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Time of White Horses
by Ibrahim Nasrallah
Translated by Nancy Roberts
American University in Cairo Press, 2012. Hbk, 634pp, ISBN 9789774164897.
Beware of Losing Forever
This novel, shortlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is a sprawl across three generations of Palestinians in the village of Hadiya (locatable by context within the current Green Line). Their destinies are ruled by outside forces: The Ottoman Empire in its death throes, the British occupation that follows, furiously cruel; then Israel and the Nakba. The reader would find the book easier going with some knowledge of this history and its main actors. The heroes of the novel, Hajj Mahmoud, his son Hajj Khaled and grandson Naji, are additionally afflicted by informants and collaborators, rapacious Arab landowners, and selfish Greek monks. It’s a vicious game: men are murdered or executed, demolitions and collective punishment meted out, ancestral lands taken at a stroke. One learns the lesson that the behaviour of any oppressor is the same, regardless of time or circumstance.
Early in the novel we are introduced to an astonishing white mare, Hamama, who appears as if in a vision. She, and two of her descendants with the same name, have a preternatural capacity to understand the human who cares most for them – Khaled – and even utter gnomic phrases. Horses, white and black, play essential roles throughout the resistance to the foreign forces. We are made to think of the legendary mythical steed Buraq. The book’s epigraph cites an Arabic proverb: “God made horses from wind, and people from dust”.
The central figure of the novel is Hajj Khaled. As a young man he is impetuous, headstrong, resilient and phenomenally strong. When a troop of Ottoman soldiers and tax collectors strip the villagers of their belongings and abduct Hamama, Khaled goes after them with stealth and steel, a guerrilla fighter in the making, killing the entire force one by one. He becomes an outlaw, although there are some years of peace between the end of Ottoman rule and the beginning of the 1936–39 Arab uprising. A gentle father, he rules his clan wisely and conducts honourable relations with friends and foes alike. He is the archetypal folk hero who comes to save his people from tyranny. In the telling, such men are not given interiority, but stand as icons of resistance and steadfastness.
The women in the novel are no less stalwart. Khaled’s mother, Munira, mainstay of the extended family, at one point offers to sacrifice all her personal wealth to prevent her son from committing a grievous judicial error. Khaled’s daughter Fatima communes with animals. Rayhanna, the redoubtable widow and owner of a fierce black stallion, personifies resistance to abusive men and all persecutors of the people.
Two characters in vignette temper all this derring–do. Mahmud, Khaled’s effete son, is the only one to receive a secular education. He becomes citified, but as a journalist finds himself compromised by his praise of a Palestinian warlord, who makes his escape to Beirut along with his wealth. Mahmud is left disgraced in the empty Jaffa square: “As soon as he had taken off his fez, his clothes began to fall off his body the way the leaves fall off a tree in the autumn chill. He looked at himself. He was completely naked . . . a lady of the night in front of some nightclub.” We also encounter the wily, blind lawyer Sulayman al Marzuqi, whose skilful presentations in the courtroom save the village of Hadiya from legal dissolution.
To my taste, however – and often the case in heroic works – the most compelling character is the British officer Edward Peterson: an implacable, sadistic Inspector Javert to Khaled’s Jean Valjean. He hates Arabs but loves their horses. He writes poetry in secret – examples of which betray a fine and dark sensibility (the novel’s author is himself a poet). While folk heroes are often inhuman in their perfection and ultimately not credible, the characters that attract us are complicated, layered, a mix of good and evil.
(On the subject of poetry, the translator has chosen to convert Arab folk poetry into doggerel verse: “The day we said goodbye to them there was rain and storm / The day we received them we did our steeds adorn…. Season the dish with fresh basil / and I’ll give you a sip of dew / I’ll weave a mantle to keep you warm / With the color of the sky so blue.” This is silly and unnecessary.)
Although we are told that all characters on this stage are fictional and any resemblance etc., there is one historical personage who makes a ‘guest appearance’: the journalist Najib Nassar, a fugitive on the run from the Ottoman police. (His full story is told by Raja Shehadeh in A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle. London: Profile Books, 2010). Other historical characters are relegated to footnotes, including the feckless leaders of the 1948 Arab ‘army of rescue’. The novel’s structure is both theatrical and postmodern. Rather than being told in linear fashion, events are sometimes evoked before those that led up to them. ‘Magical realism’ threads throughout. Numerous scholarly footnotes give a partial historic context to fictional events. However, other voices in italics, as the author tells us, are a composite of “memories related by people who were interviewed by the author” and serve as a Greek chorus, companions to Khaled and the villagers. I am of two minds about this structure: intrigued but also distracted by such manoeuvres. One can’t read the work straight through, and there is no précis or dramatis personae to help.
At the close, Hadiya is taken by siege and subterfuge: burnt to the ground, effaced, its surviving inhabitants scattered or expelled – the true fate of hundreds such villages. Khaled’s wife Sumayya sees a last vision of Hamama pawing at her husband’s grave. Just before his death in Peterson’s ambush, Khaled had warned his people that while “No nation has ever been a permanent victor . . . there’s only one thing I’m afraid of – that we’ll be broken forever, since someone who’s been broken forever will never rise again . . . Beware of losing forever.” Decades later, we are still on that knife-edge.