Time of White Horses
Translated by Nancy Roberts
Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012
Once upon a time, there was Palestine — this is the undercurrent of truth that Ibrahim Nasrallah whispers between the lines in his epic novel, “Time of White Horses”. Indeed, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale: heroes, heroines and villains; adventure, romance and magical creatures. Only the proverbial happy ending is lacking, for this is no fairy tale but the re-imagined, living history of a peasant society firmly embedded in the land and living in harmony with nature, until outside forces intervene.
The novel contains large slices of real history and even larger slices of folk history, which is no less real, all bolstered by the author’s poetic imagination and deep knowledge of his own people.
“Time of White Horses” takes the form of a family saga, following three generations of the leading family in Hadiya, a fictitious village which could be any one of the hundreds of Palestinian villages ploughed under by the Zionist onslaught. At times, it seems Hadiya is Palestine itself, as the plot traces the family’s fortunes from Ottoman times to 1948.
Yet, in other respects, Hadiya is distinctive, as is the family. Hajj Mahmoud is the village elder, highly respected for his wisdom, sense of justice and integrity. His son, Khaled, follows in his footsteps, gaining added acclaim for successfully defying Ottoman oppression, and later playing a legendary role in the 1936-39 revolt against British colonialism and Zionism. Khaled’s sons grow up in a different world, where it is important to have an education. One of them goes to the city to work; another assumes the mantle of village elder; and yet another trains with the British in order to be able to fight for his land. Significantly, all return to Hadiya for the final battle.
Having “white horses” in the novel’s title is not a random or purely aesthetic choice. Besides horses being a symbol of strength in Arab culture, the people of Hadiya specialise in raising them, and horses are the link between the earthy side of peasant life (and the novel) and its mythological dimensions. A white mare, Hamama, a “mass of light”, a “creature that seemed to have emerged from the world of dreams”, appears and reappears throughout the saga to be a source of magical support and comfort at pivotal points in Khaled’s life — his first great love, his many battles and his sorrows. (pp. 3-4)
She, like Hadiya, seems to symbolise Palestine, or perhaps its people, as she constantly regenerates herself.
Nasrallah eschews official history to dig below the surface of “big” events and show how the villagers actually live — how crops are grown, horses raised, friendships, alliances and marriages made, and children brought up. It is as if he is seeking to bring to light the patterns of village life from which these Palestinians drew their strength of character, endurance, bravery and cohesiveness, as well as how they perceived the violent, political history that was thrust upon them, and for a time were able to confront it. It is not, however, an idyllic picture. While exposing the impotence of the Arab armies supposedly sent to rescue Palestine, the story also probes internal Palestinian divisions and weaknesses that hastened its demise: “The newspapers talked about people who were nationalists by day, and land brokers and merchants at the High Commissioner’s home by night.” (p. 546)
It is noteworthy that the narrative also mentions a number of individuals from what was then Transjordan, who volunteered to fight for Palestine.
Nasrallah’s brilliant writing deserves special mention, as does Nancy Robert’s excellent translation. The characters are compelling, life-like and often conflicted. The descriptions of landscapes, human relationships, battles and horses are so visual and lyrical that one might be viewing the panoramas of a Yusef Shaheen film. The narrative gains added authenticity from the insertion of oral history — anonymous eye-witness accounts which Nasrallah gathered from refugees over the years.
“Time of White Horses” is intricately structured to link the personal with the political, everyday life with sweeping historical events, and human beings with their natural environment. Yet, despite all these elements of realism, much remains unspoken, even mysterious. Time and time again, Nasrallah ends a chapter with a hint of things to come, or a dramatic new event, only to thrust the reader into a flashback.
By the time one revisits the event chapters later, it is not exactly as it seemed. This technique adds greatly to the literary aesthetics of the novel, and also forces the reader to think: Are things as they seem? Do they have to be that way? Most important among the questions raised is one asked repeatedly by different characters in the course of the story as to whether empires outlive people, or the other way around. Though the people of Hadiya are defeated by the rising new Israeli empire, the question is left open-ended.