History records that about four hundred Palestinian villages were obliterated during the war of 1948, the nakba. Ibrahim Nasrallah’s A Time of White Horses is a story of one such village, the village of Hadiya, through the first half of the 20th century. It is the story of a community living upon the precariously shifting sands of an ever-changing world, first under the Ottoman Empire, then under the British Mandate, and finally through the conflagration of 1948. At one level, it is a simple narrative of individual human lives, loves and sacrifices, turning upon the cycle of seasons, centred upon the near-mythological figure of the horse in Palestinian consciousness; but by the closing of the day, it comes to stand for something much more – the collective story of a nation, of dispossession, loss, resistance and – ultimately – exile. If men believe they’ll outlive an empire, they will – says one of the characters in the middle of the book, when everything yet hangs in the balance, and hopes of a happy ending have not yet entirely been dashed. Yet Nasrallah does not allow us to have the comfort of believing in that aphorism. Rather, we’re left with a bleak, despairing sense of inevitability, forced to believe, rather, in the truth of the opposite sentiment, voiced by the father of the young Yasmin, as he is persuading her to break off her engagement to a revolutionary: “Empires survive longer than people do. And this Empire is here to stay.”
The tale is simple enough. Hadiya, a Palestinian village, struggles to remain independent through the successive depredations visited upon it by the Ottomans, the British, and the Jewish settlers. At the same time, individual sagas unfold, stories of love, marriage, conflict and family, centred upon the figure of the revolutionary Khaled and his white mare Hamama, stories depicting the relationship of the Palestinians with their land, with their horses, and with each other.
Much like the writing of Ghassan Kanafani and Elias Khoury, Nasrallah weaves in the Palestinian story into the warp and woof of his work. His individual stories are pregnant with the vocabulary of parting, rife with the language of loss. The tone is set at the very beginning, when a beautiful – stolen – white mare arrives upon the borders of Hadiya. “There’s no protection,” says Khaled to the thief, “For someone who does nothing to protect a free spirit.” Horses, that play a crucial role in for two-thirds of the book, as poignantly real as human characters, intervening in the lives of people in the most intimate way imaginable – come to symbolise the sense of freedom and refusal to submit that marks the village of Hadiya in its long story of resistance. Yet closely bound up with that is an ever-present sense of fragility; just like a horse, utterly beautiful and yet so easy to lose, freedom too can be lost in the blink of an eye. “Hajj, do you know what it’s like to search for something you love for thirty years and never find it?” – Shaykh Sa’adat asks Hajj Mahmud, referring to another of his horses, and the question resounds with overtones and undertones. And, as the story wears on, as the years draw on inexorably towards 1948, the horses begin gradually to fade from the stage into irrelevance, ending with the shooting of the white mare Hamama – and with their passing, there is an inevitable sense of the passing of all things, of Palestine and of the homeland.
The language of loss is especially striking in the depiction of the passionate – yet doomed – love affair between Khaled and Yasmin, doomed because of Khaled’s determination to take on “the Empire… that is here to stay.” (Contrast this with the story of Yunis and Nahila in Gate of the Sun). Khaled becomes a revolutionary, their engagement is broken off, and Yasmin is married to someone else. When Khaled meets her next, he is bringing back the body of her husband, slain in battle.
She was like a beautiful edifice that had been abandoned, with nothing in it but the spiders that kept multiplying to fill the corners.
This reminded me strongly of my own visit to the village of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the last surviving Palestinian village whose inhabitants were forced to flee, and never returned – ruined structures now prey to creeping nature and to the animals, with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and loss. Abandoned buildings, once beautiful, once home remain one of the enduring images of the Palestinian experience of 1948 (recall Kanafani’s scene of the abandonment of Haifa in Returning to Haifa), so much so that the “key” – carrying with it the right of return – is now one of the most potent symbols of Palestinian resistance. But there is something more to it – by virtue of original abandonment, that which has been abandoned is lost permanently. So:
It was the final meeting, which had been necessary in order for her to realize that she had lost Khaled forever, just as he realized that he had lost her forever.”
And once again, I am reminded strongly of Returning to Haifa, where the Palestinian family comes back after ’67 to visit their old home, and realise that the Palestine that they knew and preserved in their dreams all through the long years of exile is lost irrevocable, was lost at the moment of departure.
He looked at the handkerchief again. He thought of casting it to the wind so that it would carry it wherever it wished, or maybe even return it to her.
There is an ambivalence here, an ambivalence that runs through Kanafani and Khoury as well, the ambivalence of defining oneself in relation to the lost homeland, and by extension, defining the homeland as well: a fixed, unchanging image of what was once was and what now can never be, or – as Yunis shouts so memorably in Gate of the Sun, accepting that “the homeland is us!” The ambivalence is depicted, as well, in the attitude of Mahmud, who leaves Hadiya to become a journalist in Jaffa. Can you give me an ending without an ending?, he asks; An ending that’s a beginning? A beginning whose ending is a beginning?… the greatest kind of ending… an ending and a beginning at the same time.
If the language of loss has come to define the Palestinian experience in some of its best writings, then so has the language of violence. As with Kanafani, Nasrallah uses well-known metaphors, but draws them out, heightens them, intensifies them. On being told by his new wife that she will never be hers until he succeeds in mounting her murdered husband’s horse, Habbab feels as though:
“An eerie tremor went through him like a fine blade… he felt it reach the centre of his chest, then splinter into smaller blades that spread through his entire body.”
Similar metaphors are scattered throughout the book. But as the story progress towards nakba, the symbolism begins to reduce. It is almost as if the events that now grip Hadiya are too powerful, too serious, too overwhelming to be captures by abstractions. The imagery grows more direct now, more closely linked to the event itself. Standing in the woods after a disastrous battle, Khaled’s thoughts grow melancholy:
He gazed for a long time into the ravine, and as he did so, it seemed to him that the earth was nothing but a deep ravine in the universe, a ravine hard for human brings to climb out of. Some of us manage to get as far as a treetop. Some of us make it halfway up. Some of us get to the top of the mountain. Some of us try to get out by riding in an airplane, or on a fast horse, or by car or train. But nothing comes of any of our attempts. We’re in the ravine, at the bottom of the universe, and we have to make the decisions that make us feel that we’ve risen higher than an airplane or become faster than a horse, a car or a train, that we’re about to reach the edge and ascend into the heavens.
And of course, this is a metaphor too, but this metaphor is grounded in rifles, dust and blood. No more so than when the monastery betrays the trust of the people of Hadiya by launching an audacious land-grab, having hidden away the title deeds that were entrusted to their safe-keeping – the (still temporary) loss of Hadiya does indeed stand for the loss of Palestine, in every way the following paragraph describes, but it hits harder because there is actual loss that is serving as the metaphor:
The Court’s ruling told them that their memories were nothing but dreams, that their dreams were illusions, and that the afflictions they had suffered and the sacrifices they had made in order to keep this land had all been in vain. They realized that they were being stripped of the shovels with which they had dug, the scythes with which they had harvested, the horses they had lived with through the bitter and the sweet, the cows they had milked, and the flocks they had kept vigil over in open fields to protect them from death and the jaundice of the dry seasons.
And in the final attack upon Hadiya, a man stands “in front of a demolished building and a no-longer-existent door… waiting.” Kanafani said, memorably, that the plight of the Palestinian people was like standing upon a deserted shore, waiting for a boat that would never come. The parallels are stark, but here there is a real demolished building, and a real interminable wait because, as we have learnt, “the silence [has] exploded, never to return.”
And it is at the very end, with the closing of the book, that the last of the metaphors lodges in the brain as powerfully as a memory. As the village of Hadiya burns behind them, as they walk into permanent exile, the villages hear Summaya, Khaled’s wife, singing:
Bring a lantern, friend,
And light the darkness for me.
I’m afraid there’s a long road ahead,
And that you’ll be burdened with me for a long time,
You’ll be burdened with me for a long time.
This, of course, is prescient; it brings to mind the sixty years that are to come, all of the exiled wanderings, the wars and the massacres, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon, the resistance movements and the intifadas, the battles in the refugee camps that Khoury writes of so brilliantly, a near-continuous story of sustained suffering. As the song ends, and the people turn back for one last glance at their village, the dovecote goes up in flames, and the last, desperate flight of the birds, their bodies aflame, seems to sum up everything:
“The doves were flying away, covering distances she never thought a bird whose wings were on fire could cover. By the time they began falling in the surrounding orchards, vineyards, and plains, a new fire was ablaze. And when the trucks reached an elevated spot from which the people could see Hadiya for the last time, tongues of fire were consuming it from all directions.”
More information about the book here.
A note on the translation: the person who recommended A Time of White Horses to me said that its language was perhaps the most beautiful thing about it. If that is so, the translation is disappointing – it fails to capture either the lyricism of Gate of the Sun, or the simple power of Returning to Haifa – and suffers, at times, from distinctly pedestrian writing. Of course, I do not know Arabic, and I could be wildly off the mark here – but when, for instance, the same adjective is used twice in two sentences to describe the same event, it makes for poor writing at the best of times.