Yahya Yakhlif : بحيرة وراء الريح، (A Lake Beyond the Wind)
The novel opens in Samakh in 1948. Samakh had been an important stop on the Jezreel Valley railway and Hejaz railway but after the events of this novel became depopulated. The novel explains how and why. Writing a novel about waiting is difficult. Undoubtedly my favourite film featuring waiting is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Which starts with three thugs waiting at a railway station for the arrival of a character played by Charles Bronson. It is brilliantly done.
In this book the people are also waiting for an armed man or, rather, lots of armed men, who, in practice we know (if we have read the Wikipedia page linked) but they do not are the Haganah, the Israeli Haganah gang of murderous thugs.
In the evening the men sat in the shop fronts, stricken with fear by the broadcasts from the Near East station. “You townspeople,” said Haj Mahmoud, leader of the fighters in the 1936 rebellion, ”had better start digging trenches. There are dark days ahead. The men no longer talked about harvests or calves to be born but only the terror that awaits them.
Radi is looking after his uncle’s shop while his uncle is out and about trying to collect the money owed to him while he still can. The general view is that he will not get much. But then a British soldier arrives. He has a beautiful bullet-proof jacket which he is prepared to sell cheaply as he is leaving for. England shortly. Radi negotiates what he considers a good deal, especially as it is not his money but his uncle’s.
Back home, he eventually tells his father who is talking with a group of other men and he sells the jacket to Ahmad Bey. Ahmad Bey is going off fighting and our focus is now on Najib, a young fisherman who wants to join the fighters and Ahmad takes him with him. We are aware that something is going on as there are explosions seen and heard in the distance. He cannot join the fighting as he has not been trained so he stays with the sentries at the camp.
The book focusses on a series of characters. Some tell their stories, others have their stories told. Nearly all are human but two key non-humans are the aforementioned jacket, which gets passed around and Wolf, the dog. Through these characters , we follow the events of a few days, which are key to what happened in and to Samakh and the surrounding area as well as the broader picture of what happens to the Palestinians and the Jews.
Najib, for example, is a local fisherman in Samakh but he wants to help his country and joins up. Inevitably, his life does not run smoothly but we do know that he will end up fighting in Jerusalem, though he had been assisting Ahmad Bey prior to that. Ahmad Bey is a key Palestinian leader.
While, of course, many Palestinians get involved, there are also people from other Arab countries. We follow, in particular two young men. Abd al-Rahman is from Baghdad and he decides to help his fellow Arabs and we follow his arduous journey to Palestine and what happens to him there. Again it is not plain sailing for him. Asad al-Shahba is from Aleppo and his life is made complicated not just by the political/military situation but also by a newly found love.
We follow various battles and military manoeuvres which generally do not go well for the Palestinians. The problems are clear. Firstly they do not have the weapons. We see that in Samakh where there is barely a firearm to be had, though they do manage to get hold of a few weapons. Even the organised forces have limited supplies. Secondly, while lots of Arabs from other countries come to help, all too often they have little if any military training and there is little time to train them. Thirdly, there are various key leaders, who do not always see eye to eye. Fourthly assistance from other Arab armies is not well coordinated. Finally, it appears, at least from this book, that the British are more sympathetic to the Jews and often help them rather than the Palestinians.
Another key character is Abd al-Karim, the uncle of Radi, mentioned above and owner of the shop who has been out and about collecting the money owed to him. He feels as though he been cursed with problems with Jews, rabid dogs, ditches, cars and other sorted problems. We see him bury his money but then worry that he has no firearms to defend himself.
As for the people of Samakh, initially many of them just get on with their lives. You could see the crops now, the ears of corn upright in the sun. There were peasants dotted about everywhere. The hillside was filled with tents. The cattle were in their pastures, and the carriage passed flocks of black and white sheep whose shepherds were sitting under the shady trees, while landowners rode about on their horses checking everything out. But the war is coming nearer. Initially a seaplane would land and the British pilot would be friendly but now it seems that it is delivering weapons to the Jews. They can see it but do nothing it. The trains have stopped and the railway staff have left. Nearby Tiberias seems to be under attack and the inhabitants are fleeing to Samakh.
Events followed one another endlessly, as though there were some race to find catastrophe and misfortune. Disasters came on the heels of disasters, calamities rained from on high or sprang up from the depths of the earth. Towns and villages started falling to the enemy.
We know full well that it did not end well for the Palestinians and their allies . In the case of Samakh, the Jews attack the town and the defendants are ill-equipped to do much about it. They have few weapons and not very god ones at that, and few if any men militarily trained and able to mount even a half-decent defence. The Arab Liberation Army is tied up elsewhere.
While we we may know about the Nakhba and how the Jews drove many Palestinians out of their homeland from threats to out-and out massacres, it is interesting to read about what happened from the Palestinian point of view. Yakhlif tells an excellent story from multiple points of view, showing how the Jews were much better prepared, better organised and better equipped than the Palestinians and their allies. They had clearly been planning the takeover for some time while the Palestinians just went on with their ordinary lives, unaware of the impending disaster. As Najib says at the end I realised then that everything had been lost, and that all paths led to exile and dispersion.
First published in 1991 by Dar Al-Adab, Beirut
First English translation by Interlink Books
Translated by Christopher Tingley and May Jayyusi