The novel begins in 1922 with a depiction of traditional life in the Arabic village during the British Mandate of Palestine: Ibrahim al Soukori al Wahhabi asserts his inherited position as leader of the town, takes the pilgrimage to Mecca, and starts a family, but suffers humiliation in that his wife does not bear him a son before his third child. The family had settled in the area about 100 years previously, still maintains contact with their Beduin relatives, and sets great value in their traditions and values.
In 1936 their youngest son, Ishmael, is born. As youngest son his expected lot in life is to become the family shepherd, but his mother Hagar protects him and helps give him opportunities to develop his skills. He seeks out continued opportunities through use of his natural resourcefulness and drive, two qualities generally lacking in his brothers. Only his sister Nada seems to share these traits with him, and they have a close bond.
Traditional life is altered permanently with the establishment of a kibbutz nearby on land sold to Jewish farmers by Effendi Fawzi Kabir, a rich Palestinian "absentee landlord" who owns a great deal of land in the region, including the town of Tabah, but lives in Damascus. One of the settlers is Gideon Asch, who helps establish a tenuous but workable co-existence with the residents of Tabah through the leadership of Haj Ibrahim. Their struggles lead to reciprocal trust and eventually friendship, but these continue to be tested throughout the novel.
The villagers feel compelled by the history of brave warriors in Arabic culture to destroy Kibbutz Shemesh. The villagers attack the kibbutz on its first night but are repelled. Haj Ibrahim secretly acknowledges this failure, which he expected. But his defeated villagers come back to Tabah proudly proclaiming that they killed many Jews, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.
Haj Ibrahim gradually develops a personal friendship with Gideon Asch, and he even visits the kibbutz from time to time. But Ibrahim's tolerance of and even friendship with Jews does not fit in with the general mood during the 1930s and 1940s. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni whips up emotions against the Jews with his fiery speeches. The Egypt-supported Muslim Brotherhood, as represented by Mr. Salmi, Ishmael's school teacher, infuses their classrooms with hatred of Jews. Radio broadcasts in the village coffeehouse heard on the radio given to the villagers by the kibbutz (along with the electricity to run it) promise the Arab locals revenge against the Jews. And Transjordan's well-trained Arab Legion stands ready to move in and claim the land in the name of a Greater Syria for King Abdullah I.
Against the background of the United Nations General Assembly passage of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on 29 November 1947, Haj Ibrahim is summoned to Damascus to talk with Effendi Fawzi Kabir at his luxurious home. Also at the meeting are Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni and General Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, who Haj Ibrahim has made an enemy of when he repulsed his attempt to overtake the village of Tabah as a strategic military position. The three try to convince Ibrahim that as leader of his people, he should evacuate Tabah, and they give him promise of financial support. He is wary of their offer, and makes no firm promise. Al-Qawuqji expresses his lust for revenge against Ibrahim after the Haj has left the meeting.
Tensions in the village rise to fever pitch as a result of the Battle of Deir Yassin, and Haj Ibrahim can no longer keep his followers from abandoning Tabah; he leads them to Jaffa, where he plans to hire a boat to take them to the Gaza Strip. They find themselves in the Manshiya neighborhood with little money, caught between Al-Qawuqji's troops and the rival Jewish forces, Haganah and Irgun. Haj Ibrahim and a business contact in Jaffa, Bassam el Bassam, manage to strike a deal with a Greek Cypriot ship owner, but Ibrahim and family are unable to meet the boat on account of pursuit by Al-Qawuqji, and hide in St. Peter's Church. Ishmael is able to reach Gideon Asch, who had offered the family help in a crisis, if ever they need it. Asch helps them escape to Tulkarm in Samaria on the West Bank, in the triangle that includes Jenin and Nablus.
While in Jaffa, al-Qawuqji's men search for and discover the family's women, whom they summarily gang-rape. Ishmael witnesses the rape of his mother, stepmother, and sister-in-law, but does not tell his father until the book's climax.
The family continues on to Nablus, where they are able to live more reasonably, and eventually Ibrahim contacts Clovis Bakshir, the city's mayor. Bakshir introduces Ibrahim to Farid Zyyad, who is undercover at the meeting, but who is actually a colonel in Abdullah's Arab Legion. The two try to persuade Ibrahim to give his support to their political aims, but Ibrahim maintains his distance. While accepting the gifts they offer him, Ibrahim plans an escape for the family from Nablus to a cave in the desert around Qumran by the Dead Sea. They enlarge their family group with teenager Sabri Salama, a clever auto mechanic who helps keep their stolen truck in operating condition for the journey, and sees to it that it can be sold afterwards.
Life in the desert is difficult at times, but also satisfying to the family as it gave them a chance to find strength in their isolation and in their desert traditions. However, as the weather worsens during early 1949 they abandon their cave in Qumran and wander further to Jericho where they settle into refugee camp Aqabat Jaber at the foot of the supposed Mount of Temptation. In Jericho they make contact with a disfigured archeologist, Dr. Nuri Mudhil, in the hope of using him to make contact with their old friend Gideon Asch. They guess correctly that he has contact with Jews in Jerusalem, and they are able not only to contact Asch but also to arrange a sale of some valuable artifacts they had found in Qumran.
Asch encourages Ibrahim to become involved as a moderating representative of the refugees in the conferences being arranged to discuss the Palestinian situation. He travels to Amman where he meets like-minded moderates, Charles Maan, a Palestinian Christian, and Sheik Ahmed Taji, who like Ibrahim are willing to negotiate with the new State of Israel for the return of Palestinians to their homes. They arrange an alternative conference in Bethlehem, where they manage to pass a resolution whereby they would represent the plight of the Palestinians at an international commission in Zurich later that year. The conference ends in disaster when Zyyad's Arab Legion makes a mass arrest of the three ringleaders and the youth gang members they brought to protect the conference building, one of these being Ibrahim's son, Jamil.
In spite of threats against his son by Arab leaders threatened by his moderate pragmatism, Ibrahim travels to Zurich along with Maan and Taji. Their participation credentials are constantly challenged by the rest of the Arabs at the conference, and the commission's committee work is stifling and unproductive. Charles Maan negotiates with the Vatican for a modest low-key solution that would return many Christian Palestinians to their homes, and Sheik Taji is bought off by the opulent and corrupt Fawzi Kabir, who represents a Saudi Arabian prince in Zurich.
Ibrahim gives up hope for a solution at the Zurich conference, revenges himself on Kabir, and returns to the refugee camp to face the dissolution of his life, traditions and values, the murder of his son Jamil, continued disappointment by Arab national leaders, his family's loss of respect for him, his community's passivity and inability to face reality. In July 1951 Charles Maan is murdered by Arab leaders while Abdullah I of Jordan's assassination provokes anti-Palestinian riots. Ibrahim brutally takes the life of his daughter, Nada, after she dishonors him by cursing him and telling him that she is no longer a virgin, the biggest possible disgrace to an Arab father. Ishmael becomes crazy after this, and "talks his father to death". (Ibrahim dies of a heart attack after his son graphically informs him of the gang rape in Jaffa.) When Ishmael's family returns home, they stare at him in fear, realizing he is now the leader of the family and he himself has taken down the most powerful man he knew. Ironically, according to Ishmael, "the most glorious moment in the story of Haj Ibrahim came after his death," as large flocks of people attend his funeral, and the "display of grief at his funeral was of a nature usually reserved for high holy men or great heads of state". Afterwards, Ishmael starts to become obsessed about his deceased sister Nada in his grief, and it takes a turn for the worst for him. The novel ends with Ishmael going insane and becoming delusional.