The Palestinian Patient
In the second part of Gate of the Sun, Khalil expresses his fear of "a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death." Perhaps it was to avoid this that Khoury ventured into territory rarely visited by Arab novelists: the Holocaust. Khoury describes his narrator imagining Umm Hassan "wandering in the fields among the thousands of others without homes." This waking nightmare continues, but the scene suddenly shifts from Palestine to Nazi-occupied Europe: "I see her, and I hear the whistle of the train...when the refugees were rounded up and distributed around the various suburbs, which then turned into camps. The whistle rings in my ears. I see the people being led toward the final train. I see the trains, and I shudder. Then I see myself loaded into a basin and carried on a woman's head. I confess I'm scared." He declares: "You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner. Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us...we--you--were outside history, so you became its second victim."
Since Israel depicted itself as the redemption after the European catastrophe, Khoury suggests, Palestinians were suddenly forced to see themselves through the prism of Jewish history. Here Khalil, until now a confused and broken man, suddenly overcomes his paralysis and improbably turns into a seer, a prophet, telling Yunes, "We mustn't see ourselves only in their [the Jews'] mirror, for they're prisoners of one story [the Holocaust], as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them. Please, Father--we mustn't become just one story. Even you, even Nahilah--please let me liberate you from your love story, for I see you as a man who betrays and repents and loves and fears and dies. Believe me, this is the only way if we're not to ossify and die. You haven't ossified into one story. You will die, but you'll be free. Free of everything, even free of your own story." Earlier, he says, "You saw your own image in their mirrors.... I do see a mirror broken into two halves, which can only be mended by joining the parts together. Dear God, this is the tragedy: to see two halves that come together only in war and ruination."
This image of Palestinians and Israelis as two halves of a broken mirror is striking, but the change in tone is jarring, the narrator's revelations unconvincing. Nor are the encounters with Jews who have left Lebanon to settle in Israel any more convincing. In one of Khalil's tales, Umm Hassan returns home to what has become the northern Israeli settlement of Beyt ha-Emek, where she meets Ella Dweik, a Lebanese Jew living in the house that once belonged to her. Dweik welcomes her, saying, "I've been waiting for you for a long time." When she discovers that Umm Hassan now lives in a camp in Beirut, her eyes fill with tears, and she says that she too is from Beirut. "They brought me from there when I was twelve," she recalls. "I left Beirut and came to this dreary, bleak land." When Umm Hassan asks her how this happened, she replies, "What do you mean, how did that happen? I've no idea. You're living in Beirut and you've come here to cry? I'm the one who should be crying. Get up, my friend, and go. Send me to Beirut and take this wretched land back." While Israeli Jews from Arab and Muslim countries are known to long for their ancestral homes, Ella Dweik's cry that she has "no idea" why she left Lebanon for Israel strikes a false note, as does her remark that she has been "waiting" for Umm Hassan, a woman who, after all, has the keys to the house Dweik now occupies. The point Khoury is making is an admirable one: that the destinies of these women, secret sharers of the intimate history of Palestine, are intertwined, and that the events of 1948 shattered the ties between Arabs and Jews native to the region. Yet the women are ciphers, embodiments of ideas rather than fully realized characters. As a result, the scene is contrived and sentimental rather than moving.
Reading Gate of the Sun, one has the impression that Khoury was so haunted by the anecdotes he was told that he could not bear to part with any of them--the story of the woman who left her home while the zucchini was still on the fire, the woman who lost her children while fleeing Palestine, the adventures of those who stayed behind and the hardships they faced, the journeys of those who acquired foreign passports in the West that enabled them to visit Israel. Palestinian refugees are all too familiar with these tales, but the urge to tell every one of them has produced a cluttered, crowded book. And the narrative conceit of having Khalil speak for the man in the coma and convey to us what he did and what he must have thought and felt, while repeatedly asking for his reactions and posing questions that never get answered, makes this long novel feel very long indeed.
The Nakba was the formative event for the Palestinians as a nation, particularly for the refugees in Lebanon who remain in camps and whose fate has been darker than that of any other Palestinian group. Khoury listened to their tales with compassion and commitment. He is among the few who have given literary expression to their memories. Palestinians tend to expect that every work about Palestine must encompass the whole of the Palestinian experience. It is unfortunate that Khoury, who is not Palestinian, was also motivated to achieve this impossible goal. Still, Gate of the Sun is important for trying to capture the Palestinian experience during and after 1948. Although it overreaches, the novel is unique and powerful, and Archipelago Books is to be commended for making it available to an American audience.