‘We are not made of ink’

Elias Khoury

Lebanese author Elias Khoury speaks to MEMO: "It's more interesting to read books than it is to live in them."

Elias Khoury has lived through Black September, the Six Day War, the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the Lebanese civil war. More recently a conflict in Syria has been raging across the border from his home in Beirut; it has threatened his country's stability. He says witnessing so many battles can be like living in a history book, though in reality this isn't as glamourous as it sounds. "It's very tough actually. It's more interesting to read books than it is to live in them. You feel you are living inside a book, dealing with the adversity of blood and death, but we are not made of ink, we are made from real material. It's very, very tough but it shows us many things. One of them is the stupidity of human history," he says, pausing for a moment to think.

"Stupidity is not the word," he continues. "The absurdity of history, the absurdity of wars and the absurdity of going through conflicts like that which actually lead nowhere, they only lead to blood and more blood. Man doesn't learn anything from history and this is absurd."

Lebanese author Elias Khoury has worked as a critic, a journalist and an editor-in-chief. He has written plays but is perhaps best known for his novels that have been translated into many languages. His most acclaimed work Bab Al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun as it is known to English readers, was made into a film by the Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah. Set during the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) the work paints a picture of Palestinians who fled the tragedy and sought a safe-haven in Lebanon.

The narrator, Khalil, is a doctor who recounts tales from the past to Yunis, a freedom fighter who has fallen into a coma and is being nursed in the Shatila refugee camp. Gate of the Sun may be based on the Palestinian question, says Khoury, but the major issue of the book is not that of the refugees. It's a story of passion, humanity and the relationship between man and destiny. "It's a story of love; it's how love can survive, how love can reinvent itself in tragic conditions. And I think this is not only a Palestinian thing, it's a human thing." Ultimately novels are a way to learn about our own selves, he says, not about the region.

Back in the book it's the murky aftermath of the Nakba and Yunis makes the journey across the border from Lebanon to Galilee to see his wife. A simple cave has become their meeting point and there they eat together and talk about their children. In 2007 Khoury told Maya Jaggi that Yunis is "heroic" because he crossed the border for love and that "creating and closing borders is one of the most stupid ideas of modern times." With that in mind, what would an alternative Arab world look like to Khoury?

Whilst a Nasser-style union is out of the question - "I hate nationalist discourse" - Khoury believes that the diverse cultures and languages that are part of the region must find a way to come together in a democratic way. "We are in a situation where we need to survive," he says. "We must struggle for a minimum of human dignity but in the horizon must be a new, democratic Arab world which is secular and open to each other. The Arabs share the same language and culture, one way or another. This only means we have to create something new which is based upon our experience and upon our needs."

At 19, Khoury moved to Jordan to join the Fatah movement where he stayed until Black September in 1970 when thousands of Palestinians were killed and driven out of the country. He doesn't like the term "Lebanese Christian" and says his background is not important when it comes to the Palestinian issue. "I've never felt that way. I understand there are troubles with minorities and we have to understand them but actually I don't feel that way, I feel that I'm a citizen of this country and I'm a human being. Actually I joined the Palestinians and I'm still ready to join them in the struggle because I always thought that the Palestinian cause and what the Palestinians are going through is a huge injustice. They are, as Edward Said put it, victims of the victims, which makes their victimisation very tough because no one wants to hear about their tragedy."

"It's normal when you see injustice like that to join the oppressed, right? I feel it in a very simple way. I don't think it's complicated at all. This is what I did and this is what I will do now."

Once a year Khoury teaches Arabic and comparative literature at New York University where his seminars focus on the difference between how Palestinians are portrayed in Israeli fiction and how Israelis are portrayed in Palestinian fiction. "There is a big difference," he confirms. "I think Israeli literature is frightened by the idea that the Palestinians exist."

Sometimes, he says, Palestinians appear in novels as mad characters or as savages. Sometimes they are shadows, or are rendered silent but they are certainly not human beings. By contrast Palestinian writers such as Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish and Khoury himself all have Israeli characters in their works that appear as human beings. "This difference is a difference of perception. I think that the Israelis are not ready to recognise that the Palestinians exist or to recognise the crimes they committed in 1948. Without recognising the Nakba, without recognising the suffering of the Palestinians by the Israelis, I think we cannot come to any solution on cultural or political errors," he says.

There is a law in Israel that prohibits the commemoration of the Nakba: "Israel presents itself as a country based upon the memories of the Holocaust, the memory of the suffering of the Jewish people, but they do not recognise the need of others to their own memories. This is reflected not only in politics or in literature, it's reflected in all levels of life."

At the end of July Khoury will be discussing his writing with academic and critic Marina Warner at the closing of this year's Shubbak Festival. "Do you know shubbak means window in Arabic?" he asks me, before adding: "I would like to go to this window and look at London from this window." Since the Arab Spring, art from the Middle East has exploded onto the international scene and festivals like the recently founded Shubbak have played their part in showcasing contemporary Arab art, culture and literature across London. Critics, though, have said it's a shame that for artistic work to be big, it has to be big in the west first.

Khoury doesn't agree: "I was famous in the Arab world before I was known in the west. I don't know how writers of the new generations at this time of globalisation and post-modernism see themselves. But I think writers first must be in their language and in their context. And then if their writings are of any value then they will be translated because you are translated to another language because the other language thinks they need to translate you, not because it will make you famous, this is meaningless."

Before he dies Khoury says he would like to write a novel that is detached from all the wars he has lived through. "My concept is that writing must be based upon daily life and daily experience but the problem with that is that I find these kinds of experiences are in my way. I try through them to write about other things, I try to write about life in the civil war, not about the civil war. I am not a historian of the civil war. But hopefully history will give me a moment when there will be no wars around me and I can write the novel that I always wish to write, which is a novel only about love."

Written by Amelia Smith