A Palestinian Odyssey
The question of the existence and validity of the Palestinians as a people historically tied to a specific land has been the absurdist debate for decades among many Israelis and their Western supporters, most recently in U.S Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s incredulous claim of “an invented Palestinian people” who do not rate a state because they are “in fact Arabs who were historically part of the [larger] Arab community...and who have had a chance to go many places...” The echoes of Gingrich’s assertions have often been heard among those who want to set the historical record straight. Claims beget counter-claims, and social scientists and historians and politicos summon to their sides what Jonathan Haidgt calls, in The Righteous Mind, their “inner lawyers,” those who must use “conscious verbal reasoning to confirm” their intuitions. The limits of this kind of “confirmational bias” in so-called rational arguments paradoxically opens us to another way of arriving at the truth: through a fiction which testifies to how the imagination can take the facts on the ground and transform our perceptions of them. “There is a return in the imagination to the real,” the American poet Robert Duncan wrote in THE H.D. Book. In Time of White Horses, Ibrahim Nasrallah’s final novel of his six volume Palestinian tragic-comedy, now beautifully translated by Nancy Roberts, Nasrallah not only echoes Duncan’s proposition but lets it work in reverse: real events and people, through their oral testimonies, can return us to what can be imagined of the times and places in which they lived.
Time in Nasrallah’s novel spans multiple generations in one location: the village of Hadiya in a Palestine under 19th and 20th century foreign domination. Flipping the Middle Eastern script as most have come to know it, the novel concludes where our perceptions of the region often begin: in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel. Unlike Palestinian writers Emile Habibi and Ghassan Khanafani, upon whose classic work he builds, Nasrallah has said that he wants to voice the little known conditions of life in Palestine before the creation of the State of Israel. The measure of the greatness of this book is its humility in approaching a people’s vast experiences and rituals across this long stretch of time between Ottoman and British then Israeli occupation, as Nasrallah deftly narrates this community’s character within a specific locale and around the acts of the novel’s hero, Khaled, whose reflections and deeds ennoble the lives of each successive generation. That Nasrallah’s writing evokes this epic grandeur in discrete, alluring, lyric chapters, one story seamlessly weaving into another, is even more compelling: the long novel enlightens us in flash fictions which illuminate each other and sustain our attention.
Through stories that at first seem innocent enough - the taking of a bride, the building of a monastery, the choosing of sheep for slaughter, the bond between Khaled and a white horse whose beauty and strength is compared to “a full moon that never sets” - Nasrallah manages to travel back in time to shape an environment of characters and scenes free of stereotypes and assumptions which a contemporary Westerner might too quickly bring to the table through habits of reading overly contextualized by the arch-narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict post 1948. Drawn into the late 19th and early 20th century life of an Arab community rarely encountered in literature about Palestine, the reader momentarily suspends belief in his own pre-suppositions about the region and engages events which happen as and not after political and social conditions are lived and articulated. Nasrallah chronicles captivating stories of characters whose lives intimately cross on multiple, surreal levels: heroes who transform into the spirit of their horses, horses who assume the roles of loved ones come and gone and searched for and resurrected in another life which is this life, loved ones who are martyred in their struggle against invading armies. These stories define and honor the discipline of a culture, so that the characters in Nasrallah’s novel often act in the service of the words his narrator cites: “According to an Arab saying: there are three types of service that aren’t demeaning: service performed for one’s household, taking care of one’s mare, and waiting on a guest.”
But these are not stand-alone vignettes nor do they lead into a novel representing a people’s fixed cultural code, since political realities surface which must be increasingly faced, and the characters (and readers) must adjust over time. For example, at the start of Nasrallah’s tale we are drawn into a meeting between two village elders, one of whom, Abu Salim, is being asked by Khaled’s father to send his daughter far from home to marry Khaled., “We were afraid,” Khaled’s father says, "you’d say that you weren’t prepared to send [her] far from home.” And Abu Salim responds: “This country is as big as one’s heart…Nothing in it is far away, and nothing is foreign.”
The deep, wrenching irony here is that while the country may indeed be “as big as one’s heart,” in this particular time and space under Ottoman rule, as in 2012, everything is absorbed by the animosity of the foreign, since the land is perpetually occupied by outside entities. Thus, as the novel evolves, chapters are more apparently devoted to how Humankind behaves in this fierce struggle to hold the land over time: villagers waiting for Arab rescue armies which fail to rescue them from the British, resistance fighters bringing down their occupiers, village lawyers cleverly making the case for the existence of “a village with a history," which “existed before the country was divided into districts, and continued to exist thereafter.”
The signs of this tense movement between “then” and “now,” between what was once independent and native to village life and a dependency imposed on it from the outside, start with the first story: the arrival of a miracle, a white mare, Hamama, freeing herself from captivity and now galloping into Hadiya as if “from the world of dreams,” with the father of Khaled, Hajj Mahmud, shouting: “Men! There’s a free spirit calling for help! Take her under your protection!” Khaled’s journey and role in much of the book is, in part, to protect and care for this horse (and later her daughter) as if she were a part of his household and village, as if he and his horse were one. As protector of the village, he is equally warrior and negotiator in his relationships with those around him, a role played out through his symbiotic connection to Hamama.
Clearly, this horse and others are characters in themselves, yet they also represent the long ago time of white horses who can remind us of and symbolize a community’s nobility, openness, innocence, heroic strength, independence of spirit, and fate. This independence is visible early in Book One, aptly entitled Wind, but later disappears or is grounded in the experiences of Books Two and Three, respectively called Earth and Humankind. The latter shows us in chapter titles alone how a land once traversed in freedom is now territory being worked in the service of others by the people who have for centuries lived there and who are now only its tenants, Tillers, Plowers, and Shepherds, the fields appropriated under their noses by brokers or buyers or sellers.
As the novel progresses, there are more pressing markers of a society trying to free itself from occupation. Village life becomes palpably subject to harsh political conditions and characters and actions coming “from all directions”: the hypocrisies of the Empire’s promises to its people; the ruses and ruthlessness of the Empire’s Arab collaborators; the acts of Jews who were once neighbors now acting in league with gangs of Hagannah; desperate British tax assessors who come as if they were descending locusts; Ottoman and British military personnel whose token acts of kindness and seeming humanity mask their brutality, like one British Officer, Edward Peterson, who, as an afterthought, writes romantic poetry for himself at night - the lines of poetry actually appearing as footnotes in Nasrallah’s text - while screaming “Fuckin’ Arabs” and out of his frustrations with “these people” committing heinous crimes during the day.
Often the question in the novel is how “to meet” the servants of the Empire, these soldiers and gangs and accomplices who mercilessly squeeze people economically dry or slaughter either the village livestock or the villagers themselves as if they were livestock. Nasrallah represents several responses to the situation, from some villagers who want to immediately act on their anger, to others who see it as their fate and act (or don’t) accordingly, to Khaled’s letting the rage “settle in his gut,” only so that he can outwit his enemies and become more strategic in his fight against them. Khaled’s bravery and thoughtfulness, his tactful and tactical patience is often signaled by the “kneading [of] his brow with the fingers of his left hand.” Even when he is furious, as in his response to The Higher Arab Committee’s proclamation that the people should cease action against the British and keep on negotiating, he is wise enough to leave the decision to follow or not to follow the proclamation up to the people.
Khaled’s trust and honor and defense of the village, his heroic will, is countered by the bloodthirsty figure of Habbab who, on a political level, collaborates with Turkish military officers against the interests of the Arab villages, humiliating “those who have the audacity to raise their voices in protest,” while on a domestic level humiliating his wives. Habbab’s maliciousness against his own people is so unending that, as he lays dying, and in a moment of apparent redemption, he asks that he be shamed for his past acts by being dragged through the streets of the village once he is dead. For villagers whose families have been turned in by this man, who have felt wronged and wounded by him, his wishes and their vengeance are only too quickly accommodated. As we find out at the end of the chapter, however, even in death, he leaves the villagers embittered and brought down. They wind up being arrested and bound with ropes by the military policemen who then take them to the tribunal, “since the crime [of dragging Habbab’s body through the square] was as clear as that day with its scorching sun.” It is as if Habbab, as he lay dying, had planned their round-up all along.
There is a searing realism coupled with a dreamlike or nightmarish astonishment to how we take in Habbab’s acts, as there is to how we sense many of the characters’ actions in the novel, how they speak or walk or slowly approach and come upon us. For example, when Habbab is waiting for one of his wives, Rayana, and not knowing she will come at him with a gun, we read: “He could hear the rhythm of her footsteps that had so arrested him once upon a time, and he sensed her arrival. But how could he have anticipated the arrival of the rhythm before the arrival of the person to whom it belonged.” We wait, like the characters. We arrive on the scene with them, inside their heads, wondering what’s next. Nasrallah’s writing, so concisely and mysteriously and elegantly rendered in Roberts’ translation, offers the reader this perpetual suspense, this duration, this “arrival of a rhythm before the arrival of the person to whom it belonged.”
Given their surreal appearances, the way they float in and out of chapters, one would think these characters were imagined types. But this is not the case. In truth, they are founded on oral testimonies the author gathered in 1985 from survivors of both Ottoman and British rule. Early in Nasrallah’s novel, a footnote alerts us that “italicized passages…represent memories related by people who were interviewed by the author.” Reading the text, however, one may experience forgetting who these italics represent - the missing ones, the ones who had been interviewed in the 1980’s and have since died - even though, ironically, they represent the essence of the novel’s suspenseful tone: as if these historical people were ghosts who had assumed the lives of the characters with fictive names, who the real people refer to, and whose “real” presence ironically haunts the author’s fiction. Like the narrator, these phantoms speak from a future where they know what has transpired, yet they are now, in 2012, dead, as the author tells us in his preface:
I accomplished the task of collecting the lengthy oral testimonies that contributed in particular to Time of White Horses during the years 1985 and 1986. A number of witnesses who had been uprooted from their homeland and gone to live in exile presented me the detailed accounts of the lives they had lived in Palestine. Sadly, every one of these witnesses passed out of our world before the grand hope of returning home could become a reality.
As such, there seems to be little difference between them and the fictive characters who represent them and on whom they provide commentary, as Nasarallh says in this interview with Susan Abulhawa:
I used to say that this character was imaginary, whereas this character is real…But then a reader said to me, “She is a real character. Why are you telling me that she’s imaginary?” And I think that this is true. Because, generally, I write imaginary characters. This is the first time that I’ve written with historical characters, not imaginary characters. And hence, when I do so, the reader believes this will turn into a real character...Sometimes…the real is what the reader believers. Whether this character is real, whether it came from that era, or whether it was imaginary. So perhaps I couldn’t answer your question which one was real and which one was imaginary. If the reader…will think this one is real and this one is imaginary, that will spoil the entertainment of the reading.
This blurring of fiction and reality shapes an image of a people’s existence which reads as both mythical parable and historical fact, so that our reading must account for the power of both to simultaneously cross into our consciousness of the situation in the region. Nasrallah’s motives here may be to address a question which all writers of catastrophe must deal with at some point: what solutions are available to a novelist representing a people’s extinction; how respond to the so-called facts on the ground? What does it mean for a character in a fiction founded on these facts to come to a resolution about what is happening, both politically and aesthetically, and to determine how events will unfold? Towards the end of Nasrallah’s novel, these questions are approached, as we meet the next generation of Khaled’s family, one of his sons, Mahmud, talking to the woman he loves, Layla, after he has invited her to see Greta Garbo in the film, The Grand Hotel. Layla urges Mahmud, a self-proclaimed non-writer, to write, not just to edit articles for a journal. Mahmud resists.
“I don’t want anybody to know me. The more anonymous I am, the better. This way, nobody points to me, and nobody stops to ask what I think about what’s going on….Who could possibly solve an equation whose elements are the Palestinian villagers, their leaders in the cities, their leaders in the countryside, the poverty there in the villages and the wealth here in the city, the European industrial superiority that the Jews have brought with them, and the backwardness the Turks have left us all over this counry? Who can solve an equation that consists, on one side, of the chaos of the countless parties here, with their confused inconsistent aims and their never-ending disputes, and on the other, of the Jewish organizations with their methodical approach and their focus on a single goal—to occupy Palestine and drive its people out. Who can solve an equation that consists of us, the Arabs, the British, and the Jews?”
So Layla asks him:
“But you know, since you’re such a master of finales, I should have asked you this question before: “How do you think things will end up in Palestine?”
“Are you serious? Or will you take what I say as some sort of novelty?”
The non-writer character’s play here on the word “novelty” may suggest the author’s concern that his novel might be seen as just that, a novelty, a conjurer’s dream, a make believe dismissed by outsiders as easily as the testimonies of the people it represents. Mahmud answers Layla’s question by pointing to Garbo’s film and saying the answer to what he wants - to how he thinks things will end in Palestine - is in the film: the film is a succession of stories that never end and revolve around each other. Mahmud speaks to Layla and at first cites the doctor in the film:
’What do you do at the hotel? You eat, you sleep, you lounge around. You flirt with the women a little, you dance a little. A hundred doors lead to the same room. Nobody knows anything about the person next to him, and when you leave, somebody else occupies your room and sleeps in your bed.’ For the first time he [the doctor] realized that the grand hotel wasn’t just a hotel. It was a lot more than that. Didn’t you notice new people coming in and others leaving right after their stories were over, and through doors that kept revolving non-stop? That’s what life is like. Can you give me an ending without an ending? An ending that’s a beginning? A beginning whose ending is a beginning?"
Mahmud’s analysis of the film may be Nasrallah’s disguised commentary on the creation of this novel and its telling of revolving stories of people coming non-stop in and out of a place, Palestine, across time, with a political situation which appears unchanging but is always in flux, always subject to the stories of the lives of the people who inhabit the place. On one level, the novel addresses how so much is determined by the grip of these noble stories and traditions of independence upon a culture’s psyche. “And what about your ending?” Layla asks Mahmud:
“I mean, can you imagine an ending to your journey in this life?”
“I belong to a family whose menfolk’s fates are decided by horses.”
At that point, she mustered the courage to say in sad voice, “But I’m talking about you.”
“Me? I’ve never had a horse!”
Mahmud’s comic admission is a confession of how one moves in a world where the practice and will of some traditions have lessened across generations, for good or ill. Mahmud is on his own, in his own time, in his own place (which is under occupation), but unlike his father he must cope outside a time of white horses and only with stories to tell and live out, not knowing how they will end since each one is an ending and a beginning. His family’s and the villagers’ fates are linked: there to be read and still to be written.
Ibrahim Nasrallah has channeled an enchanting sequence of interlocking stories which read as a people’s known history and ethics while at the same time as a drama still unfolding. It is as if the real characters, those who lived in those other times, those interviewed by the author and who remain anonymous but whose commentary in italics interrupts the storytelling, have jumped into this magical novel and assumed their parts so that we can attend more deeply and responsibly and imaginatively to the real conditions which led to their exile. Nasrallah’s masterful prose haunts our memories of how they lived and where they have gone, as it presses upon our consciences the question of how they can return.
Benjamin Hollander was born in Haifa, Israel and as a boy immigrated to New York City. He presently lives on the west coast of North America. His books include: In the House Un-American (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, Spring,2013), Memoir American (Punctum Books, Spring 2013) Vigilance (Beyond Baroque Books, 2005), Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli, (Parrhesia Press, 2004), The Book Of Who Are Was (Sun & Moon Press, 1997), How to Read, too (Leech Books, 1992), and, as editor, Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (ACTS, 1988).