Elias Khoury: Broken Mirrors (Sinalcol)

“In the old days pomegranates stood for a woman’s breasts and when a lover spoke words of love to his beloved he would liken her breasts to pomegranate fruit. Do you know what we mean today when we say ‘pomegranate’? A pomegranate is a hand grenade. See how far pomegranate has fallen from the throne of love and become a part of war?”

NYRB’s launching of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques with an afterword by Elias Khoury prompted this reading. I am thrilled to finally see Khoury’s name on an NYRB cover, but still baffled as to why this virtuoso of form, poetic prose, historical and political insight continues to be unbelievably underrated! 

One probably cannot read his books consecutively because of all the trauma they contain, and how he presents a different form of the novel each time could disorient those who prefer the familiar; but on my fourth novel by Khoury, I remain amazed…

…especially when I disliked the main character for his views on marital infidelity right from the beginning, and I found more repulsive revelations in other characters; and yet, the hypnotic storytelling with beautiful lines about words and meaning just pulled me in. Strong female characters emerged, the plight of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon was addressed (an especially meaningful aspect as I’ve noticed how Lebanese authors from Alameddine, al-Shaykh, to Khoury have often included Filipina domestic help in their depiction of the Beiruti socio-scape), Lebanon’s history came through in well-executed layers, with two brothers on different sides of the civil war clashing ideologies were dissected, but as broken pieces of the mirror began to come together for the reader, the characters’ lives fell apart.

Khoury is less abstract here. These are all symptoms of the same sickness, he says. “He’d told her that his soul hurt and that there was no pain worse than that of the soul.” This is what war does to lives, he says. This is what war does to identity. This is what war does to love. This is how war never ends if it lives inside us.

On a lighter note, Archipelago Books hit the bull’s eye with that Wassily Kandinsky cover art!

Sevgi Soysal: Dawn & Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk

When Archipelago Books released their edition of Dawn, I immediately placed an order and entertained myself with Memed, My Hawk and a few other books while waiting for its arrival. This is my second NYRB/Archipelago book-pairing and I’m finding these serendipitous duos to be highly rewarding.

Maureen Freely, whose translations of works by Sabahattin Ali and Orhan Pamuk I have enjoyed, pens an insightful preface to Dawn that enlightens readers about Sevgi Soysal’s life and the paradox in Turkish women’s rights that she was born into; and for the 2005 NYRB edition of Memed, My Hawk, launched on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, Yashar Kemal himself wrote the introduction wherein he reflects on people whose destiny it is to revolt.

Little did I know that the two Turkish works would complement each other and provide a rare glimpse of the Çukurova plain when it was still a setting for poor villagers, cruel landlords, bandits, orchards, and fields of thistles in Memed, My Hawk, and the same district on the cusp of urbanization in Dawn — far removed from the glorious domes and minarets of Istanbul that are more familiar to the international reader but closer to the woes of the working class.

Kemal (1923-2015) and Soysal (1936-1976) were no strangers to arrests and serving prison time for political activism. Memed, My Hawk is Kemal’s first novel, and Dawn Soysal’s last. But the symmetries are endless. The lives that both authors lived as leftist intellectuals and the fights they fought against authoritarianism and injustice are fervently manifested in these works.

The word “leftist” might cause some to flinch as it comes with a lot of baggage and it is deplorable how the mere association to the word can lead to “red-tagging” in my country; but the flawed and deeply human characters in both works reveal various shades of this problematic term that, stripped to its purest state, is simply the pursuit of equality, equity, basic human rights, liberty, and justice.

“Since when did we start thinking that struggling is a crime, and doing nothing was innocence and brilliance?” — Sevgi Soysal, Dawn

Miljenko Jergovic: Sarajevo Marlboro & Ivo Andric: Omer Pasha Latas

She knew there would be pain in these books. But don’t people in the warmest climes imbibe hot drinks to temper the body’s response to heat? By that logic, here she is; steeped in the rich wordscape and sorrowful history of the Balkans.

The first days of November find this reader still silenced by life. A point in which literature remains among the few things left that can coax words out of her.

Sarajevo Marlboro and Omer Pasha Latas fell into her possession around the same time. That both books come from two of her favorite publishers, that the earth tones of their elegant covers match her autumnal soul, that both authors are exemplary, that their stories juxtapose on the same geographical region, were reasons enough to read them together.

Jergović’s extraordinary vignettes is a dip into a sea of humanity and tragedy in the midst of the Yugoslav wars. Andrić, born a century before these wars, whose words seem to flow as naturally as a limpid stream in the Bosnian countryside, write of a different time under the Ottoman rule, but of eerily similar sufferings.

Sarajevo Marlboro, traces of life retrieved from the rubble, fragments that suggest that the real casualties of war are the living; Omer Pasha Latas, unfinished at the time of Andrić’s death. But none of these books leave this reader dissatisfied. It is strangely easy to be drawn into the hypnotic quality of the details.

Both books intimate our need for context and our need for stories if only to make sense of life and divine its purpose; they whisper about the lies of those in power and of fabricated histories; but both beautifully manifest the ephemerality of life.

Andrić’s last word: “Music”. Jergović’s last paragraph: “You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo… But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust. It happened, after a whistle and an explosion… Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust.”

Dust: Like everything else we deem precious in this world. So while she can, this reader will stroke her books. They don’t always hold the answers, but they hold her, and hold the dusty, broken pieces of herself together.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Hills Reply

“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.” This is how Bohumil Hrabal’s Haňta reads — or how he doesn’t really read.

This is how I read, or how I did not really read, The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas. I do not think there is any other way to read, or to not really read, this book.

What is this book? I can say, “A collection of sixteen short pieces of literature.” Or I can also say, “A lyrical poem, two hundred and seventy five pages long.”

But I’d rather say: A Lispector attuned to nature. An impressionistic artwork so keenly aware of the elements, of the light in different times of the day, and of its sounds and its silences. A swan song of sheer beauty that leaves you quiet and asks your heart, for the time being, to dwell inside its pages… a heart so full, so open, it breaks.

Halldór Laxness: Wayward Heroes

“With these words, she drew back the bolts that Kolbakur had made to fasten her window frame, pulled the frame aside, and let the man into her bower. Images of gods were carved on the bower’s pillars and stiles and rails of her chair, but they were only half done — Christianity having come to Iceland before the artist completed his work.”

And with this fleeting imagery, a beautiful and ingenious depiction of the religious landscape in which the story is set. An age on the cusp between the fading world of paganism and the force of a new religion of peace, ironically preached by adventurers and men waging selfish crusades in the name of Christ. It was this melancholy conflict that I heard playing as a soundtrack throughout its pages.


It seemed revolutionary when Hollywood recently began to highlight the dark side of legends and heroes. These have become sombre reminders that even superhuman abilities are not enough to protect one from ego, the perilous thirst for fame, power, revenge, and from mere mortals’ tragedies.

Then there’s Halldór Laxness who had Wayward Heroes published way back in 1952, part of the body of work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1955.

Written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas, it is replete with violence, adventures amorous and otherwise, and the barbarism of medieval Europe. But how wonderfully Laxness refashions the old to become accessible and relevant to the new.

On the surface, these are the exploits of blood-brothers, Þorgeir and Þormóður. One can read it as such and it will remain entertaining. But one can always choose to go beyond that and take note of the language, the veiled ironies, how wit and sarcasm remain elegant, and the subtleties that only a master can pull off, and how this story remains especially timeless for being a cautionary tale about the heroes, kings, and causes to whom and to which we pledge fealty.

But do we ever listen?

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

This. Is. Art.

This is art that will haunt you for a while.

It brings to mind the Shepard Tone, an auditory illusion used in film soundtracks to create a palpable disquiet. It occurs when layers of the same scale sequence are played at the same time; the highest layer decrescendos, the middle pitch maintains a consistent volume, and the bottom frequency increases in loudness. Played simultaneously, it manipulates the brain into believing that it is hearing an infinitely ascending tension.

In what appears to be the most original writing style I have encountered in a while, Hanne Ørstavik seems to have invented a literary equivalent of the Shepard Tone, camouflaged in a narrative that demands complete attention.

A village in northern Norway. A mother and son. The frost and the night are tangible.

And love?

Love is left out in the cold.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches and Our Lady of the Nile

It is and it isn’t Kafkaesque. 

It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.

It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction. 

“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”

Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”

In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”

This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.

_ _ _

In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.

The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.

I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.

These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.

Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun

October 4, 2021

Gate of the Sun is a steady stream of sorrow flowing for five hundred and thirty one pages.


I can stop there.


But I feel that I have to warn you about those indelible and heartrending parts where a crying baby is suffocated to death to keep him silent so that he would not endanger an entire group; about the pregnant wife of a fedayeen who had to claim she was an immoral woman to protect her husband and keep his whereabouts secret; or of that woman who did not weep with her eyes but with everything inside her… and what if I told you that this novel was inspired by real dialogues between Palestinian exiles and Khoury? I am not sure how my heart was able to bear it.


At this point, you would probably begin to think that this book undoubtedly demonizes Israel. But therein lies the beauty of this magnum opus — despite all the pain it recounts — it does not.


In an interview conducted by an Israeli publication, Khoury articulated, “When I was working on this book, I discovered that the ‘other’ is the mirror of the I. And given that I am writing about half a century of Palestinian experience, it is impossible to read this experience otherwise than in the mirror of the Israeli ‘other.’ Therefore, when I was writing this novel, I put a lot of effort into trying to take apart not only the Palestinian stereotype but also the Israeli stereotype as it appears in Arab literature and especially in the Palestinian literature… The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the ‘other,’ who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”


I think this is important because if this attitude can be applied to one of the most divisive issues in the world, then we can certainly attempt this in our own personal or national conflicts.


We also see this thought being explored in the novel through Khalil, the narrator: “This secret is the mirror. I know no one will agree with me, and they’ll say I talk like this because I’m afraid, but it’s not true. If you’re afraid, you don’t say your enemy is your mirror, you run away from him.”


“But let’s look in the mirror… I confess I’m scared. I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them.”


That last sentence hints at the Holocaust, the forceful catalyst — forgive this terrible oversimplification — that led to the Palestinian exodus. Not blind to the faults of the Palestinians, it also asks this difficult question, “Are we imitating our enemies, or are they imitating their executioners?”


“𝐈𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐬, 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐝𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐝𝐞𝐟𝐞𝐧𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐨𝐰𝐧.”



With the anticipated announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7, several people have asked about my projected winner. Aside from thinking myself unqualified to make such a projection, I answered by saying that I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my picks are unlikely to be chosen, because they are not safe choices — Elias Khoury or Nawal El-Saadawi, but she passed away earlier this year, so that leaves Khoury.


But I hope people will not have to wait for Khoury to be awarded the Nobel before they start reading him. After each novel, the Lebanese always leave me asking incredulously, “How was it possible to write a novel that way?!” And yet, Gate of the Sun seems to be the pinnacle of all the Lebanese works I’ve encountered.

Khoury draws the drapes from an incredible window to a way of seeing and storytelling unknown to most of us.

As Though She Were Sleeping

August 14, 2021

Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a book like this. It reads like a long dream where visions of the present blend into the past and future. The first chapter is 176 pages long. Can one allow the flow of dreams to be interrupted by brief chapters?

It is 1947, Lebanese Milia marries Palestinian Mansour, and though it is not explicitly stated in the book, nor can the term “Partition Plan” be found in its pages, we know that this was the turbulent year in the Middle East when a particular land would be divided between Jews and Arabs. It is through this time that Milia responds to life, her marriage, the religious and political climate, her family history… as though she were sleeping.

Elias Khoury, a pillar of modern Lebanese literature, writes this novel with a magic realism so convincing and so natural that it never feels contrived. He creates a sublime balance of literary elements with a distinct sensuality. Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a novel like this, but if you read through, it will be worth it.

On the surface this is a magnificent ode to the Arabic language and Arabic poetry, and that is what people keep saying about this book. And it is! I indulged in those sumptuous passages about poetry and words!

But this is what I have not heard being said about this book but which I felt deeply: Milia is Lebanon. Mansour is Palestine. This is a seldom told story of how the relationship affected Lebanon. To know how it ends, one must either read the book, or know history.

Little Mountain

July 2021

This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.

The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.

Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…

Broken Mirrors (Sinalcol)

January 2023

“In the old days pomegranates stood for a woman’s breasts and when a lover spoke words of love to his beloved he would liken her breasts to pomegranate fruit. Do you know what we mean today when we say ‘pomegranate’? A pomegranate is a hand grenade. See how far pomegranate has fallen from the throne of love and become a part of war?”

NYRB’s launching of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques with an introduction by Elias Khoury prompted this reading. I am thrilled to finally see Khoury’s name on an NYRB cover, but still baffled as to why this virtuoso of form, poetic prose, historical and political insight continues to be extremely underrated! 

One probably cannot read his books consecutively because of all the trauma they contain, and how he presents a different form of the novel each time could disorient those who prefer the familiar; but on my fourth novel by Khoury, I remain amazed…

…especially when I disliked the main character for his views on marital infidelity right from the beginning, and I found more repulsive revelations in other characters; and yet, the hypnotic storytelling with beautiful lines about words and meaning just pulled me in. Strong female characters emerged, the plight of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon was addressed (an especially meaningful aspect as I’ve noticed how Lebanese authors from Alameddine, al-Shaykh, to Khoury have often included Filipina domestic help in their depiction of the Beiruti socio-scape), Lebanon’s history came through in well-executed layers, with two brothers on different sides of the civil war clashing ideologies were dissected, but as broken pieces of the mirror began to come together for the reader, the characters’ lives fell apart.

Khoury is less abstract here. These are all symptoms of the same sickness, he says. “He’d told her that his soul hurt and that there was no pain worse than that of the soul.” This is what war does to lives, he says. This is what war does to identity. This is what war does to love. This is how war never ends if we allow it to live inside us.