Looking at the Longlist: A Book of ‘Epic Dimension’ from an ‘Excellent Storyteller’

Ibrahim Nasrallah has become known for his historical novels about Palestine, which are now a series of seven, including the one longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Lanterns of the King of Galilee (2011)

lanters (1)But Nasrallah, born in the Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, first dreamed of becoming  musician. Unfortunately, there was no money for that in his family, and he had to give up his dream of studying music. He told Al Akhbar that he lived through two decades of political repression in Jordan in the 1950’s and 60’s when, “No one had the courage to turn the radio on and listen to Jamal Abdel Nasser.”

Nasrallah’s first genre was poetry, and he published his first collections in the 1980s. He continues to write poetry. But, slowly, the desire grew in him to write prose about pre-Nakba Palestine. He wondered how he could do it, when it hadn’t been done by Ghassan Kanafani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Emile Habibi — he, who had been born six years after the nakba?

He said at this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair that, “I started with my personal experience, in Birds of Caution [the first novel in the series]. And this talks about my childhood…in the Wihdat camp where I lived in Jordan.”

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Courtesy Mosaic Rooms

The series takes readers through some 250 years of Palestinian history. And, as a recent profile in Al-Akhbar notes, cinema has been influential in shaping his vision and style. Although the series was first envisioned as seven, Nasrallah said during his recent UK tour — which launched the English translation of In the Time of White Horses — that he suspected there will be more.

His most recent novel in the series, Lanterns, centers on Dzaher al-Omar, who revolted against Ottoman rule. Since Ibrahim Nasrallah has already been kind enough to subject himself to two recent profiles on ArabLit (by Amira Abd el-Khalek and Nora Parr), I decided instead to ask his literary agent Yasmina Jraissati (@yjraissati) to talk about why she loves the book.

ArabLit: As an agent, you need to selective about which titles you choose to represent. What elements made you decide on Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Lanterns of the King of Galilee? What does it do particularly well?

Yasmina Jraissati: Nasrallah’s book revolves around one famous historical figure, Zaher El Omar, who, in the 19th century, fought the Ottoman Empire with the aim of creating a free country of Palestine. Zaher El Omar’s story is quite an amazing one, and Nasrallah’s book, starting with El Omar’s early years until his death, captures its exceptionality. Nasrallah’s challenge was perhaps to keep the reader interested without sacrificing a multitude of components, ranging from daily life details of economy, dress, food, agriculture, society, to negotiations and war. Nasrallah opted for short chapters that chronologically follow each other, but feature each a short story, or a specific interesting element. What I personally enjoyed most is undoubtedly the epic dimension of the book: the plots, war strategies, sieges, battles, and the figure of the horse, an expression of beauty and nobility at the heart of all this violence.

AL: When selecting books, do you have to think about: Why is the book interesting to global audiences, vs. an Arabic-reading audience? Or would your criteria be largely the same?

YJ: A good book is a good book anywhere in the world, I think, and although taste is determining, it’s not just a matter of taste. For me, the absolute criterion is whether the book is convincing. Only after I’m convinced by what the author is trying to say do I start wondering whether the book is relevant for an international audience. It is true that some books have very local references and are not necessarily interesting for the rest of the world, but this is rare, and not the main difficulty with which I am usually confronted.

AL: How do you think Lanterns of the King of Galilee fits into Nasrallah’s oeuvre? What would a fan of his previous works find new and familiar here?

YJ: Lanterns of the King of Galilee clearly fits with the Time of White Horses. There is some continuity between the two books, in the space-time frame, and through a connection between the horses in the two stories. Fans of the Time of White Horses will have no trouble finding in the Lanterns what they liked in the previous book. Except that in this case, the main character is an actual historical figure, and the stakes are more explicitly political. The “Palestinian history” project to which both The Time of White Horses and Lanterns of the King of Galilee belong stand out from the rest of his work in content and format. But the voice is the same.

To me, Nasrallah is mainly an excellent storyteller. He has a great sense of rhythm and of narration that is common to his entire work.

AL: I was recently at a small conference about Palestinian art, and one academic asserted that Nasrallah’s books are more like “official” history, a grand narrative that fits comfortably with contemporary politics and emotions, as contrasted with a writer she called more anti-grand-narrative, like Raji Bathish. How do you see the relationship between contested “histories-in-progress” of Palestine/Israel and Nasrallah’s fictions?

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YJ: I don’t believe in dichotomies. Official history and non-official history feed one other, they are each necessary for the other to exist. They each mean different things. They are also both part of who and what we are today. I can understand the distinction between the two approaches, but I don’t believe in their opposition, or in the idea that only one of them tells the truth.
At the end of Elias Khoury’s novel As Though She Were Sleeping, set before the Nakba, the main character Milia predicts that Palestine will be made of poetry. This may seem like she meant that Palestine will not exist outside people’s words, which are a mix of reality and of dreams. But for Milia, there is nothing but poetry and dreams. History, stories, truth, myth, dreams, reality, to some extent these are all separated by fine lines and crucially depend on what people want to make of them. In this lies their meaning.

There is no doubt that Nasrallah’s project in the Lanterns of the King of Galilee is to offer Palestinians and Arabs alike a piece of glorifying history, and it incidentally may fit with contemporary politics. But I think this misses the point. The point is simply that today people need inspiration, and Nasrallah genuinely feels that Zaher El Omar, his vision and his cause, are inspiring.

AL: Two of the books on the list are historical fictions from Palestine (also Anwar Hamed’s book), and Sahar Khalifeh was also longlisted a couple years ago for her Of Noble Origins, another pre-nakba history. Do you think we will see more of this genre, attempts to reconstruct Palestinian history through fiction?

YJ: I’m not sure… Aren’t most novels attempts to reconstruct history? Take post World War II novels in Western Europe or even North America, or Cold war novels. Take Lebanon. Most novelists who are born in the 1950’s, for example, still feature the Lebanese war in some way or another in their writing. But I think writing about history is not just an attempt to reconstruct it. More importantly, it is a way to make sense of what happened, and mainly of what is still happening. It is a way to take possession of it. Kanafani or Habibi’s books also resulted from this effort to re-possess history, past, present and future. Perhaps recently in Palestinian literature this same effort manifests itself through a specific literary genre.

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