Absorbing epic of the Palestinian people.
Khoury (The Kingdom of Strangers, 1996), born to a Lebanese Christian family, steals a page from the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, his narrator not a Scheherazade preserving her virtue but a Palestinian doctor who tells winding tales in hope of keeping alive an old friend, comatose in a refugee-camp hospital. The sleeping man, it seems, is meant to represent his people, victims of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of 1948: as Dr. Khalil observes, with some exasperation, “Why do we, of all the peoples of the world, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?” But Dr. Khalil himself is awake and alive, and very much observant. His stories, one building on the next, become a history and ethnography of the Palestinian people from that year of massacres and flight to the post-1967 loss of even the hope of a homeland and on to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon: A woman explains that she has a duty to return to her ancestral village so that she can shake the souls of the abandoned dead out of the trees, while another explains the small victory attendant in finding vintage olive oil in the homes of those forced to flee—and no worries, either, for “We don’t get high cholesterol. Peasants are cholesterol-proof.” Though Khoury’s sympathies are evident, he takes a wide and mostly evenhanded view of things political. There are admirable characters of every stripe and tribe, and a few not-so-admirable ones as well, living side by side if not always comfortably; by the close of the book, Dr. Khalil is reporting on the children of the Shatila refugee camp, one of whom “is studying business management at Tel Aviv University and is getting ready to marry a Christian.”
Well received internationally—not least in Israel—Khoury’s novel reports events little known outside Palestine, woven into an elaborate but effective structure.