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Review by John Leonard in Harper's for Gate of the Sun

After Elias Khoury’s GATE OF THE SUN (Archipelago Books, $26), readers can no longer pretend that Palestine is merely a fugitive state of mind, a convenient Arab myth, a traumatic tribal memory, and somebody else’s problem. This remarkable novel out of Lebanon, a skillful reshuffling of the 1001 Nights with a doctor in a refugee camp playing the part of Scheherazade, fills in the blank spaces on the Middle Eastern map in our Western heads—Palestine as history, as literature, as casualty list, as psych ward, as inferiority complex, as principality of exile. Yunes, a hero of the resistance, a legend of Fatah, lies comatose in Shatila, attended by a self-doubting motormouth named Khalil, more a nurse than a doctor by virtue of several months medical training in revolutionary China, who seems to believe that he can bring Yunes back to consciousness by telling him stories: “This way we can save some time and kill it before it kills us.” These stories, moving through time from body to body and place to place, across borders and genders, from the living to the dead, recapitulate more than half a century of atrocity and oppression, defeat and displacement, betrayal and recrimination. It is one long catastrophic exodus, with hundreds of victims and thousands of alibis. Yes, there is an excess of politics, death, and polemic; of Amman, Beirut, Algiers, and Tunis; of quicklime on puffed-up corpses and martyrs on the threshing floor. There is, on purpose, an excess of everything, up to and including the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Each story is a cave, within which nest other stories—of olive trees and blood clots, arak and sesame, wild chicory and columbine; bags of bones, Sufi poets, the music of Fairouz, and pillows full of thorns; temporary doctors in temporary hospitals in temporary countries and photographs that die unless they’re watered—not to mention a troupe of theatrical French, hoping to mount a play by Jean Genet that will tell the truth about the Arabs. But with Gate of the Sun, the Arabs no longer need Genet, if they ever did.

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