Straight, No Chaser
Review by John Freeman
Gate of the Sun
In 1001 Nights, Scheherazade staved off death by telling her would-be executioner one story after another. The narrator of Elias Khoury's profoundly moving new novel, Gate of the Sun, employs a similar strategy.
Stuck in a rundown hospital in a refugee camp in Beirut, Khalil tries to revive his dying friend Yunes by telling the man the story of his own life. In doing so, Khalil also attempts to keep alive their remembrances of Galilee, the land that in 1948, through force and decree, became Israel.
Like many Palestinians, Yunes became homeless that year and went on the run. While his wife raised their children, he moved from camp to camp, foraging in deserted towns for olives, dodging bullets.
Each year he buried more friends and missed out on more of his life and his dear love, Nahilah, whom he secretly met in a cave called the Gate of the Sun. One night, his wife came to him there with their dead son, his skull smashed in by an Israeli settler's rock. Yunes planned revenge and then backed out, ashamed, humiliated.
As he spins this tale, Khalil pauses to feed Yunes his daily meals, washing him before bedsores develop, clipping his nails and trimming his beard. He occasionally tries to convince Yunes that this is all a dream. "You think you're in a hospital, but you're mistaken. This isn't a hospital, it just resembles a hospital. 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."
This powerful sense of dislocation reverberates throughout Gate of the Sun. As he talks, Khalil picks up stories and adds them to the mix. He recalls poets who were assassinated, friends who were killed when Beirut was shelled in 1981. He reminds Yunes of how he was once forced to swallow his own teeth, when Lebanese interrogators caught him trying to sneak over the border into Israel.
This is a profoundly realistic novel. There are no flowery 10-car pileups of metaphors, no willowy sentence fragments. There is a reason for this, as Khalil explains: "I won't describe the darkness to you, because I hate describing things. Ever since I was in school I've hated describing things. The teacher would give us an essay to write: Describe a rainy day. And I wouldn't know how, because I hate comparing things. Things can only be described in their own terms, and when we compare them, we forget them. A girl's face is like a girl's face and not like the moon. The whiteness and the roundness and everything else are different. When we say that a girl's face is like the moon, we forget the girl. We make the description so that we can forget, and I don't like to forget. Rain is rain, isn't that enough?"
In giving this testimony as directly as possible, Khalil—and by extension, Khoury himself—has told the long, sad story of Palestinians. He has recounted their humiliation and betrayal. He tells of the massacres that occurred in the refugee camps, such as Shatila, carried out by Lebanese Christians and cheered on by Israeli soldiers. He tells of the souring of spirit among refugees as they remain in exile in spite of international support. After all, in 1948, the U.N. approved Resolution 194, which stated, "The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."
Every year this resolution is reaffirmed but not realized. As Gate of the Sun reveals, the most powerful right of return possessed by Palestinians is contained in their stories, where their past exists forever and their right to it is unmediated. "Do you remember when you used to say, ‘Back to the beginning!' and would stamp your foot?" asks Khalil of his silent friend. "And after the Israelis went into Beirut, after each new thing that happened, you'd spit as though you were wiping out the past, and you'd say, `Back to the beginning.'"
The Gate of the Sun is his powerful deliverance on that promise.
Vamos a Leer Book Club at Bookworks
This month's selection is He Forgot to Say Goodbye by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
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