By IBRAHIM NASRALLAH
Excerpted from Under the Midmorning Sun*, translated from Arabic, and with an introduction by Nora Parr.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah the first blasts of the Second Intifada are heard just behind the stage door of the de-facto capital’s theatre. The play, about a nameless and heroic freedom fighter, has just concluded. Its only actor, Salim, peeks out from the quiet exit, and makes his way into the street. He is wary, but not of an impending Israeli attack. Instead, he worries that Yasin, the man he has based the play on, is waiting to confront him.
He worries that he has turned the story of Yasin’s life into a parody of itself, fossilizing the figure of the national hero into a man who has suffered torture, exile, imprisonment, and redeemed himself with the gun. Yasin, however, has put down arms and returned to a Palestine determined to continue resistance in other forms. For Yasin, the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton on the White House lawn that sealed the peace process of the 1990s was not the end of a struggle, but the signal of its shift.
Yasin had ‘returned’ to a slice of Palestine to meet a population humiliated by years of Israeli occupation. The fighter still wanted to fight. In a scene emblematic of his outlook, he demands of his adopted mother:
Have you ever in your life seen an airplane drop flowers on a city?
Of course not.
But you’ve seen an airplane drop bombs on a city.
Any number of times.
You see! The world is crazy!
Yasin sees danger in fossilizing heroes, and insists on a changing role. He has returned to fight for beauty, and to dream of the impossible.
The shift, however, would never happen. As the new Palestinian Authority government floundered, unable to ensure the freedom sought in the peace deal, it looked to the image of the fighter to bolster a lost image of leadership. Plagued by corruption and inefficiency, the government laid claim to its past in order to lend legitimacy to its present.
At its most basic, then, Under the Midmorning Sun is the story of what happens to a national movement and its symbols as it attempts to transition from a phase of revolution to one of quasi-statehood amidst the impossible conditions of a continued occupation.
Stuck in the middle is Salim, who grew up in Ramallah and never left: the badly treated protégé of a quasi-government official who is scamming the development money pumped into the new Palestinian Authority under the auspices of the Oslo Accords through a fraudulent children’s theatre project.
Trying to get out from under the thumb of the theatre boss, Salim crafts the play about Yasin and gains status through the performance. His claim on the figure of the hero at once liberates him from the director, and gains him status in a frustrated Ramallah. Desperate to cling to the role, he is grotesquely relieved when Yasin is re-arrested by the Israeli military. Imagining the torture that the fighter is undergoing, Salim guiltily steps into the spotlight, telling no one that the character he plays is based on a real man. In glorifying the fighter, he is killing the man.
In the era of Nasrallah’s Second Intifada, there are no more heroes. There are the oppressed and the people they climb over them to find a way out of an impossible situation.
Under the Midmorning Sun
Seven minutes before its natural end the play stopped. Its rhythm had been sped up, the performance turned into something resembling the dull recitation of a classical poem, or a school text learned by rote.
Arriving at the back door of the theatre, he found him waiting. Before Yasin could lay eyes on the actor, however, he retreated inside. Salim waited a little, then peered out again. Yasin was still there.
He quickly headed for the main door of the theatre, but fate dealt him a surprise, because Yasin –somehow—was there too.
He returned to the stage, frozen in its very center like an actor who had forgotten the reason he was at the theatre.
How much time passed? He did not know, he was not even roused by the boy who came in to clean the hall, who had begun his work between the rows of seats with the persistence of an ant.
– We didn’t agree to this
The voice came, it was the voice of Yasin, from behind him. He must have spotted that second look from out behind the back theatre door.
He turned, panic stricken. Watching him all the while, the boy with half his body perched on the edge of one of the chairs. He was staring, as if unable to understand what was going on.
– I came up with the idea, and will get to work on it tomorrow. It was inspired by the works of eradication you do every night, as though my life were yours. You seem to have forgotten that I gave you permission to turn the story into a play for a night, two nights but no more. I did not in any way give you permission to change it this extent. You’ve taken my life as though it were your possession. You haven’t asked me what I came up with? Ok, I’ll tell you. I’ll search for an actor, or a writer to present the last face of my life, to reduce me so much that I become the ghost of a prophet…I AM NOT THIS! You’ve compressed me until I became a hero where the standard of heroism has no meaning. Here I am a hero because I have a story, written or performed, or printed in a newspaper or a book. Anyone could be a hero, any one of the people who fill the streets, children women and sheikhs. Any one of them could be a hero if they were given a story. I was just like them until a story was told about me.
There was silence.
– All those who you see in the streets are silent heroes, even those who don’t have stories like you. Maybe you can assume some other story, stories other than this one, so they can become heroes. Even mine, because I am not there in my entirety, I am without the faults that make me who I am. You talked about little Nimr ‘the leopard,’ about the death of his family, about our departure with the miracle of the infiltrators between the jaws of the Tel Al- Zaatar massacre, you talked about N’uman, about Umm Al- Walid, about Abu Al- Walid, about Naim, and his wife, about Tel Al- Zatar, you talked about the interrogator, about the cell; I am all of this. There is not a person who with one singular thing can become a hero. In truth, every hero is like the others. Try to tell the story of Nimr on its own, or of Umm A- Walid, or of Nu’man, and what would happen? Each would become the main character and I would become secondary. Do you understand now what I mean by a story? And how a story can turn into a decree of fate?
Salim found himself in the middle of a vast lake of silence.
He didn’t say a word, until he saw the body that he knew so well retreat toward the main door and disappear, dragging its injured leg, the one that appeared to Salim as if it was lagging behind its body; as if it wanted to say something that its owner refused to.
Salim tried to remember if he was still limping on stage or not, but he couldn’t.
He looked around, but there was no one except him on the stage, and the cleaning boy.
– Why didn’t you say this in the play sir? It’s very important. I felt you were talking about me! Will you use it tomorrow?
But Salim was lost trying to understand whether he had heard those words just now, or if he had heard them from Yasin a very long time ago.
Yasin put his hand across the small window and purchased a ticket to attend the performance.
He felt that he was doing his for the first time.
This puzzled him.
On his way to the door he thought: Aha, you have arrived at the time when there is nothing left to do but buy a ticket to see the ghost of your life.
More than once it occurred to Yasin that memories resembled the happy and sad events that he had lived. Memories were only ghosts that one loved and called forth, or tried to keep far away. But you, and your insistence on this play, have now called them forth as well. Memories are the ghosts that don’t need a special amulet to come and go, and they don’t need to sit and attend….
Blackness covered the hall.
The darkness did not banish the mutterings of memory’s ghosts.
He picked a spot on the edge of first tier of seats. He was relieved, since it meant he would be able to stretch his legs without disturbing anyone.
In the darkness he found himself, the darkness that brought a weak light to its inhabitants.
He often thought of this magic of light. Its dim source so important that a whole night’s darkness could rest upon the breast of a candle and not be enough to put out its light. It’s only time that can put out a candle, and not darkness. Was time, then, the master of darkness?
You’ve gone too far Yasin, he whispered to himself.
It was time to wake up, to feel a surprise that shook his frame. He witnessed his surprise increase, with widened eyes, that stopped on the stage staring at him. As though he were seeing himself for the first time.
For long moments Salim was nailed to the spot.
– As if a ghost saw his body in front of him, approaching from the past, or maybe from the future. Thought Salim.
Finally he was able to move, the past in front of him, as though released from it.
What surprised Yasin was that he could no longer hear what he said, that “he” who moved only a few meters from him. He saw nothing but his movements, his movements that he knew, that he knew exactly. And in a moment he wasn’t sure if it was a projection of his imagination, or something that seized it. He felt that what he watched was his ghost, his ghost that didn’t look precisely like him exactly, but who he looked like. His tall ghost on the stage, that left everything in the hall frozen in front of the surprise of his presence.
– Maybe he isn’t only my ghost, maybe he is their ghosts as well.
A voice suddenly rose from the darkness of the pale hall: did you forget the role?
– What role?
The moving ghost on the stage whispered, when he heard the voice of the sitting ghost in the chairs.
Yasin turned to look behind him, trying to see the owner of the voice. He was troubled, however, since he felt that the voice resembled his own.
– That sounds like my voice! said Yasin
– That sounds like his voice! said Salim
Yasin rubbed his lips, maybe he was touching the ruins of the rest of the speech that he heard, the ghost of the words. There was nothing.
The tall ghost appeared larger with the added height of the theatre stage raised from the rest of the hall. But he forgets. He forgets a lot. The ghost forgets, like memories that also forget, even though they are called memories. Many things are forgotten as a necessity. You recall the story, but it is not embodied; you don’t recall all of it. You bring up the feeling of the thing, but not the thing itself.
– Is this enough? Yasin asked himself
– It’s sometimes enough. The reply. That sort of disaster can topple a person, when memories come carrying their bodies with them. They will expel us from everything. What if you remembered death and it appeared; a wound which materializes once again on your body; a bullet that crosses one of your limbs; a prison you find yourself inside; a world war that knocks on your door.
You’ve gone too far Yasin. He whispered to Yasin.
When the lights of the hall turned on, it filled with a deep barrenness, Salim didn’t know when the people left, he didn’t know even if the theatre goers stayed until the end or not, if they clapped or had snuck out a long time ago, leaving him alone on the stage.
He had bowed, yes, but he heard clapping. It occurred to him that this night might never have happened, but had happened the previous night, perhaps. Not tonight, because it was not possible that what had happened, had happened.
Even that ghost, which he saw only a few meters in front of him more clearly than any day of the past, had disappeared. Now there was nothing but a boy, bent between the seats holding in his hand a plastic bag, in which she gathered what the people in the theatre had left behind between the seats.
He wanted to ask: when did the people leave? He could not. How could he ask him a question like that?
Quickly he left the set, opened the door to the dressing room and changed his clothes, so he could leave immediately. The pistol weighed down his pocket. He automatically took a few steps toward the closed door of the theatre, suddenly remembering that he had not removed the stage makeup from his face, or the white from his hair that was meant to age him.
At the end of the road he saw him. He knew him from his gait, and the leg that trailed behind a little, as though it knew what was going to happen, as though it were waiting for him.
– No illusions then?
He quickened his footsteps, but he discovered that there was something impairing him. Salim looked into the darkness toward his leg, and found that it was late a half step compared to his other leg. He tried to make one like the other but was unable. He tried to focus to decode the mystery of his leg from its uneven steps, but he was not able.
He sensed that the distance between them was narrowing. This comforted him. The silence of the street comforted him. It had emptied of people, its darkness become more gloomy.
What bothered him was that he was running after Yasin without knowing the reason.
Thirty meters, and closing in, but car lights stopped in the darkness, lighting it suddenly. As Yasin sensed it and turned toward them, an explosion went off. Salim was nailed to the spot, in his deep shock, he saw a ghost there, under the light rising and unstable, the ghost of Yasin.
Had it been an Apache or tanks?
He heard the body of Yasin hit the ground. This was enough to pull him out of the shock that had surrounded him like a cocoon. He ran toward the flash, at that moment he stopped feeling scared for his life. He was running so hard that he forgot to check whether his leg was moving like its pair, or like the leg of Yasin, which he could see quivering in the wind at the center of the streetlight. As if the explosion returned and sent scattering once again everything that touched the earth.
Amidst the blood that covered his face, Yasin looked at him.
It was just possible for Salim to see it. The ground was littered with the faces of the dead from the car, visible in what remained of the fire of the explosion.
He stared at them. There was no sign of life.
He turned his face to where he had come from. He moved back two steps, and before he could take a third he felt something pull him back. Maybe it was Yasin’s leg lagging behind.
He turned again. He was perhaps three meters, no more, from the face of Yasin. That when seen smiled a smile Salim did not know the reason for or meaning of in a moment such as this. It made him angry. Very angry. But what caught him off guard, was that he was smiling the same smile.
His arms moved slowly. As though it was just remembering that there was something there, in his jacket pocket. He felt it. It was cold, and metal. He looked around. There was nothing, still. The sound of an ambulance was getting closer, and the commotion was returning to sky of the city. He took his hand out of his pocket, and pointed the empty eye of the pistol so it was aimed at that head. He aimed it exactly so it was in the center of that smile. The sound of the bullet exploded, and in the ugly light, the smile broadened before it was erased forever.
Ibrahim Nasrallah (b. 1954) is a Palestinian writer, poet, and film critic based in Amman, Jordan. He was born and raised in the Wihdat refugee camp, established to house Palestinian refugees who had fled the fighting in 1948, in a war that would see the establishment of Israel. Nasrallah began his career as a teacher for schools in the UN-administered camps. His first novel was penned in a small town in Saudi Arabia, where he had been hired as a schoolteacher in the early 80s. Prairies of Fever spoke of exile, isolation, and challenging stifling social norms. These in many ways have been the constant themes of Nasrallah’s now giant corpus of works.
The most noted project of his 14 novels and 13 collections of poems is undoubtedly the Palestine Comedies. An epic endeavor, the Comedies today comprises nine novels, with more already underway. Each work tells a story of Palestine, and as a collection the Comedies are the first novelistic endeavor by a Palestinian author to tell the story of Palestine. The conceptual result is phenomenal. Through the project Nasrallah writes the nation as a complex network of themes and symbols, developed between novels that have no shared characters, and are set in totally different locations, and across some 750 years in time. The Palestinian story is told in Lebanon, under the British Mandate, in the Persian Gulf, in the Gaza Strip, and in Ramallah. It is the story of a complex community of people where intertextual devices knit space and time into an intricate and flexible web. Under the Midmorning Sun (Taḥta shams al-ḍuḥā, Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut, 2004) is the fifth work in the series.
Nora Parr works on Arabic Literature and Palestine Studies. She is Lecturer in Comparative Literature and English at King’s College, London.
* Taḥta shams al-ḍuḥā, Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut, 2004. The novel was initially published as a twin set, under the title Aʻrās āmina taḥta shams al-ḍuḥā (Safe Weddings Under the Midmorning Sun), where ‘Safe Weddings’ was the title of a second novel about the experiences of the Second Intifada in the Gaza Strip.