Magic realism with footnotes: novelist Nasrallah creates a genre of his own

In an article for The Electronic Intifada some years ago I lamented that the Jordan-based Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah was only known to English-speakers as a novelist for two “nightmarish, anti-realistic essays in poetic prose.” I added that “Nasrallah has written realistic historical novels that have not as yet been translated. Until this happens … our view of this humane modernist will remain severely restricted.”

This restriction has diminished with the appearance in English of the 600-page Time of White Horses, published in Arabic in 2007 after a 20-year gestation period. Indeed the first assumption to collapse is that the term “realistic historical novel” is at all applicable. Time of White Horses is less a Palestinian War and Peace than a work of historical magic realism with footnotes — that is to say, it belongs in a genre entirely of its own invention.

Nasrallah chronicles three generations of a fictitious Palestinian family in a village called Hadiya (meaning, among other things, “peaceful”). Although Hadiya is fictitious, the author tells us in his preface that this “is the story of my village.” Such teasing ambiguities are typical of the book, and might well be described as “postmodern.”

The way in which realism and symbolism are linked throughout is best illustrated by reference to the white mare Hamama (meaning “dove”), whose arrival in Hadiya at the start is described as a kind of apparition: “A perfect miracle had taken on flesh” (3). The thief who is riding her cannot “control the mass of light … offering him such stubborn resistance,” but dismounts and flees when she comes to a halt before the village elder and his son Khaled, the novel’s central character.

Khaled “knew that if he had lost a mare like her, he’d go on looking for her for the rest of his life” (5). One night he strips and rides her “until he felt as though Hamama had sprouted wings and that they were soaring through the sky … And when he started walking alongside her, he realized that he had turned into a horse” (26).

In 1948, the word “Hamama” is used by the villagers as a password or shibboleth because the guttural Arabic “ha” cannot be pronounced by the Jews and the British (610). When Hadiya is finally abandoned, Khaled’s widow has a vision of the long-dead Hamama standing by her late husband’s grave (623). Between the mare’s first appearance and her final apparition, Palestine has descended from the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate to the Israeli occupation, and perdition.

True villains

The Ottomans leave the Palestinians in (very) relative peace as long as they pay their taxes. With the collapse of their empire, their exercise of power becomes ever more brutal and arbitrary. Taxes are imposed on everything imaginable including “a ‘hat tax,’ which was levied on everyone who wore a cloth head covering” (55).

The British, who take over Palestine from the Turks in the wake of the infamous Balfour Declaration (“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …”), are the true villains of the piece — even more so than the Israelis. Perhaps the most vivid character is the fictional English officer Edward Peterson, a sadist who hates Arabs but loves their horses, and writes ethereal surrealist poetry by night (321). His assassination is narrated with a relish that is almost infantile: “The shot that pierced Peterson’s head left part of his brain clinging to the restaurant’s front window” (499).

A footnote tells us that “the number of executions that took place over the course of six years under the British in Palestine alone was greater than the number that took place in the entire Ottoman Empire under the rule of Sultan Abd al-Hamed, which lasted for more than 30 years” (325). Another footnote relates that during the 1936-9 Arab uprising “Britain stormed all of Palestine once more, killing more than 5,000 Palestinians and wounding more than 15,000 others. It exiled and executed the Palestinian leadership. In addition, it organized death squads made up of British soldiers and Zionist forces … which attacked Palestinian villages by night” (448).

Bewildering labyrinth

These footnotes, which increase in number and length as the book proceeds, are essentially historical yet sometimes bear on fictional characters (like Peterson). In addition, numerous italicized passages are directly taken from interviews conducted by the author during the years of its composition — yet some also refer to characters from the fictional narrative. Despite, or because of, this sporadically scholarly apparatus, it is imperative that the reader should know in advance something about the history of the region. Nasrallah has a habit of omitting transitions: in particular, the Arab revolt seems to segue abruptly into the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and no account is given of the foundation of the Israeli state.

This is a bewildering labyrinth of a book, yet its very untidiness conveys a powerful sense of the textures of place, time and custom that eludes a more conventional narrative like Susan Abulhawa’s otherwise admirable and in many respects comparable Mornings in Jenin. With the publication of Time of White Horses, lovingly translated by Nancy Roberts (who should, however, have resisted the temptation to attempt rhyming translations of the verse interpolations), our understanding of the history of modern Arabic literature has taken a giant leap forward.

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer and political activist.