Elias Khoury is an outstanding litterateur and intellectual from Beirut. He is not only well-known as a journalist and author whose work has contributed greatly to the Palestinian Issue, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Arab world but also as a political activist. It is worth mentioning that the atmosphere and the circumstances illustrated by Elias Khoury in his book are drawn from his personal experiences, since he has spent many years in the camps in Lebanon. Moreover, he was a member of Mawaqif’s editorial board, editor of the Palestinian affairs (Shu’un Filistin), and many other journals and newspapers including the Al- Mulhaq of Al Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. He has also written many novels, such as Yalo, and White Masks’, which have been translated in various languages including Hebrew.
The setting in Gate of the Sun or Bab Al-Shams in Arabic are the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon - described in the book as “… the camp? [It] [i]s a group of villages piled up one on top of another…”. The story is narrated to Yunis by Dr. Khalil. Yunis is now an aging former Fedayeen fighter who has fallen into a coma after suffering a stroke. Dr. Khalil, who is a mentor and a father figure, takes care of him and recites him stories hoping he will regain his consciousness. Yunis is in the Galilee Hospital – not the best example of a hospital- in Shatila camp in the southern outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. In a very classical Arabic narrative structure, the narration shifts from Khalil to Yunis and to the characters of the various stories; this transforms the words into a brush so as to paint the picture in the imagination of the reader
The interwoven stories go beyond the facts of history and documentation of historic events. What Khoury aims at is capturing the emotional dimension of Palestinians living in exile even before their official exodus (the Nakba -or the catastrophe) in 1948 up to around the First Intifada. His means are the stories told to Yunis by Khalil and many other characters of the book. In comparison with most of the novels that refer to the Nakba or to the Palestinian exile, Bab Al- Shams primarily refers to the people that bared the Nakba and its consequences. As Elias Khoury described his book in the interview, “I didn’t want to write the story of the Nakba actually, the problematic was to write a love story”.
Indeed, the love story between Yunis and Naheela is extraordinarily intense even though it is directly related to the milieu of the Nakba. Yunis was a fugitive that would hide in a cave called Bab Al-Shams while he was going back and forth from Lebanon to a village in Galilee to meet his wife Naheela, risking his life; or he would wait for her in the cave to visit him. There is also another love story between Khalil and Shams –a Fedaeeya fighter in the camp in Lebanon- however, in contrast to the previous one, it differs in many ways; it is more bitter, repressed and frustrated. It is a product of what the generation of Shams and Khalil has endured in the camps. How they live their lives, how and what they remember is a process that has shaped Palestinian’s identity today. This is Khoury’s triumph. He traces back the beginning of who Palestinians are today, their identities and the reasons for why they need to remember.
The various stories of the book question many notions as humiliation, bravery, war, heroism, pride, sorrow, loss, pain, sacrifice, revenge, and martyrdom. A mother that had to sit on her child that was crying non-stop until it stopped breathing; while she and the other villagers were trying to hide from the Israeli army as they were chased out of their homes.
Khoury also invokes the experience of the Palestinians in relation to the Jewish experience of the Holocaust in terms of the ‘other’ being the mirror of the ‘I’. He portrays it in various dimensions and forms. Khalil believes Palestinians need to understand the Holocaust. As he tells Yunis, "in the faces of those people being driven to slaughter, didn't you see something resembling your own?" In one scene, Umm Hassan- an emblematic old woman and a midwife from Al-Kweitiya (a Palestinian village)- has the opportunity to leave Shatila and return to Palestine to see her house which is now inhabited by a Beirutian Jewish woman. The meeting of the two women as they tell their stories to one another, pictures the exchange of their mutual experience of pain, loss, mistreatment, humiliation and understanding. The two opposing destinies of these women (even though the latter’s is in the expense of Umm Hassan) represent the pragmatics of conflict not only of the Palestinian conflict but also of other peoples’.
On the other hand, in a different scene, Khalil is in a restaurant in Beirut. He is with some former Israeli soldiers and he explains: “... I didn’t feel they were my enemies. … It was as if I were in front of a mirror and were seeing my own image. I’m not defending them. If the war began again, I’d fight them again…….. Your enemy becomes your mirror so that you kill him in order to kill yourself. That’s what history is….” The paradox of war, of the enemy, of survival are denoted and challenged repeatedly.
A different illustration of questioning the notion of bravery and heroism is Yunis telling Khalil “… everyone thinks that the fighters are heroes, but that’s not true. People fight the way they breathe or eat or go to the john. War is nothing special. All you need to be a fighter is to fight. Being a hero is something else; heroism doesn’t exist, even courage isn’t anything special. A brave man can turn into a coward and a coward turn into a brave man…”. Moreover, he also deals with the notion of martyrdom which symbolizes the contradictions of the soul of people in their struggle to survive and to understand “… What is worth dying for was what we to live for…” (Yunis)
As Khalil goes on remembering stories to tell Yunis and trailing the reader to Khalil’s memories of the past, there are present events taking place. Catherine, a French actress with a partially Jewish heritage, and her crew come to find Khalil and ask him to give them a tour through the camps to grasp an understanding of the Shatila massacre so that Catherine can play it in a monodrama dealing with the massacre.
However, can death have a play put on about it? Can somebody really grasp a real understanding of the people in the camp and their suffering by getting a tour of the camp as if it was a popular sight? How far can art go in relation to peoples suffering and war? As the reader starts pondering on these questions, Catherine tells Khalil that she read in the Israeli journalist’s book that there were nine Jewish women killed in the Massacre of Sabra and Shatila, and the author of the book had found four names. Catherine asks Khalil for help“….Help me tell Jews that when they kill Palestinians they’re killing themselves, too...”. She wants to find the other five names. Khalil answers: “… there were more than fifteen hundred people killed, and you are searching for nine.”
Khoury’s reality is double faced. Khalil tells Yunis “…I ‘m not concerned with history anymore. My story with you Abu Salim (Yunis) isn’t an attempt to recapture history. I want to understand why we are here prisoners in this hospital”. On the one hand, Yunis symbolizes the slow death of the Palestinian fight, but not the Palestinian struggle since the latter is continued through the strength of the contemporary Palestinians’ despair. In other words, contemporary Palestinians seek a better understanding of their situation, by recurring to their memory. The memory is the storytelling. The storytelling symbolizes the resistance to death, just like Khalil is resisting against Yunis’s eminent death.
In the Gate of the Sun, according to Khoury history itself is double-faced. The first dimension of history is the classical definition of it; history is the study of human past and as defined by dictionaries it is a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular country, period, persons, the political events, the dates of events, and the numbers of dead people due to these events. In terms of the book, these are the blunt narration of the Nakba in 1948, the exile and the refugee camps in Lebanon. The second dimension is the history of people. The past of human beings and in this case their memories, their stories and their very personal experience, Khalil, Yunis, Naheela, Shams and all the other personages of Bab Al-Shams. So as he unfolds the stories of these people within the historic framework, he sews up the two dimensions, bringing the reader closer than ever to the past.
War and conflict is not an experience everyone can relate to. What Elias Khoury does by taking as his central theme a love story – a notion everyone can relate to in a way or another- and portraying it in the given circumstances, is offering the reader the opportunity to relate to the experience of conflict and exile. These two concepts of love and war congregate and illuminate the narration of History in a deeper sense.