For people in many parts of the world, the question of Palestine remains one of the few conduits through which political dissent can be channeled. From North Africa to Malaysia, Palestine functions as a useful but risky symbol of American double standards for autocratic leaders eager to find attractive but distant outlets for the frustration of their oppressed subjects. While everyone has tried to co-opt the Palestinian issue, from Saddam Hussein and the late King Hassan of Morocco to Osama bin Laden and, most recently, the de facto Saudi leader, Prince Abdullah, no country has been more deeply affected by the Palestinian saga than Lebanon. While Palestinians, as the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it, “saw in Lebanon only our own image in the polished stone,” many Lebanese found a clearer picture of the inequities of their own society reflected in the shards of the refugee camps around Beirut.
It is not surprising, then, that the first true magnum opus of the Palestinian saga, Gate to the Sun, has been written by a Lebanese novelist. At over 500 pages, Elias Khoury’s novel mirrors the narrative of 1001 Nights. But instead of Scheherazade telling stories to keep herself alive, in Gate to the Sun we have a makeshift doctor in a makeshift hospital in a makeshift home—Shatila, a camp outside Beirut—telling stories to a man in a coma, trying to keep him alive. The patient, Yunes, is from Galilee, where he left Nahla, the love of his life. The whole novel takes place at Yunes’s bedside in the stifling atmosphere of the camp and is filled with flights of memory. Through the storytelling voice of Dr. Khalil we join Yunes and Nahla as they meet in a cave dubbed Bab al-Shams in Arabic, or “Gate to the Sun.” (The title itself alludes to Bilad al-Shams, the traditional name for Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, long considered a single entity.) Since Dr. Khalil is essentially talking to himself, we, as readers, share an intimacy with the text that is both haunting and exhilarating.
Originally published in Beirut in 1998 to great acclaim throughout the Arab world, the novel has just come out in French and Hebrew translations while still awaiting a home in English. Reactions have been enthusiastic in France, where the book was chosen as a Le Monde Diplomatique book of the year. But the Hebrew version moved the novel into contested territory. Having already published Darwish, North African novelist Mohammed Choukri, Sudanese novelist Tayeb Saleh, and others, Yael Lerer, head of Andalus, a small Israeli press dedicated exclusively to publishing contemporary Arabic literature in Hebrew, was eager to take on new writers. But when news first came out that Gate to the Sun would be published in Hebrew, Khoury was fiercely attacked in the Egyptian press. The well-known Egyptian critic Mahmoud Amin El-Alim, writing in the literary paper Akhbar al-Adab, wrote that to cooperate in such projects “is to accept a contract for normalization in culture, the last remaining fortress of resistance, now that political and economic normalization are implemented.”
While “normalization” is generally defined as resistance to the dictates of Israeli or American interests, it has also become a bludgeon wielded against any attempts by Arab intellectuals to forge a critical position and move out of the straitjacket of a “with us or against us” situation. Khoury, Moroccan novelist Mohammed Berrada, Edward Said, and others led a counterattack. While Said called the attack on Andalus “a sorry spectacle,” Khoury condemned the complacency of intellectuals who considered economic and political normalization a done deal, and who have used “cultural resistance” as a smoke screen to hide their failure to create a truly oppositional force.
For Elias Khoury—currently a visiting professor at New York University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies—Palestine, Israel, and normalization are not part of an abstract intellectual power struggle, but the core issue of the varied abuses of political power throughout the region. Khoury has lived a life closely bound with Palestinians, having first encountered them as schoolmates in Beirut, and then having visited them in the camps. Like many leftist intellectuals who came of age in the 1960s, Khoury saw firsthand the moral bankruptcy of an official political rhetoric that championed the Palestinian cause while excluding and oppressing the refugees living in their midst. Thus, his own struggle to tell the Palestinian story is a far cry from the posturing of those who took him to task for wanting the book translated into Hebrew.
As a key member of the Palestine Research Center in Beirut, Khoury was deeply involved in the project of getting to know and understand Israeli society, the Zionist movement, and the Jewish question. This effort was not some dreamy urge for coexistence, but an act of intellectual resistance to the blindness and denial that had overtaken official Arab political discourse following the defeat of 1967. The work, then, was not about “getting to know the enemy,” but about facing oneself. In Gate to the Sun, it seems as if Khoury wants to lead both Palestinians and Israelis along different paths of confrontation with memory and ideology.
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.”
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.