art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Elias Khoury: Gate of the Sun.

The following is an excerpt from Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun (translated by Humphrey Davies). Drawing on the stories Khoury gathered from refugee camps over the course of many years, Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.

gate-of-the-sun

Umm Hassan is dead. I saw everyone racing through the alleys of the camp and heard the sound of weeping. Everyone was spilling out of their houses, bent over to catch their tears, running. Nabilah, Mahmoud al-Qasemi’s wife, our mother, was dead. We called her mother because everyone born in the Shatila camp fell from their mother’s guts into her hands. I too had fallen into her hands, and I too ran the day she died.

Umm Hassan came from al-Kweikat, her village in Galilee, to become the only midwife in Shatila – a woman of uncertain age and without children. I only knew her when she was old, with stooped shoulders, a face full of creases, large eyes shining in a white square, and a white cloth covering her white hair. Our neighbor, Sana’, the wife of Karim al-Jashi the kunafa  seller, said Umm Hassan dropped in on her the night before last and told her her death was coming.

“I heard its voice, daughter. Death whispers, and its voice is soft.”

Speaking in her half-Bedouin accent she told Sana’ about the messenger of death. “The messenger came in the morning and told me to get ready.” And she told Sana’ how she wanted to be prepared for burial. “She took me by the hand,” said Sana’, “led me to her house, opened her wooden trunk, and showed me the white silk shroud. She told me she would bathe before she went to sleep: ‘I’ll die pure, and I want only you to wash me.’ “

Umm Hassan is dead. Everyone knew that this Monday morning, November 20th, 1995, was the time set for Nabilah, Fatimah’s daughter, to meet death. Everyone awoke and waited, but no one was brave enough to go to her house to discover she was dead. Umm Hassan had told everyone, and everyone believed her. Only I was taken by surprise. I stayed with you until eleven at night, and then, exhausted, I went to my room and slept. It was night, the camp was asleep, and no one told me. But everyone else knew.

No one would question Umm Hassan because she always told the truth. Hadn’t she been the only one to weep on the morning of June 5, 1967? Everyone was dancing in the streets, anticipating going home to Palestine, but she wept. She told everyone she’d decided to wear mourning. Everyone laughed and said Umm Hassan had gone mad. Throughout the six long days of the war she never opened the windows of her house; on the seventh, out she came to wipe away everyone’s tears. She said she knew Palestine would not come back until all of us had died.

Over the course of her long life, Umm Hassan had buried her four children one after the other. They would come to her borne on planks, their clothes covered in blood. All she had left was a son called Naji, who lived in America. Though Naji wasn’t her real son, he was: She had picked him up from beneath an olive tree on the Kabri-Tarshiha road and had fed him from her dry breasts, then returned him to his mother when they reached the village of Qana, in Lebanon.

Umm Hassan died today. No one dared go into her house. About twenty women gathered to wait, then Sana’ came and knocked on the door, but no one opened it. She pushed it, it opened, she went in and ran to the bedroom. Umm Hassan was sleeping, her head covered with her white headscarf. Sana’ went over and took her by the shoulders, and the chill of death flowed into the hands of the kunafa-seller’s wife, who screamed. The women entered, the weeping began, and everyone raced to the house.

I, too, would like to run with the others, go in with them, see Umm Hassan sleeping her eternal sleep and breathe in the smell of olives that clung to her small home. But I didn’t weep. For three months I’ve been incapable of reacting. Only this man floating above his bed makes me feel the throb of life.

For three months he’s been laid out on his bed in Galilee Hospital, where I work as a doctor, or where I pretend that I’m a doctor. I sit next to him, and I try. Is he dead or alive? I don’t know – am I helping or tormenting him? Should I tell him stories or listen to him?

For three months I’ve been in this room. Today Umm Hassan died, and I want him to know, but he doesn’t hear. I want him to come with me to her funeral, but he won’t get up. They said he fell into a coma. An explosion in the brain causing permanent damage. A man lies in front of me, and I have no idea what to do.

I’ll just try not to let him rot while he’s still alive, because I’m sure he’s asleep, not dead. But what difference does it make? Is it true what Umm Hassan said about a sleeper being like a dead man – that the sleeper’s soul leaves his body only to return when he wakes, but that the dead man’s soul leaves and doesn’t come back?

Where is the soul of Yunes, son of Ibrahim, son of Suleiman al-Asadi? Has it left him for a distant place, or is it hovering above us in the hospital room, asking me not to go because the man is immersed in distant darknesses, afraid of the silence? I swear I’ve no idea. On her first visit Umm Hassan said that Yunes was in torment. She said he was in a different place from us.

“So what should I do?” I asked her.

“Do what he tells you,” she answered.

“But he doesn’t speak,” I said.

“Oh yes, he does,” she said, “and it’s up to you to hear his voice.”

And I don’t hear it, I swear I don’t, but I’m stuck to this chair, and I talk and talk. Tell me, I beg of you, what should I do? I sit by your side and listen to the sound of weeping coming through the window of your room. Can’t you hear it? Everyone else is weeping, so why don’t you? It’s become our habit to look out for occasions to weep, for tears are dammed up behind our eyes. Umm Hassan has burst open our reservoir of tears. Why won’t you get up and weep?

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art of resistance, Egypt, Palestine

Radwa Ashour: Living With The Sea.

The following is an excerpt from Radwa Ashour’s novel The Woman from Tantoura (translated by Kay Heikkinen).

11193228_756935071088032_1600094042379216030_n/Radwa Ashour, photo: Lobna Ismail, via Arabic Literature/

“The sea was the border of the village, lending it its voices and colors, suffusing it with scents, which we would smell even in the aroma of the large, flat stone-baked bread loaves. I don’t remember when I learned how to swim just as I don’t remember when I learned how to walk or talk.

In later years I headed for coastal towns. I said ‘the sea in Beirut and Alexandria is the same sea’, but it wasn’t. City sea is different: you look at it from the high balcony or you walk along an asphalt path and the sea is there, separated from you by a ditch and a fence. And if you decide to go to it you come as a stranger, sitting in one of the coffee shops on the shore, or carrying with you stranger’s gear – an umbrella, a chair, perhaps a towel and a swimsuit. It’s a limited visit: you come as a guest, then you pick up your things and leave.

Like most of the houses in the village, our house was entwined with the sea. I would go to it carelessly, almost unnoticing, two steps in the water meaning to wet my feet and then a wave would surprise me, wetting my whole garment.  I would jump back to the sand and in the flash of an eye it would turn me into a sand creature, then another jump and I would dive into the water all the way.

I would swim and play, alone or with the other girls and boys. We would share in digging, then ‘me, me, me…’. I would go down into the deep pit and they would spread sand over me until my body disappeared , leaving only the heads rising excitedly from its warm, sandy burial place. A grave surrounded by the laughter and devilment of the young.

Perhaps the sea, like us, is absorbed in watching and forgets itself in calm, or is gradually overcome by sleepiness after the long evening. Like the sea, we give in to the gentle torpor. We don’t notice until our mothers take us away, and we follow them like sleepwalkers. We settle into our beds, not knowing if we are in the house or on the beach, if what we see or what rings in our ears is the real wedding or a dream in our sleep.

The sea resides in the village. As for the train, it has set times, appearing  and the disappearing, like the night-haunting ghoul. We are disturbed  by the roar of its engines as it approaches, the earth’s shaking as it passes, the friction of the wheels on the rails, its whistle bursts, the hiss of the brakes because it is stopping. The train passes through the town daily, and has a station in the east, in Zummarin. Sometimes it carries local people like us; mostly it is ridden by English soldiers or settlers with business in Haifa or Jaffa, who come and go by train. My two brothers ride Abu Isam’s bus once a week, going to Haifa at the beginning of the week and returning at the end, to spend Thursday and Friday night with us.”

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: A Sky So Close by Betool Khedairi.

Betool Khedairi is an Iraqi novelist, born to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She grew up in Iraq, and later on moved between Iraq, Jordan and United Kingdom.  A Sky So Close is her first novel, written more than a decade ago. The book has been published in numerous languages, from Arabic to English, Italian, French and Dutch.

729570-gf/French edition of A Sky So Close/

This novel is about Iraq as much as it isn’t about Iraq – it is a story about the freedom and imagination of childhood, about the complex struggle between identities, cultures and traditions, abour racism and shadows wars cast on societies long after they’re finished. Khedairi tells the story in a simple, unpretentious way, offering a fresh look on childhood in the Iraqi countryside in the 1970s. She writes:

“In the vast expanse everything was bigger than me. Even the way you looked at me, across the breakfast table, when I called my mother ‘mummy’ instead of calling her ‘youm’ or ‘yumma’ in the Arabic way. I only felt I was my true size when I was with Khadija, this person was the only creature in the world who made me feel that there was something or someone, as small as me. I made her even smaller. I called her Khaddouja – ‘Little Khadija’.

She was my world. She was everything that came in the second half of the day. A world that spread between our farmhouse and her father’s hut, by the banks of the Tigris River, in our little village twenty miles south of Baghdad. Zafraniya, it was called – ‘Land of Saffron.’ That was where the apricot trees grew. Vast acres of graceful trees , their upper branches entwined. When the sun starts to sink over the apricot farm, their shadow fall as complex patterns of light and shade on the ground underneath. The youthful branches stretch out in all directions. Their sharp twigs seem like fingers, entangled in handshakes, exchanging bunches of white flowers. Each spring I wish that the flowers would last forever.”

We get to know about adolescence issues and coming of age during the long Iraq-Iran war, which changed the country beyond retrieve.  It was a state of chaos, a chaos people got used to with time. Khedairi describes the situation:

“The war has been dragging its heavy feet from the day the first military communique was issued. The ages of those called up for compulsory military services have been extended to both younger boys and older men. Calls have gone out for more voluntary contributions. Laws forbidding travel abroad have become more numerous and varied. Foreign magazines have disappeared from the shelves in bookshops. Imported good have been replaced by local produce.

Pharmacies have been banned from selling conraceptive pills in an effort to increase the populationnand replace losses at the battlefields. The television natters with promotions encouraging marriage and early conception. In a new trend called ‘mass weddings’ large halls are hired out, complete with all varieties of foods and sweets. Couples are married there en masse. Each couple takes their turn at cutting the gigantic white cake, using a knife decorated with colored ribbons.”

The story continues with protagonist’s migration to England, some years before the first Gulf war, when, as she writes; “events in my homeland were no longer considered newsworthy by the world’s radio stations.”

The book is not a masterpiece, but a rather enjoyable and fair account of one’s life between East and West, war and peace, survival and death.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

 

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