(Civil) war without beginning or end
Elias Khoury, born in 1948 in Beirut (Lebanon), is one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of the Arab world. Trained in sociology, in the mid-seventies he began to develop from a militant Palestinian freedom fighter to one of today’s most significant Arab authors. In his eight novels, various theatre productions and performances, and as the editor of the culture section of the Lebanese daily “al-Nahar“ he has repeatedly sought (self-)critical confrontation with social and political conditions in the Middle East.
“To what year will historians date this war? Did the war begin in 1975, 1973, 1967, 1958 or 1860? I do not know. All the dates can be seen as the eve of a long war which destroyed everything,” Elias Khoury comments in his novel („Magma al-Asrar “), which was published in 1992, two years after the end of the Lebanese civil war, and describes the background of the conflict. German reviewers castigated him (or his editors) for the fact that his work does not give the reader a simple answer to the question. It unravels the answer in the multiple perspectives of his characters and in formal, avant-garde language.
As a sociologist and historian, Elias Khoury could probably provide an answer; after all, before the outbreak of civil war in 1975 he had begun a sociological dissertation on the war of 1860, discovering that since that time the history of Lebanon had been a series of civil wars, though before 1975 the west regarded the country as a model Arab democracy with a balance between different ethnic groups, beliefs and forces.
However, the course of his own life led Khoury to lose the certainty that healing is possible and the belief that the constantly-repeated suffering could have a meaning. He too once supported the civil war which plays the main role in all of his eight novels, his plays and his intellectual interventions. „I was not against the war at the beginning. We felt in 1975 that the war was inevitable. We voluntarily fought in this war. For people like me on the left, there was a belief that the coalition between the Lebanese and the Palestinians would give something new to the Arab world. We were trying to build a new type of democratic and secular regime in a part of the world which had never experienced such a regime. It didn´t work. We failed, and people like me were defeated. I think in all wars everybody is defeated. In Lebanon both we on the left and they on the right were defeated.” (BeirutReview Issue No.5 Index, Spring 1993) (www.lcps-lebanon.org/pub/breview/br5/khourybr5.html)
After rejecting violent struggle in 1976, Khoury fought with the pen for “Palestinian affairs” – the name of the journal which he published from 1976 to 1979 with the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwisch. Though he has always taken the part of the Palestinians, he is still one of the few Arab intellectuals who have also consistently criticized Arab dictatorships, censorship and bigotry. His novel “Yalo” (2002) was banned in several Arab countries, as it deals with the issue of Arab prisons and their torture methods. Khoury regards the censorship practices of the Arab states as a form of terror against Arab intellectuals which in its turn feeds into terrorism: “The roots of this terror are the military regimes, not Islamism. If we look at just a few writers in Egypt, such as Sonallah Ibrahim and Youssef Idriss, we see that they were all in prison. In the Arab world the novel is a child of the prison. The rulers terrorize the intellectuals by confronting with a choice: either they support the military regime, or they are threatened with Islamism. ... The job of the security apparatuses is to root out democratic and laical tendencies by using religion to intimidate the intellectuals. So the enemy of freedom is not Islam, but dictatorship.” (DIE ZEIT, 26/2002)
Khoury takes a similarly self-critical view of the Arab world together with the author, actor and director Rabih Mroué in the docu-performance “Three Posters“ (2000), which was performed in 2001 in Berlin’s House of World Cultures as part of the IN TRANSIT festival and harshly criticized the strategy of suicide bombings. Contrary to popular perceptions, these suicide attacks were not invented by Islamic fundamentalists; they began as a strategy of the national Lebanese left. The play is meant to provoke a discussion about how something which began as a secular fight for freedom could end up as an Islamist strategy.
For him the outcome is the same, however: “I do not think there is any difference whatsoever. Even for the Islamists it is a military tactic. It reflects the utter hopelessness of a people that has suffered from the occupation for more than 30 years. I do not accept this hopelessness. There would be a very simple political solution if the idea of two states could finally be accepted. If that makes any sense at all in a situation in which everyone has already lost all hope. And that is terrible, it could give rise to a war that will never end,” he said at the European premiere.
Khoury sees only one chance to escape from the seemingly endless cycle of violence: “In the struggle between two peoples in the same country Israelis and Palestinians have come to mirror one another. The first step toward reconciliation would be taken if the Israelis were prepared to see the Palestinians’ pain and accept the fact that the Palestinians are victims too. On the other hand, of course, the Palestinians must also be aware of the Jews’ pain and their history of victimhood. When both victims accept the fact that they mirror one another, we may come closer to a solution.”
The performance “Three Posters“ is based on the video document of Jamal Satti, who blew himself up in 1985 in front of the Israeli military base in Hasbayya. Two hours before he went on camera to make a statement which – as usual on Lebanese television – was broadcast one time. Khoury and Mroué do not confine themselves to a simple depiction and moral positioning of the suicide attacks and the criticism of a fatal political strategy; their piece is also a discourse on death, playing with different levels of reality and fiction, truth and illusion, documentation and manipulation.
The uncut VHS tape of Satti, which came into the authors’ hands by chance in 1999, indicated that Satti had made several takes in order to arrive at the best possible effect. “What astonished us was the repetition in the footage. We viewed the tape a number of times, and at every instance the extent of repetition left us with mixed feelings. Question: What are the limits between truth and its representation? Jamal Sati was not an actor. Standing in front of a camera was a part of his political act of struggle; the operation was a suicide mission that sealed his fate. Why did he attempt to act? Is there something in the relationship between representation and death?. Jamal Sati’s tape was shown on Tele–Liban once only. Could it be that representation resembles death in that it is only told once? We were confounded with this tape.” (www.kunstenfestivaldesarts.be/en/2002/spect/stl18.html)
Initially Khoury and Mroué only wanted to show the uncut tape, then they wanted to make a video of a stage actor playing Satti and give the audience the opportunity to take on the role of the future suicide bomber. Finally Khoury and Mroué decided on the following framework: It proposes three possibilities for perceiving death: one actor, one resistance fighter: Jamal Sati, and one politician. The actor and the politician are the two invisible faces in the footage. We tried to group the three faces at successive instances. The actor fools us in the beginning but he reveals his own truth. The politician narrates the other voice of the story: how a moral defeat produces a political defeat. The actor acts only insofar as to unveil the stakes of his performance and its limitation. As for death, can only be understood in as far as it is experienced, and just then the need for expression dissipates. (ibid.)
In his novel “The Kingdom of Stranger’s”, translated into English in 1996, Khoury also blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy, past and present, memory and narrative. Here all the characters are strangers, be they refugees, deportees, exiles, émigrés or converts. With his montage technique, derived from the classical Arab narrative tradition, he weaves together his protagonists’ life stories in a number of plot strands. As in all his novels, Beirut is the real main characters. In Khoury’s works the Lebanese capital often appears as a place of battling historical and political forces, as the scene of the Israeli-Lebanese war, breaking up into civil war along the lines of its different ethnic groups, languages and religions. The same is true of the tale of Abd al-Karim (Husn al-Ahmadi al-Mughayri), nicknamed “Little Gandhi“, in the novel translated into English as “The Voyage of Little Gandhi”.
The novel “Gates of the City”, which appeared in 1998 and was awarded the Palestine Prize that same year, uniquely thematizes the Palestinian exodus, with many intertwined plot strands describing the life of Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese camps. The author’s unerringly objective voice ensures that the novel does not degenerate into a one-sided polemic.
Only in theory can politics be separated from literature, he postulates: “But if you are in Lebanese or Palestinian society, this is impossible because everything is politicized and everything has to be re-thought; in rethinking society you cannot say "I am not political." (BeirutReview Issue No.5 Index, Spring 1993) But literature cannot be reduced to politics: I went through the war, and could not avoid writing about it. But literature is about rethinking everything, including politics; it is not mainly about politics. (ibid.)
Khoury calls the war a great school in which he learned a great deal, not only about his society and its history, but about the human experience in general. In Lebanon, war and civil war have been a crucial factor in shaping literature and the novel. In contrast to Egypt, the novel had been rather marginal and intellectual, but afterwards it was able to mirror society and express real life. “I don´t think my literature could be written except in Lebanon. Here we can examine the relationship between the real and the unreal, because we are in a way in a real country and an unreal country. Lebanon is a very special case. The war opened literary language to the spoken language. This is the big evolution that Arab literature must go through. The Arab nation is the only place in the world where language has not changed for 1,500 years. All other languages have changed except ours, because our language is derived from the Quran and related to the sacred. Yet as a result of this, we also went through centuries of quietude. For someone like me who experienced the civil war, it was very important to write how people actually lived and spoke. There is nothing like this in modern Lebanese literature. The important thing this war taught us is that, to express reality, we have to change our language. I don´t mean that we have to abandon classical Arabic. I mean we have to introduce the syntax of colloquial Arabic into the syntax of classical Arabic. “ (ibid.)
Above all, though, the war taught the author Elias Khoury a certain attitude toward life and death: “On a literary level also, the war was a very important school for me. During war everything is timeless: you live the present, the past, and future in the same second; you live and die in the same second; you are everywhere and nowhere in the same second. This is very special. There is no time, and yet time is a big teacher of everything. It teaches us how to be modest as writers. When you are writing death you must be very modest.”
Elias Khoury was born in 1948 in Ashrafiyyeh near Beirut. He studied history and sociology in Beirut and Paris becoming a Palestinian militant. From 1973 to 1979 he worked at the PLO Research Centre in Beirut. In 1976 Khoury rejected armed struggle and, along with the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwisch, published the journal “Su’un filastiniya“ (Palestinian Affairs) until1979. Until 1991 he edited the culture section of the journal “As-Safir“ and taught modern Arab literature. Since 1992 he has edited the culture section of the Beirut daily “an-Nahar“, and from 1993 to 1998 he has been the director of the Beirut theatre “Masrah Bayrut“.
As Though She Were Sleeping
MacLehose Press (26. Mai 2011)
Gate of the Sun
Novel. Harvill Press: London
The Kingdom of Strangers
Novel. University of Arkansas Press: Fayetteville
The Journey of Little Gandhi
Novel. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis
Gates of the City
Novel. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis
The Little Mountain
Novel. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Contemporary Artists from Middle East
(20 March 03 - 11 May 03)
Lectures on the "Politics of Translation"
(01 June 02 - 15 June 02)
Transforming the arts
(30 May 02 - 14 June 02)
Article in the Guardian
´A circle of madness´ (28 July 2007) by Maya Jaggi
Interview - Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies
Politics and Culture in Lebanon