Ibrahim Nasrallah : زمن الخيول البيضاء (Time of White Horses)
Ibrahim Nasrallah started writing this book in 1985, intending it to be the first of a series of books called The Palestinian Comedy. However, in the meantime he wrote four other books before returning to this one, which became the last book in the series. It follows three generations of Palestinians, starting at the end of the nineteenth century, when the failing Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine and other countries in the region. This book went on to have considerable success and was even published in Hebrew. Nasrallah says that he did a lot of research for this book, interviewing various people and reading up on the region.
The novel is set in the village of Hadiya (which means peaceful.) The book opens with one of the eponymous white horses. The men are sitting around when they see a rider and horse approaching them at great speed. When the rider sees them, he tries to veer away but the horse is having none of it and refuses to move. The rider tries to run away but Khaled, son of Hajj Mahmud, a local leader, cuts the man off. It is clear the man has stolen the horse. Don’t you know that to steal a mare is tantamount to stealing someone’s soul? Run for your life now, before the sun sets. Otherwise we’ll feed you to the dogs!” Khaled adopts the horse. Initially she will not move, eat or drink but gradually Khaled tames her and they become close. He calls her Hamama.
Khaled had already lost a wife. He had made a big fuss about marrying this particular woman but had behaved foolishly after doing so and nearly lost her. Sadly, after the whole matter was sorted out, she died. The horse is some recompense. However, the real owners arrive and the horse is returned to them.
While this is going on, we learn about the monastery and the generally good relations between the Christians and Muslims and how problems are sorted out amicably. We also learn about Habbab, the fierce and cruel tax collector. The Ottoman Empire is broke and they endeavour to make up the shortfall by levying more and more taxes, collection of which is sub-contracted to Habbab. And then Hamama reappears.
We follow the story of the village, primarily from the point of view of Hajj Mahmud and his family, of the role of the various horses (white horses good, black ones less so). We learn a lot about the local culture. But we also follow the evil deeds of Habbab, his conflict with Hajj Mahmud and his family and also his relationship with the Turks and, indeed with his three wives.
The village has a monastery, run by Greeeks and relaions are good with the local Muslim population so much so that many of the the local Muslim children are schooled there. There is little conflict generally, except with HHabbab and the Turkish overlords. Indeed as the Ottoman Empire gets deeper into debt, the Turks and Habbab demand more and more taxes which many cannot afford. When Khaled loses his horse to the taxman, he takes revenge and he and his brothers have to go into hiding. As we enter the First World War, things get worse.However Arab nationalism is taking hold. Our problem is that we can’t make good use of any of our opportunities. The Arabs have no unity and they’re a puppet in the hands of the Turks, while the Turks are a puppet in the hands of the Germans, who lead them into military campaigns for no reason other than that they want to worry the British.
Khaled has become something of a Robin Hood hero and, by the rime the Turks are beaten and the British have taken over and Khaled has been to Mecca, he is now Hajj Khaled and replaces his late father as the local leader.
Khaled is now married with several children and we follow him and also his children, particularly Fatima, his daughter who, like her father is in tune with animals. Initially, the British seem to be out of the picture and we follow tales of the village, including animals and marriages which are never straightforward). However, the British soon start making a nuisance of themselves, not least as they help the Jews’ land grab. What we also see is the rise of Arab nationalism, the introduction of new technology, Palestinians moving to the city and women playing a greater role and becoming more independent.
However, the main story revolves around the problems Hadiya and Hajj Khaled have with a nearby Jewish settlement, which steals their land, with one particular Englishman, Edward Peterson, who seems to be a historical character, with Nasrallah giving us a biography of him, who is a vicious sadist (Peterson regarded Hajj Khaled with a seething hatred and whispered to himself: “I promise you, I’ll kill you someday! and the turncoat Arabs.
We now follow in some detail the story of the Arab revolt against the British occupation. In this case, of course, we see it primarily frim the point of view of the people of Hadiya and, in particular, Hajj Khaled, who becomes an outlaw hero for the local people. We see the brutality and viciousness of he British occupiers, led by Peterson, though with more famous British soldiers putting in an appearance, including Montgomery, the future hero of El Alamein. The British seem determined to assist the Jews, both in getting a foothold in the region but also suppressing any opposition to both the British occupation and to Jewish settlement. Hadiya, for example, increasingly finds its land stolen with British support. We also see the bigger picture, wuth events elsewhere in Palestine.
Between 1936 and 1939 was devastating. Britain stormed all of Palestine once more, killing more than five thousand Palestinians and wounding more than fifteen thousand others. It exiled and executed the Palestinian leadership. In addition, it organised death squads made up of British soldiers and Zionist forces known as ‘special night forces,’ which attacked Palestinian villages by night and killed many Palestinians. We see examples of this from Hadiya and its inhabitants as we get a lot of stories about the Palestinians who try, all too often, in vain to defend themselves.
The third section, called Humankind, describes what happens in 1948, when the British start to move out, while still helping the Jews, while the Jews take over. While there are a variety of brave and clever defence actions, we know it is a lost cause. While military means are used, the law courts are also used to deprive the Palestinians of their land. One of the problems is the lack of coordination between the various Arab armies. In short, there was no coordination among the Arab armies, and leadership on the highest level was virtually nonexistent. It became apparent in many cases that our weapons were defunct, and at the height of hostilities, the rescue army’s corps of engineers received orders to build a chalet in Gaza for King Faruq
However the most interesting quotation comes from David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel: If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?
This is a superb book, both giving the story of the Palestinians from the latter part of the Ottoman Empire to the Nakba and the creation of the state of Israel as well as giving us the colourful stories of the people of a specific village who really just want to get on with their lives but are beset by a series of enemies who want to steal their land and livelihood and abuse and mistreat them in any way possible. Most of the people who abuse, steal, attack and kill the Palestinians are nameless and we know only that they are Turks or British or Jews. In short if you want to see what happened to the Palestinians and their many sufferings, this book is certainly a good place to start.
First published in 2007 by al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nash
First published in English in 2012 by American University in Cairo Press
Translated by Nancy Roberts