Ibrahim Nasrallah: Part of My Ambition Was to Surprise the Reader Who Knew Palestine

Nora Parr was on hand to hear Ibrahim Nasrallah’s final thoughts about Time of White Horses and (perhaps) his next book in the series, during his UK tour:

After a week-long speaking tour in the UK, Palestinian novelist and poet Ibrahim Nasrallah sat down at SOAS for some final thoughts and a fantastic discussion on form, function, poetics and character in his 2009 novel (which came out in translation this year) Time of White Horses. The work is the sixth in what is so far a septet of works known collectively as the Palestine (Tragi)Comedies, that take readers through some 250 years of Palestinian history, in no particular order.

Though the series was first envisioned as seven works, Nasrallah said on Monday he suspected there would be more in the future.

One of a growing list of works in translation, the Time of White Horses will come as quite a departure from the last of Nasrallah’s novels translated from Arabic, Inside the Night (2007), which, much like the earlier Praries of Fever,  was an almost stream-of-consciousness portrayal of the experiences of exile, and the surrealism of safety when fleeing an on-going war. In contrast, Time of White Horses follows – more than any of his earlier works – the march of time, focusing in particular on one village and one family, and the events that unfolded around them between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Nakba of 1948.

While Nasrallah categorizes Time of White Horses as work of historical fiction, he also notes that it was not simply an effort at documentation, saying “Part of my aesthetic ambition was to surprise the reader that knew Palestine and lived in it with the fact that they did not know it as well as they had thought.” And though he said the “white” of the title hints at his sense that the early eras of the work were a more pure and simple age for Palestinians, the novel does not shy away from the depiction of characters that are more self-serving than community oriented.

Responding to one question about the treatment of antagonists in the novel, and whether he felt he treated them as stereotypes, Nasrallah said he was always compelled to depict his central characters with a whole range of complexity. “If they do not have dreams and internal contradictions,” he said, “if they do not have flesh and bones and a soul,” then the work of which they are a part will not be complete.

Nasrallah then spoke about a British general, Edward Peterson, who figures prominently in the latter sections of Time of White Horses, and how the man was both a poet and a murderer. Peterson also loved horses as much as the Palestinian protagonists Khaled and Hajj Mahmoud, for whom love and respect for a filly reflected in them their love and respect for others. On the one hand, Peterson will enter a village and slaughter its residents without cause, such as one instance where he himself said, “I hadn’t been intending to kill them, but they stood in front of that wall,” but at the same time will gaze “lovingly” at the protagonist’s horse, and exclaim, “when all this shit’s over, I’m going to buy myself a mare like this and take it back to England.” Then, the same night as he slaughters villagers, an asterisk leads the reader to a footnote, saying:

“That night, Peterson wrote: That which I have yet to dream of/ I haven’t experienced before./ That which once belonged to me/ wasn’t near my pillow in the morning/ Your sweet name, it’s you,/ Yet it’s empty as a dried up well when you’re not here.”

Footnotes like the one above, which undermine the characterization of the British general as a solely evil figure, are used frequently in Time of White Horses, and also at times are employed to bring in historical references, or transcripts of some of the interviews that Nasrallah conducted with Palestinians who had lived through the Nakba. The use of footnotes and the integration of oral history into the novel are two of the many nuances that set it apart from mainstream historical fiction.

Commenting on the form of the work, Nasrallah called himself an engineer, or an architect, and his characters like those who come to him asking for a house to be built. For each set of characters, he explained, the house that is created comes out differently, because it must be created to reflect their needs, their lives, and their actions.

For Nasrallah, building Time of White Horses over some 22 years of interviews, readings and preparation was like living in pre-Nakba Palestine “for seventy-five years, the temporal duration of the novel. I went ‘there’ to know how Palestine was lost, to live that loss. That is why I felt, whenever I progressed further with the writing, that Palestine shall be lost! And this is something terrifying: to know the end beforehand and to be beset by fear with every step you take towards the conclusion.”

Nora Parr is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where she is looking at paradigms of nationalism and intertextuality in the Palestinian novel. She works as an editorial assistant for the journal Middle Eastern Literatures, a post she took following three years as a news editor on the English Desk of the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency.