A book about novels, through a play

Tahṭa shams al-dụḥā (Under the Mid-morning Sun, 2004) is a novel about the writing of a play. Its one of my favourites in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Palestine Comedies series and has yet to be translated into English. But lucky you, here I am with an excerpt.

The novel is set mainly in Ramallah, at the end of the first seven years of Palestinian Authority rule. It looks at the various ways of being Palestinian under the new political scene, and examines the problems of imposed narratives of nation-ness.

Using the play as a device to highlight and explore the notion of performance in national identity, the novel follows as a 35-year-old Salim decides to write and perform a monologue play about Yasin. A member of the Palestinian resistance who had been imprisoned by Israel, tortured, exiled, Yasin was scarred by the tragedy of the Tel Az-Zaatar camp in Lebanon, and the realities of statelessness before he was permitted to return to the West Bank as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

 Having been a part of each moment around which the Palestinian national identity had hitherto been constructed, Salim saw the now 60-year-old Yasin as a national hero. However, Yasin is resistant, and does not get excited about the idea of having his life turned into a play. The novel follows Salim as he takes the living, complex, and unfinished life of Yasin and turns it into a caricature, a symbol, which reduces the man’s life to a series of moments. 

 Yasin resists being reduced to a symbol, and insists that return to Palestine in 1993 was just part of his own personal journey. He figures return as a continuation of life, and he works hard to re-know the cities of the West Bank after his long absence. Sitting down with Salim, who has asked to hear his life story, Yasin starts:

“The story doesn’t end when it ends, it starts and when it does the beginning must continue until a new beginning […] I don’t see an ending at all, I see only a chain of beginnings. The ending is many beginnings: so where to start?” (145)

Turned into a play, the life of Yasin is said to be

 “what we need in these days, more than anything else. We need him because we say to ourselves […] that we are no longer beautiful, because of all the years of death we have lived through during the occupation […] and even if it’s a symbol, it will make people feel that they are over the occupation, not underneath it” (87)

But, produced under the direction (and indeed oppression) of a corrupt and misogynist theatre director who raises himself at the favour of the new Palestinian Authority, Salim writes the play, and ends up consuming Yasin as a national symbol in the process.

 Salim gradually takes over the life of Yasin. When he is arrested and put in Israeli prison a second time, Salim goes against the man’s wishes and puts on the play in Ramallah. When he is released, Yasin finds his life being performed and reduced on stage. The story ends with a confrontation between the man, the role, and its actor:

“You seem to have forgotten that I gave you permission to turn the story into a play for a night or two but no more, but I didn’t by any means give you permission to turn it into my life as though you were its owner” (158) 

I won’t spoil the ending, just in case you do get round to reading it. Its worth the effort, and provokes thoughts on what it means to tell a story, and just how much violence can be done to a life, or a person, when the self is circumscribed by a larger narrative; in this case, the story of the nation and the heroes it seeks. 

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