His novels are internationally acclaimed, with a number available in English, French and German. The first work of his translated into English was
Little Mountain, published by Carcanet Press, UK in 1989 – one year after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born in 1948, Elias Khoury is an important participant in Lebanon’s cultural, intellectual and literary life. Novelist, short story writer, literary critic and journalist, he established his mark in the 1970s as an engaged, perceptive critic and avant-garde writer, seeking out the elements of literary modernity by combining autobiography, fable, commentary and fiction long before post-modernism became a byword. At present he edits the weekly cultural supplement of Lebanon’s biggest daily newspaper
Banipal presents excerpts from an interview with Elias Khoury by Sonja Mejcher.The complete text of their conversation is published in a study on his works by Sonja Mejcher entitled
Geschichten über Geschichten. Erinnerung im Romanwerk von Elias Khoury, [Stories overlying Stories. Memory in the Novels of Elias Khoury], Reichert, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2001, (Series: Literaturen im Kontext 8), ISBN 3-89500-247X.
Looking back on your early childhood, how would you describe it?
I was born in Beirut in 1948, into a middle-class family. I grew up in a Beiruti neighbourhood, in Ash-rafiyya, which is also called “little mountain” because it is a small hill in East Beirut. Ashrafiyya was like a village inside a city. So I can say that my childhood had two aspects: it took place in a big city and was protected by a village inside the big city. Ashrafiyya, which was mainly a Christian Orthodox neighbourhood, had all the aspects of a village: the large olive orchard in Karm az-zaytun, the fields in Syufi, and the old yellow Beiruti houses surrounded by trees. The village had its mad men, prostitutes and qabadayat (1)
. And as in all villages, the ceremonies were mainly religious.
I grew up in a Christian Orthodox family, with all the myths of oriental Christians, mainly the myth of being the descendants of the Arab tribe of Ghassan, who came from Hauran in Syria and who were kings.
In this religious middle-class family I discovered Arab culture through my maternal grandmother. We used to read classical Arabic poetry with her. She was about eighty years old, and she would recite most of the classical poetry by heart, all the poems of Imru’ al-Qays(2).
The Christianity of my childhood was religious, not political. It was under the influence of the nahdah, the so-called Arab renaissance of the 19th and early 20th century – a nahdah of the Arabs and a nahdah of Oriental Arabic Christianity, which was under attack from European and American Catholic and Protestant missionaries. This idea of the nahdah was the version of the Movement of the Young Orthodox I joined when I was fourteen years old. Another influence was the Russian one. I imagine that the first communist text I read was a pamphlet distributed in the courtyard of the church.
With the religious literary atmosphere, there was also the influence of story-telling. Now I realise that the stories of my childhood were a popular version of The Thousand and One Nights (Alf laila wa-laila). With these stories of my grandmother and a Syrian servant from Hauran I discovered the pleasure of story-telling, of how all our life in the village of Ashrafiyya was like a story. I think that these three elements: poetry, stories, and religious stories later played an important role in my novels, especially in my efforts to cross the frontiers between reality and the imaginary and to read life as a journey in unknown places.
When I speak about my childhood, I feel as if it is impossible to describe its details. I do not know if these details are real or if they are the stories my mother used to tell me or if they are part of the stories I wrote. Ashrafiyya lives inside me at this crossing point between reality and imagination. How did you express your criticism of the civil war?
Mahmoud Darwish’s journal, Shu’un filastiniyya, was the only place where you could express some criticism. Criticism was very difficult because in our consciousness the Palestinian revolution was sacred. You could not criticise it. Nevertheless we did. At some point Arafat wanted to put me in prison but then I resigned from the PLO Research Centre, and Mahmoud Darwish also left.
If you tell me that there will be another civil war I will feel very sad but I do not think that I will fight again. The civil war was savage. Any war is savage. But what happened in Lebanon was a real explosion. I think that in 1975 Lebanon had no alternative. War was inevitable because of the components of the Lebanese social, economic and political life. To say it was “the war of the others” is stupid. Practically the whole concept of “the others” collapsed after the Israeli invasion of 1982. The Palestinians left and war went on. The big massacres of the Lebanese civil war took place in the mountains after the Palestinians left. It was between the Maronites and the Druze. So who are the others? The Lebanese are the others for the Lebanese. We are the others. Why we are the others is the big question. How did your criticism develop and how did it affect your novels?
Writing was very important because it gave me the chance to rethink and to understand what was going on. The imaginary level that is part of every fiction made it possible for me to create some distance from the political practice, and to criticise it.
Al-Jabal al-saghir [Little Mountain] was written two years before it was published – in 1975/76 during the civil war. Everybody who read it thought that I was not a real revolutionary because I was fighting and at the same time criticising the civil war in my writing. There was a contradiction between the euphoric optimistic ideology we were living and what I was writing.
I used to write the opposite of what I was living but I used to really believe in the ideology of politics and I used to think that literature was something else. Then I discovered that life and literature cannot be separated so much, and that there must be something wrong in our optimistic ideological approach. When you write literature you cannot insert the ideology of historical optimism which was in fashion, Mao Tse Tung etc. Ideology cannot work in literature and it cannot really work in life either because it covers reality and it covers atrocities and I cannot be part of that.
My criticism of the civil war started with al-Jabal as-saghir. It continued with Abwab al-madina [Gates of the City] (Beirut, 1981), but in a different way. I do not think that I can go back to Abwab al-madina, which was written in 1979/80 when I was really feeling as if I had gone through a nightmare. It was a personal experience about things that were totally closed and language that was totally destroyed, to a degree that nothing could be seen and said anymore.
With the civil war, language became meaningless. In the years directly preceding the Israeli invasion of 1982, everybody was speaking the same language.
My criticism became more explicit in al-Wujuh al-baidha’ [The White Faces] (Beirut, 1981), which was considered to be very heavy criticism of what we – our leftist and Palestinian camp – were doing, and I was considered to be against the revolution. The PLO practically banned the book. They threatened the distributors so much that the book did not appear on the market until after 1982. It was then that I discovered that my work as an intellectual and as a writer is, first, important and, second, meaningless, cannot be done, if I am not critical of the situation I am living in.
What was the literary scene that you entered like? Did you join any literary group?
My main literary group was Mawaqif. I joined the Mawaqif editorial board in 1972. It consisted of Adonis, Kamal Abu Deeb, Kamal Boullata, Hisham Sharabi, Mona al-Saudi, Khalida Sa’id, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm and others. When Mahmoud Darwish came to Beirut, he also joined Mawaqif and he was part of the group until in 1976 he became the director of the PLO Research Centre and the editor-in-chief of Shu’un filastiniyya. We used to meet every Sunday at Adonis’ house in Ashrafiyya. Mawaqif was a very important journal but it was marginal. The literary scene was dominated by the an-Nahar newspaper. We were neither on the liberal right nor on the classical left. Intellectually speaking, we were very much linked to the Palestinian experience.
The Lebanese literary scene I entered in the 1970s was dominated by poetry. Nobody was really interested in narrative and this gave me a lot of freedom. Within the Mawaqif group I was never considered to be a novelist, and I did not consider myself to be one. I thought of myself as a literary critic and a journalist, an intellectual. It was much later that I was acknowledged as a novelist.
My novels were breaking with the so-called Lebanese school of literature, which was very romantic. The writer was considered to be a prophet like Gibran Kahlil Gibran [1883-1931] , whereas I think that the writer is part of the society and the language of the people. There was no tradition of novel writing in Lebanon. Ghassan Kanafani [1936-1971] was writing novels but he was expressing a political idea more than writing a novel. I was very moved by his novel Rijal fil-shams [Men in the Sun]. Personally I did not really know Ghassan Kanafani. I was still very young when he was already a well-known writer, and then in 1972 he was killed in an Israeli attack.
Al-Jabal al-saghir was part of a new kind of novel writing in Lebanon and, I think, in the whole Arab world. It was neither a poetic novel – like the novels of Ghada al-Samman [b. 1942] – nor was it in line with the novels written in Egypt which were influenced by the French nouveau roman. It was part of a research to create new forms of narrative based on a heritage we did not know.
Let me explain this. The hypothesis of the nahdah was that we had to go back to the sources of our culture. It was an ideological choice related to Arab Nationalism. It created great works in language. But there was also another neglected heritage: the heritage of the inhitat (often referred to as the Ottoman decadence), the heritage of the spoken and the lived – in French we say “le vecu”. It was the heritage of what I called the “lost memory” [reference to his book Al-Dhakira al-mafquda [The Lost Memory], Beirut, 1982].
In the 1970s many Arab writers tried to give voice to this other heritage in one way or another. It was as if we found a new kind of narrative that was neither a repetition of the glorious Arab past nor an imitation of the modern Western novel – like the novels of the famous Egyptian writer and Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz [b. 1911]. For the first time our writing corresponded to our very hybrid way of living.
Why did you decide to write novels in an environment dominated by poetry?
I did not decide to write novels. Actually my main project then was literary criticism. It was with al-Jabal al-saghir that I discovered that narrative is my way of writing.
I love poetry very much. In 1979 I published a book on the poetry of Badr Shakir as-Sayyab(3), Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, but I myself could never write poetry. A writer cannot switch from one genre to the other. There are some, like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra [1920-1994], who wrote novels and poetry at the same time but it does not really work. You always have one genre that is yours. What fascinates me about narrative is that it contains all other genres: literary criticism, poetry, political and sociological analysis etc. Poets like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish played a great role in pushing the Arabic language forward but I think that the real innovation in the language happens in prose and not in poetry.
Can you elaborate on this? What do you mean by innovation in the Arabic language? Is it related to the use of the spoken, colloquial language in literature?
There has always been more than one Arabic language. The idea that there is only one language is related to the European idea of the nation state. During the nahdah this idea became very strong. As a consequence the spoken and the written language were separated. In order to revive the Arabic language I think that we have to re-enter the diversity of the spoken language into the written language. This implies destroying the quasi-sacred nature ascribed to Arabic, as the language of the Qur’an. I think that in modern Arabic literature this has been done. Of course it cannot be done by libanising the language, as the Lebanese poet Sa’id Aql [b. 1910] did in the 1960s. The colloquial language of Lebanon is more or less the same as the colloquial language of Syria and Palestine. The difference in language between Beirut and Damascus is not bigger than that between Damascus and Aleppo or Beirut and Tyre. The idea is not to use the colloquial language and to make it a written language, the idea is to open the written language to the colloquial language.
In my novels I usually write the dialogues in colloquial Arabic. This is why a lot of people think that I do not write good Arabic, and in terms of classical Arabic it is true, I do not write good Arabic. I imagine that if al-Mutanabbi(4) could read my novels he would think my Arabic was very odd but he would still be able to understand it. I love classical Arabic, and it is a linguistic background but I am interested in giving voice to the spoken, lived experience – our lost heritage and memory.
As long as the official, written language is not opened up to spoken language there is total repression because it means that the spoken, social experience is marginalised. The Thousand and One Nights [Alf laila wa-laila] was not recognised in Arabic literature because it was the spoken, and the daily, heritage.
In my novels after al-Jabal al-saghir, take al-Wujuh al-baidha’ and Rihlat Ghandi as-saghir [The Journey of Little Gandhi] (Beirut, 1989) for example, I focus on the marginal. In al-Jabal al-saghir you have students and intellectuals who are fighting in the Lebanese civil war. In Rihlat Ghandi al-saghir you have a prostitute, a shoe shiner, a shopkeeper . . .What impact did the civil war have on the rediscovery of what you termed “the lost memory”?
The civil war helped us to discover our lost memory. There are reasons why Lebanese literature had been dominated by poetry. It had to do with the fact that the unsaid in society was very powerful. A society with the history of civil war, savagery, clans and confessions could not tell its stories because telling them would imply opening the well of contradictions, whereas this well was opened on its own with the Lebanese civil war of 1975.
At the beginning of the civil war I found out that I did not know the society I was living in. We never studied what happened in the 19th century, we never knew what happened at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the famine of the First World War which killed one third of the Lebanese population had never been studied. At the beginning of the civil war my father started to tell me stories I had never heard before. He told them as if he himself had lived them but later I discovered that these stories were not his stories and not his father’s but his grandfather’s stories. They were about the civil war of 1860.
I suddenly grasped the impact of the oppression by the Ottoman and the colonial powers on one hand and the nahdah and its model of going back to our great Arab ancestors on the other. It had created a gap between the present and the past. It was as if the recent past did not exist. With the civil war everything exploded and the recent past so long suppressed came to the fore. I had the feeling that for the first time in my life I was not living in the past but that I had a past. The civil war of 1975-1990 was not a repetition of the civil war of 1860 but it had a past and this past was the civil war of 1860. Civil war had been a dominant feature of our society.
In a way the civil war of 1975-1990 liberated our memory. Death liberates the memory. If I die tomorrow you can say that I told you this and that and nobody will challenge you as to whether it is true or not. It was like this with Beirut. What role do you ascribe to memory? And what role do you think memory can play in literature?
In the Arabic heritage, in the Lisan al-‘arab [Language of the Arabs] , it says “summiya al-insan liannahu yansa” [he is called a human being because he forgets] (5). It is a human necessity to forget. People have to forget. If I do not forget my friends who died in the civil war I cannot live, I cannot drink and eat . . .
The question is what to forget and what to remember. It can be an ideological choice. In literature it is very complicated because literature deals with a lot of details. In Rihlat Ghandi al-saghir, for example, Gandhi remembers the different shoes he used to polish. This is not of any historical or ideological value but on the literary level it is very important because the shoes turn into mirrors and it is through them that Gandhi looks at the city. Remembering the shoes here works as a literary metaphor of how to see things.
Literature can provide a context for rethinking and contemplation but its role is not to recollect memory or the past. Literature can only question how things are put together and how they are seen. Do you think that the novel can participate in writing history?
When asked about Bab al-Shams, I said that the victorious write history and the defeated stories. But actually I think that the novel can only fill gaps. It does not replace writing history, and it is not its role to do so. You do not write literature to fill gaps. Literature is art, and when art is pushed to fill gaps it is no longer good art. Art always reveals other things to us than sciences do. The whole concept of time is different in art.
I can understand why a literary critic might say that Mudun al-milh [Cities of Salt] by Abd al-Rahman Munif [b. 1933] is the history of Saudi Arabia and that my novel Bab al-Shams is the history of Palestine but I do not agree. Mudun al-milh is not the history of Saudi Arabia, and Bab al-Shams is not the history of Palestine. The critic can only say so because there are no history books about our recent past. As a novelist I will never accept it. It is not my job to write history. My job is to use stories and to do research in order to create the imaginary. In literature you deal with the imaginary not with reality. Reality is only a background. What do you think about autobiography in modern Arabic literature and what impact do your personal memories have on your novels?
Autobiography has very much influenced modern Arabic literature. Personally, I have never been interested in it. There are some autobiographical parts in my novels – in the first chapter of al-Jabal al-saghir for example. But these stories are not my personal memories, they are my mother’s memories. She used to tell me these stories when I was young. Later I remembered them as if they were my memories but they are not. You cannot remember things from when you were only one or two years old. In the other chapters there are some details about the war, about Sannin for example, but what happened on Sannin was very different from what is happening in al-Jabal as-saghir, but the atmosphere is personal. When you want some details – in literature you need the details of the details of things – you will always go back to your personal experience.
I am not interested in writing an autobiography because I do not think that I have a life worth telling. To write an autobiography you have to believe that you are very important. From all the autobiographies I have read I only liked the first part of al-Ayyam [The Days] by Taha Husain(6). I do not think that there are any interesting autobiographies. Biography is interesting, not autobiography. Even if you fictionalise a lot you are never free to fictionalise your personal life the way you can fictionalise another person’s life. One of my great aspirations in life is to write a biography of Imru’ al-Qays. But actually I think it will turn out to be a novel.
Because of my novel Bab al-Shams, some people think that I am Palestinian but of course I have never lived through anything like that. My personal experience is very limited although I was a fida’i [activist] in the 1960s and 1970s. I did a lot of research to write this novel. I went into the camps and asked the people to tell me their stories. It was like a journey. You do not only travel from one country to another. You also travel through others, through the stories other people tell you. It is like falling in love. When you love someone you tell him or her your stories and vice versa. In a way you re-live the other person’s life. Writing is like that. It is like falling in love. Writing is a very personal experience. How do you work as a writer?
I am very clear about the way I work as a writer in my novel Mamlakat al-Ghuraba’ [Kingdom of Strangers]. There is a discussion between the narrator and his father. The father tells the narrator that what he is doing – going and ask people to tell him their stories and then writing them down – is not literature, literature is like Gibran Khalil Gibran, he claims. But I think it is literature. Of course a novel cannot be done just by writing down the stories other people tell you, the way you do a feature in a newspaper. A novel needs something else. It needs the imagination.
The writer for me is someone like a storyteller, a hakawati , or a narrator in the maqamat (8) or in The Thousand and One Nights. The writer is only a medium. He is a medium between the direct experience of life and the imaginary, between memory and the future, between the written and spoken language, between the possibilities of language itself. The writer is always looking for knowledge, for new experiences and for a way to recount them. In the deepest sense the writer is a rewriter. There is no writing. All writing is a kind of rewriting. This does not mean that the writer is not important. Even if we went together to do the same research you would write something completely different from me. The crucial point is how we deal with our information, how we link it to the imaginary and which language we choose. Has the fact that you are Christian ever set you apart from other Arab writers?
I have never felt that being Christian and not Muslim means that I am not part of the Arabic Islamic culture. Islam is part of my cultural background. This has a lot do with the way I was brought up. I used to read the Qur’an and go to church at the same time. It might also have to do with the fact that I am Lebanese. There is a long tradition of Christian writers and intellectuals in Lebanon. Christians have been part of the Arabic Islamic culture throughout history. Some of the most important writers in classical Arabic literature are Christian, like Imru’ al-Qays and Abu Tammam7.
The first time I met the Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi [1919-1997] – it was in 1981 in Prague – he told me how astonished he was that I dared to use Christian names in my novels. Habibi was a Christian like me, and his name is Christian, but he told me that in his novels he only uses neutral names. I do not know why he felt this way but I think that within the Lebanese context the civil war helped us a lot to accept and to write about the different faces of our society.
I have an extended theory about Arabic literature and religion. I thought of it when I was re-reading Taha Husain’s Fil-Shi’r al-jahili [On Pre-Islamic Poetry]. My thesis is that Arabic literature had been secular all throughout its classical period. The Arabic language is based on two sources: the Qur’an and pre-Islamic poetry. Even if Taha Husain was right in saying that pre-Islamic poetry is actually not pre-Islamic but was written later, the fact that there were two sources means that there were two different lines of tradition within Arabic culture: a religious and a secular one. This bifurcation liberated Arabic literature from being religious. Literature was considered to be another domain. This explains why poetry like that of Abu Nuwas (9) on wine, love and sexuality was possible. Maybe Arabic literature was one of the rare kinds of literatures in world literature that was not religious.
The Sufi poetry is the only exception I can think of, and even in Sufi poetry you can find images of wine and the like, take al-Farid (10) as an example. I think that religion did not really enter Arabic literature until modern times, under the influence of Western literature frm writers such as T S Eliot [1888-1965]. You can find religious figures in Arabic literature today but they are mainly Christian. In Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry for example, the Messiah is a literary figure but Muhammad is not. Adonis tried to make Ali a literary figure but it did not work. Arabic literature was always secular.
The Lebanese civil war ended more than ten years ago. Looking back on the war how do you think it affected your writing? What is your opinion on the expression “war literature”?
After the war life changed, the rhythm of life changed. During the war the rhythm and the personal priorities were different. You did not have time. You were busy protecting yourself and your family from death. You felt that you could die at any moment.
Once, when I was writing al-Wujuh al-baidha’, my wife called me because she wanted something. I left my room and came into the living-room. At that moment something in a building facing ours exploded and shrapnel entered the room I had been in one minute before. The shrapnel was all over my desk and papers. If my wife had not called me I would have died.
The living conditions during the war were very tough. We used to drink as if it was the last time, we used to make love as if it was the last time, and we used to write as if it was the last time. I think that the amount of crying out in al-Wujuh al-baidha’ is related to this different relationship with time. After the war life changed. Now you take your time in life as in writing – you take it easy. I myself became much more relaxed but I do not know if having more time will make better literature.
I do not like the expression “war literature”. But I do think that the experience of the civil war had a great effect on literature. Before the war we could talk about single Lebanese novels, today we can speak about the novel in Lebanon as a literary genre. The Lebanese novel is the most experimental novel in the Arab world, and this has to do with the experience of the civil war.
What significance does the experience of the civil war have for you personally?
The fact that a human being can behave as an animal, and worse than an animal, comes to my mind all the time. It opened many big questions to me, like what does it mean to be yourself, is there anything like being yourself . . . You are something and when you are in this or that condition you are something else. The belief that the human being is good is a myth. It is not a matter of being good or bad, it is a matter of being in this or that condition. To discover this in yourself is terrible.
Hannah Arendt, when writing about Eichmann, tried to explain how the power structure dominating a whole society can lead to the “banality of evil”. In the Lebanese context it is more complicated because everybody who lived through the Lebanese civil war experienced the feeling of becoming and reacting as an animal and worse. A very common way of dealing with this experience was amnesia, people just tried to forget. Another way would be to try to understand how it could have happened. This would imply that we try to understand ourselves and how we work, and that we engage in finding out ways, morals and ethics that can prevent the animal inside every one of us from taking over.
How do you feel about living in Beirut today? What role do you ascribe to Beirut in the future?
Today I have the feeling of living in Beirut. At the same time this is not Beirut. We have a margin of liberty that is in some ways incomparable to neighbouring Arab countries but still Beirut is not a free place. If Beirut was a free place today someone like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (11) would have found exile in Beirut and not in Holland. He would have become a Beiruti like Adonis or Mahmoud Darwish did before the war. Today our journalism is marginal compared to the Saudi journalism, which has become the only pan-Arab journalism. It is a new Arab world in which Beirut is only the shadow of the city it used to be.
The idea of a rebirth has been very strong among Arab intellectuals and poets. I am not under the illusion that we can revive Beirut from its ashes. In fact I dislike the whole phoenix myth because I think that when somebody is dead he has had to die. You do not want him to be reborn again, something else has to emerge. I feel like this about Beirut. But also I refuse to live in a shadow.
I think that the experience of the civil war obliges us to free ourselves from all mythical concepts and to transform Beirut into a social and political reality. I am not sure that we can create a new Beirut. Cities and cultures play a role for some time and then they collapse forever as Ibn Khaldun [1332-1382] explained, but I hope that Beirut will play a role again.
1 Local vigilantes
2 Poems that bear the name of Imru’ al-Qays (d. circa 550) were collected towards the end of the 8th century. While the authenticity of these poems is questionable, Imru’ al-Qays is the most famous of early Arab poets. He has become an almost mythical figure.
3 Badr Shakir as-Sayyab [1926-1964) the famous Iraqi poet who was one of the first Arab poets to break with classical form in and was known especially for his use of the ancient myths of rebirth and recreation.
4 Al-Mutanabbi (915-955) is the most famous of classical Arabic poets from the Abbasid era. His poetry had great literary influence on later
5 A well-known saying that plays on the phonetic similarity of the words insan (human being) und yansa (he forgets) which differ in etymology, however, insan coming from anisa (to be sociable or friendly), and yansa from nasiya (to forget).
6 Taha Husain (1889-1973) was one of the most distinguished Arab intellectuals of the 20th century. In al-Ayyam [The Days] he gives an account of his early childhood in Egypt.
7 Abu Tammam (d. 846) is especially known for his panegyric poetry on the Muslim rulers and their victory over the Byzantines.
8 Classical prose genre describing a picaresque scenario between two people.
9 Abu Nuwas (ca 747/762-813) is an illustrious poet of the early Abbasid period, still known and admired today for his permissiveness and beautiful poems on wine, love and sexuality.
10 Omar ibn al-Farid (d. 813) was a famous Sufi poet who, because of his use of wine imagery was frequently confronted by orthodox Islam.
11 Egyptian scholar in Arabic literature and Qur’anic studies, known for his hermeneutic approach in studying the Qur’an. On account of his studies, he was accused of apostasy and forced to divorce his wife by the court in Egypt in 1995. He and his wife subsequently emigrated to the Netherlands where he works as a professor and writer.