Reading Time of White Horses at Time of the Writer in Durban
Published by Palestine Chronicle, on March 27th, 2013
Susan Abulhawa is the author of the acclaimed “Mornings in Jenin”
It’s safe to say that a book you can’t put down is a good one. But I’ve come across a novel I can’t recommend enough, even though it took me months to finish. TIME OF WHITE HORSES, by my friend, Ibrahim Nasrallah, was a fabulous read that I had to put down, repeatedly.
I read the first 300 pages of this translated work from the original Arabic in just a few days. Then the world changed and I moved through the next 300 pages slowly, tiptoeing through lives I recognised and characters I came to love. I turned these pages with trepidation for nearly a month, sometimes holding my breath and swallowing hard. I was reading the unfolding of my own life, and the lives of all Palestinians. I knew what was going to happen and in the strange ways of a heart touched by literature, I wanted to warn the characters. I needed them to make different decisions to save us all from our fate; until, I finally came upon the last chapter and stopped. I put the book down and left it there for another 2 weeks. Along with other reading material, I carried this thick hardback with me on a flight to South Africa. The final chapter was only 5 pages long, but I didn’t read them on the flight. In my hotel room in Johannesburg, I put the book on the table by my bed, looked at its it’s beautiful cover, an image painted by Nasrallah himself, and I read other books instead. I did the same thing a week later when I flew to Durban to take part in Time of the Writer literature festival.
Evenings at the festival started with panel discussions among invited writers. A group of us would then continue on at a local bar or restaurant. These were nights with new friends and meaningful discussions around the Black Consciousness movement, pan-Africanism, labor struggles, personal relationships, and anything in between. After one evening of particularly intense discussions that were born from a single figure at the event – a Black Consciousness thinker named Andile Mngxitama – I decided to take the plunge for those final 5 pages. I had been awake for 21 hours and exhaustion was conquering me.
My Land, “even if I just want to look at it”
Andile’s panel discussion had been an expose of his uncompromising position that has no interest in settlement or pragmatism toward black liberation from white oppression, which clearly remains the social and economic order in a post-Apartheid South Africa. In a statement that some would examine the next day in conversation, he said that his position on land was that it belonged to blacks. Period. And should be reclaimed from white ownership regardless of economic, agricultural, or social repercussions. He said, “..even if I just wake up and look at it [the land]. Because it’s mine!”
Although I was aware of the discomfort of some in the audience around me, Andile grew larger in my eyes. His words touched a rage and an outrage that lives at my core. A wound that does not heal. I thought of that book on my hotel bedside table, 620 pages of Palestinian life spanning the Ottoman Empire’s occupation to the British, then Zionists. A story of four generations of Hadiya, a Palestinian village, its leaders and traitors, weddings and traditions, songs and seasons, loves and scandals, and deep kinship with horses and the land – their land, even if they should choose to just wake up and look at it.
Andile Mngxitama spoke his truth eloquently without equivocation, without tempering his own outrage in order to be heard by those in the audience who were not already supporters. Indeed, most only heard a lack of pragmatism in his message. And they heard a threatening strength in his resolve, which was later trivialised as irrational and unrealistic. He spoke of armed struggle if necessary and some in the audience heard only violence, misogyny and chauvinism. I heard what his supporters in the audience must have: a liberated black man in full possession of his humanity, unwilling to concede an inch to those who have shackled, oppressed, raped, exploited and committed unspeakable and still untold crimes against one black generation after another.
I admired and loved Andile after that session, but others did not feel the same. Not surprisingly, his message and demeanor provoked visceral reactions from some personalities and a sort of drama ensued in the aftermath that left me torn between new friends for whom I felt sincere affection, and a desire to talk further with Andile. I chose the former, but as it was my last night at the festival, I remained awake long after the others and found myself wandering in my own thoughts. I called my daughter in the US. I missed her and wanted to hear her voice. I spent some time speaking with Aman Sethi, a brilliant and witty reporter and author to whom I had taken an immediate liking and who was feeling the same ambivalence about sleep. Eventually, I had a conversation with Andile, however brief it was, and when I got back to my room, it was nearly 3am.
We died all over again, in the last five pages
Despite the assaults of fatigue, I picked up TIME OF WHITE HORSES and opened it to my bookmark. A few agonising minutes later, I had finished the final chapter. I closed the cover, put the book back on the bedside table, and wept. I had walked around carrying that final chapter for over 3 weeks, wanting but unable to look at it. I knew what was going to happen. I knew zionist thieves and thugs were going to take everything and rip all our hearts out one generation after another for the next six decades after the last chapter. I knew my grandmother and thousands of grandmothers were going to rot away as refugees in shacks until they died while European Jews occupied their homes. I knew our lives were going to fall and crumble and we would be blamed for our own miserable fate while a Zionist boot pressed on our necks. But I had hoped, for all those weeks, that the villagers of Hadiya would miraculously turn things around and stay and defeat those Zionist gangs and change the world.
Alas, Palestine was stolen and we all died all over again in the last 5 pages. I fell asleep with the remains of that long day in Durban, the wreckage of that final chapter, and the lullaby of the Indian Ocean coming through my open waterfront hotel window. A few hours later, my body’s annoying habit of rising with the sun had me dragging my mind to the breakfast room in the lobby at 6am. I walked holding hands with the newly dispossessed villagers of Hadiya in TIME OF WHITE HORSES. The ineffable sorrow and humiliation of being carted away, as if cattle, from everything they knew and everything they were so that new Jewish arrivals could take their place, was part of that morning in a Durban hotel restaurant.
Read the rest of the contribution on Palestine Chronicle.