Elias Khoury's City Gates is a fable, an exploration of themes rather than a clear-cut story. It largely eschews the principles of modern fiction such as plot and character for concepts that adhere closely to Arabic methods of storytelling. City Gates, while a very small novel – novella, even – is dense in its examination of the difficulty of a place steeped in history coming to terms with its troubled modern times.
A stranger comes to a city. 'He didn't tell his story to anyone, he didn't know he was a story to be told.' He does not know how to enter the city, for the gates are closed and it seems that there is nobody about. But how could this be? The city is, of course, Beirut, in ordinary times home to roughly a million people. The man walks the empty streets and has rhythmic, repetitious conversations with statues and monuments to Beirut's historical past. Old women with strange white faces reveal tantalizing snippets regarding the identity of the city and, by extension, the man himself. 'The man felt the world was breaking into tiny particles that were planting themselves in the grains of sand that covered the square.' This feeling comes early in the novel, and stays with both the stranger and the reader throughout the piece.
Khoury is not attempting to make the work easy to understand. And yet, it is easy to read. The rhythm of the work is found rather quickly, with sentences that hold to a particular theme appearing in subtle variations throughout paragraphs, pages and chapters, in much the same way that a fugue begins with a main theme to which successive instruments relate until the exposition is complete and the final entry returns to the opening key. This aspect of thematic recurrence, coupled with the surreal, almost magical quality of the city – talking statues, mysterious old women, dead kings come to life – assist in creating a Beirut that appears more as the soul of a city rather than its exact physical presence.
In 1975, a civil war erupted in Lebanon; Khoury's novella was published in Arabic in 1981, with the war ongoing. It can be seen, then, as a look back through the history of a city that had a very real danger of being destroyed. The novella is split into parts, each of which seem to examine the city from a different historical perspective and time. Numbers play a large part in the novella, with the eight parts being mirrored by eight women, eight statues and, later, a king protected with patterns of eight. In each part, multiple stories are told alongside the main thread of the stranger wandering through the empty city – it seems at times that everyone has a story to tell. Not only that, but stories interrupt stories, until so many broken fragments of begun but not finished tales litter the text that to wade through them all would be beside the point. A woman admits that a story she has begun has not turned out as she has planned, with the story transforming from a tale of the sea to one about her father - yet the story just as quickly shifts away from her father and back to the sea. This merging of stories, this sense of a constant fluid of fables, parables and tales, is a major theme throughout the work. Khoury seems to be asserting that a city as old as Beirut is made up of its stories, that even though the buildings may be destroyed and the king may be forgotten, stories live on through repetition and the homely comfort of a mother whispering to her child.
City Gates is a novella that resembles all of the ancient stories you may have once heard but could never quite remember. It is not a piece to be read for the examination of character or the thrill of plot, but rather to immerse one's self in a sea of stories. It is a study of what a story means to a city and what it means to the inhabitants. It is an examination of what occurs to identity when the physical underpinnings of a life are stripped away but the memory remains. Khoury's work is surprisingly dense for its 96 pages, but well worth the read for anyone wishing to understand the primal urge of storytelling that seems to attract us all.