Occupation and the City: a Reading in Sahar Khalifeh’s the Sunflower, by Wisam Mansour

 

Abstract

Sahar Khalifeh, a Palestinian academician and novelist, explores in her narratives, among other things, the impact of occupation on the day-to-day life of Palestinians in their cities and villages. In her 1980 Sunflower, Khalifeh vividly portrays the city of Nablus from the viewpoints of several male and female characters who see the city and themselves under occupation from the perspectives of class, gender, ethnicity and situatedness. Cut off from the outside by military occupation, cordoned by hostile settlements, and impaired sexually and emotionally, the city and its inhabitants in Khalifeh’s narrative suffer from excessive atrophy. As a result of its devastating effect on the growth of the city, Khalifeh perceives in occupation vicious machinery that consumes up the land and the people creating a wasteland, a system of physical debris and human dereliction. Urban entropy is at work in Nablus where chaos threatens order and urban forms of death intrude upon the social in the form of sexual impotence, and upon the commercial and economic processes in the form of obfuscation, confiscation and destruction of the city’s resources and green belts.

 

Introduction

 

Sahar Khalifeh, a Palestinian academician and novelist, explores in her narratives, among other things, the impact of occupation on the day-to-day life of Palestinians in their cities and villages. In her 1980 Sunflower, Khalifeh vividly portrays the city of Nablus from the perspectives of several male and female characters among them Adil, Rafif, Sa’diye, and Khadra. Each of these characters belongs to a social class and each sees the city under occupation from his/her situatedness.

 

In The Sunflower, the city features very prominently in the discourses of the narrative. Nablus, occupied in June 1967 is innocent of any form of progress under occupation. The city and its population are demonized by the occupation machinery. In a paragraph reminiscent of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, Khalifeh poetically depicts the wasteland of occupation and its impact on the city: “June brought us Bulldozers with infernal jaws, swallowing the land and the rock and the trees and the people.” Ironically, under occupation technology and its manifestations, when available, are used to demonize the populace and oppress the city. As a result we observe Rafif’s adamant refusal to stop at red traffic light as a symbolic rejection of both technology and imposed order.

 

Occasionally and sweepingly the narrative reveals glimpses of nostalgia to moments that date to a preoccupation period of the history of the city. Such Nostalgic moments in Khalifeh’s narrative confirm Baudrillard contention that “nostalgia assumes its full meaning when the real is no longer what it was.” As the city is defiled now by occupation the characters begin to harbor negative sentiments about it and its dwellers. As a result, the relationship between the city and its inhabitants is that of hatred, disgust and a weird form of love informed by situatedness, gender and disposition. Sa’diye, for instance, desires to desert the city. She labors day and night, and puts her reputation and honor at stake to buy a piece of land on the hills overlooking Nablus. She wants to be outside Nablus, above Nablus, yet not that away from it. Eventually her attempts to leave the city are thwarted by occupation.

The paper will examine the impact of occupation on the growth and dimensionality of the city of Nablus and its populace and will delve into the dialectic relationship between occupiers and occupied and its effect on the city.

 

The Maimed King

 

Jessie Weston states that “the woes of the land are directly dependent on the sickness, or maiming, of the king.” In the legendary narratives of the romances, to which Weston refers, the king is sexually impaired and this renders his realm waste. In Khalifeh’s Sunflower the situation of the city is almost similar to that of the city of the maimed king, except that in Nablus everybody is almost sexually impaired. Nablus is inhabited by people whose, in Sharpe’s word’s, “sexual dysfunction, social alienation, and spiritual despondency” unite to prevent them from true interaction. Khalifeh, intuitively, judges that the liveliness and dynamism of the city is gauged first in terms of its sexual health, a significant point that escaped the attention of Khalifeh’s scholars. In the Sunflower, bachelors, homosexuals, widows, pimps, whores and spinsters populate Nablus. Khalifeh attributes this social imbalance largely to occupation as it alienates love and upsets the conventional order of life in the city. This weird social phenomenon manifests itself in almost all the major characters of the narrative. Adil, a confirmed bachelor “desires to love Rafif, lie with her on the grass, fall madly in love with her,” but he resists his love for her as he keeps reiterating that “the reality is a crisis.” Khalifeh describes Adil’s reality in terms of occupation and the heavy weight of tradition that commandeers spontaneous love. Adil bemoans that “the year of occupation is equivalent to hundred years.” When Rafif tries to persuade him to love, he retorts with a somber resignation that he “cannot love anymore because his heart aged under occupation and defeat.” Apart from his left wing idealism and his occasional pragmatic thinking that rarely advance anything in his circle under occupation, Adil’s undeclared approach to women is Baudrillardian in spirit: “You have a libido, and you must expend it.” In the present condition of the city, Adil prefers to keep his relations with the other sex casual and volatile. His attitude to sexuality does not go well with Rafif who refuses to surrender her body to Adil without a declaration of love and a solemn promise of marriage. When, in a party, she sees Adil dancing with a beautiful young woman, she painfully decides to stifle to death her love for him. As she does so, she attributes Adil’s reluctance to fall in love with her to his gender and ethnicity rather than to the present crisis as he constantly claims. Khalifeh tells us that Rafif is convinced that Adil, like all Arab men, is“ still sick, he is split and schizophrenic. He desires one thing and does something else. He is strongly attached to the past while dreaming of the future. He is a victim, exactly like the woman. However, his sickness is more dangerous because he is the stronger and the dictator. This is the reality.” Thus, Rafif decides not to be the “victim of a victim” in spite of her awareness that loneliness and spinsterhood will be her long life companions as a sad and bitter alternative.

 

The other characters that populate the narrative are also sexually impaired by the occupation of the city. Sa’diye, the most colorful character in the narrative, is a frustrated young and beautiful widow. Her husband died in defense of the city against occupation, and left her with a cluster of kids that suck out the sap of her body the way occupation sucks out the life force of the city. Sa’diye is very conscious that her youth and sexual life have died with the death of her husband. As a result she refuses to reciprocate with Shihdeh, who desires to marry her. Ironically enough, in comparison with the good and brave husband she has lost, Shihdeh is a pimp and insincere creature, the thought of whom makes her puke. The only thing that entertains Sa’diye and helps her maintain her sanity in her utter frustration is her dream of leaving the city to reside on the hills overlooking it.

 

Not only Sa’diye, but also Nowar and Khadra are sexually impaired figures: Nowar, Adil’s sister, is a young girl who has lost Salih, her beloved fiancée, to the jails of the occupation. Salih is unlikely to exit out of jail during Nowar’s prime years of youth, if at all. Khadra, a destitute turned into a marginal prostitute after she and here family are evicted twice from their homes by occupation. She sees the city, as cruel and oppressive. The final episode in which the women in the public bath savagely attack her confirms her conviction of the demonizing effect of occupation on the psychology of the city dwellers, as well as on the city resources.

 

Men other than Adil are sexually impaired, too. In a revealing conversation with Basil, the newly released prisoner, Abu Ma’roof, the café’s owner hints that the city is an abode for homosexuality and pederasty. He tells Basil through a frenzy wave of cough, sneeze and loud spit symbolic of the ailing condition of the city and its populace:

 

Under the stairs, where I built for you a respectable WC, countless things happened and countless people hid: from 1936 rebels during the British Mandate, to Communists and Ba’thists during Jordan’s rule, to the boys of demonstrations those days. Countless things happened and countless events took place under the stairs. Sometimes you see people busy with politics, and other times you catch them busy doing each other. One day, Haj Akho E’ini came out from under the stairs dragging behind him a wretched, lame boy. Abu Sabber yelled after him: ‘even the lame, Haj Akho E’ini!’ Haj Akho E’ini winked with his crossed eye and said: ‘so what, am I taking him to the race!’

 

Such episodes in khalifeh’s narrative mean to evoke a sense of urban hell by showing how occupation and oppression change the norms and formulas of healthy social existence. The immigration, the incarceration and the demise of young men under occupation pave the way for the emergence of spinsters, widows, prostitutes and bereaved and confused mothers. The narrative is replete with references to the immigration of young men to study and work beyond the borders and rarely come back such as Hamadeh and Sabber; the death of young men resisting occupation like Zuhdi; the imprisonment of young men like Basil and Salih who spend their lives in the occupation’s jails. All this takes place while women are left at home in great numbers. This male depletion and sexual dysfunctionality in a closed society upsets the sex’s balance and paves the way for what Lehan terms as “urban entropy” where people themselves become waste in the city.

 

Entropy in Action

 

Cut off from the outside by military occupation, cordoned by hostile settlements, and impaired sexually and emotionally, the city and its inhabitants suffer from excessive atrophy. Richard Lehan’s theory of urban entropy applies well to Khalifeh's city. Lehan, taking his cue from thermodynamics, contends that “the amount of energy in the universe is fixed, and energy can never be increased or diminished, only transformed. As a result every time energy is transformed from one state to another, there is a loss in the amount of energy available to perform future work. Entropy is that loss of energy in a closed system." The city in Lehan’s view is a closed system, where “nothing provides it energy outside itself.” What is left in the modern city is reiterated by Rifkin who argues that with the great energy flow, energy “ends up in one form or another as waste.”

 

As a result of its devastating effect on the growth of the city, Khalifeh perceives in occupation a vicious machinery that consumes up the land and the people creating a wasteland, a system of physical debris and human dereliction. Urban entropy is at work in Nablus where chaos threatens order and urban forms of death intrude upon the social in the form of sexual impotence, and upon the commercial and economic processes in the form of obfuscation, confiscation and destruction of the city’s resources and green belts.

 

In Khalifeh’s city, economic and commercial dysfunctionality parallels that of the impaired sexuality in bringing the demise of the city. Not only the Karmi’s family in particular, but Nablus as a whole have suffered a systematic massive economic impoverishment over the past decades. The militarisation of the city through the constant presence of the occupation forces and their conspicuous military apparatuses in it, the shadow of the armed resistance in the refugee camps and the ghettoes of the city, and the daily curfews have severely damaged the city’s economy.

 

 


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