Two Novelists, Two Views of the Middle East

A.B. Yehoshua i i

A.B. Yehoshua is an Israeli novelist. His latest work is 'A Woman in Jerusalem.' Leonardo Cendamo hide caption

itoggle caption Leonardo Cendamo
A.B. Yehoshua

A.B. Yehoshua is an Israeli novelist. His latest work is 'A Woman in Jerusalem.'

Leonardo Cendamo
Elias Khoury i i

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's novel 'Gate of the Sun' was first published in 1998, and has more recently appeared in English. Nina Subin hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Subin
Elias Khoury

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's novel 'Gate of the Sun' was first published in 1998, and has more recently appeared in English.

Nina Subin

Active fighting between Hezbollah and Israel is on hold, but the state of the Middle East remains as tenuous as ever. To gain literary perspective on the conflict, Debbie Elliott speaks with authors A.B. Yehoshua and Elias Khoury. Both know first-hand the effects of war, and through their fiction they have captured stories of their peoples and their lands.

Israeli author Yehoshua lives in Haifa, the Israeli city that took some of the heaviest Hezbollah rocket fire. Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer and editor, is from Beirut and remained there throughout the Israeli siege. Both men know first-hand the effects of war. Both novelists portray the shared voice of their land and people.

Yehoshua's latest novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, deals with what he calls Israel's repression of its civilian deaths. Unlike the death of a soldier, he says, his countrymen don't know how to mourn the deaths of those killed while simply drinking coffee or riding a bus. Yehoshua focuses on this problem by telling the story of a woman who lies unclaimed in a morgue and the personnel manager who takes responsibility for and ultimately falls in love with her.

But Yehoshua says his message doesn't only apply to Israeli deaths.

"This is in a certain way the universal sentiment of this anonymous death in our streets — and how we can relate ourselves to this and take our identification and responsibility," Yehoshua says.

First published in 1998, Elias Khoury's novel Gate of the Sun was more recently translated into English. Protagonist Dr. Khalil struggles to keep his friend, a Palestinian militant, alive by telling him stories about his own life. The story connects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to tangible names and events through these characters.

"The role of the writer is not to defend his country," Khoury says. "The role of the writer is to defend what is right."

Yet he also says "sometimes the writer must live the stories."

Excerpt: 'A Woman in Jerusalem'

'A Woman in Jerusalem' by A. B. Yehoshua

A.B. Yehoshua's novels include 'The Liberated Bride' and 'Mr. Mani.' Harcourt hide caption

itoggle caption Harcourt

Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance. The minute the extraordinary request of the old woman who stood in her monk's robe by the dying fire was translated and explained to him, he felt a sudden lifting of his spirits, and Jerusalem, the shabby, suffering city he had left just a week ago, was once more bathed in a glow of importance, as it had been in his childhood.

And yet the origins of his unusual mission lay in a simple clerical error brought to the company's attention by the editor of a local Jerusalem weekly, an error that could have been dealt with by any reasonable excuse and brief apology. However, fearing that such an apology — which might indeed have laid the matter to rest — would be deemed inadequate, the stubborn eighty-seven-year-old owner of the company had demanded a more tangible expression of regret from himself and his staff, a clearly defined gesture such as the one that had resulted in this journey to a distant land.

What had upset the old man so? Where had the almost religious impulse that drove him come from? Could it have been inspired by the grim times that the country, and above all Jerusalem, were going through, which he had weathered unharmed; so that his financial success, as other businesses foundered, called for vigilance in warding off the public criticism that now, ironically, was about to be aired in newsprint of which he himself was the supplier? Not that the reporter whose scathing feature article would break the story — a political radical and eternal doctoral candidate with the restraint of a bull in this intimate china shop of a city — was aware of all this when he wrote the piece, or he would have toned it down. Yet it was the paper's editor and publisher, loath to ruin a colleague's weekend with an unpleasant surprise that might spoil their business relations, who had decided, after taking a look at the story and its accompanying photograph of the torn, bloodstained pay stub found in the murdered woman's shopping bag, to let the old man respond in the same issue.

Nor was it really such a shocking expose. Nevertheless, at a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets, troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places. And so at the end of that particular workday, when the human resources manager, having promised his ex-wife that he would leave the office on time to be with their only daughter, had tried to evade the owner's summons, the old man's veteran office manager had refused to let him. Sensing her boss's agitation, she’d hastened to advise the resource manager to put his family duties aside.

On the whole, relations between the two men were good. They had been so ever since the resource manager, then in the sales division, had unearthed several Third World markets for the company's new line of paper and stationery products. And so, when his manager's marriage was on the rocks, in part because of his frequent travels, the old man had reluctantly agreed to appoint him temporary head of the human resources division, a job that would allow him to sleep at home every night and try to repair the damage. Yet the hostility engendered by his absence was only distilled into a more concentrated poison by his presence, and the chasm between them — at first psychological, then intellectual, and finally sexual — continued to grow of its own accord. Now that he was divorced, all that kept him from returning to his old job, which he had liked, was his determination to stay close to his daughter.

As soon as he'd appeared in the doorway of the owner's spacious office, where the elegantly muted light never changed with the time of day or year, the article due to appear in the local weekly was dramatically hurled at him.

"An employee of ours?" The resource manager found that hard to credit. "Impossible. I would have known about it. There must be some mistake."

The owner did not answer. He simply held out the galleys, which the resource manager read quickly while still standing. The odious article was entitled "The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread." Its subject was a forty-year-old woman found critically wounded after a bombing in the Jerusalem market the week before. Her only identifying mark had been a pay stub issued by the company. For two days she had fought for her life in the hospital without any of her employers or fellow workers taking the slightest interest in her. Even after her death, she had lain in the hospital morgue abandoned and unidentified, her fate unmourned and her burial unprovided for. (There followed a brief description of the company and its large, well-known bakery, founded at the beginning of the last century by the owner's grandfather and recently augmented by the new line of paper products.) Two photographs accompanied the text. One, taken years ago, was an old studio portrait of the owner; the other was of the human resources manager. It was dark and blurry, evidently snapped recently, without his knowledge. The caption noted that he owed his position to his divorce.

Copyright 2004 Abraham B. Yehoshua. English translation, Copyright 2006 by Hillel Halkin.

Excerpt: 'Gate of the Sun'

'Gate of the Sun' by Elias Khoury

Elias Khoury's book 'Gate of the Sun' was first published in 1998. It was more recently translated into English. Archipelago Books hide caption

itoggle caption Archipelago Books

"We're here," said Fawzi.

Her brother got out of the car and held out his hand to help her out. Umm Hassan moved her stout body forward but couldn't raise her head. She seemed unable to do so, as though her breasts were pulling her down toward the ground. She was bent over and rooted to the spot.

"Come on, Sister."

Fawzi helped her out of the car. She remained doubled over, then put her hand to her waist and stood upright.

He pointed to the house, but she couldn't see a thing.

Her tears flowed silently. She wiped them away with her sleeve and listened to her brother's explanations while his son played around with the camera.

"They demolished every single house, and built the Beyt ha-Emek settlement – except for the new houses, the ones that were built on the hill."

Umm Hassan's house had been one of the new ones up on the hill.

"All the houses were demolished," said the brother.

"And mine?" murmured Umm Hassan.

"There it is," he said. They were about twenty meters from the house. The branches of the eucalyptus tree were swaying. But Umm Hassan could see nothing. He took her by the arm and they walked. Then suddenly she saw it all.

"It’s as if no time has passed."

Of what time was she talking about, Father? Can we find it in the video-cassette tapes that have become our only entertainment? The Shatila camp has turned into Camp Video. The videocassettes circulate among the houses, and people sit around their television sets, they remember and tell stories. They tell stories about what they see, and out of the glimpses of the villages they build villages. Don't they ever get sick of repeating the same stories? Umm Hassan never slept, and, until her death, she would tell stories, until all the tears had drained from her eyes.

She said that suddenly everything came back to her. She went up to the front door but didn't press the buzzer. She stood back a little and walked around the house. She sat on the ground with her back against the eucalyptus tree as she used to do. She'd been afraid of the tree, so she'd turn her back on it. Her husband would make fun of her for turning her back on the horizon and looking only at the stones and the walls. Her brother took her by the hand and helped her up. Again, it was difficult for her to stand, as though she were rooted to the ground. Her brother dragged her to the door and pressed the buzzer. No one opened, so he pressed it a second time. The ringing reverberated louder and louder in Umm Hassan's ears; everything seemed to be pounding, her body was trembling, her pulse racing. The brother stood waiting.

The door finally opened.

A woman appeared: about fifty years old, dark complexion, large eyes, black hair streaked with gray.

Fawzi said something in Hebrew.

"Why are you speaking to me in Hebrew? Speak to me in Arabic," said the woman with a strong Lebanese accent.

"Excuse me, Madam. Is your husband here?" asked Fawzi.

"No, he's not here. Is everything all right? Please come in."

She opened the door wider.

"You know Arabic," Umm Hassan whispered as she entered. "You’re an Arab, Sister — aren’t you?"

"No, I'm not an Arab," said the woman.

"You've studied Arabic?" asked Umm Hassan.

"No, I studied Hebrew, but I haven't forgotten my Arabic. Come in, come in."

They entered the house. Umm Hassan said — like everyone else who’s gone back to see their former homes — "Everything was in its place. Everything was just how it used to be, even the earthenware water jug."

"God of all the worlds," sighed Umm Hassan, "what would Umm Isa have said if she'd visited her house in Jerusalem? Poor Umm Isa. In her last days she spoke about just one thing – the saucepan of zucchini. Umm Isa left her house in Katamon in Jerusalem without turning off the flame under the saucepan of zucchini."

"I can smell burning. The saucepan. I must go and turn off the flame," she would say to Umm Hassan, who nursed her during her last illness. And Umm Hassan, who had felt pity for the dying woman, stood in her own house in front of the earthenware water jug that was still where it had been, smelled the zucchini in Umm Isa's saucepan, and said that everything was in its place except for those people who had come in and sat down right where we’d been sitting.

The Israeli woman left her in front of the water jug and returned with a pot of Turkish coffee. She poured three cups and sat calmly watching these strangers whose hands trembled as they held their coffee. Before Umm Hassan could open her mouth to ask a thing, the Israeli woman said, "It's your house, isn't it?"

"How did you know?" asked Umm Hassan.

"I've been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome."

Umm Hassan took a sip from her cup. The aroma of the coffee overwhelmed her, and she burst into sobs.

The Israeli woman lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into the air, gazing into space.

Fawzi went out into the garden where Rami was playing with the video camera, filming everything.

The two women remained alone in the living room, one weeping, the other smoking in silence.

The Israeli turned and wanted to say something, but didn’t. Umm Hassan wiped away her tears and went over to the water jug, which stood on a side table in the living room.

"The jug," said Umm Hassan.

"I found it here, and I don't use it. Take it if you want."

"Thank you, no."

Umm Hassan went over to the jug, picked it up, and tucked it under her arm; then she went back to the Israeli woman and handed it to her.

"Thank you," said the Palestinian, "I don’t want it. I'm giving it to you. Take it."

"Thank you," said the Israeli, who took the jug and returned it to its place.

The silence was broken — the two women burst out laughing. Umm Hassan started looking around the house. She stood in front of the bedroom but didn't go in. Next she went to the kitchen. In the sink were piles of dirty dishes. Umm Hassan turned on the tap and watched the water flow out, and the Israeli woman ran in saying, "I'm so sorry, it's a mess." Umm Hassan turned off the tap and said, laughing, "I didn't leave the dirty dishes. That was you."

The two women went out into the garden.

The Israeli woman gave Umm Hassan her arm and told her about the place. She told her about the orange grove where Iraqi Jews worked, the new irrigation projects the government had started, their fear of the Katyusha rockets, and about how difficult life was. Umm Hassan listened and looked and said one word: "Paradise. Paradise. Palestine's a paradise." When the Israeli woman asked her what she was saying, she answered, "Nothing. I was just saying that we call it an orchard, not a grove. This is an orange orchard. How wonderful, how wonderful."

"Yes, an orchard," said the Israeli.

Then Umm Hassan began telling the Israeli woman about the place.

"Where's the spring?" asked Umm Hassan.

"What spring?"

Umm Hassan told her the story of her spring and how she'd discovered water in the field next to the house. When her husband had built the house, close to the eucalyptus tree, there had been no water. It was Umm Hassan who had discovered it. And one day she saw water welling up from the ground. She told the men, "We must dig here," and they dug, and water came gushing out. So they built a little stone wall around the spring, and it became known as Umm Hassan's spring.

"Where's the spring?" she asked.

The Israeli woman couldn't answer. "There was a spring here," she said, "but they dug an artesian well around it and laid some pipes. Could that be it?"

"No, it's a natural spring," said Umm Hassan, and told how they'd decided to plant apple trees after they discovered the water. But the war.

Umm Hassan guided the woman to where her spring had been.

She didn't find it. Where it had been, she found a well walled with pipes and iron with a small tap on each side. Umm Hassan bent over to open the tap, and when the water gushed out, splashed her face and neck, sprinkled the water on her hair and clothes, and drank.

"Drink," she said. "Water sweeter than honey."

The Israeli woman bent over and washed her hands, and then turned off the tap without drinking.

"This is the most delicious water in the world."

The Israeli woman turned on the tap again, drank a little and smiled.

Later Umm Hassan would say the Israelis don't drink water, just fizzy drinks. "They only drink out of bottles, even though Palestine's water is the best in the world."

In vain we tried to explain to her that they drink mineral water not fizzy drinks and that the people of Beirut have started to drink water out of plastic bottles, too, but she stuck to her guns and said, "They don't drink water. I saw them with my own eyes. You want me to question what I saw with my own eyes?"

After they'd had a drink, the two women walked around the house. Umm Hassan told the woman about the eucalyptus tree and the olive grove and pointed out the stone that looks like the head of an ox. She took her around behind the house and showed her the cave on the other side of the hill.

Umm Hassan talked and the other woman discovered, astonished that she'd never noticed the ox's head, or had even gone into the cave. Then Umm Hassan told her how she'd learned her profession as a midwife from her grandmother on her father's side, Maryam, and that she had an official license from the British government. She recounted how she'd gotten married at fifteen "to chase away the chickens from the front of the house," as her mother-in-law had said when she'd asked for her hand.

Umm Hassan told her stories, strolling from place to place, and the Jewish woman followed along behind, listening and nodding her head but not uttering a word.

Umm Hassan would tell her guests that she had seen her life dissolving in front of her: "What's life? Like a pinch of salt in water, it just melts away." She slipped back as though no time had passed. She saw again the young woman who'd gone to live in her new home. At twenty, she told her husband that she wanted a house of their own — "I'm no good for chasing chickens anymore and I am no longer a little girl." They got the land and built the house with their own hands, and she discovered the spring and the cave and the ox's head, and became the midwife for the whole district of Acre.

The women went back inside the house and sat in silence.

Umm Hassan got up and went into the bedroom. She looked at the bed that occupied the center of the room. It was the first bed she'd slept on in her life. At home with her family, and then in her husband’s house, she'd slept on bedding on the floor, folding it up each morning and tucking it away at the far end of the room. But in this house the bed couldn't be folded up.

"A room just for sleeping in," her husband had said.

The other woman sleeps here every night, thought Umm Hassan, with her husband, in the same bed, in the same room, in the same house, in the same – No, not in the same village: The village didn't exist anymore. Umm Hassan could no longer see the close-packed houses of the village — the houses were gone. Nothing was left of al-Kweikat.

When she finished her tour of the house, Umm Hassan wept. She sat in the living room and wept. Her brother came in to hurry her up so they could return to Abu Sinan and found her weeping. He wept, too, and the son with the camera wept.

"Do you know what she said to me?"

Umm Hassan would relate the same conversation every day, adding a word here, deleting one there, choking back her tears.

"From al-Kweikat, I told her. This is my house and this is my jug and this is my sofa, and the olive trees and the cactus and the land and the spring — everything."

"No, no. Where are you living now?"

"In Shatila."

"Where's Shatila."

"It's a camp."

"Where's the camp?"

"In Lebanon."

"Where in Lebanon?"

"In Beirut, near Sports City."

When the Jewish woman heard the word Beirut, she gave a start and her manner changed completely.

"You’re from Beirut?" she cried, the words tumbling out of her mouth and her eyes filling with tears.

"Listen, Sister," the Jewish woman said. "I'm from Beirut too, from Wadi Abu Jmil. You know Wadi Abu Jmil, the Jewish district in the center? They brought me from there when I was twelve. I left Beirut and came to this dreary, bleak land. Do you know the Ecole de l'Alliance Israelite? To the right of the school there's a three-story building that used to be owned by a Polish Jew named Elie Bron. I'm from there."

"You’re from Beirut?" Umm Hassan said in amazement.

"Yes, Beirut."

"How did that happen?"

"What do you mean, how did that happen? I've no idea. You're living in Beirut and you've come here to cry? I'm the one who should be crying. Get up, my friend, and go. Send me to Beirut and take this wretched land back."

Umm Hassan said she talked with the Israeli woman for a long time.

The woman’s name was Ella Dweik. Hers was Nabilah, daughter of al-Khatib from the family of al-Habit -the fallen-wife of Mahmoud alQasemi. Al-Habit isn't the family's real name, but my grandfather used to spend all day sitting down so they used to call him that. Our real ancestor was Iskandar, and before Iskandar there was al-Khatib.

Nabilah al-Habit talked of al-Kweikat.

Ella Dweik spoke of Beirut.

Ella said then that she'd married an agricultural engineer who worked there, that they'd been given the house, that she hadn't had any children. Her husband was Iraqi, from the outskirts of Baghdad; she'd always wanted to see Baghdad. She had a brother who worked in Tel Aviv, but she never saw him.

Umm Hassan told her about Beirut. About the sea and the Manara Corniche, the shops on Hamra Street, the wealth and the beauty and the cars. She said the war hadn't been able to destroy Beirut. It had destroyed alot, but Beirut was still as it had always been.

Umm Hassan said that there, in al-Kweikat, she saw once again the Beirut that she didn't know very well. "All I know is Umm Isa's house on America Street, near the Cle-menceau cinema."

"In al-Kweikat I saw Beirut, but I don't live in Beirut, I live in the camp. The camp? It's a grouping of villages piled up one on top of another."

The Jewish woman stood up.

When someone stands up, it means it's time for the guest to leave. Umm Hassan didn't grasp the meaning of the signal, however; when her brother said they had to go, she looked at him in amazement and didn't respond.

"And now, what can I do for you?" said Ella.

"Nothing, nothing," said Umm Hassan as she began ponderously to get up.

The Jewish woman took the earthenware jug and gave it to Umm Hassan without a word. Umm Hassan took it without looking and went back with her brother to his house in Abu Sinan.

"The jug is still in its place," said Sana'.

Umm Hassan said nobody should move it and that she was sorry she'd brought it with her, it should have stayed in its own house.

"Then what?" I asked Sana'.

"Then what?" she said. "She died in the camp, and the Jewish woman is still living in her house."

Can you imagine, Father, that Umm Hassan would die weeping for the earthenware jug she brought with her from her house? That she'd die because a woman said to her, "Damn al-Kweikat! Take it!" Why didn't she take it? Why didn't she tell this woman she was welcome to the whole camp, the whole of Wadi Abu Jmil, the whole world?

Umm Hassan said she wept over what had happened to her. "The Jewish woman bought my silence with the jug and her stories about her mute childhood, and I came back to the misery and poverty of the camp. She has the house and I'm here. What's the point?"

So the story was turned into a videotape that's now mine. Rami didn't film the conversation between the two women. He made the camera roam over the house and around the land and the olive orchard. But it's a beautiful tape, made up of lots of snapshots joined together. I’d have preferred a panorama, but never mind, we can imagine the scene as we watch. We've become a video nation. Should I be watching the tape every night, weeping and eventually dying from it? Or should I be filming you and turning you into a video that can make the rounds of the houses? What should I film though? Should I ask someone to play you as a young man? I might be able to play that role myself, what do you think? Mme. Claire already asked me if I were your son. I’d be able to say that I am and that I might play the role of you as a young man. But I'm not an actor, acting is a difficult profession! I wish I did know how to act, I'd have reenacted Shams' crime, and the interrogators wouldn't have laughed at me and humiliated me with their pity.

"Pity is the ugliest thing," you used to say. "We must not pity ourselves. Once a man pities himself, he's doomed."

But I'm very sorry to have to tell you now that I pity you. I swear you stir more pity than Umm Hassan’s earthenware jug or that mute Jewish woman.

The Jewish woman told Umm Hassan she hadn't forgotten her Arabic and said she'd been struck dumb when she came to Israel.

"I was on my own, the only child from Lebanon; they all spoke Hebrew. I went for five months without saying a word in class. I didn't dare talk to anyone, I didn't answer the teachers' questions, and I refused to read out loud. Five months. Then I opened my mouth. It was as though I'd tried, in my silence, to become part of these people I didn't know. French was my first language because at the Ecole Alliance in Beirut we were taught Arabic, like all other school children in Lebanon, but our language in school and at home was French. I knew a little Hebrew because we also studied it at school, though we never liked it. I also learned Hebrew at the Maabarot, but in the classroom, in the midst of all the children, I was struck dumb before I could speak like them."

She told Umm Hassan how she'd lived in the Maabarot, where they'd sprayed the Sephardic Jews with insecticide, as though they were animals, before admitting them to the stone barracks. She cried when they’d forced her to take off her clothes; a blond woman approached her with the long, cylindrical sprayer and showered every part of her body mercilessly. Her father, a man in his fifties, began howling when they ordered him to remove his red fez and the men started kicking it around like a soccer ball. He chased after it while the soldiers horsed around and laughed. When he could see that his fez was destroyed, he started howling, repeating, "There is no god but God," so they assumed he was a Muslim and subjected him to a prolonged interrogation before asking him to remove his clothes and spraying him – letting him get used to standing naked, without a fez, forever.

Ella Dweik told Umm Hassan al-Habit her story. And Umm Hassan told everyone that she'd wept.

"May the Lord punish me for how I cried. 'Take this bleak, dreary land,' she told me, 'and send me back to Wadi Abu Jmil, send me back to the Elie Bron building!'"

"And what did you say, Umm Hassan?"

"What could I say? Nothing. I began to weep."

From Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury; Translated by Humphrey Davies. Copyright (c) 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Archipelago Books. Available in trade paperback in March 2007 from Picador.

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