With The Lanterns of the King of Galilee (AUC Press), Ibrahim Nasrallah takes his readers to the “independent kingdom” set up by Daher al-Umar al-Zaydani in eighteenth century Palestine.
Daher al-Umar, born around 1690 near Tiberias in the Galilee, was the son of a multazim or tax-gatherer for the Ottoman Empire. His family had contacts with both the region’s Bedouin community and with the Maan and Shihab emirs of southern Lebanon — a reminder of the unnatural and ahistoric nature of the borders which are now enforced on this part of the Middle East.
Drawing on these various allegiances and on the frustration of many Galileans at the high taxes and arbitrary rule of the Ottomans, Daher al-Umar founded what was effectively an independent kingdom in northern Palestine, acquiring titles which included governor of Safad, sheikh of Acre and Galilee, and emir of Nazareth.
Although he ultimately met a bloody end, Daher lived to be over eighty, and through his comparatively fair and just rule (by the standards of the time), became a kind of folk hero and — in the works of recent writers such as Karl Sabbagh — an early manifestation of a Palestinian national consciousness.
The Lanterns of the King of Galilee is a hefty, satisfying novel — like Nasrallah’s previous work Time of White Horses. With more than 500 pages, it combines romance, adventure, well-researched historical narrative, national creation-story and a coming-of-age tale.
Strong female characters
Despite its length, Lanterns of the Kings of Galilee is not a difficult read, as it is divided into short chapters — often single dialogues or tableaux — which, mosaic-like, create the overall picture.
And although Daher is the central figure, pinning together the narrative, the novel also weaves in and out of the characters that people his life — from the men who command and fight in his army to his wives and lovers, teachers, friends and opponents.
As with Time of White Horses, Nasrallah offers us strong female characters — it is often the women who display constancy, common sense and wisdom, contrasting with the sometimes fickle and unsure men. The idea of women as symbols of the nation and the land appears throughout global fiction and Nasrallah’s writing is no exception: the notion is particularly strong in the figure of Najma, Daher’s stepmother and constant source of advice, who walks barefoot and cannot stand to have her feet away from the earth for long.
Nasrallah also returns to the image of the white horse, with its symbolism of nobility and purity, emblematic of the Arab nation. Daher is portrayed as having been suckled by a white horse called Halima (meaning gentle or patient) after his mother dies in childbirth, implicitly tying him to these values.
Indeed, the character of Daher proclaims later in the story that — despite his success in war — “the worst idea anyone ever had was to be a war hero.” Instead, he says, true heroism is bringing up your children well-fed and in peace, on your own land.
Even when defying greedy tax-collectors — stopping them not only from taking goods beyond their share but also seizing women and livestock — Daher is shown as merciful and just, arresting them and sending them to be judged by their seniors, rather than exacting violent revenge.
Nasrallah highlights another aspect of the real Daher: his tolerance towards people of all faiths and the prospering of Jews, Christians and Druze under his rule. Indeed, readers briefly meet Hayyim Abul’Afia, the historical Jewish leader who was encouraged by Daher to come to Tiberias — a holy city for Judaism.
The Jews left Tiberias in the seventeenth century after local conflicts and an earthquake, but Nasrallah depicts Daher as benefiting from his hospitality towards them when Hayyim, warned by the governor of Damascus that he plans to attack, passes word to Daher. The mutual benefits of peaceful co-existence are a clear indictment of the current situation in the same region, with Israel’s efforts to impose a single ethnic identity and national narrative.
But within himself, we see a Daher who is often unsure and unhappy in his personal life, despite his confidence in his mission to liberate the Galilee, seeking self-government and peace for its people. However successful this Daher al-Umar might be in public, in private he is a rather sad figure, rarely able to find happiness for long.
Juxtaposed with Daher’s desire for peace and justice is the ever-present threat of the Ottoman Empire, with its duplicitous governors and pashas who extort money from the people under their control and are brutal and bloodthirsty in exercising power and taking revenge.
Nasrallah’s portrayal of the Ottomans as a cruel, dominating empire dispensing arbitrary justice and using collaborators to exercise control has obvious parallels with the modern Israelis. The accompanying portrait of Daher is sometimes, perhaps, anachronistic — an “Enlightenment” figure fighting for abstract values of humanity at a time when articulating such ideologies was rare.
But the political message is not heavy-handed. While the parallels and symbolism are very much present, this is a multi-faceted historical novel, rather than a polemic.
Nasrallah presents us with many gifts: a sympathetic but realistic image of a major figure in Palestinian history who deserves to be far better known; a portrayal of a little-explored period in Palestine; and a deeply enjoyable novel in which to encounter these things.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.