Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun

39065Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun opens with the death of the midwife Um Hassan in the Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut. We are told everyone in the refugee camp called her mother, “because everyone born in the Shatila camp fell from their mother’s guts into her hands.” The narrator relates the news of her death to Yunes, a member of the early Palestinian resistance who before the start of the novel is admitted to hospital in a coma. The narrator, Dr Khalil, is in fact not a doctor but a nurse with brief medical training in China, describing himself as a “temporary doctor, in a temporary hospital, in a temporary country.” This sense of temporariness and dislocation from the past explains the narrator’s deep sense of connection to the two people at the center of the novel: If Um Hassan is Mother, Yunes is, as the narrator comes to call him, Father.

As Tarek el Ariss put it in his review:

Gate of the Sun’s compelling narrative structure is akin to that of the Arabian Nights and other pre-modern works of literature. From a hospital room in Beirut’s Chatila camp, a narrator stands over a comatose patient’s bed, telling him stories in the hope of bringing him back to consciousness. Khalil wants to bring Yunes back to life by telling him stories and repeating stories he had heard from Yunes himself. Khalil tells Yunes: “Our body is our history, dear friend. Take a look at your history in your wasting body and tell me, wouldn’t it be better if you got up and shook off death?” While Yunes’s coma is a metaphor for the collective vertigo of a people in their quest for home, storytelling is thus a resistance to death and an affront to unconsciousness.

As Khalil keeps vigil by the patient’s bedside, he relates to him Yunes’ own story, interwoven with many other stories, resulting in a fragmentary attempt to render the Palestinian nakba, through the stories of people from the Galilee and their flight to Lebanon. The specificity of the setting is something Khoury insists on, pointing out “I was writing a story about Galilee, because it’s in-between. I was not writing a history of Palestine.”

This emphasis of specificy underlines the way that retelling of history in the novel takes account of the fact that “we remember things we never experienced because we assume the memories of others. We pile ourselves on top of one another” and that history has “dozens of versions.”

As doctor and comatose patient “swap” stories of past passions, the Gate of the Sun becomes a healing space unviolated by occupation and Palestine an entity that resides in the people and their love, not just the land.

There is a shifting movement in the novel between the attitude of Um Hassan who refuses to eat the oranges of the homeland (“no it’s not for eating, its Palestine!”) with that of Yunes, who argues the homeland is something we have to consume, not let consume us. And yet, Umm Hasan also recognises that the sentimentality of holding onto keys for doors which are long gone is not helpful, as is suggested in her reaction to Dr Isa’s research into Andulusia (Dr Isa is another fake doctor “who did his doctoring in literature instead of becoming a real doctor and helping people”).

God help us, now we’re collecting the keys of the Andalusians! He said the descendents of the people of Andalusia who were chased out of their country and who migrated to Meknes still keep the keys to their houses in Andalusia and he’s rounding up keys to put on an exhibition and wants to write a book about them…he says we have to collect the keys of our houses in Jerusalem. What do you make of it? Collect our keys when the doors are already broken! 118

Khalil agrees with her, “I’m not interested in keys. That sort of sentimentality doesn’t concern me” and yet he clings to the legend of Yunes as a fedayeen fighter. The thread holding together the interweaving stories of the narrative is the lifestory of Yunes, who slipped across the border between Lebanon and Galilee repeatedly, taking refuge in a cave in Galilee, Bab El Shams, which gives the novel its title.

Ironically, Yunes himself however seems not to care very much for the historical importance of the cause he was fighting for:

“People fear death, but they really should be frightened of what goes on before being born. Before they were born, they were in eternal darkness. But it’s an illusion. The illusion makes us think that the living inherit the lives of all others. That’s why history was invented…history is a trick to make people believe that we’ve been alive since the beginning and that we’re the heirs of the dead. An illusion. People aren’t heir and they don’t have a history…life is a passage between the two deaths. I’m not afraid of the second death because I wasn’t afraid of the first.”
“But history isn’t an illusion,” I answered, “and if it were, what would it be for?…why would we fight and die? Doesn’t  Palestine deserve our deaths? You’re the one who taught me history and now you tell me history is a ruse to evade death.” (21)

Khalil finds himself conflicted, unable to accept the idea of history as a ruse to evade death, but realising the necessity to confront reality. This is something he muses on when he brings in some Arabic calligraphy to put over Yunes’ bed, admitting that ten years ago it would have been different: “I wouldn’t have brought you this drawing. I would have hung a map of Galilee above your head…now its not the dream I put up but the realtiy. Allah in kufic lettering is the one absolute realtiy we can depend on” (131-2).

I didn’t bring the map of Palestine or the posters of martyres. Nothing. Those don’t mean a thing here. Do you remember how we used to tremble in front of those posters, how we were convinced that the martyrs were about to burst through the colored paper and jump out at us? All of us dreaming of seeing our faces…with the martyr’s halo. There was a contradiction here to which we paid no attention: we wanted to have our faces on the posters but also wanted to see them – we wanted to become martyrs without dying!…after the massacre I grew to to hate the posters of martyrs. I wont tell you what happened….its not the right momet for those sorts of memoires. They need the right moment. We can’t just toss off memories like that, we don’t have the right to remember any which way. I brought you the picture saying to myself that the name of Allah in kufic lettering would remain however circumstances and conditions changed. The photographs and posters were ephemeral but the name of the almighty will be eternally present before our eyes (130-1)

Yet even this concept of eternity is suspect for Yunes, as Khalil recalls:

You don’t like the word eternally….what is this silly slogan fo theirs – ‘Jerusalem, eternal capital of the Jewish state! Anyone who talks of eternity exits history for eternity is history’s opposite, something that’s eternal does exist. We even ate our god. During our age of ignorance we – we Arabs – would model gods out of dates and then eat them because hunger is more important than eternity. 131

Reading this I was struck by the echo of Jabra’s Bedouin character Towfik al-Khallaf in Hunters in a Narrow Street, who rails against culture as a way of acheiving immortality:

We sons of desert have no use for euphemisms. We call a spade a spade…our stories out there are the stories of real men and authentic incidents. We don’t have to record them in books, we keep them alive by word of mouth. We are our own works of art, and everything else is dead and worthless. Do you know the story of the Bedouin who once felt the urge to make a statue? He wanted to make a statue for a dead woman he had loved but he had no material to work with. But he had a quantity of dates. So he made it of dates. Next morning he was hungry so he ate the statue. And rightly too (83).

In The Gate of the Sun the echo of the statue of dates and the notion that hunger is more important than eternity is interpreted in another way, in Umm Hassan’s words on the relative importance of monuments and the living:

Umm Hassan said that she went past there on her way to al-Kweikat and amid the ruins saw a burned out bus and the remains of an armored car, the Israelis had set up a momument to their dead.

“What about us, what will we put up there?” I asked her.

“What will we put up?” she asked in surprise.

“After the liberation I mean,” I said.

She looked at me with half-closed eyes as though she didn’t understand what I was getting at. Then she laughed. Umm Hasan’s right. We’ll never put up anything – we can’t manage a decent burial ground, let alone a monument. For the fifteen hundred individuals who fell at Sabra and Shatila we built nothing. The mass grave has turned into a field where children play soccer….monuments aren’t important, only the living count (182).

This is returned to later on in the novel and connected to the necessity of writing history for oneself instead of accepting the other’s versions:

Even the Lebanese journalist, Georges Baroudi, who came to the camp and asked for a list of the names of the victims and learned that we didn’t have a complete list, said that would complicate things. He suggested that a memorial be erected to the martyrs. You know how those intellectuals think: they imagine they can solve the problems of their consciences with statues, poems or novels. I told him that memorials were impossible here because we didn’t know what would happen to us or the camp tomorrow…he told me he was writing a book about the Shatila massacre. He said there were only two books about the massacre both by Israelis. One was by a journalist Amnon Kapeliouk and the other the report of Israel’s Kahane commission. “Don’t you think it’s shameful that we don’t write out own history? he asked. 265

It is interesting that there is a direct reference to Jabra in Khoury’s novel. It is clearly a genuinely admiring reference at least on the part of the narrator, but another interpretation is possible if it is placed against the narrator’s musings on the distance of the intellectuals from the people, on those who “imagine they can solve the problems of their consciences with statues, poems or novels” – although this also bears on Khoury himself, as an author and intellectual:

I was sitting here reading Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s novel In search of Walid Masoud. I was fascinated by Walid Masoud, the Palestinian who disappeared leaving a mysterious tape in his car, to unravel the riddle of which Jabra had to write a long and beautiful novel. I love Jabra because he writes like an aristocrat – his sentences are elitist and beautiful. It’s true he was poor when he was a child, but he wrote like real writers, with expressive, literary sentences. You have to read them the way you read literature, not the way I am talking to you now (101).

The distinction Khalil makes here between his oral narrative (talking) and Jabra’s literary prose (literature) is part of the narrator’s sense of being in some ways outside history, as opposed to how he felt in China, during the days of Mao Tse Tung, when he and his friends felt like “heroes in novels.”

During those days…we felt we were making history. We behaved and talked as though we were heroes in novels without authors, novels we all knew and which we narrated every day…now that’s history…history is our becoming gods and monsters at the same time…(156)

History…extracts from our inner selves people we don’t know, people whose presence we don’t dare acknowledge….when you’re surrounded by mirrors on every side, you lose your ability to see and the monsters of history make you its prey…all that is wrought is caught as they say. That’s how history works: when you have no alternatives, you get caught and twist in the breeze in spite of yourself (159-160).

History betwitched me…I discovered how it was possible to open the book of history, enter it, and be the reader and the read at the same time. This is the illusion that revolution creates for us. It makes us believe that we’re both the individual and the mirror and it leads to terrible things (161).

Against this illusion of history which is tellingly figured in terms of books, novels, and literature, Khalil presents a world where history is multiple:

I want to say that the real war begins when your enemy becomes your mirror so that you kill in order to kill yourself. That’s what history is. Can you see the sordidness and inanity of history? History is inane because it dislikes victors and defeats everybody (289). I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions and for it to ossify into one leads only to death…You haven’t ossified into one story. You will die but you’ll be free. Free of everything, even free of your own story. (297)

In a way Khalil’s vigil with Yunes functions as a way of deconstructing him as legend, as a symbol:

You didn’t talk much about the past except incidentally, the past would come up in the form of illustrative examples, not as lived reality. Then you were transformed into the unique symbol in the stories of the camp people, the symbol of those who kept slipping back there. 210

Instead of being a legendary exceptional figure, Yunes appears in the narrative as multiple, even down to his name. In this novel, as in The Journey of Little Gandhi, all names are pseudonyms, as is exemplified by Yunes who has three given names and is also known by his kunya, which changes after the death of his first son:

You told your relatives you only discovered the wisdom of your father’s words during the revolution. You were the only sacred warrior and later the only fedayeen fighter who wasn’t obliged to take an assumed name. You used all your names and they were all real and all assumed at the same time (121).

This leads Khalil to talking about language and its vagueness, and in particular targeting the Arabic language as a lazy one, rather than the stereotypical representation of it as elaborate and rich in its complex morphology:

Uncle and Hajj are titles we give to men over fifty when we don’t know what we were supposed to call them. Out of laziness. Our language is a very lazy language. We don’t dig deep for names of things, we name them on the run, and its up to the listener to figure things out, he is supposed to know what you mean so he can understand you, otherwise misunderstandings abound (125).

The attack on the Arabic language is not a one-off either:

China taught me a valuable lesson. There I was required to translate whatever I said in Arabic into English and I discovered that I could dispense with half the expressions we use, even my way of speaking changed: I started to avoid the lengthy introductions we usually put in front of whatever we have to say and went straight to the point instead. The fat man’s speech resisted translation. How was I to translate the words for suffering, torment, oppression and persecution that the man used one after another? He’d string together adjectives without indicating what he was describing, so I summarized his long Arabic sentences into brief English ones (266).

This passage reminded me of a very similar one from Tony Hanania’s Homesick where language and the difficulty of translation is similarly described, though the translator in this case doesn’t even attempt to translate:

A group of foreign reporters has assembled for the occasion. They are asking questions in English about the weight of the SAM’s warhead and its range and capabilities…after the demonstration is over a Mourabitoun spokesman wandrers over with his hands behind his back and grins at the foreign correspondent. All begin asking their questions at the same time. What is the range of the warhead? Where is its projected deployment? Who has supplied it? When they have piped down the spokesman begins a long and convulted speech in Arabic about the nobility of the revolutionary struggle and the hard road to freedom. None of the correspondents understand a word of this and call out for a translation. Finally one local journalist steps in. “The man,” he explains to the foreigners, “is saying no comment” (172).

Along with history, language is one of the central issues in Khoury’s novel, and they are very much connected through the notion of memory as this passage shows:

When I spoke English in China, I felt I wasn’t myself. Sometimes I’d be my Chinese professor or my African colleague or I’d imitate the Pakistani…I’d imitate him and feel myself becoming another person inside the English language….every word I spoke in English had to pass through the image of another person as if the person speaking weren’t me. and when I returned to Beirut and started speaking Arabic again I found myself again I found the Khalil I’d left behind.

In China I discovered that when I spoke the language of others I became like them. This isn’t true of course. But what if it were? What if even in Arabic, I was imitating others? And that the only difference was that here I no longer knew who it was I was imitating? We learn our mother tongues from our mothers, imitating them but we forget that. As we forget we become ourselves, we speak and believe that we’re the ones who are speaking….of course we imitate, but we forget, and forgetting is a blessing. Without forgetting we would all die of fright and abuse. Memory is the process of organizing what to forget and what we’re doing now you and me is organizing our forgetting. We ralk about things and forget other things. We remember in order to forget this is the essence of the game. But don’t you dare die now! You have to finish organizing your forgetting first, so that I can remember afterwards.  (163)

This relationship of history and language is exemplified in a conversation Yunes has with his wife Nahilah, with Yunes telling her he was afraid the children would forget their own language.

“That’s their problem,” said Nahilah, meaning it was the Israelis problem not the Palestinians. “They don’t want us to forget our language and our religion because they don’t want us to become like them.”

Yunes didn’t understand what she meant and started talking about the relationship of the children to their history and their heritage saying that this relationship could exist only through language. He talked a lot, blending together literature and religion and everything. 417

Nahilah has to stop him and clarify:

When I said it’s their problem, I meant it’s the Jews’ problem: we can’t abandon our language because they don’t want us to do that. They want us to remain Arabs and not to assimilate. Don’t worry…even if we wanted to they’d never let us (418)

Khalil ties in this theory of language, assimilation and memory with the story of the keys both in Andalucia and Palestine:

When you told me Father about Nahilah’s theory of language I thought of Isa who wanted to gather the keys to the houses in Andalusia. I wanted to say that we haven’t yet understood the fundamental diference. The Castilians didn’t persecute the Muslim Arabs and the Jews simply to throw them out, for no expulsion no matter on how large a scale and how effective can drive out everyone. The Castilians imposed their religion and their language on the Andalusians and that’s why their victory was definitive, that’s why Al Andalus was assimilated into Spain and that was the end of the matter. Here on the other hand, our keys aren’t the keys of the houses that were stolen, it’s the Arabic language. Israel doesn’t want to make Israelis out of us, its not imposing its religion or its language on us. The expulsion took place in ’48 but it wasn’t total. Our keys are with them not with us (418).

However, Khalil’s theory about keys and the connection between language and country has to deal with the necessity of reinvention the face of loss:

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? (382)

Of course this eternal sleep is symbolized by Yunes’ coma, a metaphor which keeps recurring in the novel through Khalil’s caring for the man he calls Father:

your closed eyes are soaking in bluish white. I opened your eyes and put a few drops in. Do you know what the drops are called? Artificial tears. They call drops for washing out the eyes “tears”. People go to the pharmacy and actually buy tears while we can barely hold ours back (100)

Another aspect of the novel is the layering of old sorrows onto new ones, with the onset of the Lebanese civil war looming large in the narrator’s memory: “It terrified me that the belly of a city could burst open and its guts spill out and its streets be transformed into borders for dismembered communities” (146-7). Compared to this personally experienced terror, the memories of repeated stories fade:

Um Hassan’s video cassette, recording of her visit back to her old home. The Shatila camp has turned into camp video. The video cassettes circulate among the houses and people sit around their television sets, they remember and tell stories. They tell stories about what they see and out of the glimpses of the villages they build villages. Don’t they ever get sick of repeating the same stories? (106)

I watched the video Um Hassan brought…and I felt nothing. I felt no more than I felt when I went to the center of Beirut devasted by the civil war…no that’s not true. In the middle of Beirut I almost wept…why do you want me to weep for the ruins of history? Tell me, how did you abandon them there? How did you manage that? (174)

This distance from Palestine is echoed by Nuha: “if we go back, we won’t find Palestine, we’ll find another country. Why are we fighting and dying? Should we be fighting for something only to find somewhere else? It would be better to marry and emigrate elsewhere” (209). Later on this sense of distance allows Khalil to turn on Yunes, offering not criticism but an implicit accusation, where victimization arised out of not having a sense of history, or out of a selfish insularity, protesting the immigration of Jews to Palestine while remaining ignorant of the Holocaust:

Where was Palestine?…tell me what did the nationalist movement posted in the cities do apart from demonstrate against Jewish immigration? I’m not saying you weren’t right. But in those days, when the Nazi beast was exterminating the Jews of Europe, what did you know about the world?…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, don’t you see something resembling your own? (295-6).

…you and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have presented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner…because their death meant the death of humanity within us…but we – you – were outside history so you became its second victim (296).

This shift between “we” and “you” transfers the weight of guilt from Khalil to the previous generations, but it returns, because this generation too proves to be outside history, which ultimately means being outside reality, living in a daydream:

But all you’d talk about was politics and how you all were ready to liberate the land and you’d tell me about Gamal Abdel Nasser who was like Saladin. I believed you. I told the military interrogator about Saladin. He laughed, baring his large white teeth and said: “You Arabs are living in a daydream.” I didn’t understand what he meant by that but I told him “We’re not Arabs.” Tell me why here in Israel don’t they call the other Arabs Arabs? They call the Egyptians Egyptians, the Syrians Syrians, the Lebanese Lebanese, not Arabs. Are we the only Arabs? “We’re Palestinians, sir,” I told him, and he said, “Just a daydream.” I agree we’re Arabs, if we aren’t, what are we? But I said we’re not Arabs to annoy him because I didn’t understand what daydream meant (407-8).

In his keynote address at the “Inverted Worlds” Congress, Khoury begins his discussion of “what’s happening in the Arab world” with saying “don’t believe that things have finished,” with an insistence on the ongoing nature of change and resistance – like The Gate of the Sun, which ends with the insistence, “this isn’t how stories end.” One might say this insistence has been proven right, Bab El Shams has been retold not only in directed by Yousry Nasrallah’s film, but in the creation in reality of the new Bab El Shams, the encampment to protest Israeli settlement, which takes its name from Khoury’s novel.

I left my house barefoot and ran to your grave. 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 (539)

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