Gate of the Sun is the Palestinian Odyssey. A magnum opus recalling the defeat and exodus of 1948, the book employs a formless, disjointed structure to recount extraordinary tales of survival and resurgence in times of war. It brings to life the sprawling, cryptic world of exile, fear, revolution and hope that is the Palestinian experience.
Khalil, the paramedic narrator, keeps vigil at the bedside of his comatose friend and spiritual father, Yunis, a renowned leader and fighter in the Palestinian resistance. In the makeshift Galilee Hospital, in the almost completely destroyed Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Khalil nurses his slumbering friend and narrates endless stories, in the firm belief that “people in comas can have their consciousness restored by being talked to.”
The central story is that of Yunis and his wife Nahilah who, unlike her husband, remained in what became Israel after 1948. Yunis lives as a serial ‘border crosser’, slipping into Israel from Lebanon to meet his wife at Gate of the Sun, a secret cave in the hills of Galilee, where the sun allegedly sleeps. The cave serves as the only meeting point for husband and wife for more than forty years; here they eat, fight, make love, dream and discuss their children. Yunis only ever meets his children once.
At their final meeting, Nahilah tells Yunis that she regrets having married him. The cross-border relationship has bled her dry and drained her soul. She has protected, raised and provided for her family alone. She boldly tells him that she no longer wants to see him.
Shortly afterwards, Nahilah dies. Before her death, she instructs her son to go to Gate of the Sun and seal the cave forever – ‘we mustn’t let the Israelis get in ever; it’s the only bit of Palestinian territory that’s been liberated.’ Yunis’s son follows his mother’s instructions, and then calls his father – their only conversation – to inform him that they have “closed the country”: the last remaining bit of unoccupied Palestine has been sealed. Yunis receives the news in his run-down apartment in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, the walls of which are adorned with his children’s degree certificates from Tel Aviv and other Israeli universities.
Khalil’s stories are endless and enchanting, but also harrowing. Some catalogue the fall of Arab villages in Galilee in 1948, others describe the plight of refugees as they flee; some narrate extraordinary acts of heroism in critical times; some detail the division and reunification of families. All the stories are told through the eyes of suffering people – particularly mothers. Most importantly, there are endless stories of love – Khalil always returns to talk about the women in his life with amazement and awe.
There is the story of the fall of Al Kweikat and Al Ghabsiyyeh; the massacre of the mud at Jenin; the obsession of the Arab Liberation Army with confiscating chickens instead of fighting the Israelis; Abu Mahfouz and his disturbing dream of an Israeli tank driving over his manhood; the mother who kills her son in the fields for fear of being overheard by soldiers; Abu Marouf, the cotton swab and his first night with his bride; the confessions of a Lebanese soldier involved in the massacres of Palestinian refugees in 1982; the French actress who cannot reconcile her experiences visiting Palestinian refugee camps with the narrative she has been taught to accept about Israel's right to exist after the Holocaust. The stories are infinite and endless, and capture the lives and experiences of Palestinians before the disaster of 1948/9; during the disaster; and after.
The novel ends with the death of Yunis.