Sameeh would always talk about his dream of writing a book without a beginning or an end, ‘an epic’ he called it, an epic of the Palestinian people, which he’d start by recounting the details of the great expulsion of 1948. He said we didn’t know our own history and we needed to gather the stories of every village so they’d remain alive in our memories.
In a hospital in Beirut refugee camp, Yunis, an old Palestinian freedom-fighter, is dying. All accept his impending death with resignation, save for one man: his spiritual son, Dr Khaleel, who remains convinced that by telling Yunis stories about their past lives, by telling him enough stories, he can revive him, reconstruct him, almost, in words and tales. And so it begins, from the tongue of Khaleel, the ‘epic of the Palestinian people’: shifting between 1948, the formation of the PLO, the intifada, the six-day war, the Lebanese civil war, the massacre of the camps and beyond, and all the years in between; following the exiles through village, camp and battlefield, intertwining individual stories of love, loss, betrayal, heartbreak, struggle, sorrow and joy, with the violent and bloody events – the battles and the massacres – that have set their stamp upon the political map. And so, out of the ‘stories of every village’ is assembled the history the Palestinian people after the nakba, that book ‘without beginning or end.‘ Gate of the Sun is an utterly remarkable and compelling book, in every way.
Like Ghassan Kanafani, Khoury’s writing grapples with the fundamental question: what is Palestine, the homeland, that was lost? In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani sharply contrasts two visions of the homeland: one, backward-looking, that refuses to accept 1948 as a fact, that has fixed the homeland as it was before the loss, that will only accept a return to that vision, a vision that doesn’t even exist anymore; and a forward-looking one that seeks to reclaim that which was lost, but without any preset notions of what the homeland is, or must be. With as much deftness and brilliance, Khoury highlights the same clash – present throughout the book in numerous temporary-return stories, but most specifically – in this memorable interaction between Khaleel, Yunis and the old woman, Umm Hassan, after Umm Hassan has brought back an orange-tree branch from Palestine to the Lebanese refugee camp where they all live in exile. It is an exchange that deserves to be quoted in full.
I cut an orange from the branch so that I could taste Palestine, but Umm Hassan yelled, “No! It’s not for eating, it’s Palestine.” I was ashamed of myself and hung the branch on the wall of the sitting room in my house, and when you cam to visit me and saw the mouldy fruit, you yelled, “What’s that smell?” And I told you the story and watched you explode in anger.
“You should have eaten the oranges,” you told me.
“But Umm Hassan stopped me and said they were from the homeland.”
“Umm Hassan’s senile,” you answered. “You should have eaten the oranges, because the homeland is something we have to eat, not let it eat us. We have to eat the oranges of Palestine, and we have to eat Palestine and Galilee.”
It came to me then that you were right, but the oranges were going bad. You went to the wall and pulled off the branch, and I took it from your hand and stood there confused, not knowing what to do with that bunch of decay.
“What are you going to do?” you asked.
“Bury it,” I said.
“Why bury it?” you asked.
“I’m not going to throw it away, because it’s from the homeland.”
You took the branch and threw it in the rubbish.
“What a scandal!” you said. “What are these old women’s superstitions? Before hanging the homeland up on the wall, it’d be better to knock down the wall and leave. We have to eat every orange in the world and not be afraid, because the homeland isn’t oranges. The homeland is us.”
Because Yunis knows something that Khaleel only dimly perceives: memories, if indulged in too long, can become a trap, a labyrinth from which the only way out is into more memories, to the point where memories transform themselves into lived reality. We remember to forget, says Khaleel, in a moment of deep insight. And later, he asks: ‘is memory a sickness – a strange sickness that affects a whole people? A sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory?’ At other times, Khoury’s characters compare memories to swarms of ants, overwhelming in their ferocity, inevitable as a flood. And memories twist and mangle time, beyond all recognition. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the predicament of the grandmother:
My grandmother’s pillow doesn’t look like a pillow any more. It’s turned into a heap of thorns. My grandmother used to stuff her pillow with flowers, saying that when she rested her head on it she felt as though she’d returned to the village, and she’d make me rest my head on it. I’d lay my head on her pillow and smell decay. I joined the fedayeen when I was nine years old to escape the flowers of El Ghabsiyyeh that my grandmother would pick at the camp’s rubbish dump. I hated the perfume of decay and ended up connecting the smell of Palestine with the smell of the pillow.
The same grandmother wears a broken watch – as though she’d killed time at her wrist?, Khaleel wonders. Time that used to exist before the nakba, where now remains only a vague, undefined, suffering limbo.
The idea of limbo, of an interminable wait, is the natural consequence of this strange cocktail of memory, loss and time. Kanafani movingly described the plight of the Palestinian people as ‘waiting by the shore for a boat that will never come.’ Waiting terrifies Khoury’s characters, not least because it has become such a staple – almost permanent feature of their lives. As Khaleel tells Yunis, in anger:
Is waiting nothing? You’re mocking me: waiting is everything. We spend our whole lives waiting, and then you say “nothing” as though you want to dismiss the whole meaning of our lives.
But with the wait, even the lifelong wait, there is the clung-to conviction that it is temporary. This is what Yunis tells Khaleel, in 1982 (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) and in 1985 (the massacre of the camps): ‘everything is temporary‘ – even this, even exile, even the loss of the homeland, all those things that have defined and continue to define their lives. And underlying the conviction – like most convictions – is the barely-expressed terror about its actuality. But what would happen, asks Khaleel, if we were to remain in this temporary world forever?
The temporary world, the world of exile, death, defeat and loss, but also and equally, the world of the imagined homeland. Imagination, along with memory, plays a crucial role in the novel. History is imagined, Yunis tells Khaleel; an illusion to make people believe that they’ve been alive since the beginning, that they are heirs of the dead. Khaleel protests. If history is an illusion, what would it be for? What would we fight and die for? Doesn’t Palestine deserve our deaths? And the answer, of course, that gradually reveals itself through the book, is that Palestine is, like all things, imagined as well. It is imagined in the pillow, in the broken watch, in the orange branch – the homeland is us. When Khaleel enters a beautiful street in the Circassion Quarter of Beirut, he imagines the streets of Haifa, and those from the tales ‘my grandmother told me… of the city by the sea, where the streets were shaded by trees and jasmine, and there was the scent of frangipani.’ A refugee puts olives on the top of his tent and sings songs to express his nostalgia, imagining the homeland is a plantation. But the imagined Palestine is fragile, fragile because constantly under threat, constantly in need of creation, because stasis here will mean destruction. As Khaleel wonders:
Do you believe we can manufacture our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to manufacture it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the world’s peoples, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?
This invention takes place at multiple levels of symbolism and metaphor; perhaps what’s best about Gate of the Sun is that it is not, at the end, a story about events, but a story about people. At its heart lie two love affairs: Khaleel’s love for Shams, that ends in betrayal and brutal violence; and Yunis’ love for his wife Naheeleh, who lives across the border, and whom he undergoes great dangers to meet in a secret cave called Bab el-Shams (‘Gate of the Sun’); and through the story, love, longing and loss become symbols of Palestine. Every word, act and gesture is loaded with significances. Right at the beginning, Yunis tells Khaleel that if he truly loved Shams, he would have avenged her – and there seems to be a hint of self-criticism in that. We are told, later, as justification for Shams’ betrayal, that a lover must take refuge in other relationships in order to escape the incandescence of his passion. We are told, of Yunis’ own love, that ‘When she was there, he was fully there. When she was absent, he invested himself totally in waiting.‘ Immediately after recounting Yunis’ secret wanderings through Palestine, Khaleel thinks out loud: ‘No-one who hasn’t crossed a desert like the desert of Shams has meaning to his life’; before concluding, ‘Love is feeling yourself to be lost and unanchored. Love is dying because you can’t hold on to the woman you love… that’s love, master – an emptiness suddenly filled, or a fullness that empties and melts into thin air.’ So smoothly, so effortlessly, something entirely, passionately individual and personal has come to mean an entire world beyond itself; love, exile and the yearning for the homeland – like in the best of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, they have become virtually indistinguishable. And it’s there in the poetry that the characters quote, seemingly nothing more than fiery love poetry:
I’ll see you coming with the cloudless sky,/ disappearing through the cloudless sky,/ among the almond leaves.
In his political and social commentary, Khoury is unsparing. There is no romanticisation of intifada or revolution for him; in words strikingly similar to Milan Kundera, Khaleel castigates the revolution for leading to ‘monstrosity‘, since it allows persons to ‘enter into history, be the reader and the read at the same time.’ Artists and intellectuals are singled out for special treatment – their particular tragedy, writes Khoury in words that hit home, hard – is they must go, look – and then forget: strikingly portrayed in a scene involving a French theatre crew that, inspired by an idealised account of the glory of death in the refugee camp – has arrived to do some ‘fieldwork’ before putting on a play. As Khaleel observes drily – and savagely (albeit in a different context):
‘He was an intellectual and a writer and a journalist, and they don’t go to war or get involved; they observe death and write, thinking that they’ve experienced
Yunis himself despises the intellectuals who, visiting the fighters, ‘theorise and philosophise, and then go back to their comfortable homes‘. And nowhere is this made clearer than in the words of the lead actress of the French crew to Khaleel, who has spent part of her early years on a kibbutz, and has come to the refugee camp racked with guilt and confusion. I can’t see the victim as someone turned executioner, she says, because that would make history meaningless. Coming, as it does, on the heels of vivid accounts of massacre, war and death, this grand narrative-building, this flight into concepts and words, sounds the most absurd and meaningless thing ever – to say nothing of being disrespectful and insulting. You can’t intellectualise this, is the point, you can’t possibly make something abstract out of the Shatila Camp massacre – there is only experience and suffering.
Even Palestine itself isn’t spared. Rejecting grand narratives there as well, Khaleel locates – with savage irony and paradox, the creation of ‘Palestine’ right in the middle of – and due to – the nakba.
‘Gaza dissolved in a sea of refugees and became the first place to be collectively
Palestinian. It was there that the Palestinians discovered that they weren’t
groups of people belonging to various districts and villages, the disaster had
manufactured a single people.’
This concern with the rejection of essentialism is central to the entire style of Gate of the Sun, that takes place through so many stories told from so many different perspectives and angles, overlapping, criss-crossing, sometimes contradicting each other. It is a concern that Khaleel voices frequently.
‘I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death… We mustn’t see ourselves in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them… Please, father – you mustn’t become just one story. Even you, even Naheeleh – please let me liberate you from 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 become ossified and die… You haven’t ossified into one story. You’re dying, but you’re free. Free of everything and of your story.’
Ossification, a fate worse than death. The issue is particularly poignant and urgent at present day, precisely because of the existence of a Mandated Narrative on everything that has happened in the Middle-East since 1948, with its clear, unproblematic demarcations of right and wrong, good and evil. The peril of such essentialist history is clear and present, and Gate of the Sun is an eloquent warning, expressed powerfully in Khaleel’s admission:
‘The stories are like drops of oil floating on the surface of memory. I try to link
them up but they don’t want to be linked.’
There is much that could be said about the enigmatic character of Yunis, and Naheeleh, his equally complex love; of the doomed love affair between Doctor Khaleel and Shams; of the uncompromising accounts of war, death and massacre; of the hair-raising tales of Yunis’ endless journeys through the region, to the point where the old revolutionary ‘saw his life as scattered fragments -from Palestine to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Syria, from one prison to another’; but there are things to be read and moved by, not to be described.
‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’
I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’
This book will stay with me for a long time.