Adania Shibli: Minor Detail

Adania Shibli has a sharpshooter’s precision;

in her choice of words and in her choice of details major or minor,

in her choice of literal depictions that have the power to stand as metaphors,

even in splitting the book accurately in half to give an equal number of pages for the first part and the second part of the story,

in her sense of irony in picking a character who seems to have an inability to identify physical borders and who is obsessed with an actual news report of a rape and murder case that was committed exactly twenty five years prior to the day she was born,

and in her choice of singling out a story of the rape of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers in a place where senseless killings occur on a regular basis.

What Adania Shibli does not need to spell out is that a story of violated boundaries is always a story of rape, and vice versa.

This incisive portrait of the Palestinian plight begins as a bullet in motion, without you knowing.

You’ll only know upon impact,

when it hits you,

at the very last page.

Conversations with Edward Said and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What a pleasure to have spent the past few days eavesdropping on these conversations!

My introduction to Edward W. Said was not through my current reading project but through classical music years ago via the Daniel Barenboim connection when they co-wrote an illuminating book and founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra — Said a Palestinian intellectual and Barenboim an Israeli pianist and conductor, bringing together musicians from areas of conflict to show the world that it is possible to create peace among people from these nations, to harmonize, and produce beautiful music. And now, I am reintroduced to Said through the enlightening forewords he has written for many of the literary works I am reading from that part of the world.

As for dear Gabo, I still vividly remember the day my best friend presented me with my first Marquez in our teens and I gave him John Fowles’ The Magus in return. This act of his, which was not entirely innocent, led to a Latin American reading stage that brought me to magical literary adventures.

When asked whether the inability to love is very serious, Gabo replies, “I don’t think there’s any human misery greater than that. Not only for the person afflicted but for all those whose misfortune it is to come within his orbit.” Love is something to be learned, he adds, and even lets one of his fictional characters echo this.

Said on the hand, gave me more lines to note in my journal and reminded me why he was once an intellectual crush.

“I’ve never felt myself to belong to any establishment of any kind, any mainstream. I’m interested in mainstreams, I’m jealous of them, I sometimes, occasionally, envy people who belong to them—because I certainly don’t—but on the whole I think they’re the enemy. I feel that authorities, canons, dogmas, orthodoxies, establishments, are really what we’re up against. At least what I’m up against, most of the time. They deaden thought.”

“I think a lot of this business we were talking about earlier, about politics and culture being separate, is really laziness. There’s a critical establishment that says you’re supposed to only study this, and that’s because you don’t have the time or the energy to study other things. For me it’s a manifestation of laziness and idleness. And all of them, it seems to me, in the end, really don’t advance to anything.”

“And far from being right, I think it’s important to be critical.”

These conversations bring together two significant reading phases of my life. 

What struck me this time was in realizing how much their musical tastes influenced their writings greatly. Chopin among others for Said, Bartok and Caribbean music for Gabo. Because he was a revolutionary says the former and the mixture of the two had to be explosive says the latter. Through this we see that they did not confine themselves to one form of art but saw art as something encompassing rather than something to be compartmentalized. 

Said and Gabo are very much alive in these pages. These great minds that impacted and straddled two centuries while they lived; and even in death, continue to change the way we think, read, and perceive the world; their inspiration consistently outliving the last page of each of their books; saying it in their own distinct way but always reminding us to live as fully and as passionately as we can.

Mourid Barghouti: I Saw Ramallah

“Here I am walking toward the land of the poem…”

When a poet writes a memoir, the entire book is a poignant song. Exiled from his homeland after the Six Day War, Mourid Barghouti returns after thirty years and sings of his experience and his memories.

“And now I pass from my exile to their… homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?”

And yet, as Edward W. Said intimates in the foreword, the account is free of bitterness and recrimination.

“I know that it is the easiest thing to stare at the faults of others and that if you look for faults you see little else. Which is why—after each setback that befalls us—I look for our faults too; the faults of our song. I ask if my attachment to the homeland can reach a sophistication that is reflected in my song for it. Does a poet live in space or time? Our homeland is the shape of the time we spent in it.”

The pages teem with beautiful questions…

“Who has stolen our gentleness?”

“Are they really afraid of us or is it we who are afraid?”

“What should we remember and what should we forget?”

“Did I paint for strangers an ideal Palestine because I had lost it?”

…and express in simple ways the everyday sorrows of displacement.

“I have never been able to collect my own library. I have moved between houses and furnished apartments, and become used to the passing and the temporary. I have tamed myself to the feeling that the coffeepot is not mine.”

But in the vast desert of pain, there is room for love and joy…

“Love is the confusion of roles between the giver and the taker.”

“Joy needs training and experience. You have to take the first step.”

…and even vaster spaces for art. 

“I said to myself that the heart of the matter was in a detailed knowledge of life, and of the human maturity that is the foundation for all artistic maturity. These are features that no work of art worthy of the name can do without, whatever the lived experience. What is important is the piercing insight and the special sensitivity with which we receive experience, not simply our presence at the event, which, important as it is, is not enough to create art.”

I Saw Ramallah — read, once again, to humanize what we tend to generalize.

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…

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.