Yasmin Zahran : A Beggar at Damascus Gate
The book opens in the winter of 1980. A lone, unnamed traveller is visiting Petra, generally considered not a good idea because it is cold, snowy and few facilities are available. At the guest house there are no other guests, just staff, including a grumpy cook who is an Anglophobe and thinks, wrongly, that our narrator is English. He is actually American, born in Beirut though he has lived abroad for a long time. There are two young men, apparently guards who are being told by an older man to watch out for the enemy disguised as tourists. This is how the Palestinians got caught in the West Bank in 1967.
Our narrator is bitterly cold and, while looking for something to plug the gaps in the window, he finds a cupboard, locked but with the door easily forced. In the cupboard, there are several notebooks. Most of them are written in Arabic but one leather-bound one is in English. With nothing else to do – the road to Amman has been closed because of snow – he starts reading them. He finds that the English one was written by an Englishman called Alex who was having or had had an affair with the Palestinian woman, Rayya. Rayya will later say of him he was an architect but in reality he was a poet. Things clearly have not worked out : I asked myself what chance he had of surviving this heaviness, of emerging from this dead world, she says and adds It was he who shielded me; his paleness stood between me and chaos, between me and darkness.
It was I who acted as destiny and dragged him to this forsaken corner of Arabia . The narrator becomes obsessed with finding out more. Little had I known that I would find a wonder box that would change my life for some years to come and set me on the trail of the strange girl who had written “Does one sell his life for a poem?or for a glimpse of water lilies in a pond?”
However it is time to leave and our narrator takes all the notebooks and sets off. On the journey he hears the two Bedouin guards talking about the death of an Englishman and how police, intelligence services and various British people came to investigate, to no avail. Cursed be the day that the young Inglizi was killed. We have never had any peace since then.
Back in Beirut, he goes through the notebooks, determined to put together the story of the two lovers. Clearly it was a passionate affair but very much had its ups and downs. He is the phlegmatic Englishman while she is lively, colourful, passionate and determined. He lives in a small village in Kent while she lives in Paris so they get together when they can but are not living together. Moreover it is difficult for the narrator to establish the chronology, which is not always made clear. He writes only about their relationship. She writes about other things – magic and the occult (which he derides), her life and, of course, Palestine, from where she and her family were exiled during the Nakba.
He apparently fell for her at once while it took her three years to fall in love with him. They argue a lot – about love (Love between two people is only relative, if not illusory), about what he calls her professional Arabism (every time we go to an Arab country, I see you merging into the crowd, as if you were getting in the souks your purification from the dust of the western world, and yet your mind is so western. and what I do not understand, is that you attribute all your ills to the loss of Palestine, but a radical non-conformist like you, a little ahead of her time, would’ve been a stranger there anyway. You would not have belonged, even if you were physically in Palestine.) and her interest in magic and the occult, which he calls charlatanism.
He stays in her flat in Paris and takes advantage of her absences to read her notebooks. She is initially not concerned as she assumes he does not read Arabic but he does, which she eventually finds out. He is jealous because of the many love affairs mentioned in her notebooks, which she claims are mostly fictitious, while she thinks he may be a spy. Above all he does not really understand her. In the last analysis, Rayya was beyond certain limits of my comprehension.
The narrator also struggles with the story: It was a relief to put aside Rayya‘s notebooks and go back to Alex‘s journal, I felt more at home, or perhaps I understood him better. Rayya’s , excessiveness, mysticism , and pessimism weighed heavily upon me.
The relationship between the two is tumultuous. They drift apart. They get back together. We hear accounts of other Palestinians, some mourning the loss of their land, others murdered by Israelis, sometimes with the connivance of Western intelligence agencies. Again he complains of her lack of commitment to him in favour of the Palestinian cause: her real world was not with me, but with the furtive Fedayyin, with whom she talked of the day of liberation of the future in which, alas, I cannot take part.
Despite this, they somehow, more or less, stick together, meeting on their travels, getting together or even, as she says, communicating by telepathy. They are suspicious of each other. They quarrel, yet they cannot keep apart and, as we know, end up going to Petra in winter with presumably dire consequences.
Once he has read and perused the notebooks and written his own account of their story, quoting from the various notebooks, the narrator sets out to find the real Rayya, if, indeed, she is still alive. He gets various clues as to her whereabouts but she is never there, having recently moved on. She could, of course, be anywhere in the world. One thing is for sure. When he meets people who know her (or knew her), all give a different account of what she is like so that it seems there is more than one Rayya.
Zahran tells an excellent tale of a love affair that is one of those affairs where the couples cannot be together but nor can they be apart. However, it is made more complicated because, behind it all, is the Palestinian situation. Does the affair mirror the Palestinian situation? The answer is yes, at least to a certain degree. Are the two protagonists more than they seem to be? Is he involved in some secret service, she in the Palestinian cause and not just as interested parties but actively involved and, if so, how and why and, if not, what exactly are their respective roles? What happened to Alex and why and what was her role, if any? And, ultimately, who are they and what do they want, from each other and from life? For the narrator Rayya symbolised for me the uprooted, the exiled and the oppressed but Alex remains somewhat vague in his aspirations. Above all as the narrator states at the end, for Rayya this landscape will never give you peace until it is free.
First published in 1995 by Post Apollo Press