Tales of a hurt that does not heal

One Palestinian tells tales to another - even as he wonders if stories are all that is left to them.

Gate of the Sun by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is probably not going to soar to the top of bestseller lists in the United States. And that's a shame, because it really should.

Admittedly, at first glance, the novel seems to have a couple of strikes against it. It's lengthy - in fact, 'sprawling' is probably a better description. And it tells stories of the Palestinian people - stories some readers may be quick to assume will be angry, violent, and partisan in their presentation.

The violence is, in fact, impossible to omit. This, the narrator tells us, is "a desolate people that has grown accustomed to losing its children," a culture in which "war became a ghost that seeped into people's clothes and walked among them."

But anger and ideology do not tinge this haunting saga. On the contrary, 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 book was originally published in Arabic in 1998. It has since achieved acclaim throughout the Arab world and Europe, and now makes its US debut in an English translation.

"Gate of the Sun" is best explained as a contemporary version of "1001 Nights." The novel is a long string of stories one Palestinian tells another as he sits by his hospital bed.

The narrator is Khalil Ayyoub, also known as "Dr. Khalil." The only medical training he has had was a three-month crash course in China. However, Khalil asks, in the world of the Palestinians, where so many dwell in illusion so much of the time, what does it matter?

Khalil is working in a hospital in a crumbling Palestinian refugee camp. One of the patients, he discovers, is a man he knows - a friend and even once a hero of Khalil's, Yunes Abu Salem, a fabled warrior of the Palestinian resistance. Yunes is now in a coma and not expected to live, but Khalil sits by his bedside for hours, telling him stories.

The stories that Khalil tells are a heartrending, interlocking tangle of loss and hurt. They describe a people who have never ceased to ache. They long endlessly - and perhaps pointlessly - for houses and villages that no longer exist. They carry ancient keys, they swap photographs, video tapes, and stories, and they wait - even though the future they are waiting for often seems to have little connection with reality.

Many of the stories, Khalil admits, may no longer be accurate. They have been told and retold so many times that it's impossible to know. Khalil himself is part of a generation too young to remember Palestine. Yet his entire life has been shaped by the idea of it. It makes him wonder if "memory is a sickness ... a sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory?"

Some of the stories that Khalil tells Yunes are actually Yunes's own stories that he once shared with Khalil. But Khalil has now begun to question them.

Yunes told him of a cave dug out of rocks (Bab al-Shams or "gate of the sun") where he lived for years while hiding from the Israelis. But others have told Khalil that there is no such place. Yunes has also long glorified his love for his brave and devoted wife, Nahilah. Yet now Khalil wonders: Was that really love or just a long series of painful sacrifices that finally exhausted Nahilah?

Other stories are of people Khalil and Yunes have known in common, ordinary villagers who since 1948 have been dreaming of houses, animals, and land they once owned. In their world the loss of children, parents, siblings, and even a meaningful sense of existence has become almost commonplace.

They include the story of Umm Hassan, the midwife whose anguish finally drove her to to walk out of a refugee camp and back to her house in Palestine. There, she found an Israeli woman. Far from denouncing her, the Israeli woman showed her an earthenware water jug she'd been keeping for her in the exact spot where Umm Hassan left it. And when she learned that Umm Hassan now lived in Beirut, she began to cry. That was her real home she explained - the city she missed and longed to return to.

The Palestinians, like the rest of mankind, should have risen in rebellion against the Holocaust, Khalil concludes. Not, he says, "because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us."

Khoury is not a Palestinian himself but he has spent years talking to Palestinians and recording their stories.

His sense of connection with their plight is obvious. Perhaps it required an outsider, however, to fully grasp the fragility of their situation. Without a land, what holds a people together? Only a language - and stories.

And yet, what a tenuous and burdensome tie it is. "Why do we," Khalil asks an unconscious Yunes, "of all the peoples of the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn't lost and we find we've fallen into eternal sleep?"

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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