Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Bab El Shams

An open evening with Elias Khoury seemed like 'another interesting thing to do', I had seen the movie and was infinitely moved, my own subjective love for a country and it’s people playing a huge part, the extent to which the movie exposed ‘real lives’ raw emotions, love , war, separation, and one of the cruellest realities in history another. However, I emerged from the lecture, eyes wide, heart racing, thoughts bouncing across my head in Brownian motion, and could not wait to share the events of the night to anyone who had the time for a good inspiration.

The evening was launched and moderated by novelist an historian; Tariq Ali. He began by asking Elias Khoury to read an extract from his book to the audience, after which a discussion would be launched.
Elias held up the book, looking at it sceptically and spoke to the audience of how "Amazing" and yet "Strange" it is to read a book which he's written in Arabic; in English.

"It's strange to find myself finding characters whom I’ve known and lived with for years suddenly speaking so many other languages.. and so much more fluently than I do!"
It seemed they had developed lives of their own, and continued to speak to thousands of people all over the world, in a million different languages.

The only common one being, that of humanity. This was, after all, a love story. The love story never told.

1. Kan ya makan... Once upon a time...

The story starts with Khalil, the son of Younis the main character, telling a comatose Younis bits and pieces of his own story.
Khalil told these stories in attempts to keep Younis alive, to save his own life! (as he was in hiding in the hospital and could only stay there as long as his father lived)

Khoury compared this to Shahrazad's One thousand and One nights, where she told the king stories day after day, so that she may entertain him enough to delay her execution one day after another.

Shahrazad, however told the stories of other people; people that did not exist. The idea behind Khalil’s story telling however was how he opened the story for other people to join in and contribute. And it is through telling their aspects of the stories that these people came to life.. they had a history a background, a character, feelings, a life; an identity.

Once Khalil mingled his story with those of all the others, the picture of Palestine was created, it's people, it's culture, it's music, it's events all came to life, living, breathing , existing in our imaginations.

2. A Love Story

This story is a love story. And that is all Khoury had set out to write. However, it was not only the story of Younis' love to Nahila, but Khoury's love to the Palestinian people.
“You open any TV or Radio station and you will hear the Arabs speak of the Palestinian cause, the Right of return, the situation in the occupied territories; they love Palestine. But the Palestinian people they love not. I wrote this book about my love for the Palestinian people.”

This book was about Younis, a Palestinian from the Village of Galilee, now a part of Israel. He married Nahila when she was only a child, an activist since young age, he spent his youth fighting the British. In 1948, he and Nahila are separated as he ends up as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, and she is stuck with her parents in law in Galilee.

“The strangest and most beautiful thing about this story is that 10 years into their marriage, and as Younis risks everything to go back to seeing Nahila, Younis and Nahila finally fall in love.”

“This is strange,” Khoury recounts, “because usually, ten years into a marriage, it is someone else's wife we fall in love with.. not our own."

3. A Language

In order to write this story, Khoury, spent much time in the refugee camps of Lebanon, particularly Shatilla, as that is where most Jalilee'ans had ended up.
He sat with the people of '48 , not only to hear the stories of what had happened and how it actually happened, but also to grasp the "Jalileean dialect" from it's nationals and make sure he uses it well in the dialogues in the book.

He looks back at the book as he mentions this detail, his nose a little wrinkled in perplexity;
"Yes, I was actually trying hard to investigate the Jalilee accent.. they don't really actually speak English as you might hear them now.."

4. A People: Om Hassan

The Passage Khoury was about to read us, was one of Om Hassan's. Om Hassan was a woman, who like many others, after the singing of Oslow, was permitted to return to her home-land, her village, her house, just to visit, just to see what had become of it.

Khoury explained that it was after this treaty and also in 1967 that the borders were opened for many Palestinians to visit their homelands and return to their displacements. At this time, many a home comers, would take video cameras with them to take shots of the place to take back ‘home’.
Overwhelmed with the experience and lack of experience in film making, the movies actually ‘showed’ very little. However, once taken back to the families, a minute of a poor shot movie would be translated into a million stories of the meaning and significance of each spot.
Thus it is through their stories, not the places, that their Palestine, their identity, their belonging came to life.

Om Hassan went to visit her house in the village, and though most houses had been demolished, hers was still there. Looking a bit newer, however.

Om Hassan surveyed the house , the garden, the tree in the backyard, saying very little as she reminisced the significance of all she saw.
Until they approached the house and knocked on the door.

An old woman, hair black, streaked with white opened the door, and much to their surprise , refused to speak in Hebrew and spoke to them in Arabic.

This woman was a Jew of Lebanon, who had lost her own place there in the civil war.
She let Om Hassan and her brothers in, and Om Hassan marvelled, as many a Palestinian did at returning to their homes, how most of the furniture and setting of her house, had barely changed.

This was a very powerful passage, powerful in the surge of feelings conveyed to us through Om Hassan, the fear, the disbelief, the ecstasy, the nostalgia, the memories.. and what i imagine might have been bewilderment, at coming this close, feeling this at home, and knowing that it was no longer yours, knowing that soon you would leave, and bid it's inhabitant good bye.

The power of the passage reached a peak, when Khoury described that upon finding out Om Hassan was Palestinian, the woman told her, (and i paraphrase)
"Return me to Beirut, and I would give you the WHOLE of Palestine!!"

How painful that must have been. If only it were hers to take. If only what was rightfully hers was hers to reclaim.

6. An existence

Rather than ‘telling’ their story, Khoury had always described how his characters came to life to him so that he suddenly felt they were speaking to him, that he was listening to them and conveying their stories to the others. With that, khoury emphasized that a writer's primary role is to 'listen' and convey, and not to 'tell'.

He had felt the strength of his characters and the pertinancy of their existence, when upon giving a lecture about the book, an old french woman called out from the audience asking Khoury to forget about literature and symbolisms.. "I really loved Nahila.. tell me more about her; the real person.."
Khoury laughed and explained that Nahila was only a character, had she been real, he would have married her, and not written about her!
Though the audience erupted in laughter, the old lady joined him once again, a little agitated, and demanded he speak to her of Nahila.
When once, again Khoury tried to assert that Nahila did not exist, the old woman stomped off, angry and exasperated..

"This.." Khoury explained "is the best thing that can happen to a writer.. that the people believe your characters, more than they would believe you.."
emphasizing the extent to which Khoury's characters had suddenly come to life.

Upon finishing the book, Khoury explained he felt very sad at finally having to part with his characters.
He also envied them. He envied Younis his Nahila, and Nahila her Younis. He envied them their struggle, their strength, their resistance, he envied them their love for each other and for their Palestine.

Question and Answer Session

1. This book was translated into Hebrew; what were the reactions to this?

Khoury explained that the reactions were actually very positive, the full stock of 5,000 copies were sold in one year and more were republished.

Khoury recounted a story of being in Canne, where the film was being shown, and at which point an Israeli woman stepped out at the interval crying and explaining to people that a number of mistruths were being communicated in the movie.

A younger man then walked up to her and told her taht he had just called his grandfather and asked him of specific events, and if this is the way they had attained their homeland, and his grandfather said to him;

"And how do you think Nations are built...?"

The book, to some, Khoury believed, was a discovery.

2. A recurring theme or thread that seemed to run through the story, was Younis' cries, "Men el Awwal", or "From the beginning" every time a significant event occurred. Will you tell us more about that?

The first way that Khoury explained this, was that every time something went wrong, it was to Younis, another Nakba, another mistake, another catastrophe, so it was as if it was happening all over again, bringing them back to the very beginning, the very big Nakba that must be overcome, for all else to be settled.

The Second, is that seeing that it is impossible for us to 'undo' history, we have to find ourselves a beginning to start from, to claim as our own. For the Palestinians to exist , they must begin. And through living and resisting, explained Khoury, they are beginning!

4. Must one be Palestinian to write a Palestinian story?

"I am not a Palestinain" explains Khoury as he reveals his Lebanese Origin.

He then tells the story of Margerit Duraz, a French writer.
Who , upon being asked as to her origins, post world war 2, claimed she was Jewish.
Margerit, was of course not Jewish, however it was because of the drastic events of World War II, that the Jews were seen as the most 'human' of all people..
because their stories as people, had become known to all, through their suffering.

And thus, wanting to be acknowledged as a human, and a wounded one at that, Margerit, claimed she was Jewish.

"I feel Palestinian, simply because I am a Human being.."

5. How long do you think the Palestinians can maintain their identity.. their culture, their customs their rights and their belonging..

"At least another 2,000 years... Just as the Israeli's have managed too.." replied khoury with a wry smile.

Throughout the seminar, Khoury kept emphasizing the importance of stories, and how the essence of an identity will always be best promoted and expressed, through them. We come to life through our stories, through stirring other's imaginations to see all the pictures, emotions and sensations in our heads. And it is through these stories and these memories that the Palestinians will continue to strive, resist and survive.

"Palestine needs more of these stories, than it does any other ideological discourse. This was my love story to Palestine. And in the struggle to verify our different versions of history, it is the story and not the history, that can prevail..."

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