‘Yasmine Zahran was born in Ramallah, Palestine. She was educated at Columbia University, and London University. She earned a doctorate in archeology from the Sorbonne. She is the author of two previous books; one on ancient Palestine, Echoes of History, and a novel, The First Melody . ’ A Beggar at Damascus Gate is a story of love, intrigue and mystery.
It is quite difficult to classify it in a single genre. At one point it seems like a love story, at another, like a spy novel, and yet at other times, it just seems like a literary work of history .
Cold and alone in a small inn, an archaeologist/professor, Foster comes across an old dusty canvas bag in the closet of his room. Opening this, he finds letters and journals. He hesitates at first, not wanting to go through someone else’s personal journals, but curious, he reads them, to discover that they belong to two lovers – A Palestinian woman Rayya, living in exile in France and an English man Alex. They were married to each other. What follows is a well crafted novel, weaved with passages from the lovers’ journals. Foster is fascinated, and decides to compile the journals and letters into a single manuscript, and get it published.
Zahran’s novel can simply be called a master piece. “It is story about lovers of two contending cultures. ” Rayya is a deeply patriotic woman, completely devoted to her cause, of seeing Palestine as a free and sovereign state. A lot of the narrative is based on Rayya’s determination. The book is set in the time immediately after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestine is under military occupation. Britain has colonized Palestine. There relationship is marred by political instabilities, and stubborn national loyalties. When Rayya and Alex first come to know each other, Zahran follows a light-hearted course.
Both tease each other about their backgrounds, their different cultures and their different heritage. But slowly and sadly, this emerges into a much deeper rebellion – both begin getting suspicious about each other. Is Rayya more devoted to her homeland, or to her love? Is Alex really the man he shows himself to be ? Suspicions begin when Rayya discovers that Alex can speak Arabic . She begins fearing that he could be an English spy. There relationship is painful and poignant. At times, out of national loyalty, both try to separate from each other, but emotions continue to draw them together.
Rayya’s suspicions eventually cause Alex’s death . The narrative follows the eight year relationship between the two. Zahran also brings out the contemporary Palestinian culture and thought to life. In fact, the plight of the Palestinians’ is what stands out most in the book. Even something as strong as true love is not able to bring two people from these two vastly different cultures together. The fate of the Palestinian people hangs continually over their relationship and the story follows a tragic path of treachery and suspicion. The book shows the “collective psyche of the Palestinian people, and what the ‘Nakba’ did to it .
” Palestinians were expelled from their territory, where Israel was born. The Palestinian exodus is called the ‘Nakba,’ meaning disaster. Zahran cleverly intertwines snatches of the journals in the narrative, and we come across Rayya’s poetry, which is very moving. Her writing is dreamlike and full of feeling, ‘A poetic, empowering portrayal of the struggle for liberation – both personal and political liberation . ’ Foster spends ten years looking for the couple desperately, and finally, is about to give up hope, till he actually finds Rayya.
The tension builds up, and ultimately, Zahran brings us to an anti-climax, as life often is . Good does not always triump over evil, nor does love over hate. Zahran avoids using cliche’s . What she depicts is the true plight of millions displaced from their very homeland. The relationship between Alex and Rayya too is not a typical one. Both have their national loyalties, and will abide by them no matter what. Rayya, in particular is passionately devoted to the Palestinian cause. Never does Zahran isolate the characters from the life around them.
It is indeed the life and the war around them that lead to their separation. What many critics believe is that Alex probably never truly understood Rayya’s passion for her homeland, since he had never lived a life of oppression. He did not understand what it was like to have your home country and people under military occupation, for years. Rayya, on the other hand had been brought up in a time and region of constant political instability and military warfare. The experiences in her life had shaped her into an intensely patriotic, strong person, defending her cause, her people and her nation.
Written in first person, from the mind of Foster, Zahran has built up an interesting and engaging narrative structure that keeps the reader captivated. In fact many have found Zahran’s writing almost magical, and strangely close to life. Her style is deceptively simple. It can undoubtedly be accepted that ‘A Beggar at Damascus Gate’ is one of the best works of contemporary literature. The book is also a beautiful preservation of an emotional human relationship, and the culture and life of a daunting era. The book ends vaguely, but Zahran has made herself clear. The tragedy lies not only in Alex and Raya’s alienation.
It lies in the damage war and conflict can do. Zahran states it herself – “Love is a constantly changing landscape . ” Even though the lovers cannot be together by the end, Zahran does not leave the reader dejected. What Rayya and Alex shared may not have lasted, but it left its impact. For both, the relationship proved to be a journey of self-discovery; “the final resolution surprises them both and reveals a depth to their commitments that neither had previously realized . ” It also proved to be a deep experience for Foster, and resulted in his determination to find either of the two, and to get the manuscript published.
What is more haunting is the fact that readers, even today can understand the strife of the characters – Palestine is still far from free. Rayya’s dream is still a dream; her homeland is still not free. As Marzahn stated in her review; “We all need a little place to call home, a little piece of world to which we belong. The realization for some people that it is not possible to return home is one of sorrow. Reading The Beggar at Damascus Gate by Yasmin Zahran brings to the forefront that poignant struggle facing many Palestinians.
It is a book that makes one think about home, loss, and the just cause . ” Works Cited: 1. Zahra, Yasmin. A Beggar at Damascus Gate. The Post Apollo Press, ISBN: 0-942996-24-0 2. Amazon Reviews, A Beggar at Damascus Gate, retrieved from http://www. amazon. com/Beggar-at-Damascus-Gate/dp/0942996240 3. Swensen, Cole and Cooke, Miriam, A Beggar at Damascus Gate (short review), retrieved from http://www. postapollopress. com/A_Beggar. html 4. Marzahn, Michelle A. A Beggar at Damascus Gate: A War Between Emotions and Politics, Book review from Al Jadid, Vol. 2, No. 7, May 1996
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