve led since we were born?” He questions the romantic longing for the impoverished, primitive society of old, in which Umm Hassan “had gotten married at fifteen ‘to chase away the chickens from the front of the house,’ as her mother-in-law had said when she’d asked for her hand.” When another old woman is dying in the camp, but is obsessed with the fact that she hadn’t managed to bury her dead husband properly before fleeing in 1948, nobody will put her mind at rest by pretending that he has been reburied. “We’re not even capable of lying,” Dr. Khalil remarks cynically. “Incapable of war, incapable of lying, incapable of truth.” He is as harsh on himself. He acknowledges that he is not a real doctor, having received a few months’ training in “revolutionary medicine” in China. And that Galilee Hospital is not a real hospital. It has gone from being a glorified clinic to an improvised old-age home, a storage facility for medicine, and a kind of purgatory for Yunes as he hovers between life and death. Nor does Dr. Khalil spare us his own tale of cowardice, revealing that he survived the 1982 massacre in the Shatila camp by telling the armed Christian militiamen who broke into the hospital, in his Chinese English, that he was a Turk. They believed him. Then he ran away. While there are reports and rumors among the refugees that the Jews have turned Israel into a “European” country, the Galilee Hospital of Shatila festers in filth and misery, mainly because nobody cares. Dr. Khalil bemoans the fact that the Palestinians have not properly documented their history. The names of those massacred in Shatila were never collected, only numbers, and even those are disputed. “We can’t even manage a decent burial ground, let alone a monument,” he laments. “For the fifteen hundred individuals who fell at Sabra and Shatila, we built nothing. The mass grave has turned into a field where children play soccer.” Khoury’s fedayeen fighters are depicted as a relatively benign and bumbling bunch, dissociated from such cruel historical incidents as the murder of over 20 Israeli schoolchildren in Ma’alot in 1974. Khalil describes himself and Yunes as having been opposed to hijacking and the killing of civilians, though in his vegetative state, Yunes is not in a position to confirm or deny anything. Likewise, Khoury’s treatment of Israeli Jews remains largely in the realm of fiction. The Zionist forces in 1948 are predictably brutal, but Palestinian and Jewish identities are purposely blurred in places, perhaps to suggest what Khoury sees as the nonsensical phenomenon of one people having replaced another in the land, or to hint at a utopian future where the two can swap places, or even unite. When Umm Hassan embarks on a journey to visit her ruined village, she finds her old home inhabited by a Lebanese Jewess called Ella Dweik, who pines for her native Beirut. So the Palestinians are the authentic heirs of the land. The Israelis replace indigenous, life-sustaining olive trees with foreign pines and palms. Decades later, the Palestinian exiles still know where to find the village spring with the sweetest water, while the Jews, according to Umm Hassan, “don’t drink water, just fizzy drinks.” At the same time, Khoury portrays the Palestinians as h
aving become strangers not only in their own land, but to one another as well. The nakba produced a degree of national cohesion: Describing the influx of refugees into Gaza in 1948, he writes, “It almost seemed as though there were no Gazans left in Gaza—Gaza dissolved in a sea of refugees and became the first place to be collectively Palestinian. It was there the Palestinians discovered they weren’t groups of people belonging to various regions and villages; the disaster had produced a single people.” But the few times that Khoury’s protagonists refer to the nascent Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip 50 years on, they speak of those places, too, like a foreign country. Dr. Khalil ponders aloud what might have become of him had he left Beirut on the boats for Tunis with the other PLO fighters in 1982. “I’d probably be in Gaza,” he says, “and my status would be ambiguous. Do you think they’d have accepted me as a doctor there? Our leaders, as I understand it, are setting up a legal authority, and this authority needs educated people, crooks, merchants, contractors, business men, and security services. Our role has come to an end. They won’t be needing fedayeen anymore.” There are no heroes in Gate of the Sun, only heroines. “Ordinary” Palestinian wives, mothers and daughters, who manage to create a home out of nothing, and who bring about the rebirth of a nation through grit and determination. In the end, Yunes’s only tangible achievement is the family that his beloved Nahila has raised in Deir al-Asad without him. Two sons become car mechanics and fulfill their dream of opening a garage. Another studies for a doctorate in Arabic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The children get married and have their own children. All name their first sons Yunes. “The hundred thousand have become a million,” Dr. Khalil quotes Yunes as having said of those who stayed behind in 1948, “and the eight hundred thousand who were thrown out have become five million. They bring in immigrants and we have children, and we’ll see who wins in the end.” Gate of the Sun has no end, because the saga is not over yet. There is a sliver of hope that the refugees may somehow be redeemed. But Dr. Khalil, for one, would probably find it ironic—and telling—that this epic masterpiece of the Palestinian collective experience was composed not by a refugee who lived through the “catastrophe” and remembers the Palestine that was lost, but by a Lebanese Christian who was born in 1948.