Temporary Abodes in ‘Gate of the Sun’ by Elias Khoury

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The scorching heat this morning in Beirut invited me to open this book and escape the obnoxious car honks coming from the window. I found this book a lengthy read. However, every single word felt necessary. It formed a mosaic of beautiful narratives on the connections to home, and strength in the face of struggle. In addition to that, Khoury brought to life the minutest banal details and transformed them into magical narratives.

Khoury doesn’t focus on the historical events that happened in Palestine during the Catastrophe in 1948 and the Lebanese war in 1975. Instead, he uses Khalil’s stories: the narrator, as a tool to describe temporary abodes and the concept of home.

[…] I’m scared of history that only has one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads to death. (275)

Khalil tells the story of Yunis, a fighter in the Palestinian uprising of 1936–1939, who is comatose in Burj al Brajneh Hospital. Khalil tries to revive Yunis from his sleep by telling him stories of people they both knew. He says to Yunis, ‘observe your history in your waiting body and tell me, wouldn’t it be better if you got up and shook off death?’ (148). Khalil sounds like Schehrezade from 1,001 Nights. She distracts her captor with captivating stories to postpone her death. Khalil also uses stories to revive Yunis before he dies.

Like Scheherazade, Khalil attempts to wake Yunis from his deep slumber, using narratives that defy time, memory and history, to create timeless characters, who were inspired by a culmination of individuals the author met during his time at the Palestinian Research Center.

‘Now there’s no-one and no beginning. The issue is war and war has no beginning’ (266)

The book is divided into two sections, ‘Galilee Hospital’ and ‘Naheeleh’s Death’. The comatose Yunis marries Naheeleh, and Khalil shares a love affair with a married woman called Shams.

A parallel can be drawn between the relationships they share with their loved ones and Palestine. Yunis and his wife, Naheeleh spend long periods away from each other because he fights with the Palestinian Resistance army in Lebanon, and Khalil’s relationship with Shams is never fulfilled as she constantly disappears. The parallel between expatriation and repatriation creates two generations with different perceptions of Palestine.

Khoury draws parallels between Yunis’ relationship with his wife Naheleeh and Khalil’s love affair with Shams, and the relationships the older and younger Palestinian generation have with Palestine.

Defending Palestine from Lebanon with the Palestinian resistance, Yunis comes back to his village in Galilee to embrace his wife in the cave of Bab Al-Shams. It is in his long absence from the homeland, that he longs for his wife’s arms and the motherland. Yunis represents the older generation that wants to escape conflict, yet end up in another conflict zone-Lebanon. While Yunis flees the homeland, Khalil, currently living in Beirut, longs to be reunited with the homeland, in the same way, he longs for Shams to return from her adventures in Palestine and Jordan.

Expatriation and repatriation are an underlying theme explained by the relationship Khalil and Yunis share with Palestine and their romantic partners.

Hence, the theme of repatriation and expatriation of the older and younger generation respectively are represented in the romantic relationships of Khaleel and Yunis. The two men experience romantic relationships that mirror they feel towards Palestine. Yunis longs for Palestine while Khaleel is hungry to taste the fruits of its soil. Mirroring their romantic relationships, Khalil’s affair with Shams isn’t fulfilled and longs for her constantly, While Yunis marries Naheleeh and has children with her.

However, they both reside in temporary abodes despite their different perceptions of Palestine. They both live in temporary homes in Lebanon. Yunis is comatose in a hospital that lost its funding and is void of any patients and Khalil stays with Yunis until he decides to leave the physical realm and vice versa. The hospital is also a temporary abode filled with souls stuck in limbo. While they’re both stuck in the hospital, Khalil narrates stories from the people he’s met or heard of and constructs stories revolving around them based on fragmented memories he has of them.

The stories are not told in any temporal order as if ‘time had melted away’ (161). Khalil uses this expression to describe how his grandmother would tell him stories and told Yunis he also told stories in the same way ‘mixing events up chaotically, jumping from month to month and from place to place.’ (161)

The temporariness of their homes creates a memory that is fragmented and void of temporal narratives. Living in a state of transience, causes the temporary to be the only characteristic of time he has ever experienced. He experiences Palestine through a video recording taken by refugees in the camp. His memory of Palestine is based on bits and pieces of information he has heard or seen, like the video recording. Similarly, his romance with Shams is fleeting, and his home in the hospital and camp are also temporary. Which is why his memory is made up of jigsaw pieces Khalil must piece together to form a full picture. With several puzzle pieces missing, Khalil must use his imagination to fill them up.

Khalil says,

‘temporariness perplexes us because I fear it (131) […] I live on memories […] here we can go wherever we want, play with our memory however we please[…] the temporary is preferable to the permanent, or the temporary is the permanent. (132)

Since his only experience with time is temporary, it becomes a permanent concept of time for him. However, with Yunis’ death, his ‘temporary’ time in the hospital ends, and all he can do is ‘walk, and walk, and walk…’ (501).

Khalil starts walking under the rain and describes the rain as; ‘ropes that extend from the sky to the ground’ (501) and tries to grasp them with his hands. As if trying to reach for the sky, where he believes Yunis has gone. Khalil pours all his memories and emotions into Yunis as he lets him into his conscious mind and creates a vessel of his memories of Palestine and everyone he has loved.

As a result, Yunis becomes his homeland-Palestine, a place he will always long for. Losing Yunis, deeply saddens Khalil. He tells him, ‘I didn’t weep for Shams as I’ve wept for you and this woman. I didn’t weep for my mother as I’ve wept for you and for her.’ (501) The woman Khalil is referring to is Yunis’ wife Naheeleh; Yunis’ embodiment of Palestine. The woman he would find in Palestine waiting to take care of him and bear more children together. In their full and consummated relationship, they loved each other and bore children in their cave in Bab Al-Shams. With Yunis’ death, Naheeleh dies, and Khalil’s representation of Palestine dies. The temporary becomes the permanent and Khalil is lost.

Temporary abodes and their impacts on expatriation and repatriation is one of the underlying themes in Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. Khalil’s captivating narratives help Khoury expose the intricate workings of the mind and carefully places his readers in limbo-between Beirut and Galilee.

Where turbulent thoughts and structure intersect

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