‘Gate of the Sun’: Hymn or Dirge – A Review

By Gaither Stewart – Rome

On this hot Italian late afternoon, after over a week inside the literary work entitled Gate of the Sun, I am still wandering in the gossamer framework of the novel constructed by a great writer and storyteller, Elias Khoury, a 531-page “story” consisting of the stories, incidents, histories, lives and deaths narrated by the author’s canvas of countless characters. I am still not certain if I have read a hymn to the courage of the Palestinian people, its men and women, or a dirge to their ceaseless suffering and death. Or, perhaps, the Lebanese author and activist in the Palestinian liberation movement intended his stupendous work of art to be both.

In any case, I have not even attempted to write a review of this complex, poetic masterpiece, originally published as Bab al-Shams by Dar-al-Adab, Beirut, 1998 , first published in the USA by Archipelago Books, and finally the edition I read by Picador, 2005, in the translation by Humphrey Davies which seems to me, a non-Arabic reader, magnificent. For me, this novel is emblematic of the glory of fiction. I would challenge anyone to accomplish in non-fiction what Elias Khoury has done here.

The first sentence of Gate of the Sun begins with death: “Umm Hassan is dead.” And on the last page it ends in the death of the Palestinian hero, Yunes. “I left my house barefoot and ran to your grave,” the narrator Dr. Khalil says to Yunes (a man of the preceding generation, a fighter in the Palestinian uprising-revolution, 1936-39), who, after lying in a coma and listening to Khalil’s stories the entire seven months of the novel’s main story, has died.

“I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, no, this isn’t how stories end. No. I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of rain, and I walk and walk and walk…”

Palestine – The Land of the Temporary

Temporariness permeates Khoury’s Palestinian mosaic. Dr. Khalil is not really a doctor. He came to be called a doctor after his return to Palestine after a three-month study of medicine in China and his employment in the Galilee Hospital in “Palestinian” Beirut. That is, it was once a hospital, but only temporarily. Now it has practically no funding. It has no real doctors besides the director who is seldom present. It has no medicines, no operating or treatment rooms, no real patients except for Yunes in his coma. Khalil is a temporary doctor, who by chance came to be called “doctor”. The director however has reduced him to a nurse status, as which he also becomes acting director of the non-hospital since the real director seldom appears.

After the Israeli occupation, Palestinians were expelled from their villages and took up temporary residences in village after village or camp after camp in Lebanese Galilee. Persons’ names change continually, called by one name at birth, another during their expulsions and migrations, another at death. Marriages are made, exist temporarily, and end in divorce. Children are born from temporary relationships. Eating is a temporary activity, at times food is abundant, other times there is nothing at all. Palestinians become temporary soldiers and fight temporary battles. Life is temporary. And death itself ephemeral. “The temporary is preferable to the permanent, or the temporary is the permanent,” Dr. Khalil says to Yunes in his coma. “When the temporary comes to an end, so does everything else. “I’m in your temporary world now … I’m your temporary doctor who isn’t really a doctor.”

Ancient Arabs (recalls Khoury’s doctor-nurse-narrator Khalil) didn’t lie, but they left things vague—things that were, as if they were not, and things that were not, as if they were. “That way the story is put on the same footing as life, because a story is a life that didn’t happen, and a life is a story that didn’t get told.”  That is Khoury-Palestinian thinking in which nothing is definite and thoughts too are temporary.

Recurrent Themes

The Olive: Olive trees play a prominent and symbolic role in Khoury’s tales. I had long thought Italy had an exclusive on olive oil, a fundamental ingredient of the Italian cuisine and the Italian way of life. Industrial olive oil occupies a chief section of Italian food stories, while many if not most Italians have a direct private source for pure first-pressing olive oil, which is to industrial olive oil what a Ferrari is to a Ford car. Khoury’s Palestinians worship the olive tree itself; one man loves a huge ancient tree of which the trunk is hollowed out making a space big enough for him to hide or for two people to make love. Above all, olive oil is a panacea and cure-all for life’s problems. During the Israeli invasions of 1948 and 1982, for example, his characters in Galilee seem more disturbed and truly bewildered by the destruction of their olive orchards and the planting of pines and palms than by the razing of their villages by the Jews. “The Jews didn’t like olive trees, one man says. “They killed the trees.”

“Drugs never entered our houses,” Yunes had once said. “My mother treated herself and us with olive oil. If she felt a pain in her belly, she’d dip a piece of cotton wool in an oil jar and swallow it, and if my father came back from the fields with his feet covered in cuts, she’d dab oil on them, and if her son was crying in pain, she’d run to the demijohn of oil, for the perfect cure.” Palestinians love to eat bread dipped in oil (as do Italians) and eat it with onions. Khalil recounts that his grandmother had his father drink a cup of olive oil before going into the bedroom with his mother on their wedding night. “Oil’s good for sex. One day, at your wedding, I’ll give you oil to drink….” Khalil continued to Yunes in his coma: “The stories are like drops of floating on the surface of memory”. Speaking of olive oil, he recalls the husband of one of his aunts who had a bald patch on his head that looked like it was polished with olive oil. The author transforms olives into a way of life, in the general condition of poverty olives are transformed into meat, chicken, incense (which he notes really wasn’t incense)  and medicine (which was useless). There comes to exist a certain nostalgia for those days of poverty. Sentimentality and nostalgia for the smells and sensations of those times. The illusions of memory

The Massacre at Shatila: From September 16-18 the Lebanese militia called Phalange, a Christian right-wing party, killed between 762 and 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra neighborhood and in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon on orders from their Israeli allies to clear Sabra and Shatila Camp of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters. The Israeli forces knew of some of the Phalanges atrocities in Sabra and Shatila but failed to stop them. The massacre was presented as retaliation for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese right-wing Kataeb Party. It was wrongly assumed that Palestinian militants had carried out the assassination. Khoury returns frequently to the massacre and relates the narration of a Lebanese journalist about one of the stories told to him by a Phalangist leader. The journalist himself was perhaps even with them at Shatila: “I was leading a detachment of twenty boys. We were wasted … We were sniffing cocaine like a snack. Then we went to the camp and began. We didn’t take any prisoners … we went into the houses, sprayed them with bullets, stabbed and killed. It was like a party, like we were at a scouts’ camp dancing around the campfire.” The same journalist told Khalil that when they found three children in a house the leader thought of tying them up but couldn’t find rope so he decided to find out how far a shot from a Magnum could go. He put the heads of two children together and his shot went through both heads and he couldn’t even see the blood, in that strange Israeli light. On leaving he shot the third child too.

The atrocity was justified by their condition: wasted on cocaine they didn’t know what they were doing, therefore, they claimed, not responsible for their acts. The journalist relating the events said he’d never fought in his life.

Khalil doesn’t understand how a man can be an intellectual and a writer and let war go on right next to him and not try to find out what it’s like.

War: Like temporariness, war also permeates Gate of the Sun, war of the Israelis against the Palestinian owners of the lands of Galilee, the helpless, merely warlike stance of the Palestinian peasants—who Khoury insists didn’t know how to fight—the war of the Palestinian Liberation Organization for their traditional lands, the failure of the Arab Liberation Army to function in war, the war deaths as at Shatila. However, Dr. Khalil says in an arak drinking session with Lebanese right-win Christians: “We, too, killed and destroyed, but at the moment I sensed the banality of evil. Evil has no meaning, and we are just its tools. We’re nothing. We make war and kill and die, and we’re nothing—just fuel for a huge machine whose name is War.” When Khalil asks what they feel about war, one answers: “Nothing at all.” He doesn’t feel regret or sorrow for his friends who’d died during the war. “That’s life.” Khalil and the Lebanese conclude that they were both defeated. They killed each other. They were both defeated. “All of us were defeated,” says another Lebanese, raising his glass and proposing a toast to defeat.

When Khalil concludes to his Lebanese journalist acquaintance that “we’re enemies”, the other replies: “Don’t worry about it. It’s all bullshit.” For Khalil the issue is war. He claims to have learned the secret of war. For him, war has no beginning. The Palestinians just moved from war to war. “We didn’t fight a war,” he tells Yunes who perhaps hears him, perhaps not, “we lived war. For us war became numbers added to numbers … the real war begins when your enemy becomes your mirror so that you kill him in order to kill yourself. Can you see the sordidness and inanity of history? History is inane because it dislikes victors and defeats everybody.”

History: Khoury has his Khalil say to Yunes that he is “scared of a history that has only one version”, a conviction amply demonstrated here. “History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into only one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their (my italics) mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though that story had abbreviated and ossified them … We mustn’t become just one story … I see you (Yunes)  as a man who betrays and repents  and loves and fears and dies. This is the only way if we’re not to ossify and die.”

Khalil says he doesn’t want to re-write history but he asks Yunes what he knew about the rest of the world in 1936 when besides the Palestinian revolt in which Yunes had fought while “the Nazi beast was exterminating the Jews in Europe.” He says that no, “a country must belong to its people and there is no moral, political, humanitarian or religious justification that would permit the expulsion of an entire people (the Palestinians) from their own country… This Palestine, no matter how many names they give it, will always be Palestinian, But tell me, in the faces of people being driven to slaughter (European Jews), don’t you see something resembling your own?… You and I and every human on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims … Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us … But we—you—were outside history, so you became its second victim.”

However, Khoury is careful to distinguish between the Jews who died in Europe and the settlers in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The settlers were soldiers too, who possessed the means to kill Palestinians, “as indeed they did, and as they’ll kill themselves as well.”

Killing and Dying: The Lebanese journalist asks Khalil if he has ever killed anyone and how he felt afterwards. Khalil answers, “of course”, although he’d never killed anyone in the sense of getting close to an unarmed man, shooting him, and seeing him die. He says he was a fighter, not a butcher like the journalist’s friend at Shatila. “But feelings? What feelings? There are no feelings. Death means nothing, all the talk about blood instinct means nothing, it’s just literary talk. In war, we kill like we breathe. Killing means not thinking about killing, just shooting. Besides, if I’d killed there would have been no feelings. I’m a fighter. Either I die or I live.” He remembers when he was a cadet, running with the other boys and crying out: “We’ll die, we’ll die, but we will never submit.” Death was in his mouth like a piece of gum, he thinks. But he doesn’t want to hear about Israeli shooting of prisoners in a barrel, or the rapes, the killings, or the eating of human flesh. Khalil says he hates their way of celebrating death. “The number of dead was our distinguishing feature—the more deaths, the more important we became.

“Death, he says, is a symbolic number and numbers have been the sole stable element since the dawn of history … that’s why death expressed in numbers turns into a magic formula.”

Palestinian Women: The Palestinian women peopling Gate of the Sun seem to emerge from another world. They are a force, in general an unknown force, to be reckoned with in any evaluation of the history of Palestine. Strong, emancipated, combative, resourceful, capable of making something out of nothing, they love their men, bear many children and face any hardship, and fight in the continuing struggle. Khalil’s Shams is a raging storm of love, sex and mystery, while Yunes’s Nahilah of a generation earlier bears their children conceived on his infrequent secret visits from his combat life to her in occupied Galilee and then she faces down her Israeli interrogators searching for her husband and rebel leader. To explain her pregnancy she declares herself a prostitute and that she doesn’t know who the father is and has no idea where her hero husband Yunes could be. If Shams and Nahilah are symbolic women, the many women appearing in the story seem to be dedicated to increasing the Palestinian population to keep up with the growth of Israel.

Palestinians in West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem boast one of the fastest growing populations in the world, 30% growth in the last decade, and estimated at 4.4 million by the end of 2016. Now equal to the Jewish population of Israel, by 2020 Palestinians in their territories will number 6.5 million, more than the Jewish population, according to The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. This however is only half of the story: counting the huge diaspora there are over 12 million Palestinians in the world. Here are estimates of Palestinians throughout the world: Jordan- 2.1 million, Israel- 1.7 million, Syria- 527.000, Chile- 500,000, Lebanon-450,000, Saudi Arabia- 400,000, Qatar- 295,000, USA- 255,000, plus hundreds of thousands in Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Germany, Egypt, El Salvador, Brazil, Libya, Iraq, Canada, Yemen, Honduras, United Kingdom, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Pakistan, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Algeria.

Nature: Khoury is attentive to nature and natural phenomena, unexpectedly however very little to the heat of summers. In his Galilee and Lebanon, the falling rain makes frequent appearances. And the cold of winter. The winds. The ice from Mount Meron (1200 meters) from which ice worms emerge and are used in the lowlands for cooling drinks. Or banana leaves used in temporary housing constructions for roofs (against the rain) and for flooring so the inhabitants didn’t drown from the insistent rain and also burned to create incense for Sufi devotions. Then the men forced to undress before being shot in the cold and rain, naked so as not to fill their clothes with bullet holes.

Many Palestinians in the occupied West Bank make homes in caves in hilly and mountainous areas because Israeli destroyed their homes and villages and forbid them to build on territories earmarked for (illegal) settlements for Jews. Yunes, before Khalil, hid in caves on his dangerous trips from battle zones to meet Nahilah. Then Khalil constructed a veritable village inside a cave where he lived, and where he met his great love, Shams for love-making. His cave village seems to be a symbol of Palestine itself, Palestine reduced to a rough survival existence. Likewise Shams herself, fantastic woman, lover, fighter and Fatah militant, symbolizes for me twelve million indomitable Palestinian people.

I have never been in Israel or the Palestinian territories. My knowledge of the Palestinian question was based on news stories, political reports and analyses concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations. I do not like Zionists or Israel. I believe and have written that the Middle Eastern quagmire would never be resolved until the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved justly and to the satisfaction of Palestinians illegally deprived of their lands. But this was all cold and distilled intellectual knowledge … until now. The stuff of armchair analysts. My experience with Gate of the Sun or Bab al-Shams has changed my entire outlook and disposition. Palestinians and their olive tree orchards now warm my heart. I feel one with them.

– Gaither Stewart is Senior Editor of The Greanville Post in Rome, serves—inter alia—as its European correspondent. A veteran journalist, novelist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated political novels whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.

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