The author haunts his tale of Palestine
“Umm Hassan is dead.”
These are Dr. Khaleel Ayyoub’s first words to his only patient, the legendary hero of a dozen failed wars for Palestinian liberation, in Galilee Hospital in Shatila. But this isn’t a real hospital (scarcely any supplies or professional staff), Khaleel is not a real doctor (though he had some rudimentary medical training in China), and Yunis, or Abu Salim, is not a real hero (though famous as “lone wolf” fighter) — and is now probably brain dead. But Umm Hassan, “Mother of Hassan”, the licensed midwife who “knew everything,” had told Khaleel he had to talk to the unconscious hero to keep his spirit alive. So Khaleel — 40-ish, with no family and only tumultuous memories of his own — talks to his patient for seven months, inventing Yunis’s responses,and spinning a thousand and one stories of Yunis’ and Palestine’s history, from the 1936 Arab revolt on to nearly today. The real beginning was the 1948 war when villagers saw their villages erased and were thrown together as refugees and at least partly, tentatively, re-imagined themselves as “Palestinians,” a new-found, widely embracing identity for people who didn’t know one another nor even speak the same dialects. Everything since then has been confusion, shifting alliances, dreaming and longing for a past that cannot be recovered and probably never really existed as they remember it. And innumerable wars, against the Israelis, against other Arabs, and against other Palestinins. And alliances.
These tales — reworked as fiction by Khoury from his own experiences and his hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of interviews as a journalist in Lebanon —are sometimes stunningly sad, even when funny as the characters contradict one another or even themselves in their uncertain memories, vain boasts and magical thinking. One especially memorable tale recalled by Khaleel is Umm Hassan’s very daring return, across Israeli shoot-to-kill defense lines, to what had been her village of El Kweikat, now mostly razed to create a modern Israeli settlement of brick houses. Her old house is one of the few remaining from the old days, and after long hesitation, she tentatively knocks on the door. The woman who opens is about Umm Hassan’s age. She surprises Umm Hassan by answering her Hebrew greeting in Arabic with a Syrian accent. Ella Dweik, the current inhabitant, has guessed that this “is” (not “was) Umm Hassan’s house, and tells her she had been expecting her, and invites her to sit and have some coffee. She is another victim of uprooting, a Lebanese Jewess who, when she learns that Umm Hassan has come from Beirut, almost screams with envy — she wants nothing more than to return to that city and abandon this desolate patch her husband (an Iraqi Jew) has brought her to in Israel, while Umm Hassan doesn’t even know the Beirut that Ella longs for (because poverty and hostility have kept her in Shatila) and could hardly adjust to such a hectic, urban environment, but yearns for her beloved El Kweikat.
And many, many other stories, of women who have lost their children, young men who try to adapt as Arabs in Israel, betrayals and ingratitudes, and sometimes just the surprising courage of those who insist on living and protecting what they can of their families. In the end, after 7 months of Khaleel’s one-side conversations with the inert hero, he slips out of the “hospital” to fetch photographs from Yunis’s apartment, thinking they may help restore him to consciousness — photos of Yunis’s long-suffering wife Naheeleh, of his children and many grandchildren, half a dozen of them also named Yunis. He is stopped on a deserted street of Shatila by a woman in black with a black scarf, like the spirit woman who had so frightened Yunis on one of his earlier adventures; she asks him for the house of Elias El Roumi — but Khaleel tells her there is no Elias (a Christian name) in all of Muslim Shatila; she asks for a hotel to spend the night, but there is no hotel in Shatila, either, but she accepts his offer to spend the night in Khaleel’s house — a magical encounter where he is fed and touched by the womanhood he has been longing for, but when he awakens in the morning, there is no trace of her. This is the last of the many tales, the character’s visit by the unseen Elias El Roumi, Elias Khoury, the author who has from the beginning been hovering around these stories and is occasionally glimpsed, once as the old man El Khouri of the House of Ice, and in other guises. A delightful, marvelous, terribly sad invitation to reflect on and review this whole terrible saga of two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, each unwilling or unable to hear the other’s story.