In '1001 Nights,â?� Scheherazade staved off death by telling her would-be executioner stories. The narrator of Elias Khoury's profoundly moving American debut employs a similar strategy, but with a different goal in mind. Stuck in a run-down hospital in a refugee camp in Beirut, Khalil tries to revive his dying friend Yunes by telling the man the story of his own life. In doing so, Khalil also attempts to keep alive their remembrances of Galilee, the land that in 1948, through force and decree, became Israel.
Like many Palestinians, Yunes was suddenly homeless that year and on the run. While his wife raised their children, he moved from camp to camp, foraging in deserted towns for olives, dodging bullets. Each year he buried more friends and missed out on more of his life and his dear love, Nahla, whom he secretly met in a cave called the Gate of the Sun. One night his wife came to him there with their dead son, his skull smashed in by an Israeli settler's rock. He planned revenge and then backed out, ashamed, humiliated.
In giving this testimony as directly as possible, Khalil doesn't just tell Yunes' story, but that of Palestine as well. As Gate of the Sun reveals, the most powerful right of return possessed by Palestinians is contained in their stories, where their past exists forever and their right to exist is unmediated. 'Do you remember when you used to say, 'Back to the beginning!' and would stamp your foot?â?� asks Khalil of his silent friend. 'And after the Israelis went into Beirut, after each new thing that happened, you'd spit as though you were wiping out the past, and you'd say, 'Back to the beginning!'â?� The Gate of the Sun is his essential deliverance on that promise.