“Palestine isn’t a country to have a flag… Palestine is a condition” (Little Mountain, Elias Khoury, 1977)

Gate of the Sun (Bab Al Shams) has enjoyed notable success since its initial publication in Arabic in 1998. It is the product of hundreds of hours of interviews with Palestinian refugees by the author, Elias Khoury. The novel is essentially a tale of how normal, everyday people cope and survive when their world suddenly collapses around them. The book has no definite structure; similar in style to A Thousand and One Nights, the narrator mimics Scheherazade by telling an endless stream of stories, although Khalil's intention is not to save himself but to save his dying, comatose friend Yunis. Oscillating between self-analysis and internal reflection on the one hand, and recounting and assessing the validity of other peoples’ stories on the other, the narrator jumps from one tale to another. The sequence of stories is well-balanced, and includes tales of tragedy, war, love, humor, death, redemption, revolution, and folklore.

The book is classified as fiction, yet it recounts events that happened in real life – the fall of various Arab villages in Galilee during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence; fierce battles between warring factions in the Lebanese Civil War; training of PLO guerilla fighters in China; massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982. The stories are told through the eyes of people who lived through these events. The author employs powerful biblical and historical imagery to captivate the reader. Yunis (Arabic for Jonah) is trapped inside the Palestinian revolution and national movement; unlike Jonah, he has no chance of escaping his entrapment. Nahilah, his wife, is a mirror of the homeland that has been lost; she is venerated by her absentee husband, but this veneration is of little use to her.

Khalil in essence collects and verifies stories that have been told to him over the years. He takes Yunis and the reader on an enchanting journey, from village to village, from camp to camp, from one person’s mesmerizing story to another. The novel’s formlessness mirrors the reality of the Palestinian experience since 1948, quintessentially a narrative characterized by 61 years of waiting in exile without any clear indication of how, or if, the wait will end.

 

Other Reviews

Archipelago Books: "Beautifully weaving together haunting stories of survival and loss, love and devastation, memory and dream, Khoury humanizes the complex Palestinian struggle as he brings to life the story of an entire people."

Guardian UK: "While Gate of the Sun, whose first translation was into Hebrew, deconstructs myths of heroism, it also makes a universal plea to recognise the adversary's story as a mirror of one's own."

The Christian Science Monitor: "Humanity and compassion are what give this rich and teeming narrative its shape, creating a work that in its essence is a heartfelt plea for sanity and peace."

The Times (London): "The Stories are not propaganda--they are the all too real lives of people yearning for justice or escape; whose plight lies at the heart of so much conflict in the Middle East and beyond. Perhaps only a novelist could tell it this way."

Guardian UK: "In Gate of the Sun a character dreams of writing a 'book without a beginning or end . . . an epic of the Palestinian people,' based on the stories of every village, and starting from the 'great expulsion of 1948.' Elias Khoury's monumental novel is in a sense that groundbreaking book."

BaniPal: "Gate of the Sun opens at the end of the age of heroism to brighten up dim hospital rooms and dark caves, and to bring into the light all the suffering endured in silence."