The Palestinian Patient
The Nakba has achieved such mythic dimensions in the Arab world that many Arabs are tempted to believe the events took place in one blow: One day there were Arabs in Palestine, and the next they were gone. In fact, for at least three months after the 1949 armistice the borders between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors were open and Israel lacked the means to prevent infiltrators (the overwhelming majority of whom were simply seeking to return to their land, not to carry out guerrilla attacks). "Slipping across from Lebanon to Galilee," Khoury suggests, continued until the mid-1950s. He writes not only of the expulsion of the refugees but also of those who, once in Lebanon, smuggled themselves back into Palestine for short periods of time.
Arab governments did not encourage these efforts, as my father learned. After the Palestinian exodus from Jaffa, many of the townspeople, including our family, ended up in Jordanian-ruled Ramallah, as did many of those driven from Lydda and Ramle. Soon after, my father helped organize a meeting where a mass return of the refugees was proposed while the borders were still porous. The next morning, the Jordanian military arrested my father and warned that he would be kept behind bars if he ever floated this proposal again. The Arab regimes, for all their rhetorical bravado, agreed to the creation of Israel. They helped prevent the return of the refugees and the reversal of the 1948 Israeli military conquest.
The secret history of Palestinian border infiltrations into Israel in the early years of the state is a central element of Khoury's story, and it gives Gate of the Sun much of its novelty and power. The protagonist, Yunes al-Asadi, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, makes a number of secret trips to Deir al-Asad, the village he was forced to leave in 1948. During these infiltrations he has to watch out for both the Lebanese and the Israeli armies. As the novel shows, for those who, like Yunes, were willing to risk the journey in order to attend to unfinished personal business, the Nakba did not immediately create an irreversible situation. By imagining the movement across the open border between Lebanon and the newly created state of Israel, Khoury brings out the complexity that is often suppressed in the official narratives of 1948.
On one of his first infiltrations, Yunes is reunited with his wife, Nahilah, who stayed behind. She tells him how the Israelis took the land and how their son's head was crushed by "a huge stone [that] had fallen on him" while he was playing with the children in the nearby settlement. She runs to the military governor's headquarters and asks for a permit to take her son to the hospital in Acre. There she is interrogated about her husband for three hours. Meanwhile, her son dies. After learning of Ibrahim's death, Yunes is eager for revenge, but he decides that individual reprisal is "worthless" and goes back to Lebanon to organize Palestinians into a guerrilla army. He chooses war over revenge and emerges as a legendary resistance leader. But Khoury is not uncritical of the Palestinian resistance, which he portrays as purely reactive. He takes us through the movement's different phases, from the days when its headquarters were in Jordan to the Lebanese Civil War, when Yunes serves in the Lebanon Regional Command of the Fatah Movement. Each phase leads "back to the beginning," as Yunes frequently laments, leaving him to pick up the pieces and start over again.
Yunes's story is recounted by Khalil Ayyoub, his caretaker at the Galilee Hospital in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, where Yunes has been rushed following "an explosion in the brain causing permanent damage." Khalil is called a doctor but really isn't one. He is, in fact, a former PLO political commissar who studied field medicine in China. He has been talking to Yunes for the past three months, trying to rouse him from his coma. "Is he dead or alive?" Khalil wonders. "I don't know--am I helping or tormenting him?"
Frustrated by Yunes's silence, Khalil seeks the advice of Umm Hassan, the only midwife in Shatila, who despite her own childlessness is described as the "mother of all our mothers" from the Galilee. In the opening pages of the novel, we are told that Umm Hassan is a woman who "always told the truth." She knew, for example, that the 1967 war would only bring disaster, and she predicted that "Palestine would not come back until all of us had died." When Khalil complains that Yunes can't speak, she insists that he can: "It's up to you to hear his voice." Although Khalil still can't hear Yunes, who according to his real doctors is "clinically dead," he refuses to give up hope, promising to "hold conversations with you and tell you stories. I'll tell you everything. What do you say--I'll make tea, and we'll sit on the low chairs in front of your house and tell tales!"
Thus begins the novel's Scheherazade voyage, which stretches out over 539 pages. But whereas the tales in Thousand and One Nights are funny and bawdy, here the tales are recounted to a dying, if not already dead, man with great solemnity, as if the narrator speaking on his behalf were taking part in a religious ceremony. There is none of the black humor and irony that have inflected the Palestinian response to many generations of interminable suffering. And Khalil's second-person narration of the dying man's life often results in awkward constructions that can test one's patience, making it even harder for the reader to find his way in this labyrinth of overlapping stories. The silence of the man to whom the stories are told can also be infuriating. But then, Khoury may have intended to provoke such a reaction, for the comatose man--a leader of a national liberation movement, still in exile and unable to speak--is laden with symbolism.