The Key to Memory: an interview with Elias Khoury

Brían Hanrahan Elias Khoury
19 April 2006

Elias Khoury is among the most prominent of Arab novelists and dramatists, and a public intellectual of a rare acuity and range. Born in 1948 to a Lebanese Christian family, he has for many years been the cultural editor of the Beirut daily paper An-Nahar. Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams) , the best-known of his many novels, was published in Arabic in 1998. It has since been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, and in 2004 was made into a feature film by Yousry Nasrallah.

Gate of the Sun is an epic story of Palestinian life in the decades since the nakba or "catastrophe" of 1948, an intricate composition of hundreds of stories, voices and memories. The novel unfolds in a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut. Yunis, an aging Palestinian freedom fighter, lies in a coma. His spiritual son Dr Khaleel nurses the older man, and tells him stories to keep him alive.

I recently met Elias Khoury in New York to discuss some of the issues – of history and memory, of politics and literature – raised by the book.

Listen to the full interview (27.27mins)
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Part 1 – Telling the stories of 1948

In hundreds of interwoven stories, "Gate of the Sun" addresses the memory of the nakba, the flight and expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians during the war of 1948. Here, Elias Khoury talks about why it has taken so long for an epic novel of this experience to be written, how he combined imaginative literature with documented events, and his fascination for the province of Galilee.

Listen to Part one (9.16mins)
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"What we find in the work of writers are just hints of what happened in 1948. It is as if they are referring to something everybody knows but nobody dares to say. In this sense, Gate of the Sun came to fill a gap and to open the debate on Palestinian memory. It was like a key which everyone had lost. Once the door is opened, we will have many novels and testimonies coming out."

"The 'Massacre of the Mud' is a real story. It summarized the image of the refugee – someone who has no place anymore and no more land, and so the land becomes like mud: he can't even walk. This represents the Palestinian situation, where people were actually thrown into the mud and unfortunately, they are still living in the mud."

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Part 2 – Literature and politics in the middle east

Khoury discusses the endlessly-debated question of literature's relation to politics. The ambiguities and complexities of literature are not the stuff of practical political life, yet the imaginative power of literature offers one of the few possible ways out of a deadlock of mutual non-comprehension.

Listen to Part two (8.09mins)
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"Pragmatic politics has nothing to do with literature. If you ask me about a pragmatic solution, I think all this complication can be solved in two minutes. There are occupied territories, so just get out."

"Literature speaks in many ways. It speaks to the present, of course, and to the future, if it is good literature. But literature is also a way for the writer to make a dialogue with the dead. This is the power of literature. It is not like religion: religion gives you the feeling that you are eternal. Here, there is no eternity at all, but it opens the possibility of dialoguing with the dead."

"If you analyze Israeli literature, you will find that the Palestinian is not there. He is either dumb, or a mad Bedouin, or marginal, or a young boy. Until now, the Palestinian as a human being is not really there. It is difficult, I can understand, for the Israelis to see the Palestinian, because they are walking on his shadow."

Part 3 – The Arab world in crisis

Khoury addresses American attitudes to the Middle East and his assessment of the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Amidst a crisis in the Arab world, he says, Arab intellectuals must continue to articulate the idea of a secular, democratic and just society.

Listen to Part three (10.07mins)
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"This monster bin Laden is the outcome of a terrible marriage between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He is the son of this marriage."

"We are stuck between two savage powers which are fighting each other in a savage way. We have to find a third solution, neither to work for the Americans, nor to become fundamentalists. We must find a plural identity in the Arab world and find democracy and independence and justice"

"There was an exhibition recently in the Museum of Modern Art about 'Islamic artists' and they included work by Christian Arab artists, because nowadays the term 'Arab' is no more, the term must be 'Islamic'."

"Israel feels so powerful that there is nothing to oblige her to dialogue. When you are very powerful, it can make you irrational. I think there is irrationality in Israeli politics, because they are refusing the two state solution and if they continue to refuse this, it means either South Africa or a binational state, and in both cases, it is a catastrophe for Israel."

* * *

Extract from Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams), translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago Books, 2005):

Once upon a time there was a baby.

No, you don't like the story about Naji. You told me Naji was a dog because after everything Umm Hassan had done for him, he went off to America and left her poor and abandoned.

I see a frown on your face and black spots in your closed eyes. Okay, we won't start the story with Umm Hassan or Naji or America. I'll tell you another one.

Back to the beginning.

Do you remember when you used to say, "Back to the beginning!" and would stamp your foot? Do you remember what you did after Abdel Nasser resigned in '67? People gathered in the alleyways of the camp and wept; it was night, and humid, and they were like ghosts weeping in the darkness. You stood in their midst, spat on the ground, and said, "Back to the beginning!"

And after 1970, when you'd returned safely to the camp from the slaughter in the forests of Jerash and Ajloun,* you said to the woman who came to ask about her son, "Back to the beginning!" and left.

And after the Israelis went into Beirut, after each new thing that happened, you'd spit as though you were wiping out the past, and you'd say, "Back to the beginning!"

So, you want the beginning.

In the beginning, they didn't say "Once upon a time," they said something else. In the beginning they said, "Once upon a time, there was – or there wasn't." Do you know why they said that? When I first read this expression in a book about ancient Arabic literature, it took me by surprise. Because, in the beginning, they didn't lie. They didn't know anything, but they didn't lie. They left things vague, preferring to use that or which makes things that were as though they weren't, and things that weren't as though they were. That way the story is put on the same footing as life, because a story is a life that didn't happen, and a life is a story that didn't get told.

Do you like this story?

It isn't real, you'll say, but I don't know any real stories, because my mother left me and went away before she could finish it. And the stories I know myself, you know, too.

Your eyes are alight with memories, and they're asking for the story's beginning.

The beginning of the story says that you were like a dead man, and there was no hope of reviving you. Dr. Amjad told me, "There's no hope" – but I wasn't convinced, and decided to try to treat you by talking to you.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was – or there wasn't – a young man called Yunes.

No. I have to start from the place you don't know, meaning from here, from the end, because the story can only start from its ending. I don't want it to be for you the way it was for me: I never knew the ends of stories because I would fall asleep before my mother got to them. You, however, are going to know the story starting with the ending.

The ending says that it was nine in the evening. I was sitting on the balcony of my house in the heat and humidity of August drinking a glass of arak. There's nothing like arak in the summer because it makes you burn hotter than the night. Each evening, I would nurse my sorrow and fear with arak. I was drinking on the balcony and eating a salted tomato and pistachios when I heard a violent banging on the door. Opening it, I found Amna, her face emerging from the shadows. All I could understand of what she said was that you were in the hospital. I thought you'd died, God forbid. Amna told me how you'd fainted and fallen to the ground like a piece of wood. I listened, waiting for her to say you'd died. I wasn't sad. I felt a space emptying in my heart, but I wasn't upset. I asked where you were. I tried to get through the door to go to you, but Amna wouldn't let me by. She stood rooted to the spot and talked. I tried to get out, but she blocked the door with her hand.

She said it had started the previous night, when you'd lost the ability to speak. She'd gone to visit you, and found you wandering around the place, muttering. She'd asked you what was wrong and you'd answered, but your tongue couldn't form the words.

"That's when I realized," Amna said. She ran to the hospital and told them, but nobody came. The nurse said she would send someone to look for Dr. Amjad, but Dr. Amjad didn't come.

"I stayed with him the whole night. Do you know what that means? He was wandering around his house and wouldn't settle down. He would raise his left hand and speak at the top of his lungs but you couldn't understand a word. I tried to calm him down. I sat him down and gave him a glass of aniseed tea. I led him to his bedroom, but when he saw the bed he went into a frenzy, and I ran in circles after him. He opened the front door and tried to leave. Look at my shoulder, my body's covered in bruises. No, he didn't hit me, but he was as strong as a bull, and I was running around after him in tears."

"Okay, okay, Amna," I said, and I tried to get past her so I could go to the hospital, but she blocked the way with her hand.

She said she'd been alone with you and that you'd scared her. She'd knelt down in front of you and beat her chest with her fist. She said you calmed down when you saw her kneeling. You looked at her as though you didn't understand, then fell to the ground.

At that point, I slipped between her hand and the door and went out.

Amna followed me, panting and talking, but I didn't listen. And at the hospital door, she said that doctors were bastards and that I was a doctor too and had no pity in my heart and that she'd waited for them to come, alone with you, until evening.

I went into the hospital and ran to the nurses' room so I could put on my white gown and go to you. Amna ran after me and said God would never forgive us. Then she disappeared.

You're upset with Amna because she doesn't come to visit you. Don't be angry with her. She doesn't know that you can hear and feel and are sad. She was convinced you'd died, so why should she come?

Who is Amna Abd al-Rahman really?

Is she a cousin of yours, as you told me? Were you in love with her? Why didn't you talk about her?

The fact is, my friend, you should tell me something about your women. You're a man surrounded by women, and there's something strange in your round pale face that inspires love; it's the face of a man who is loved. You always described yourself as a lover, but I think you hid your lovers. You only spoke about one woman, and even that one you only would talk about a little. Piecing the glimpses together, I turned it into a story. But you mentioned love only in passing. You jumped over the essential story as though it were a pool in which you might drown. Once I plucked up my courage and asked you where you made love with Nahilah. I didn't say her name, I just said "her," and you smiled. You were in a good mood that day. Your eyes shone, you raised your right hand in a vague gesture and said, "There. Among the rocks," and fell silent. It fell to me to collect your asides and mutterings and work them into a story to tell you.

Now you can't shut me up. I can say whatever I want and tell you that it's your story. My goal isn't to make one up. I'm only half a doctor awaiting death at the vengeful hands of Shams' family.

I promised I'd start with the ending, and the end will come when you've left this coffin of a bed. You'll get up, tall and broad shouldered, walking stick in hand, and you'll return to your country. You will go first to the cave of Bab al-Shams. You won't go to Nahilah's grave, as everyone expects. You'll go to Bab al-Shams, enter your village of caves, and disappear.

This is the only dignified ending to your story, which you'll never betray.

* Liquidation by Jordanian forces of Palestinian troops based in Jordan.

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