A few years back I was talking with a young socialist organizer about books. He had just asked me why I wasted my time reading fiction when there was so much non-fiction that needed to be read. Culture, I replied, reflects and illuminates a society just as much, if not more, than history or economics. Even when the fiction one reads is bourgeois fiction the story reveals the society within which the story takes place. If there is such a thing as proletarian fiction, it too reveals the lives and desires of that class. Peter Weiss’s narrator in his marathon work The Aesthetics of Resistance, notes that “art could not be versatile and inventive enough….Painter, poets, philosophers reported on the crises and confrontations, the concretions and awakenings of their time….one might social upheavals, yet in the multiplicity of mirrorings, of visual concentrations, one could always find a unity….”
In 1998, the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury published his novel Gate of the Sun in Arabic. This work is a powerful piece of literature that illustrates quite evocatively why fiction is important. The publication of the English translation in 2006 by the small Brooklyn, NY company Archipelago Books was an important event missed by much of the US cultural media. This is unfortunate for all involved. Although I do not read or speak Arabic (to my regret), I found reading the English translation by Humphrey Davies spiriting me into the soul of Palestine. Dream and reality flow back and forth becoming one. Fears, hopes, love and anger are more than theories on a page. Khoury’s story makes these emotions real in the souls of the people and the Palestine they want to maintain.
Dr. Khalil, the narrator, is a former fedayeen who works as a doctor at a makeshift Palestinian hospital somewhere in Lebanon. It is sometime after the beginning of the first Intifada and the doctor is watching his adopted father die, having lost his blood father when he was very young when Israeli troops murdered him in the doorway of their home. Afraid for his life because of a threat on his life over a murky love affair, the doctor is also using the hospital as a hideaway. Since he has all the time in the world, he spends hours talking to his “father,” a famous Palestinian fighter now in a coma. He is a man with many names, one of which is Yunes. This one-sided conversation is a collection of stories about the lives of the doctor, the fighter, the women in their lives, and the villages and camps where they have lived and fought. It is also a story of Palestine, its occupation and the struggle to free it. The doctor’s tale covers the story of Palestine over the last seventy years. The story he tells reminds us that every side has its own history, indeed every individual on every side has their own. Despite this, the histories are more similar than they are different and all of them are filled with tears.
The comatose fighter to whom Dr. Khalil speaks is a hero in the sense that any fighter is heroic. Yet it is the women in the story whose heroism really shines through. They are the keepers of the stories and the carriers of the water. It is the mothers, grandmothers and wives that keep the memory alive of the lands from which they were driven. It is the women that carry the children and the old people as the Israelis drive them from one place to the next. Yes, there are women in this tale who are victims, but it is those that stand up to the tragedy constantly unfolding around them that provide hope in an otherwise hopeless story. Perhaps the best illustration of this is an episode where Nahilah, the wife of Yunes the fighter, is arrested by Israeli troops because she is pregnant. The troops know that she is married to Yunes and hope to extract his whereabouts from her. Despite torture and other abuse, she refuses to provide the information. Instead, she tells then that she is a prostitute and has no idea who the father of the child in her womb is. By risking shame and degradation, she protects Yunes’ whereabouts and life. The Israelis finally let her go, not knowing what to do in the face of Nahilah’s heroic lies.
What is nationhood? Why does it matter? These questions are seem to be a curse of humanity. The search for their answer is also what gives us hope and heroism. Khoury’s narrator struggles with the meaning of these concepts on almost every page. Is it the land and the homes from which his people have been driven? Or is it the ideas and the culture that the people share? Is the loss of the land what makes the idea of a homeland even greater? Does the blood of battle render such an idea less sacred (if it was ever sacred in the first place)? These are the questions that Palestine represents and these are the questions that Khoury so eloquently asks in this tale of Dr. Khalil and his people.
The linchpin of this novel is the Lebanese civil war. More specifically, it is the massacre of Palestinians at the Shatila and Sabra camps in 1982. As most readers know, these massacres were carried out by Falangist forces with the assistance of the Israeli Defense Forces. The numbers killed are believed to be around 1500 women, children and old men. Dr. Khalil refers to these events in flashes of memory and as points of reference. He remembers the deportation of the fighters from Beirut and the eventual dissolution of the camps during an intrafraternal war he calls the battle of the camps. This episode is a metaphor for the greater reality of battle and suffering, Khalil tells the comatose Yunes, where the fighters fight and the women and children suffer and die. Is it so different from the story of the Jews in Nazi Germany, he asks?
Mr. Khoury has written a modern Exodus in a period of history that has seen way too many such stories. He has done so with an eye for the truth that is hidden in memory. Not always completely accurate in matters of sequence and detail, tales like Gate of the Sun relate the truth of the human condition better than any government or non-governmental agency. Perhaps it is a historical irony that the location of Khoury’s contemporary Exodus is also the location of the one so many humans are familiar with from their holy books. Perhaps it’s just a cruel coincidence. This book is art that illustrates what Peter Weiss called a “multiplicity of mirrorings” in his aforementioned novel. It is also a work that achieves the unity Weiss says we seek from such art. Either way, it is not only a story that is worth reading, it’s a story one shouldn’t miss, if only for how beautifully it is told.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com