Advertisement

Necessary fictions

Amy Wilentz is the author of "Martyrs' Crossing," a novel about Jerusalem.

A country is a place where memories reside. Place roots the human personality. When a house or a village or a country is taken from you by war, pestilence or other means, the trauma persists eternally. The people of New Orleans know this. The Jews of Germany, Russia and so many other places know this. African Americans know this. Africans displaced on their own continent know this too. Mao’s victims, Stalin’s victims, the Pakistanis uprooted by earthquake, those whose cities and countries were overwhelmed by the 2004 tsunami -- all know this sad truth.

And, of course, so do the Palestinians, whose national anthem is “Biladi” (My Country), although they have been refugees for almost 60 years. “Gate of the Sun,” Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s massive and often dazzling novel, newly translated into English, is an attempt to rebuild and conquer that homeland imaginatively -- the title itself is a reference to the old name for Syria, which traditionally included the lands of Lebanon and Palestine. Above all, this is the story of what Palestinians call the Naqba, or catastrophe -- their word for the events surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the year Khoury was born.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 12, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
“Gate of the Sun” review -- In Sunday’s Book Review, several lines of text were omitted from the end of Amy Wilentz’s review of the novel. The last paragraph of the review should have read: “We should be grateful that this book has been published in English at this time, when the path to some kind of peace in the Middle East is so fraught with danger. This great, sprawling novel provides, as little else can, a window into the thinking of Palestinians, and a touching, powerful glimpse of their unique place in world history.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 12, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 2 inches; 96 words Type of Material: Correction
“Gate of the Sun” review -- In the March 5 issue, several lines of text were omitted from the end of Amy Wilentz’s review of the novel. The last paragraph of the review should have read: “We should be grateful that this book has been published in English at this time, when the path to some kind of peace in the Middle East is so fraught with danger. This great, sprawling novel provides, as little else can, a window into the thinking of Palestinians, and a touching, powerful glimpse of their unique place in world history.”

Dr. Khalil, Khoury’s narrator, tells the Naqba stories as he sits in a decrepit hospital room in the wretched Shatila refugee camp outside Beirut, speaking to a patient in a coma. But the patient is not just any patient. He is the fabled Yunes, the Wolf of the Galilee -- a Palestinian fighter and hero of the resistance against Israel who once derided all who did not carry a gun. The doctor is a former Palestinian fighter too, or at least a wannabe who was relegated by his Communist Chinese trainers to medical work because of a back injury.

Khalil is not really a militant; he’s not even a real doctor. In the course of the book, he agrees to become head nurse of the ramshackle hospital so that he will not be dismissed and forced to leave Yunes’ side. With his stories, the good doctor is trying to revive the patient. Khalil is a lonely, displaced Chekhov in a world where his compatriots are left with only words, not medicine. He fills that world with remembered elders, freedom fighters, cynical grandmothers and lovers in caves, with crazy men, politicians, midwives, fleeing mothers, heroic children and men with guns on both sides of the battle. Much of the action that Khalil relates takes place among the now-mythic olive groves of Palestine.

Advertisement

But these are not the kind of stories most would find rejuvenating. They are heart-rending, by turns bloody, shocking, comical and absurd. Above all, they are family stories, love stories and the kinds of fairy tales that emerge among displaced, wandering peoples. (Many of these stories were collected over a long period of time by Khoury, a Christian and former member of the now-defunct Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, who traveled from camp to camp and city to city, interviewing Palestinian refugees.)

Often, the reader cannot help but be reminded of Jewish folk-tale dybbuks and holy men as Khalil tells his winding, reeling stories, especially the narrative of Aziz Ayyoub, who stayed behind to guard a lotus tree and a mosque after the people of his village in Palestine were driven out by the Israeli army.

Ayyoub, now a mystic figure who is worshiped by the villagers and by other Palestinians too, appears and disappears as Khalil weaves the long, fantastic tale. Ayyoub finally evanesces at the foot of his tree, a possible victim of suicide or lynching. All Khalil’s stories have this quality: They are told definitively the first time around, or so the reader thinks, then revised and revised again, almost to the point of becoming lies -- or myths.

In fact, these are the necessary fictions of a lost people. To keep their homeland alive for the generations who have never experienced it, elders must create ghosts and myths. As Khalil asks at one point: “Do you believe that we can construct our country out of these ambiguous stories? ... Why do we, of all the peoples of the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?”

Advertisement

At times, “Gate of the Sun,” which was first published in Arabic in 1998, reads almost like the first draft of a holy text, with the scholarly exegeses woven into the prophets’ narratives. Its retellings and reiterations resemble a kind of modern Gospel. Umm Hassan, the midwife whose death sets off public weeping at the beginning of the book, is a particularly blunt and honest character, a sort of truth teller who enters the book to deflate the grandiose tales of Khalil’s bathetic grandmother and others, as well as the revolutionary bravado of Yunes.

This deflating of myths (myths of the sort every young Palestinian today has heard since childhood) turns what otherwise could have been a self-righteous or propagandistic book -- because of its subject -- into an important and stirring work of serious literature and of real political value.

Toward the close of the book, Khoury reveals his motivation: to end the mythologizing and the propagandizing, to enshrine truth in its stead.

In a flashback, Khalil and Yunes are watching the fabled handshake between Yasser Arafat, then the preeminent Palestinian leader, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House in 1993. Both of the watchers feel sad: It is the end of the Palestinian revolution, they think.

Advertisement

But Khalil felt something else too: “I was like someone watching someone else die. And now I can tell you that deep inside I was happy. Death isn’t just a mercy, it’s happiness, too.... The world manufactured from dead words has to become extinct.”

Khoury’s great ability, aside from his dexterity in keeping a thousand and one narrative balls in the air at the same time, is to merge Khalil’s tragic love for a revolutionary woman who is assassinated with the tragic love of the Palestinians for their land. He does this unsentimentally, even with irony and detachment. Khalil, it turns out, is better off with the woman dead, and Palestine, it turns out, is better off without its romantic, revolutionary, heartbroken doctrine and dogma. In many ways, this book is the Palestinian mirror image of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s 2005 memoir-novel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” about his childhood in the nascent Israeli state.

We should be grateful that this book has been published in English at this time, when the path to some kind of peace in the Middle East is so fraught with danger. This great, sprawling novel provides, as little else can, a window into the thinking of Palestinians, and a touching, powerful glimpse of their unique place in world history. *


Advertisement
Advertisement