1001 Palestinian Nights

The novel begins in the Shatila camp with the death of Umm Hassan, a beloved but childless midwife. Later, we are told in flashbacks, all through Dr. Khalil's narration, of her encounter with Ella Dueck, a Jewish woman from Beirut now living in her house in Galilee. Both feel trapped and are more than ready to trade places, if they only could, with Ella going back to live in Beirut and Umm Hassan returning to Galilee. But as the narrator tells us, "Writers are strange. Don't they know that the real stories aren't told since everyone knows them?" Here, and throughout the novel, Khoury masterfully uses the intimate relationship he has created between Dr. Khalil and the reader to comment on the art of storytelling, to create an aesthetic that the stories themselves enact.

"The story of the catastrophe, of the Nakba of 1948," Khoury says in an interview, "hadn't really been told. The emergence of these memories is a way of creating a new vision of Palestine. Since the image of the Palestinian portrayed in literature and the dominant ideology was of heroism and martyrdom, I think the novel helped liberate people by telling the stories of humiliation and interior defeat that they never told." While we might be lulled into thinking that every story or every character stands for something else, Khoury warns us that the most important idea he took from 1001 Nights is that "the story mirrors neither reality nor an idea but just another story. When you put the mirrors of stories all together, you have a world without a beginning or an end." But this world is not merely symbolic. As the Israeli Palestinian writer Anton Shammas put it, "The right of return is the right to narrate, and the narrative that unfolds here in the Hebrew translation gives the right-to-tell back to its holders. And the holders, who were driven off the map, out of the homeland, and out of history, are returning now to realize their right to speak in memory, through the very language that has expropriated their voice and erased their map."

Elias Khoury has written the first true magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Elias Khoury has written the first true magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.

Details

Bab Al-Shams
By Elias Khoury, translated into Hebrew by Moshe Hakham
Andalus, 544 pp.

La Porte Du Soleil
By Elias Khoury, translated into French by Rania Samara Actes Sud/Sinbad/Le Monde
Diplomatique, 628 pp.

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Initial reactions to Gate of the Sun in the Hebrew press have ranged from enthusiasm to dismissal. While critics in smaller venues have praised the book, the borders crossed between fact and fiction hit a raw nerve in Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev, who reacted sharply in the leading Israeli paper, Ha'aretz. By stating that incidents related in the novel "go beyond the writer's poetic license," Segev creates a tautological argument that concludes with this: "The burden of proof is on the teller. If there is no truth to [the incidents] it is not proper to make fictional use of them. Khoury is not known in Israel, and there is no reason to believe him." By eliciting such a specious argument, Khoury seems to have succeeded in exposing the blindness of some Israeli Jews who still deny the full human consequences of their own ideology. Khoury wants to shift the trauma of European history into a new context in which Israeli Jews recognize their own tragedy mirrored in the tragedy of the Palestinians by, as he put it, "embracing the fact that Israel is part of a huge human problem, but not necessarily its solution." In tracing these maps of the interior, Khoury opens up a whole new territory, envisioning a place where confronting pain and suffering might lead, if not to reconciliation, then at least to recognition of the other in oneself, even as it gets harder every day.

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