The Palestinian Patient
As this scenario suggests, Gate of the Sun is a novel of prodigious ambition, seeking to evoke the full sweep of Palestinian history. Most Palestinian novelists have preferred to illuminate specific aspects of the Palestinian experience, and for good reason. That experience has been so eventful, so turbulent, so fragmented and so complicated--intertwined with the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the cold war, inter-Arab politics, the events of Black September in Jordan, the Lebanese Civil War and the 1991 Gulf War--that it seems to defy dramatization, even while inviting it. The story unfolds on an almost mythic plane, a plane much vaster than that of the novel. Khoury seems aware of this problem; his narrator observes at one point that the novelist Ghassan Kanafani didn't write about Yunes's experience of the Nakba "because he was looking for mythic stories, and yours was just the story of a man in love." Yet Gate of the Sun is not so much the intimate story of a man in love as the allegorical tale of an entire people.
The novel opens, significantly, on November 20, 1995, two months after the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) was signed between the PLO and Israel, an agreement that addressed the condition of Palestinians in the occupied territories while leaving out the Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world. Oslo II was met with cries of betrayal in the camps, which have evolved into a permanent home to several generations of Palestinians, especially in Khoury's Lebanon, where as many as 350,000 Palestinian refugees wait to return home. In a sense, Yunes stands for all those refugees abandoned by the Palestinian negotiators at Oslo, with the stroke of a pen. (It is this same leadership that suffered a resounding defeat in the general elections on January 25 in the occupied territories.)
When Yunes is brought to the hospital at the opening of the novel, he is immediately pronounced dead, and hospital administrators don't want to assign a room to him. Khalil, however, rejects this judgment and, invoking a medical authority he does not actually possess, finds a room for him. By telling Yunes stories, the "doctor" hopes to resuscitate his patient. But can narrative and remembrance provide the sustenance of Palestinian survival and endurance? Khalil, exasperated, asks Yunes:
Do you believe we can construct our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to construct it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the peoples of the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn't lost and we find we've fallen into eternal sleep?
Khoury's answer seems to be that story-telling is a defeated nation's way of preserving its memories, keeping itself alive and reminding the world of its existence, its refusal to surrender. Despite the tragic history it recounts, Gate of the Sun is an affirmative book, insisting that despite the recent betrayals of its leaders, Palestine is not dead, that, in Khalil's words, Palestinians continue "seeking the aroma of life and are waiting." Yet Khoury seems to admit the limits of storytelling as an act of resistance, since it can draw one further away from the reality it is intended to recall. And for Yunes, reality seems to be slipping away. At one point, Khalil asks him whether he knows where he is now, and then answers:
Everything here isn't itself but a simulacrum of itself. We say house but we don't live in houses, we live in places that resemble houses. We say Beirut but we aren't really in Beirut, we're in a semblance of Beirut. I say doctor but I'm not a doctor, I'm just pretending to be one. Even the camp itself--we say we're in the Shatila camp, but after the War of the Camps and the destruction of eighty percent of Shatila's houses, it's no longer a camp, it's just a semblance of a camp.
It is hard to resist the temptation to read such passages allegorically. The hospital could represent Palestine (or the PLO) after Oslo II, a sick house run by a sham doctor, a semblance of a hospital where everything is breaking down and where the residents are nurtured by listening to stories that have no beginning or end--a "country of words," as the poet Mahmoud Darwish bitterly wrote.
At the risk of contradicting my own warning against reading novels about Palestine for their political rather than literary merits, I could not help bristling somewhat at Khoury's depiction of Palestine as an endless hall of mirrors with little or no relationship to reality. To be sure, this is the experience of Palestine for those refugees who have been stranded for more than half a century (and, perhaps, for those Palestinians who have remained in what is now Israel, and watched their country progressively disappear over time), and Khoury's intention to assert the reality of the refugees and keep their stories alive is admirable. But he overlooks those parts of Palestine that remain formally outside Israel and where the majority of Palestinians are still living under occupation. For Palestinians in places like Ramallah, where I live, Palestine is a physical reality, not simply an endless web of stories.
The proliferation of stories also presents a problem for Gate of the Sun as a work of literature, and it is as a novel, not as a political commentary or oral history, that Khoury's book must be assessed. Just before the end of Part One, Khalil stands up and declares: "For three months I've been telling you stories, some of which I know and some of which I don't. And you're incapable of correcting my errors, so I make mistakes once in a while.... My throat's dry from so much talking. I'm dried up, I've become desiccated." Khalil says he feels as if he is "a prisoner of the story. I'm drowning. Water surrounds me. I swallow water and swallow words and tell the story." These words could express the state of the reader, who feels just as lost in a maze of stories without the firm command of an author in control of his material. The idea for the book is brilliant, but the execution is uneven at best.