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Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun (1998)

by Elias Khoury

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2881039,063 (3.79)57
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    In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story by Karmi Ghada (aamirq)
    aamirq: In Search of Fatima is a personal story, a Palestinian memoir. "Gate of the Sun" being more of a story of the Palestinian people. If you loved one, you will definitely love the other.

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Lyrical, haunting and unforgettable. ( )
  AmourFou | Oct 14, 2013 |
This is a beautifully written novel, in which Khoury draws inspiration from stories he heard from Palestinians in refugee camps. The stories are told from the perspective of Khalil, who is a close friend, almost a son, to Yunes, a Palestinian freedom fighter who is in a coma, a result of a massive stroke. Although others have given Yunes up for dead, Khalil sits vigil by his hospital bedside and recounts stories, in an effort to make sense of their lives, and to make some contact with Yunes.

The novel is written as stream of consciousness, with Khalil often telling different versions of the same stories. He goes back and forth over time, and grapples with the instability of memory and questions of motivation and identity. Although the novel's style requires patience from the reader, I thought it beautifully represented the instability of truth and reality in a refugee camp. He also shows again and again the fervent desire to return home, and the impossibility of that.

Also of interest to me were Khoury's representations of women. He depicts them as strong, and provides vivid examples of the weight they have borne under exile.

Recommended for anyone interested in the Palestinian experience in exile, and for readers who are interested in the instability of memory, and in the role of stories in creating identities. ( )
  KrisR | Mar 30, 2013 |
This was a really hard one to push through. The story was cool and a lot of it was really good, but the writing was like reading a list of sentences; they didn't flow well and sometimes didn't even make sense next to each other. Part of that may be because it is a translation, I don't know, but it was an okay book that could have been very good, if the writing wasn't so clunky. ( )
  weeksj10 | Jul 1, 2011 |
If good literature mirrors and explores the human condition in itself, and its individual but endlessly repetitive patterns of interaction with others at the levels of the individual, the commune and the nation, in the present and the past....which I believe it does....then this is a great novel.

This is a novel about the history of the Palestinian people, from their initial expulsion from Galilee in 1948, through myriad wars, civil wars, incursions, massacres....all told through stories of individuals, a web woven by a man recounting them to an old friend, Yunes, an old Palestinian fighter who is in a coma. The structure of the novel mirrors the lives of the Palestinians: it rambles and swerves in unexpected directions because there is no stable timeline for the Palestinians, no over-arching narrative of place, no coherent national story, only overlapping and often contradictory myths. Nothing in the novel is as it seems: the hospital is not really a hospital, the doctor is not really the doctor, the nurse is not really a nurse…..political organizations rise and fall and re-shape themselves and work and fight in a bewildering world of constantly shifting alliances….there seems to be no constancy in life other than emigrating to Europe or North America or finding some stability by marrying outside the tribe and making a life in a city.

And how does one try to capture these “confusions of life” when, “anything you say comes apart when you write it down and it turns into symbols and signs, cold and bereft of life. Writing is confusion; tell me, who can write the confusions of life? It’s a state between life and death that no one dares enter.”

Khoury captures the confusions of life with an approach that is not so much stream-of-consciousness as stream-of-memory through the stories and ruminations that Kahlil recounts, not only to remember events and people, but to try to know the truth of the past, as much as that is possible in a world of human, political, social interactions and forgotten or hidden motivations. Memory is a major theme of the novel: the construction, meaning and influence of memory when it is innocently fallible at the best of times, can be manipulated at its worst and what then, in either case, is the truth or is there such a thing? Memory is, “…the process of organizing what to forget….We talk about things and forget other things. We remember in order to forget, this is the essence of the game.” But memory is also collective: “…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?” And memory becomes history but again, this is unstable ground and Kahlil says, “I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death.”

Gate of the Sun is also about love of family and place, the strength of family and tradition and generations, as anchors in a world of turmoil and violence and uncertainty. It is about family and love of parents and children and grandchildren and the emotional, personal and sexual love of a partner. It is that underlying all the destruction and revolution and war, there are very basic, human desires in play as when Nahailah, wife of Yunes, tells him that she can no longer live their disconnected, dangerous life and that she wants, “…to assure my children’s future. I want them to build houses, and find work, and marry, and live. I want the illusions to end….”.

The novel is also about myth-making and the loop of myth-makers making their own myths and believing them and what that means for history and its interpretation…but who makes up the myths, which ones have the most lasting appeal, what do they say about a people? Every nation, every people has myths, but not all circumstances are the same. As Kahlil asks in musing to Yunes, “Do you believe we can construct our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to construct it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, 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?”

Reviewers have noted the echo of 1001 Nights where Scheschardze tells the sultan stories every night to stave-off death....so the narrator remembers, recounts, interprets stories of his life, of the life of his friend, and of others who come to mind through storytelling...he wants to believe that his friend can hear through his coma and that recounting the stories can restore him to life, even as his body regresses to the state of an infant....Scheschardze did gain a pardon and lived. Yunes does not, but through his storytelling and remembering, Kahlil gains new perspectives on life and memory.

There is also an echo of an odyssey in the sense of a constant seeking for home by the hundreds of thousands of displaced people. However, the effort is futile because the home no longer exists....it has been occupied by the Israelis, or bulldozed out of existence, or lies destroyed in areas no longer accessible....though many continue to believe and hope, because they must, that they can, and will return. Home, even if it no longer exists, becomes a holy grail of constant search and thus one can never be truly happy wherever one is. But time...and generations...smooth out those memories as children and grandchildren move on with their lives, marry outside their circles, and the "homes" of odysseyian fervour become tales of family life and villages valuable only to the old, except where myth-making has taken over.

Khoury describes atrocities by the Israelis but he does so without judgement...he lets the actions speak for themselves. He does say at one point that the systematic murder of Jews in WWII blighted the humanity of all persons, but then as one protagonist says to an Israeli interrogator: you do not have the right to terrorize us because you were terrorized. While another notes that it is not right that they, as Arabs displaced by Jews should, in turn occupy the homes of Christians who have themselves been displaced....otherwise, where does the cycle stop?

The most disturbing scenes are those of Israeli officers singling out men from groups rounded up in village squares...men who are trucked away and never seen again or shot and their bodies left in a field or against a wall. I have no idea of frequency, I hope that most Israeli soldiers were more compassionate, but I don’t doubt that this occurred and it differs morally not one iota from an SS officer rounding up Jews to be murdered. This is, for either the SS or the Israeli officer, the pernicious effect of considering the “other” as a different, lower order of humanity. Khoury extends and explores this concept of the “other” whether that be someone of a different village or religion or nationality and how the concept underpins and "justifies" tragedy and death whereas seeing oneself in the other just might be a basis for compassion.

I think that this is the hope that Khoury sees through the fog of death and prejudice and destruction, a possibility of common understanding among peoples in the recognition that we are all both monsters and saints, that we carry the possibility of both in the same body politic and in the same individual. As he says, “I’m not equating executioner and victim. But I do see a mirror broken into two halves, which can only be mended by joining the two parts together. Dear God, this is the tragedy: to see two halves that come together only in war and ruination.”

A last thought, a connection that I made in reading this novel. At one point Kahlil muses about the “…wisdom of photos that fill our lives. The victims of massacres have no names and no shrouds. Their bodies are covered with lime and insecticides before being thrown into a common grave. People disappear because they have no names, they are reduced to numbers. That’s the terrifying thing, my son, numbers are the terror. That’s why people carry pictures of their dead and their missing, and use them as a substitute for names.”.

This recalled, for me, a room in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, not a large room but one with a high ceiling of maybe 12-15 feet, maybe more, and every square inch of every wall is covered with photographs of people in every day poses: a wedding celebration, a family gathering, at a beach, at work, outside a house, in a field, on a picnic, by a river, mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, work colleagues….and every single nameless photograph is of a Jewish person, a Jewish family from one small village, in Poland I think, that was totally eradicated and every person in the photographs, every man, woman and child murdered. But, as Khoury says, the photographs gave back some of their humanity, rescued them from the forest of oblivion that is the incomprehensible numbers.

This is a very fine novel. Interesting for its history of the Palestinian causes and people and even more so for its insights into the commonalities of the human experience. A book that deserves to be read, and re-read. (March, 2011)
2 vote John | Apr 25, 2011 |
The reviews of this book have been so laudatory that I began reading fully expecting to be swept away. Unfortunately, the only thing to be swept was the book, as I pushed it aside for something more readable. Months later, I began again and ground my way through the first forty pages, refusing to give up. The book did get easier to digest; it’s not a book I will read again, however.

Why so difficult? Khoury wrote the book as a stream of consciousness narration, with all the associative leaps and bounds of human thought. Stories are interrupted by other thoughts, the past and the present become interchanged, and the reader is left with a montage of images formed by the onslaught of storytelling. After a certain point, Khoury’s writing stabilizes a bit, and the reader has pieced together enough of the story to be able to follow along. Some stories are then told in a linear fashion, but those of the two main characters spiral around never ending and never seeming to find resolution.

The book is comprised of a young man’s internal monologue as he sits at the bedside of his aged mentor and father figure, Yunes. Khalil talks aloud, hoping that his voice will bring the old man out of his stroke-induced coma. He talks about what is happening in his life and reflects on how he ended up living in a derelict hospital, afraid he will be killed if he leaves, yet knowing the situation cannot continue indefinitely. But mostly Khalil tries to put together the things that he knows about Yunes, in an attempt to create a story that explains the old Palestinian freedom fighter’s life and his relationship with his wife. Along the way, Khalil tells the stories of countless others: the Palestinian midwife living out her life in a Jordanian refugee camp, a Jewish woman living in a house taken from the Palestinian woman who visits her, French actors who visit the camp hoping to improve a play they are doing on the massacre that took place there, the young Gazan fighter who learns his mother is Jewish.

The stories loosely hang together by themes which appear and reappear throughout the book. Primarily it is a book about the inanity of war and the cycles of violence that perpetuate a situation in which neither side can win. War is examined from both the general sense and the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Why do young men fight and die for a country in which they have never lived? Why does Yunes risk his life over and over to visit his family, rather than bring his family to Jordan? Why do Jews treat the Palestinians in ways that eerily resemble 1930’s Germany?

Others may find the patchwork of discombobulated stories a fascinating look at the situation of Palestinian exiles in Jordan and the themes a literary treasure hunt. Personally, I found the book exhausting. It was like reading [Ulysses] without a concordance. My recommendation? Read Khoury’s later book, [White Masks], instead. ( )
1 vote labfs39 | Apr 10, 2011 |
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Elias Khouryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ferrer Carmona, JaumeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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L'Um Hassan és morta.
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Originally published as Bab al-Shams, Beirut, 1998.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312426704, Paperback)

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
One of Kansas City Star's 100 Noteworthy Books of the Year
A Boldtype Notable Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
Drawing on the stories he gathered from refugee camps over the course of many years, Elias Khoury's epic novel Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.
Yunes, an aging Palestinian freedom fighter, lies in a coma. Keeping vigil at the old man's bedside is his spiritual son, Khalil, who nurses Yunes, refusing to admit that his hero may never regain consciousness. Like a modern-day Scheherazade, Khalil relates the story of Palestinian exile while also recalling Yunes's own extraordinary life and his love for his wife, whom he meets secretly over the years at Bab al-Shams, the Gate of the Sun.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:00 -0400)

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In a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Yunes, an aging Palestinian freedom fighter, lies in a coma. Keeping vigil at the old man's bedside is his spiritual son, Khalil, who nurses Yunes, refusing to admit that his hero may never regain consciousness. Like a modern-day Scheherazade, Khalil relates the story of a Palestinian exile while also recalling Yunes's own extraordinary life and his love for his wife, whom he meets secretly over the years at Bab al-Shams, the Gate of the sun.… (more)

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