Palestine in Fiction
The Advantages of Fiction
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy a work of fiction about Palestinians. Not that the combination of 1948 and 1982, consisting as they did of massacres, was my cup of tea. But that is precisely why fiction rather than non-fiction is preferable. I read this book very sympathetically even though I hold to an opposite political stance. To me, Israel is an absolute necessity. It would take another hub, unfortunately, to try to elaborate upon this point of contention. Still, it has disgorged a great number of people who used to live in the very same place for hundreds if not thousands of years. They are not, as a whole, doing very well in the surrounding areas to which they fled. Many live in countries without citizenship. Where are their real homes? Well, they can practically point to them. They are over there, in what is now Israel (Acre, Tyre, Jaffa, al-Ghabsiyyeh, Deir al-Asad), or just over a border. Of course, most houses, by now, have been razed.
Non-fiction cannot come close to making the reader understand what it is really like to suddenly be on the outside of everything one holds dear and sacred. Here is a work of fiction in which a doctor (without an official degree) keeps a patient company. The patient is near death and unconscious. The doctor speaks to the him silently in his mind. This is not a problem in literature. Through the one-sided conversation, the reader becomes acquainted with many local, legendary characters. I am gambling on the fact that they are less a product of fiction than the two involved in the non-conversation. Therein lies a key difference between fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, one rarely comes across so colorful a crowd, more in-focus than out. Few appear in Israeli or Palestinian histories. All, however, deal with the same event, which to them is the occupation of what used to be their land and homes, quite literally.
Real People, Real Pain
No one can say that it was another blip in the mercurial movements of history to those on the losing end of 1948. Then, to be victimized again in 1982 only adds fuel to the fire. But the fire does not rage so much as simmer in this novel, though it ultimately deals with massacres. Today, we are already too jaded to bat an eyelash at the deaths of 1500 inhabitants of a remote village. But to the protagonist, Dr. Khalil Ayyoub (educated in China, where he also learns English), who tells the tale or anecdotes, these victims and others, participants in related disasters, were completely real. They are remembered, too. For survivors, "getting on with their lives" proved hard. Some became fedayeen. Some joined Fatah. Others left the Middle East. Some relocated in Europe. The facts and figures can be easily researched. Many of the more talented went on to distinguish themselves. It is just that a work of non-fiction would not have dwelled so much at length on olives, dates, arak, string meat, and fried cauliflower in tasty sauces. There is also a kind of mystical communion with certain trees woven into the fabric of life.
It is impossible to eliminate from the entire story elements of absurdity that would be difficult to make up, even in fiction. Some sneaked across the border from Lebanon back into Galilee or Haifa to "steal" from their own homes, if left standing. Many of them were shot. True, they have little affection for their common enemy. But they do not get along with each other perfectly well either. They quibble and quarrel. There is just no going back. No fixes, long-term or short. A Palestinian hero who might have been the counterpart of a purple heart recipient is thrown into prison for twenty years, then ten more for contempt. He saved the lives of fellow-soldiers, and would not talk. But when he gets out, eighteen years later, his brain does not fully function, and he is not honored the way the storyteller would have liked him to have been. There are others, too. A blind sheik, for example, speaks eloquently to people who are not there. A cure-all snake-oil salesman gets arrested.
Late 19th Century Palestine (Ramla)
What Happened? What Didn't?
Well, apparently it was not pretty. The authorial, Palestinian voice always mistakenly groups Jews together as though they constituted a single entity, thinking and feeling exactly alike. This is not the case. In fact, many Jews are quite open-minded to Palestinians. But about the hardened Jews described, the best one can say is that several suffered severe psychiatric disorders. Is cruelty essential to statehood? Forcing captives to live with bags over their heads, seated on chairs, and kept that way for days, if not weeks -- all this, derived neither from Nazi Germany nor the CIA? Or, captives tied to the ground in the sun by day, then stood up at night, to feel the burn. From such literary reportage of Israel's detention "camps", the glory, heroism, and especially discipline of Israeli militarism fades. My only question is, why?
I have to admit. I feel genuinely sorry for the Palestinians I encounter in this story. I feel that they have done nothing wrong to deserve lives of penury, hopelessness, and oppression. But that is not how they are described from the other side. I am familiar with that, too. It is useless trying to find a comfort zone in between these two. It is a rare privilege, however, to be able to hear and see the indigenous "stick figures", as they are so often portrayed, who made up the former tenants of the Holy Land. They are every bit for real. Conspicuously absent is Yasser Arafat. But great hopes are pinned on Gamal Abdel Nasser. On one hand, he led Israel's neighbors, with some exceptions, into a spectacularly short war. Ultimately, he failed. On the other hand, no one, or group, is currently adequately poised on the horizon, including Russia, and Iran, to destroy the Jewish State.
Sea of Galilee
Living On Edge
The protagonist is overjoyed to find his patient a waterbed. It will eliminate bedsores. He brings tea and spends the entire day in the Galilee Hospital. His mind sifts through stories already in the public domain, as it were. He is not a real doctor, in the sense in which it is usually understood. Further, he is rightfully accused, in a manner of speaking, of doing nothing more than guarding a corpse. The patient is comatose, gradually nearing death with each passing moment. But the two of them, one living, one dying, evoke the memories of a prolonged period of enormous loss. To fully understand, the reader has to have some inkling of what it is like to possess an internal life in which can be found all the emotions, joys and sorrows, of the more extolled extrovert. Either way, whenever non-military characters encounter Jews, they are truly terrorized. They hardly know what to do except run, hide, and go out of their minds. What is the reality?
The reality is a dualism that does not compute. The novel acts as a corrective lens only insofar as it does not manipulate the truth or deliberately exaggerate. It would not be the first time, alluding to the opposing opinion, that a victory had been somewhat sanitized. It is done all the time. The ordinary citizen is offended by the harsh penalties the losing side must endure in a region that seems unable to achieve a livable peace. But the Middle East cannot be an ordinary place. The numbers involved are also deceptive. Near the end, the doctor learns of the deaths of nine Jewish women married to Palestinians during the 1948 massacre. All shot to death. He finds it laughable. Nine, when there were millions who either suffered death or worse than death! But I respectfully disagree. If every single life does not matter, then none do, regardless of amounts.
Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun, translated by Humphrey Davies. First published in 1998 as Bab al-Shams.