Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: 'Time of White Horses' by Ibrahim Nasrallah

Time of White Horses
It's been six years since the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) crowned its first winner, Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher, for his book 'Sunset Oasis'. Managed in association with the Booker Prize Foundation in London this award is a big deal for Arab authors. Not only do those on the shortlist find themselves $10,000 better off (the winner receives an additional $50,000) but the more important gain is the jump in book sales the authors can look forward to enjoying thanks to the exposure their work receives. 

More importantly the IPAF has fulfilled a key promise: to translate quality Arabic literature into other languages. All prize winners and even many on the short and long list have been secured translations with various publishing houses in the America, Asia and Europe. One such translation is of a book by Ibrahim Nasrallah, 'Time of White Horses' which was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2009 and which hit shelves in its English translation last year. 

'Time of White Horses' is the story of Palestine before the establishment of Israel in 1948. The novel, translated by Nancy Roberts, is divided into three books: Book One is Wind, Book Two: Earth & Book Three: Humankind. It has been twenty years in the making and although a work of fiction it is footnoted when certain parts are based on real historic accounts obtained by the author from witnesses who after 1948 had 'been uprooted from their homeland and had gone to live in exile'. Sadly many died never having seen their homeland again.

The novel follows the life of the family of Haj Mahmud and his son Khaled who live in the fictional village of 'Hadiya' -which means Peaceful- first under Ottoman rule and later under the British mandate right up to the 1948 war when the village is wiped out and the land annexed to Israel rendering the villagers homeless and destined to a life spent in refugee camps dreaming of a day that never arrives. Nasrallah himself was born and raised in the Wihdat camp in Jordan.

In Book one we are introduced to Hadiya village, to the mare Hamama and to various village characters as well as to some living in the neighbouring areas. We meet Habbab, a psychopath of sorts who in the early pages seems to disappear (probably with the Turkish army) only to come back wealthier, stronger and meaner still. His main enemy is the village elder, Haj Mahmud himself. Indestructible, he finally meets his match when he marries his third wife Rayhana and his story reads like one from a Thousand and One Nights. We are introduced to al-Barmaki whose story of his son Ghazi's birth is the most comical yet towards the end of the novel proves to be one of the saddest twists of the book.

Book one exhibits a simplicity, a lyricism even, which makes it read like an Arabian nights tale as author reminisces of customs long given-up and of a way of village life that has ceased to exist except in children's fairytales and bedtime stories. As things get more difficult for the villagers of Hadiya under British rule in the next two books so does Ibrahim Nasrallah's style of writing. The novel takes on a dis-organised, crammed even claustrophobic feel and by the end of it as life is slowly squeezed out of Hadiya the reader is truly feeling boxed-in already. The translator's brilliant command of the language creates a real picture of helplessness and despair that manages to jump off the pages of the book and grasp the reader firmly in its hold. A feeling that is very hard -nearly impossible- to shed and further compounded when the reader already knows that there will never be a 'happy' ending to this story.

The story of Hadiya's monastery is a very interesting one and it is one that Nasrallah says is not only true but is the story of his village monastery. In the beginning Ottomans sold off Palestinian lands to the Greeks to sustain war with Turkey's enemies. However, by the 1920s things were tough on everyone and by the time the British Mandate was upon Palestine the Patriarchate was officially bankrupt. The British stepped in forcing the Patriarchate to sell off lands that they owned to the Jews who were returning after World War II to settle in Palestine. What is interesting to know is that in 2005 patriarch Irenaios (140th Patriarche of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem) was deposed in the aftermath of a scandal involving selling of church land in East Jerusalem to Israeli developers. Land that the Palestinians were hoping would be part of the Palestinian State.

Packed to the brim with an interesting cast of characters this novel is a serious powerful achievement. 'Time of White Horses' is testament that Arabic literature is well and truly a force that can easily hold its own on the international literary platform. When asked why he had written this novel in particular, Nasrallah answered it was so that the young would not forget and that the old would forever be remembered. It is said that to know oneself one must return to the root, and that is exactly what Nasrallah has done for a generation who has lived all its life far from a homeland it dreams of returning to. It is possibly a gentle reminder that those who do not remember the past are most condemned to repeat it.

This is a story of remembrance, love, heartbreak, loyalty, betrayal, justice and greed. It is a story about family, honour and decency. A novel about courage, heroes, tyrants and doing the right thing. It is all of the above and much more but most and foremost I see it as a story of beginnings or a story of endings giving birth to new beginnings for George Santayana once said: 'We must welcome the future remembering that soon it will be the past, and we must respect the past remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible".

An emotional roller coaster of a book with the hardback cover beautifully illustrated by Palestinian artist Tamam al-Akhal who I had the honour of interviewing for a TV show I was presenting around ten years ago. A great read particularly for those who enjoyed Rafik Shami's 'The Dark Side of love' or Naguib Mahfouz's 'Cairo' Trilogy this is not one you want to miss.

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