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.
It is difficult to invest time in a book that is nearly six hundred pages thick these days, but From Beirut to Jerusalem was even more difficult to put down! This is impressive journalism!
Although Friedman writes with a more personal tone, one cannot help comparing it to Black Wave by Ghattas, because at some point after these books’ respective publications, it has been said of each that if there is a book one should read to achieve a better idea of the morass of Middle Eastern politics and relationships, it should be this. I think it should be both.
I read Kim Ghattas for her Lebanese roots, and Thomas Friedman for his Jewish upbringing and on account of his three Pulitzer awards. I assumed their backgrounds would affect their insights, but these two books surprisingly complement each other! Aside from a comprehensive account, they have chosen to elaborate on different aspects and, together, give the reader an even more exhaustive view — albeit exhausting, too.
These journalists have confronted some of the most complex and divisive issues and have endeavored to organize the confusion for us, readers, despite knowing they would ruffle feathers. While we know that no one can ever give us the complete picture, it is a substantial step.
I have to admit that most of what I know about Middle Eastern affairs are spoon-fed by selective news networks or social media pages that cater sensationalisms, half-truths, and over-simplifications to the passive.
If there is one good thing that this pandemic has given me, it is the chance to check my own biases and avoid shaping lazy opinions, and be reminded that there is so much I do not know; and that it is alright, and necessary, to reevaluate my thoughts and opinions — not just on matters of a realm thousands of miles away, but on life in general.
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?”
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.
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)
“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.
Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam
Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam is my fifth Khoury. Would I recommend this? Perhaps not as a reader’s first Khoury. Would I read another Khoury after this? Absolutely!
In what seems to be a foreword signed by the author, he recounts how the notebooks of Adam Dannoun came into his possession. The entire book is the purported sum of Adam’s scribblings. “This is neither a novel nor a story nor an autobiography. And it isn’t literature,” writes Adam in his notebooks. But of course, through his virtuosity, Khoury turns the non-novel, the non-story, and the non-autobiography into literature.
It is literature that is one of the trickiest webs that he has woven because it challenges himself as a storyteller. It is soon revealed that Adam claims to have known the characters in Gate of the Sun personally, and he dislikes “the author of the novel Gate of the Sun, standing next to the bald Israeli director, presenting himself as an expert on Palestinian history, and lying.”
Adam, an infant in 1948, named so as the first born of the Ghetto of Lydda. Adam lived through the horrors of the ghetto, the massacre in Lydda, and the Lydda Death March. Before his suspected suicide in New York as an older man, he struggled to write about what befell his people. The notebooks contained his attempts. The whole history of our Nakba is unwritten. Does that mean we don’t have a history? That there was no Nakba? Does that make sense?
It possibly cannot be the unfathomable pain of the Nakba or the senseless violence of the Lebanese Civil War that keeps me coming back to Elias Khoury. It’s probably not the history either, because he is the kind of writer who questions it.
Or maybe it is because he questions history that I keep coming back. Maybe it’s also for the reason that every book I’ve read that’s written by a Lebanese reveals how capricious and adventurous the Lebanese are with form, or with the defiance of form. Maybe I’ve been lucky with the chronology of which I read, and of which the books came to my possession, that instead of being thwarted by this unconventional and sometimes disorienting quality, each book has only heightened the allure for me.
And maybe it is because Khoury, as a writer, urges and trusts the reader to be the one to bring a story to life. He is that truly Eastern composer of tales who wants to obliterate the author and make his identity of no interest so that literature becomes, like Eastern music, not a fixed composition, but an unfolding.