BOOKS: Myth and Memory in the Middle East ; Lebanese Writer Elias Khoury Is One of the Leading Lights of Arab Literature. GUY MANNES-ABBOTT Meets Him
Mannes-Abbott, Guy, The Independent (London, England)
Elias Khoury is the kind of writer who wins the Nobel Prize for literature to sneers from the English-speaking world. When the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was greeted in this way in 1989, the late scholar and activist Edward Said remarked sagely that 'Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded' of major world literatures. At the same time, Said pointed to the future, celebrating the promising achievements of Khoury " a 'brilliant figure' " and Mahmoud Darwish: a Lebanese and a Palestinian writer respectively.
The word 'brilliant' is etched across Khoury's new novel, Gate of the Sun (Harvilll Secker, pounds 17.99) and on my mind when we meet in London for lunch. His reputation as a novelist, critic, commentator, editor and academic with real political commitment is formidable. Khoury came to prominence in Lebanon " and therefore the Arab world " in the mid-1970s. Still in his twenties, he was working in the Palestine Research Centre, editing the literary pages of its journal and writing his second novel, Little Mountain, which re- worked his experiences in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 almost as they happened.
'It's meaningless!' he thunders, when I ask him what it means to be Lebanese. Then, speaking rapidly, he develops a characteristic response which ends with a modified repetition of the phrase. In between, he sketches a history of Lebanon's many civil wars since the 19th century, describes similarities in dialect and cuisine between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and asserts that 'I feel more Beiruti. If you are a Beiruti, you are an Arab. You are open to all types of cultures, and to innovating in the Arabic culture at the same time. You are in the Lebanese dilemmas and you are so near to Palestine'. So you feel 'that the Palestinian tragedy is part of your life.'
By this he means sheer physical proximity " 'It's a matter of 100 kilometres' " but also that he has grown up with the Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948, the year of his birth. All of this is the subject of the epic Gate of the Sun, which has already been cheered in Arabic, Hebrew and French editions during the seven years it took to arrive in this elegant English translation by Humphrey Davies.
Gate of the Sun, or Bab El Shams, is an attempt to render the Palestinian nakba " or 'catastrophe' " of 1948 and its tortuous aftermath. Specifically, it contains the stories and lives of people whose ancestral villages in Galilee, now in northern Israel, were 'wiped out of existence', forcing them into desperate flight to Lebanon.
'Actually,' says Khoury, 'I was writing a story about Galilee, because it's in-between. I was not writing a history of Palestine. Of course, many ask why it was a Lebanese not a Palestinian who wrote this story. I really don't know. What I know is from the experience of the Palestinians I worked with,' he explains.
The events of 1948 were 'a shame, a total defeat; it's a disaster, a real personal disaster. There are stories here about the woman who left her child, about a woman who killed her child. So it's not easy to talk about. The Palestinians did not realise, and if they realised they did not believe that this could happen, because actually this is something unbelievable.'
Khoury had the initial impulse to turn stories he heard in refugee camps into a memorial narrative in the 1970s. He spent much of the 1980s gathering 'thousands of stories' before writing this extraordinarily accomplished novel. Gate of the Sun is essentially a love story set in a world turned upside down. It involves a dying fighter called Yunis and his wife Naheeleh, an internal refugee in Galilee, whose relationship forms during stolen visits across the border to a cave renamed Bab El Shams. The cave is 'a house, and a village, and a country', and 'the only bit of Palestinian territory that's been liberated'. …