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The Weight of Story: Review of Elias Khoury's Bab Al-Shams

If there is one quote that could adequately describe Elias Khoury's novel Bab Al-Shams [Gate of the Sun] it would be Marx's famous statement in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." For Khoury's magnum opus about the colonization of Palestine and the resulting trauma of exile is primarily concerned with the crushing weight of history and innumerable dead generations. Or, as Khoury writes: "but tell me, why does history only ever come in the shape of a ravening beast? Why do we only ever see it reflected in mirrors of blood?"

Although Yousry Nasrallah's four hour film adaptation of Bab Al-Shams succeeded in capturing the expansive power of the novel, because of Khoury's concern with the haunting shadow the past casts over the present the novel itself defies complete adaptation. This is not to say that Nasrallah's epic was not a brilliant film--it was, and perhaps it was the only possible adaptation of the book. Divided into two sections, it succeeds in finding a narrative logic by focusing one half of the film on the colonization of Palestine in 1948, and the other half on the 1967 generation in exile and everything they experienced up to the tragic War of the Camps in Lebanon. Since Khoury, however, is interested in the long and nightmarish shadow of the past, and how it weighs on the Palestinian experience, his novel's narrative thread is tangled up with multiple and disparate threads.

The central story of Bab Al-Shams is deceptively simple. In a hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, the narrator Khalil sits with his comatose mentor, Yunes, and tries to keep him alive with stories. On one level these stories are about Yunes' life--his experience of the Nakbah, his life as one of the first Palestinian guerrillas, and his attempts to keep sneaking back into his family village to reunite with a wife that was stranded by colonial borders. Eventually the stories become multiple as Khalil not only recounts his own experiences of the War of the Camps, but the experiences and stories of others - either stories first recounted to him by Yunes or stories he heard from people Yunes never met. The relationships between stories slowly grows more confused as they begin to infect each other, echoing the confusion of the Palestinian experience. And the tragedies, or even triumphs, of these stories, as they are confused by time and place, take on a complexity that is not so easily contained in the overarching narrative of Israeli colonialism.

At the conclusion of the novel's first section, Khoury writes in the narrative voice of Khalil:
I'm a prisoner who possesses nothing but the stories he makes up about his freedom. I'm a prisoner of the hospital and a prisoner of the story. I'm drowning. Water surrounds me. I swallow water and swallow words and tell the story. […] I've told you all your stories, of the past and of the present, yet you remain unreachable. […] I understand nothing; things are collapsing inside my head. I've almost forgotten all your names, I mix them all together. […] You know everything, but I don't.
It becomes unclear whether Khalil is addressing the comatose Yunes, a reified Palestine, or both. And this lack of clarity, this obscurity that defines the novel's structure, is what makes Bab Al-Shams a great novel.

Disinterested in simple political literature that simply describes a tragedy and then attempts to provide easy solutions (Israel's colonialism = bad; Palestinian anticolonialism = good), Khoury is above all interested in creating a literature that, rather than slip into banal sloganeering, attempts to do the real political work of interrogating the Palestinian trauma. This is not to say that Khoury does not believe that the historical event of Israel's establishment is the fundamental and structuring logic behind Palestinian oppression, nor is it to say that he does not believe in the Palestinian anticolonial struggle and the Right of Return––the novel does make these facts clear but, rather than focusing on them, chooses to examine the crushing weight of historical trauma from an interior position.

Thus the fact of Zionist colonization is primarily the ghost that haunts the subject matter of the novel: it is always present, it is always possessing every multiple story, it needs to be exorcized. But it is not the novel's prime focus because Khoury's target audience would already be familiar with Israel's colonial origins and the Nakbah. He is not interested in redescribing what, in his opinion, should already be accepted as fact. In fact, he indicates this in the novel whenever he invokes the name of Ghassan Kanafani. At one point, Khalil even says that Yunes' love story would never make it into a Kanafani story because these stories were not concerned with the everyday. (It is significant that Yousry Nasrallah's film adaption spent the first half narrating the Nakbah with far more detail than the novel. What was unnecessary in the novel, however, was necessary in the film: the Nakbah has rarely been depicted in film and thus deserves a language of images like every other tragedy.)

The event of the Nakbah has already been inscribed in Palestinian and Arab literature and given a language. Palestinian life pre-1948 and post-1948, and all the multiple relationships that make up a peoples' existence, have not been given the same language. Rather, they have been disarticulated by colonialism and then, rather than examined in their disarticulation, given a simplistic and two-dimensional life by political authors. Of course this type of political literature, the revolutionary allegory, is necessary––Khoury does not disagree, which is why Kanafani and other such writers are accorded so much respect in Bab Al-Shams.

The political significance of Khoury's novel, though, is that it is an attempt to show the complexities of Palestinian everyday life at multiple points in Palestinian history. The fact that Yunes' love story would not, as Khalil maintains, make it into a Kanafani novel is politically significant because Palestinian people are not allowed to be anything but passive victims. They are supposed to disappear, as Ben-Gurion wanted them to, and a disappearing people defined only by the tragedy that causes disappearances are not permitted to have love stories. Indeed, the love story between Yunes and Nahilah would be considered, in any other context, a great story about love and tragedy - the sort of grand romance that would have enamoured the Byrons and Shelleys of the world. And yet, because it is confused by so many other narratives in Bab Al-Shams it becomes part of the crushing weight of history, the stories in which Khalil finds himself drowning.

These stories (so often tied to the metaphor of drowning) are the sort of stories that a real people, not a disappearing and two-dimensional people, would possess. If they are ultimately tragic it is because of the determining factor of Zionist colonization. But this does not mean there are other factors that co-determine tragedy. Obsessed with everyday social relations, Khoury maps an interior critique of the Palestinian struggle that is often painful to read. The trauma of memory, the fear of forgetfulness, the impermanence of identity... these are Khoury's concerns. We are shown a conflicted people trying to remain a people even though they have been separated by exile, genocide, and borders. Every day stories become important because they connect people to each other, providing a map of a land that is being remapped by the colonizer. Pictures become prized possessions: "It's almost as if we think that by carrying around the pictures of our dead with us, it will save them from death." That is, the death of being forgotten, pushed out of history.

And yet these stories are also extremely conflicted. Gender oppression is a common subject, the history of the character Shams and her vicious husband being one of the main narrative threads, a mystery never revealed until the end. (Yousry Nasrallah called Bab Al-Shams a feminist novel; his film adaptation, therefore, often focused on this feminist part of the narrative.) So is the political corruption and failure of the resistance leadership. At one point Khalil complains how the political self-criticism he had learned in China in the 1960s could never be accomplished by fedayeen in the refugee camps. Khoury's interior critiques are important because he is not interested in turning the Palestinian people into inhuman caricatures ("a race of angels" as Fanon would say disparagingly about supposedly radical attempts to fictionalize a colonized people) but into real humans - meaning messy and tragic. And though he is always clear that the event of colonialism has exacerbated these problems, he is simulataneously interested in interrogating these problems.

What makes Bab Al-Shams most politically significant, however, is its unwillingness to mythologize the pre-colonial past. Here we must recall how Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, claimed that attempts to aggrandize the pre-colonial past, though important for national pride, were ultimately counter-revolutionary because they obscured the truth of a people - these authors, he claimed, only caught hold of the peoples' "outer garment," and that they obsessed over the past's "mineral strata" rather than focusing on the vital life of the present and possible future. Khalil complains:
Explain to me now, why all this nostalgia for those days of poverty? […] Have you forgotten how poor you were there? Do you feel sentimental about it? Or is memory a sickness - a strange sickness that afflicts a whole people? A sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory? […] We feel sentimental about our poverty and our demolished villages to the point of forgetting ourselves and, finally, dying.
And yet, it clear that this obsession with a past that did not exist is determined by the event of colonialism. A people torn from their land and hurled into exile have nothing else and, Khoury reminds us, often fall into the trap of nostalgia: "Why do we, of all the peoples in the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn't lost and we find we've fallen into eternal sleep?"

The love story between Yunes and Nahilah is an attempt to defy this eternal sleep. Separated by borders, Yunes continuously sneaks back into his village to meet with his estranged wife. They build a tiny world in a cave and call it Bab Al-Shams, hiding it from even their children. Here they pretend that they are living in a free Palestine (Nahilah even calls it the only place Israel hasn't conquered) but it is only a game. Yunes can never stay for long, can never remain in this cavern dedicated to the past, and his visits are sporadic and divided by years. Moreover, the secret cave is a metaphor of a past that never existed: until his sporadic visits, Yunes never really loved Nahilah and she even confronts him with this fact, telling him that they are just pretending and they don't know each other––that they never knew each other and are attempting to recreate a love that never existed. When Nahilah dies she tells her children about the grave and orders them to seal up the last piece of "a free Palestine." Her son says to his children:
Leave Yunes in the whale's belly... and after three days, or three years, or three decades, your grandfather Yunes will emerge from the whale's belly, just like the first Yunes did, and Palestine will return, and we'll call the village that we'll rebuild Bab al-Shams.
And so the past is sealed off and the future is invoked. In the end Elias Khoury's Bab Al-Shams becomes an attempt at fictional remembering that echoes Benjamin's insights in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" where he rejects the notion of history as empty and homogenous time and desires to examine history as "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet." The closed-up Bab Al-Shams that signifies the possible reemergence of a liberated Palestine reminds us that, in Benjamin's words, "every second of time [is] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter."


  1. Whoever you are, my friend, you span many generations, many painful evolutions and countless humorous experiences from several past decades of activism and radical reorganizing. Most of all you seem steadfast and practical. I like your careful selection of essays, comments, even logo and your reflections on everything that needs to be said.... Salud!

  2. Thanks, that means a lot. (By the way, would this happen to be the same Rana Bose who wrote "The Fourth Canvas"?)


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