A Beggar at Damascus Gate
By Yasmine Zahran
The Post Apollo Press, California, 1995, 155 pages, $12.95
Rayya is not beautiful, but very striking with dark, brilliant hair. Her luminous dark eyes, with a shape indicating her cat-like nature, hide the imperfection of her face. Her skin is very pale, with a whiteness that I can only ascribe, to her great annoyance, to some remote Circassian ancestor; she will admit to such a thing. I did not fall in love with her instantly, as she often claims, but I was helpless before that rushing stream that engulfed me, and sealed my fate. There was no turning back and nowhere to escape the sea of those eyes. Love to her meant the fountains of Rome, the minarets of Istanbul, the domes of Damascus, and a stroll in the blue cemetery of Samarkand. It was a continuous feast where all the elements blended. And yet the charm and the glitter could not conceal the basic void of her rootlessness and the physical homelessness that took on bitter dimensions as she said repeatedly, "Everybody has a right to belong, but I am deprived of that right." She was an eternal fugitive, a waif who could not go home.
Cold and alone in an almost deserted inn in Petra, Jordan, a travelling archaeologist stumbles upon a personal journal in the closet of his hotel room. He tries to piece together the threads of a narrative that will direct his life for the coming decade. Its characters are a Palestinian woman, Rayya, and an Englishman, Alex, each deeply committed to the conflicting demands of love and national loyalties. As the narrator slowly pieces together the fate of the two unfortunate lovers, he also uncovers a tale of treachery, duplicity, and passion that highlights the contemporary plight of the enormous numbers of displaced Palestinians. Throughout the narrative, the suffering of the Palestinian people weighs heavily overhead. At one level, this is a tragic love story between two people from different worlds. At another level, however, this narrative describes, in personal and intimate terms, what the Nakba did to the collective psyche of generations of Palestinians.
Though this may seem a gloomy and even foreboding novel, "A Beggar at Damascus Gate" ends up on the hopeful note that Palestinians will one day return to their homeland. The final resolution of the protagonists surprises them both and reveals a depth to their commitments that neither had previously realized. To view this novel as merely a love story is to miss the underlying symbolism of the fight for freedom and against oppression by one country over another.
Yasmine Zahran was born in Ramallah, Palestine. She was educated at Columbia University and London University. She earned a doctorate in archaeology at the Sorbonne. She is the author of two previous books; one on ancient Palestine, "Echoes of History," and a novel, "The First Melody."