Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.
As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?
Khoury definitely sounds notes of sincere frustration, bitterness, and disenchantment in this novel. However, that doesn’t stop him from luxuriating in the depictions of the region’s poetry, dress, and cookery. He describes kibbeh arnabiyyeh, a Levantine specialty, in rich detail: “One needed serious training to appreciate [the dish] fully. Tahini was cooked with seven different citrus fruits, onions were cut to resemble wings, the chick peas all but melted in the tahini mixture with its swirling colors from pale to brown. . . “ (118). This tonal ambiguity allows readers to experience at the linguistic level the same mental dilemma that Mansour, Milia, and many Levant-dwellers experience every day. Theirs is a land steeped in sanctity, but also in violence; a region consecrated by divine power, but defiled by human madness; in short, a land both loved and feared.
Before long, this same madness invades Mansour and Milia’s once-happy marriage. (Toward the beginning, it’s clear that Khoury is a true romantic: “But look at me – I love you without knowing you. I feel you, who you are, from inside, and that’s enough,” (24) Mansour waxes, wooing Milia.) But when his brother Amin is murdered in a border skirmish, Mansour insists on returning to Jaffa to take over the family business. Milia intuitively objects, sensing her child will be born into a maelstrom of bloodshed: “Milia’s nights now filled with oranges that looked like bombs,” Khoury tells us. “- the color red everywhere, covering faces and objects” (223).
Ostensibly apolitical, Milia doesn’t have the power of rational logic on her side. “Tayyib, tayyib,” Mansour chides, dismissing dreams as fickle excuses that give her “the freedom to interpret matters however she liked” (80). True, Milia lives her life “as though she were sleeping,” but isn’t it the prerogative of the dreamer to interpret the dream? And Milia undeniably discerns the truth through her visions, correctly predicting her Aunt Salma’s death and her ex-lover Najib’s infidelity.
Throughout the book Khoury treats narratives with extreme suspicion. By sympathizing with dreamers like Milia, he cautions against dominant, rational interpretations of reality. This becomes especially clear when Khoury re-narrates sections of the Bible, provocatively throwing its authoritative status into question. At one point Khoury even goes so far as to implicate a comparison between Milia and Christ:
“[Milia] wanted to say, None of this has anything to do with me. . . Lord, how different people become mixed inside me. I don’t know who I am anymore.
He was like that, too, said Tanyous the monk. As he went to the cross he did not feel that he was himself. He felt everyone becoming a part of him. He tried to keep his memories apart but he saw everything together. He became mother and father, the Sitt and the Sayyid, Lady and Lord and lamb. Because he was everything he could say nothing. If he could have talked, what would he have said? And if he did have things to say, who would have understood him? And if he found someone who did understand, who would believe?” (305).
Though far-fetched, the comparison is moving: what if prophets really did live this way, in a perpetual state of self-doubt that Biblical authors conveniently edited out? Milia certainly has much in common with the version of Jesus that Khoury imagines: like him, she frequently feels that she “can say nothing,” struggling to translate her dreams into language. To her, words are like “wraps that hid things. . . As if the bodies of the words veiled the meanings” (111). Through Milia’s struggle, Khoury implicates an ironic, frustrating linguistic paradox. Though words possess great potential to express beauty and meaning, they can also be used equally well to lie, inhibiting the truth instead of freeing it. In Milia’s experience, language is cloying, artificial, and useless. She knows calamity is coming, but what can she do? Putting her dreams into words seems to trap them and obscure their true meaning. And if she could tell about them, who would believe her?
In a nightmare come true, the book closes with a cathartic extended dream-sequence. Milia graphically envisions a dark future ahead: “. . . the smell of blood. Blood in the streets. Mansour stands before his workshop, which lies in ruins, the machinery soaked in blood and wet with severed limbs” (366). This is just one example of the hundreds of eerie dream-spectacles crowding the novel’s pages. Clearly, something is haunting this book – whether it’s the imminent 1948 Nakba, the general tragedy of the Levant, or the death of smaller stories in the face of predominating interpretations.
Fascinating, chimerical, and complex, Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping is a hymn to the Levant and its war-ravaged people. By re-envisioning Biblical events and testifying to the truth of dreams, Khoury questions the power of authoritative, ‘rational’ versions of events. His is an ode not just to Mansour and Milia, but to all people whose lives have been forgotten, and to all the small stories obliterated from history by larger, ruling narratives.
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