After the Massacre
In 1982, about 1,000 Palestinian refugees were massacred by Lebanese Phalangist troops in the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps outside of Beirut. Palestinian fighters were using Lebanon as a base for attacking Israel, and Israel responded with an invasion. Israel’s defence minister, Ariel Sharon, whose troops guarded the camps, allowed the Phalangists to enter, and failed to intervene to stop the massacre. The surviving refugees were left with shelled buildings, famine and a mosque converted into a cemetery.
The aftermath of this massacre is the setting of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. In a deserted hospital, Khalil, a medical officer, holds vigil by the side of his friend Yunes, a celebrated Palestinian fighter who has slipped into a coma. To pass the time, and cajole his friend back to life, Khalil asks Yunes, “Do you remember?” For seven months, he puts drops in his friend’s eyes, primes the feeding tube and oils his skin. It is as if he is trying to revive Palestine. “Do you remember?” he asks, and he retells the stories of their exiled grandparents, their loves, their lives and their battles.
These remembrances alternate unchronologically between the Naqba (cataclysm) of 1948, when, it is estimated, at least 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their villages by the Israeli army, and the recent past, as refugees try to rebuild after the massacre. “Do you remember Saleheh?” Khalil asks Yunes. “The Jews wrapped more than seventy men in the white sheets they’d been carrying as a sign of surrender and fired on them, and the sheets spurted blood.” Through the voices of his parents and grandparents, more often than not through the voices of the fierce old women who are the backbone of the Palestinians, he recreates the atmosphere of paranoia and fear during the Naqba. “I’m afraid of Deir Yasin,” says a woman fleeing her village prematurely. On the night of April 9, 1948, Begin’s Irgun Zvei Leumi and the Stern Gang surrounded Deir Yasin. The residents were given 15 minutes to evacuate before the village was attacked; more than 100 people were killed.
This is not an easy book. Neither the subject matter nor the manner of the telling is easy. Through Khalil’s monologue to his insensate friend, we hear a labyrinth of intertwined stories, some addressed directly to Yunes, some as the voices of characters telling their stories to Khalil. The effect is disorienting, a hundred tales fading in and out, a hundred faces stepping in and out of the darkness. The heartbreaking innocence of the Palestinian peasants, who refused for years to roof their dwellings in the refugee camps because they were “going back,” who braved Israeli bullets to steal food from their own gardens, is exhausting. The calm retelling of the tortures endured at the hands of the Israelis—tied to chairs for a week, left to burn in the sun, thrown in small black cells to wallow in their own excrement for days—is as disturbing as the polite and pained scene between a Palestinian woman who goes back to her village and has tea with the Israeli woman now living in her home. “We’re the Jew’s Jews,” says Nahilah, Yunes’ wife, to an Israeli officer. “Now we’ll see what the Jews do to their Jews.”
This dirge-like tone is often lightened only by Khalil’s detailed and loving descriptions of Palestinian food. Even when Yunes, a fugitive from the Israeli army, is hiding in a cave, Khalil stops to detail the food Nahilah brings him. Whether the characters are starving on olives and bread during the trek to Lebanon or feasting on meat, pine-nuts and pastries at a wedding, there is, typically, always a time to discuss the Palestinian cuisine, a survivor to this day of the embattled culture.
The olive tree is another recurring motif in the book. Women hide their children under their skirts and cower beneath the slender boughs to escape overhead bombing, and Yunes meets his love, Nahilah, in the empty trunk of an ancient tree. Jewish, Christian and Muslim Palestinians have always cultivated the olive tree. (Much of the current climate of despair and rage is due to the separation wall destroying 1,000-year-old olive groves in its path.) The olive tree is sacred and essential. Khalil recounts to Yunes his recent meeting with a Lebanese soldier in a Beirut restaurant. “If only you could see! The whole area is planted with pine trees!” the soldier says. “God how lovely the pines are! You’d think you were in Lebanon!” “Pine trees?” Khalil says. “But it’s an area for olives.” “The Jews don’t like olive trees. It’s either pines or palms.” “They killed the trees,” Khalil says.
Although Humphrey Davies’s translation has won the Rainmaker Translations Prize, it feels that some of Khoury’s lyricism must be lost, or at least slightly fractured. Khoury has written 11 other novels and is an acclaimed Arab author as well as being a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. The language veers between staccato remembrances and dreamy passages, the transitions a little more brittle than one would expect from Arabic prose.
Gate of the Sun was first published in 1998 (as Bab al-Shams) and was selected Le Monde Diplomatique’s Book of the Year in 2002. However, this, the English-language version, has been a long time coming. How else can we understand how the Palestinians turned their women into breeding factories for martyrs? How else can we understand the horrifying development of Hamas’s power? “As with all disasters, the only thing that can make one forget a massacre is an even bigger massacre and we’re a people whose fate is to be forgotten as a result of its accumulated calamities. Massacre erases massacre and all that remains is the smell of blood,” muses a depressed and exhausted Khalil as Yunes’s life ebbs away.
In 1983, the Israeli Kahan Commission found Sharon to bear personal responsibility for the Shatila and Sabra massacre. He was fired as defence minister. In 2001, he became prime minister of Israel, outraging Palestinians and further inflaming the al-Aqsa uprising or intifada. Since Jan. 4, 2006, Ariel Sharon has been lying in a coma. Is someone reading to him? I have a good book to recommend.
Mary-Lou Zeitoun, a Canadian of Palestinian heritage, is the author of the novel 13.