Opening the ‘Gate’
Elias Khoury’s magnum opus of the Palestinian struggle, “Gate of the Sun,” finally has its day in the sun in American literary circles. Since it was first published in Beirut in 1998, Elias Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun” has been translated into 10 languages (including Hebrew) and garnered wide acclaim in Europe and the Middle East. The novel won the Palestine Prize and was named book of the year by Le Monde Diplomatique in 2002. It was also adapted for film by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah. Despite all the accolades and attention, a U.S. edition of “Gate of the Sun” didn’t appear until last year. Khoury, who was born in 1948 and raised a Christian in Beirut and now teaches at New York University, seemed at a loss to explain the difficulties of finding a publisher in this country. “It really is astonishing that it took so long,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know, maybe you’re in a better position to explain that to me. I suppose the story itself is something that might cause problems for American publishers.” Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun” was preceded by 11 novels (two of which were originally published by the University of Minnesota Press), three plays and several volumes of literary criticism. But with “Gate of the Sun,” Khoury said, he finally pulled off something he’d been striving for in his other works. “I struggled for a long time to find the adequate means of communicating the Palestinian struggle,” he said. “I’ve been working in and visiting the refugee camps for a very long time and absorbed a lot of stories. My work as a journalist played a large role in the learning process — asking questions, learning to listen and trying to distill things with a sort of journalistic clarity. The challenge is always to address the complexity of a present that is loaded in the same moment with memories of the past and uncertain prospects and hopes for the future, and I think I found a way to do that through the classic oral storytelling tradition of Arabic culture. I feel like with this book I finally arrived at a kind of purity of style.” Khoury worked on “Gate of the Sun” for seven years, and he says the process was “a journey to learn and know things I didn’t know or understand. If literature is not constantly rethinking everything, it is not doing its job. That’s the job for every writer: to forget all his or her presuppositions and strive to discover new perspectives and realities. A writer, of course, is the first person to learn something from what he writes, and this novel changed my life, changed my way of looking at the world. Writing this book was a kind of deep and human experience for me. Ultimately, I truly feel that I was simply an agent; the real author of this book is the Palestinian people.” Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer for the Rake magazine, where he produces the Yo Ivanhoe Web log. Minneapolis Star Tribune
February 25, 2006 ‘Back to the beginning’ A man tries to keep his dying friend alive by telling him the story of his own life in this profoundly realistic novel of the Palestinian experience. John Freeman, Special To The Star Tribune In “1001 Nights,” Scheherazade staved off death by telling her would-be executioner one story after the next. The narrator of Elias Khoury’s profoundly moving novel, “Gate of the Sun,” employs a similar strategy. Stuck in a rundown hospital in a refugee camp in Beirut, Khalil tries to revive his dying friend Yunes by telling the man the story of his own life. In doing so, Khalil also attempts to keep alive their remembrances of Galilee, the land that in 1948, through force and decree, became Israel. Like many Palestinians, Yunes became homeless that year and went on the run. While his wife raised their children, he moved from camp to camp, foraging in deserted towns for olives, dodging bullets. Each year he buried more friends, and missed out on more of his life and his dear love, Nahilah, whom he secretly met in a cave called the Gate of the Sun. One night his wife came to him there with their dead son, his skull smashed in by an Israeli settler’s rock. Yunes planned revenge and then backed out, ashamed, humiliated. As he spins this tale, Khalil pauses to feed Yunes his daily meals, washing him before bedsores develop, clipping his nails and trimming his beard. He occasionally tries to convince Yunes that this is all a dream. “You think you’re in a hospital, but you’re mistaken. This isn’t a hospital, it just resembles a hospital. 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.” This powerful sense of dislocation reverberates throughout “Gate of the Sun.” As he talks, Khalil picks up stories and adds them to the mix. He recalls poets who were assassinated, friends who were killed when Beirut was shelled in 1981. He reminds Yunes of how he was once forced to swallow his own teeth, when Lebanese interrogators caught him trying to sneak over the border into Israel. This is a profoundly realistic novel. There are no flowery 10-car pileups of metaphors, no willowy sentence fragments. There is a reason for this, as Khalil explains: “I won’t describe the darkness to you, because I hate describing things. Ever since I was in school I’ve hated describing things. The teacher would give us an essay to write: Describe a rainy day. And I wouldn’t know how, because I hate comparing things. Things can only be described in their own terms, and when we compare them, we forget them. A girl’s face is like a girl’s face and not like the moon. The whiteness and the roundness and everything else are different. When we say that a girl’s face is like the moon, we forget the girl. We make the description so that we can forget, and I don’t like to forget. Rain is rain, isn’t that enough?” In giving this testimony as directly as possible, Khalil — and by extension, Khoury himself — has told the long, sad story of Palestinians. He has recounted their humiliation and betrayal. He tells of the massacres that occurred in the refugee camps, such as Shatila, carried out by Lebanese Christians and cheered on by Israeli soldiers. He tells of the souring of spirit among refugees as they remain in exile in spite of international support. After all, in 1948, the U.N. approved resolution 194, which stated “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” Every year this resolution is reaffirmed, but not realized. As “Gate of the Sun” reveals, the most powerful right of return possessed by Palestinians is contained in their stories, where their past exists forever and their right to it is unmediated. “Do you remember when you used to say, ’Back to the beginning!’ and would stamp your foot?” asks Khalil of his silent friend. “And after the Israelis went into Beirut, after each new thing that happened, you’d spit as though you were wiping out the past, and you’d say, ‘Back to the beginning.’ ” “The Gate of the Sun” is his powerful deliverance on that promise. John Freeman is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in New York City.