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Gate of the Sun: A Gate to Memory and Another to Love

Translator: Shaza Naim

"This novel would not have been possible without the countless men and women in the camps of Burj al-Barajneh, Shatila, Mar Elias, and Ain al-Hilweh, who opened the doors to their stories and took me on a journey through their memories and dreams."

(Elias Khoury / Last page of the novel Gate of the Sun).

Last April, as part of the Arab Film Festival in Berlin, I found myself seated in the "Arsenal Cinema" in the heart of Berlin, surrounded by dozens of cinema enthusiasts, to watch Bab el Shams, the magnificent film by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, adapted from the novel by Lebanese author Elias Khoury, spanning over four and a half hours. 

 We watched, twenty years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the restored version of the film, which was re-released last year at the Locarno Film Festival. It felt as though we had rediscovered a lost treasure, or at least, I felt as though I had found a long-missed gem.

The First Time

I watched the film for the first time with my mother and two of my brothers, Bashar and Nawar, in 2004 or early 2005—I don't remember exactly, but it was definitely before October 9, 2005, the day my brother Nawar passed away at the age of eleven.

Bashar had rented the film from a store that rented and sold copied DVDs. We might have watched the second part of the film first (like the novel, it is divided into two parts. In the novel, the first part is titled "The Galilee Hospital," and the second part is "The Death of Nahila." In the film, the first part is titled "The Departure," and the second part is "The Return").

I can't recall precisely, but I think we rented the film to watch something starring Basel Khayat (who plays Dr. Khalil in the film), who was emerging as one of the young stars of Syrian TV dramas. After loving the second part, we rented the first part to complete the story.

Describing my emotions as I stepped into the cinema hall after twenty years since I first watched the film is a challenge. Memories flooded back—of my little brother who left this world too soon, his restlessness during the film, unable to finish it with us. I remembered my mother and our post-movie discussions, and my brother Bashar, our clandestine laughter whenever a scene of intimacy appeared, behind our mother's unknowing gaze. We were teenagers, chuckling with mischief or embarrassment. I recalled my mother's words, affirming that love is an act not to be ashamed of, or shy away from.

I also remembered the first time I read the novel. Over the years, I purchased numerous copies, sharing them with friends. I left one with a Palestinian companion who shared my room during my early days in Germany's refugee camp. Another copy, translated into German, was given to my partner. Copies also found their way to friends in Germany, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Entering the cinema hall felt like revisiting my personal history.

In the beginning, there was the novel

I initially fell in love with the film, then later, with the novel. When I watched the film, I hadn't heard of Elias Khoury, Yousry Nasrallah, or many other Arab writers, intellectuals, and artists. Despite living in a home filled with books, our household culture was distinctly Soviet. My father, mother, and three of my uncles had studied in the Soviet Union, and my eldest brother was born there. During my teenage years, I had read Maxim Gorky, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and other great Russian literary figures, but I had not yet encountered Elias Khoury.

Over the years, I read Elias Khoury's novels and his articles in Lebanese newspapers, and he became one of my favorite writers and a personal hero. I cannot recall a political stance, a newspaper article, or a novel by Elias Khoury where he deviated from the values of truth and goodness.

I loved the novel "Bab el Shams". I was deeply moved by the character of Khalil. For many years, I believed that a part of my personality had become similar to Khalil's. I found myself captivated by the novel "Yalo". I read it several times before meeting Elias Khoury and having him sign a special copy for me.

 It happened in Cairo in the summer of 2011. A seminar was held for Elias Khoury at the American University in Cairo near Tahrir Square, followed by a book signing event for those interested. I couldn't attend the seminar due to work commitments and arrived late for the book signing. A friend of mine asked him to wait for me. With great humility, he waited for about half an hour. When he arrived, I bought a copy of the novel "Yalo" and asked him to sign it for me. He joked about waiting for me and then asked for my name. "Dellair," I replied. He asked about the origin of the name. When I answered, he jokingly said, "You're Syrian, Kurdish, and your name is Dellair, so you should sign for me, not the other way around." Syria's revolution was at its peak.

Three years later, my first book, "Tales from this Time," was published. After finishing writing the book, I couldn't find a suitable title until I read an article by Elias Khoury in Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper with the same title. I felt like I had found what I was looking for. I asked him to use the title of his article as the title for my book. He agreed with the graciousness of the great.

I've read "Bab al-Shams" four or five times, and with each reading, I unearthed something new that I had missed previously, as is often the case with great books. In the novel, there's a story that emerges from the heart of another story. One story weaves into another, creating endless tales within circles that spin and spin and spin.

Not long ago, I heard about Elias Khoury's illness, and it was rumored that he had been admitted to the hospital. I contemplated writing him a letter to convey how deeply he had impacted me as both a writer and a person, but then I reconsidered, for reasons I have yet to fully grasp.

A Gateway to Palestine

Upon my first viewing of the film, I, a teenager living in one of the informal settlements in Damascus, felt as though a door to Palestine had been opened. We knew nothing about Palestine except for what the news bulletins and poetry recitations told us: the oppressive enemy, the occupied land, victory, resilience, children of the stones, "I am an Arab" records, and so on.

"Bab al-Shams" was the door that revealed to us, or rather, to me, another Palestine. Palestine of the people, Palestine where love stories never end, Palestine of complexity, Palestine of young children, families, and lovers, Palestine that is ordinary and devoid of slogans.

It seems to me that the year 2004, and the subsequent one, ushered in a significant openness towards Palestine. In that year, the epic series "The Palestinian Diaspora" was produced, and we began to receive songs from Rim Banna and the band DAM. We started to learn, even if only partially, about the lives of people who were just a few kilometers away from us, separated by borders, armies, occupations, and dictatorships.

In the novel/film, another land emerged for us, a land that resembled ours. People who resembled us. They lived like us, loved like us, and ate and drank like us.

These stories taught us the meaning of loving Palestinians, not just the land of Palestine. The Assad regime wanted us to love Palestine without embracing its people, to sanctify the land while simultaneously imprisoning, torturing, and killing Palestinians.

From these stories, we learned that love for the land means nothing without love for its people. My grandmother, Sultanah, who was illiterate and struggled when speaking Arabic, used to say that Palestinians resembled Kurds; they cherished freedom and dance, but their land had been stolen from them.

As I write, I recall a story that unfolded during a session in the Turkish parliament, when Kurdish deputy, Osman Baydemir of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), uttered the name "Kurdistan" during his speech. The uproar of rejection echoed among the Republican deputies and those from the Justice and Development Party, until the session chairperson arrogantly asked Baydemir, "And where is this Kurdistan located?" Baydemir replied (pointing to his heart), "This is Kurdistan... Kurdistan is here."

I ponder and say to myself, "Kurdistan is here," and Palestine is also here (pointing to my heart). I think that such words will not be understood by the enemies of dreams, love, and freedom.

In 2013, fifteen years after the novel was published, scores of Palestinian youth established a village in Palestine to confront Israeli settlements in Jerusalem, naming their village "Bab Al-Shams". Perhaps this is the greatest honor a writer can receive in the world. What more could one desire from writing than to have the story of the writer live in the hearts of their readers? And when they engage in a resistant act against a vile occupation, they name the story after their act of resistance. Oh, the beauty of literature!

Sabra and Shatila

In 2012 and 2013, I lived in the city of Beirut, our stray star. Most of the time, my home was in "Al Jabal Al Sagheer (Little Mountain)" in the Jaitawi neighborhood of the Ashrafieh area, and I worked with organizations dealing with refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps, and the Said Ghaush and Da'ouk gatherings adjacent to the camps.

In that camp gathering, I learned that Palestine is greater than its borders, and larger than my imagination. I witnessed how Palestine lives in the hearts of the descendants of those displaced in the Nakba or Naksa. I saw men and women who survived the Nakba, the Naksa, the civil war, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the siege of the camps, racism and hatred, detention and torture, yet they still hold onto their love for Palestine.

I had seen the film "Bab Al-Shams" about ten times, each time with low quality or from a pirated source. But   this time, at the Arsenal cinema hall in central Berlin, in the square built after the city's unification, the imagery and the setting captivated me.

As I watched the opening scenes, where the camera reveals the streets and houses of the Shatila refugee camp, I wondered if this film had indirectly influenced my decision to go to Beirut and work with Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Sabra and Shatila.

Was the film I first watched twenty years ago a subtle force that drove me to Shatila without my conscious realization?

I suggest that perhaps the film/novel was one of the reasons for my attachment, and the attachment of my generation and the generation older than me, to the city of Beirut, leading to what we might call the "Beirut Syndrome." The following excerpts are taken from a text I wrote earlier about the city of Beirut, explaining what I mean by the Beirut Syndrome:

"I grew up listening to 'Tut Tut to Beirut,' 'Ramanah Ramanah Ala khassri w Kalashnikov B' yeddi,' (A pomegranate, a pomegranate on my hip, and a Kalashnikov in my hand) and 'Ashhad Ya 'Alam Alayna wa 'Ab Beirut.' (World be a witness to us and Beirut). The image of Beirut in my mind was a city of revolutionary dreams. A city where people die for an idea. A city that defined my generation and the generation before me, who belonged to a certain left-wing ideology, based on its legend. Beirut of struggle, national movement, left-wing ideals, and revolution. Beirut that brought together intellectuals and writers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. We grew up memorizing songs and poems created during the time of Beirut's civil war and the invasion of Beirut. We grew up dreaming of living in that city and in that era, when "Beirut was our tent."

We grew up carrying the "Beirut Syndrome" with us.

"We grew up, and our revolution ignited—the Syrian revolution—and my generation became involved in it in various ways. We dreamed of our own 'Abu Ammar.' Abu Ammar was our Che Guevara. We dreamed of a leader like him, walking through the camps of Beirut, leading fighters, negotiating with enemies, achieving victories, surrendering, winning, returning to his homeland, and being besieged in Ramallah, only conceding when it served his people's interests. He stood up to Hafez al-Assad and feared no one. His cause was his guiding star."

"We did not find a leader, nor did we find in Beirut the revolution we longed for. Beirut assassinated our dreams. Times changed, and we remained dreamers of a better world. Once in Beirut, we sang 'Bear Witness, Oh World, To Us and Beirut,' the most famous song by the Al-Ashiqeen band, with Rami Suleiman and Khaled Bakrawi (two young Palestinian Syrians). Later, Khaled was killed under torture in Assad's intelligence dungeons, and Rami has been missing in those dungeons for over seven years [now eleven years]. I survived with a heavy memory and a heart that is a mass grave where many of my loved ones rest, and on its edges, a large prison visited by many whose hearts are also mass graves."

Yousry Nasrallah's film

In this cinema hall, at Arsenal Cinema, I watched restored films by Youssef Chahine daily for a month several years ago. As I was about to watch "Gate of the Sun," I recalled my daily trips to the cinema and my amazement at some of Chahine's films that I hadn't known before those screenings, such as "Alexandria Again and Forever."

In the film "Gate of the Sun," I saw the spirit of Youssef Chahine hovering over the cinema screen. I glimpsed some of his essence in certain scenes, especially those featuring crowds. I witnessed a bit of Chahine's boldness and fearlessness in imagery coming to life again through Yousry Nasrallah's scenes. I recall hearing Nasrallah mention in an interview that he was greatly influenced by Chahine, having been his protégé.

I write this article while reflecting on the scenes from the film, weeks after my last viewing. I'm attempting to provide an objective critique of the film. There are some aspects I didn't like, such as the accents of some actors and actresses. Any Palestinian or Syrian, for example, will immediately recognize that an actor is Egyptian trying to speak with a Palestinian accent, and it seems Egyptians are not adept at other regional accents. However, I don't feel this diminishes the film's value; perhaps the opposite is true. What if all the actors and actresses were Palestinian? This diversity (with a Lebanese writer and an Egyptian director) might actually enhance the film, illustrating that stories of love and resistance are not exclusively Palestinian but universal. Like the tales of "One Thousand and One Nights," these stories belong to the whole world, not just a specific geography.

One of my friends once told me about the connection between "Gate of the Sun" and "One Thousand and One Nights." He said that Scheherazade told stories to stay alive, and Khalil in "Gate of the Sun" told stories to keep Younes alive. In this way, the story kept life alive. Perhaps for this reason, after Younes died, and Shams died, and Nahila died, Khalil was brought back to life once more. We saw him swimming in the water, baptized with the waters of Palestine, announcing the return—the return to the land of Nahila and Younes, to the land of his beloved Shams, to the land of his mother who he lost as a child, to the land of love, to Palestine.

I finished writing at the word "Palestine" at the end of the previous passage. When I reread it, I felt that there was something missing at the end. This text needs a conclusion... But perhaps not everything needs an ending. Maybe some things are endless, like Younes's love for Nahila, like Khalil's love for Younes, like Hassan's Mother love for Palestine.

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