Elias Khoury
translated by Humphrey Davies
Archipelago Books ($26)

by Laird Hunt

Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, marvelously translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, is far from the only fictional or poetic treatment of the events following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war—dubbed "the catastrophe" by the Palestinians—but it is certainly one of the grandest. Two Palestinian men are in a room in a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp outside Beirut in Lebanon. One lies comatose, slowly expiring. The other tells him stories, hoping to talk him back to life. These stories, which begin as anecdotes, grow in length and power until the room overflows with them. They are stories about the life of the dying man, Yunes, a fighter in the Palestinian resistance, who for years crossed into Israel at great risk to visit his wife, Nahilah, in Galilee. They are also the stories of an entire displaced people. One suspects it is not just the dying Yunes that Khalil seeks to keep alive: hope itself is the secret, battered protagonist of this enormous 20th-century reworking of the 1001 Nights.

The stories Khalil tells about Yunes's life are woven into an immense fabric that encompasses many other lives, from Umm Hassan, Palestinian midwife and beloved figure in the Shatila refugee camp, to Ella Dueck, a Jewish woman originally from Beirut now living in Umm Hassan's former home in Galilee, to Nahilah, forced to raise her children alone and to deal with decades of fear and uncertainty in the face of Yunes's long absences, to a host of other characters, including Khalil himself. Indeed, a great deal of Gate of the Sun's power derives from Khoury's placement of his narrator directly in the story. Again and again, we return to Khalil's voice, intimate, labyrinthine and seemingly tireless; again and again, we return to a character fully implicated in the events he describes. "I was seventeen when I saw flares for the first time. At the time, I was a fedayeen fighter, one of the first cadre that came through Irneh in Syria to southern Lebanon to build the first fedayeen base."

Given the seamlessness between Khalil's stories and his own role and/or stake in them, it is perhaps not surprising that he allows himself to speak not just to or of Yunes, but as Yunes and the voices that comprise his psyche. This proliferation of points of view and voices is remarkably seductive; when during one of their meetings Nahilah lays determined siege to Yunes's sense of self-importance, the reader is likely to feel that he or she is being addressed:

"You don't know," Nahilah said. "You don't know anything. You think life is those distances you cross to come to me, carrying the smell of the forest. And you say you're a lone wolf. But my dearest, it's not a matter of the smell of the wolf or the smell of wild thyme or of the Roman olive tree, it's a matter of people who've become strangers to each other. Do you know who we are at least?"

This passage, like so many others, takes place in Bab Al Shams, or the eponymous Gate of the Sun, the cave where the majority of Nahilah and Yunes's life together occurs. It is appropriate that Khoury would choose a cave as one of the central locations for his epic, as this is a novel about the Palestinian situation that deals as much with interiors as with exteriors—as much with the deep complexity of human minds and hearts as with the heartbreaking ravages of loss and exile surrounding them. Stories proliferate and bifurcate and fold in on themselves in Bab Al Shams, as they do in Yunes's hospital room, where Khalil can't stop telling them, even when he wants to:

My eyelids are weighed down with stories.... Stories are for sleep, not for death. Now it's time for us to stop telling stories for a while, because one story leads to another, and night blankets the words.
But first tell me, what is the story of that spirit woman and that man who drowned in the circles of the red sun?

In Khalil's stories, which are also Yunes's, Nahilah's and—through the power of Khoury's magnificent writing—ours, illusions are built up, punctured, and built up again in an inexorable cycle that leaves behind it the kind of searing clarity that is ever-more indispensable as the troubling events in the Middle East continue to unfold.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006