Stylistically this new novel by Elias Khoury is enchantingly hypnotic. The heroine is a young woman, captivated by her dreams, who relates the story through a dreamlike scenario that ebbs and flows with whimsical associations. As a consequence the story emerges slowly as the reader pieces together the puzzle. This style does capture one's attention and piques the curiosity. However, the book is a challenging read. The young woman, Meelya, weaves the story through the telling of her dreams and through a strange dialogue with her husband, Mansour, who himself is obsessed with erotic poetry. And so the tale unfolds.
At a superficial level not a great deal happens. The girl is born into a fairly simple family setting in Beirut with rather mundane problems and conflicts. But there is a backdrop of religious conflict, which stems evidently from utter confusion and lack of sophistication. This religious backdrop is magnified when Meelya moves to Nazareth with her husband and becomes pregnant. A final element, that of the Palestinian tragedy that begins with the migration of European Jews to Palestine and the subsequent founding of the Israeli State, is introduced later on adding further complexity to the tale.
These more complex levels of the story are the elements which present the reader with a challenge in his or her attempt to unravel emotions and make sense of things. Let me provide a couple of examples of these more complex levels. The first example begins with a story of how Meelya"s paternal grandfather nearly kills his son (Meelya's father), who is blinded in one eye. This family tragedy, whether an accident or intentional, is told and retold with additional details and perspective slowly emerging. Later this family story recalls the myth of Abraham and Isaac, "How could a man kill his own son?" Later still both stories merge with the crucifixion of Jesus. And, while Joseph (Yussef) had a jealous cause for rage and a hidden desire to kill Jesus, he repented and pacified his rage. God however allowed his son to be crucified. No sacrificial ram was delivered to save his son as God had delivered to Abraham. The nexus of these stories demonstrates how very deep the roots of human tragedy are and how terribly religious myths confuse and muddle the minds of believers.
The second example relates to a peripheral reference to the village Al-Nabi Rubin. This village had a shrine with the dedication, "There is no god but God and Reuben is his prophet." Only research provides the full import of this reference. The site of the village was originally a pagan Canaanite site, i.e. prior to ancient Judaism. During the crusades the site became a trading post between the invading Christians and the Turkish kingdom beyond the `liberated' Holy Land. The inscription of course refers to Mohammed, the founder of Islam, which suggests that the shrine was built by an Arab sheik after the village was recovered by Muslims. Arab Christians converged there at an annual festival commemorating Reuben, Jacob's first son, accused of incest. During the war that ensued upon the establishment of the modern Jewish state the village of Nabi Rubin was seized by the Jewish army and thousands of Palestinians were expelled and became refugees. The medieval shrine was then demolished and re-consecrated as a Jewish site. The historical depth of this reference is rich in both texture and meaning. Yet I fear it will remain obscure to most readers.
The essence of Khoury's novel then is the unending human tragedy. Father against son, brother against brother, the story is played out again and again by confused and hypnotized believers living their lives as though in a dream. Unfortunately As Though She Were Sleeping is, I suspect, too challenging a book for most readers. Ideally one would like to see a popular novel that presents the sins that European Jews have visited on local Arab populations to rouse Americans and Europeans from their stupor of ignorance. But perhaps Khoury's message is that all of humanity is fast asleep committing crimes in their dreams and proclaiming innocence due to their Homeric thymos or in the name of whichever saviour. For those who are ready for wakefulness I highly recommend this novel full of poetry and nuance.
Author of The Story of Our People