I didn’t have dinner with Elias Khoury in the manner that FT's Lucy Kellaway lunched with Jonathan Franzen. No formal interview happened: I just sat next to the Lebanese novelist at a group meal after a recent Center for Fiction panel discussion. It was a bit like being placed beside a famous fourth cousin at a noisy wedding. In such cases, you will surely know a lot more about the cousin than he knows about you.
I knew the sixty-seven-year-old novelist had been born in Lebanon in the summer of 1948, just before war and occupation transformed life not just inside Palestine-Israel, but also in the nations around it. Khoury grew up in predominantly Christian East Beirut, but his sympathies didn’t lie with the burgeoning Christian militias. He was just eighteen when he came under fire from police while protesting the death of a Palestinian in Lebanese custody. As a teen, he worked as a literacy teacher and a volunteer in Palestinian refugee camps, and he was nineteen when he traveled to Jordan to join Fatah.
This didn’t mean Khoury abandoned his writing or his scholarship. In 1971, he enrolled in Paris’s Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He returned to Beirut in 1973, where he worked at the Palestine Research Center and wrote through a period that, in spite of the October War, was relatively peaceful.
The peace didn’t last long: War burst its seams in Lebanon in April 1975. Although Khoury told Jeremy Harding, in a 2006 interview for LRB, that he was never a fighter “in the strict sense,” he was wounded and nearly lost his eyesight.
His second novel Little Mountain was written in 1975-76, at the beginning of the country’s fifteen-year civil war. “Everybody who read it thought that I was not a real revolutionary because I was fighting and at the same time criticizing the civil war in my writing,” he said in a 2001 interview with Sonja Mejcher. “There was a contradiction between the euphoric optimistic ideology we were living and what I was writing.”
The open discussion of civil war that began in Little Mountain continued in the almost nihilistic Gates of the City and grew fiercer in the bleak, quasi-detective novel White Masks, published in Arabic in 1981 and English (trans. Maia Tabet) in 2010. By the time he wrote White Masks, Khoury said, “I was considered to be against the revolution. The PLO practically banned the book.”
By the time he published White Masks, the war was in its sixth year. Indeed, the novel, called White Faces in the Arabic, doesn’t end. Instead, it just circles and circles, as the war must’ve seemed to be doing.
And yet, despite the shifts that took place in Khoury’s writing and in his worldview as he constructed these early novels, the author remained — and has remained — loyal to his earliest convictions.
“The most important thing is to be loyal to your convictions,” Khoury said at the 2015 Shubbak Festival in London, in a conversation with novelist-academic Marina Warner. “Sometimes it’s tough, sometimes it’s impossible. It becomes very, very difficult. I remember this especially in the so-called War of the Mountains, which happened in 1984, when the Druze massacred the Christians. And of course we were in alliance with Walid Jumblatt and his party. And we felt so awkward, because our colleagues who stayed in the mountains…they were massacred.”
Still, he said, he always felt his role was to be with the oppressed. “You cannot leave blood in the streets and go away. You must at least collect the blood.”
Palestine has long been a cornerstone of Khoury’s writing and activism, but until Gate of the Sun (1998), none of his novels was explicitly and centrally about “the Palestinian issue.” By 1998, Khoury was a celebrated writer, feted by luminaries like Edward Said. But Gate of the Sun was the novel that brought him to global attention. The film version, by Yousry Nasrallah, was widely watched. And when the novel finally came out in English in 2006, translated by Humphrey Davies, it created ripples across political and literary debates.
All this, I knew before going to the Center for Fiction.
At the Center for Fiction talk, the focus was on the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL)’s paperback launch and most particularly on nineteenth-century Lebanese writer Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Khoury talked about the author’s fractured identity: Al-Shidyaq was born into a family of Maronite Christians in 1805, converted to Islam, and later rediscovered Christianity on his deathbed. Yet, Khoury said, the author was also profoundly secular and anticlerical.
These seeming contradictions echo how Khoury describes his own identity. At the July 2015 Shubbak Festival, Khoury had said: “Everybody thinks that I’m Palestinian. But the Palestinians think I’m Lebanese… The Christians think that I’m a Muslim, and the Muslims think I’m Christian.”
“But,” he added, “I am Palestinian.”
Following last Thursday’s event, Khoury was asked several times how long he’d be in New York City. Only a week, he said. He wasn’t a stranger to the city; for more than a decade, he’d taught literature at NYU. After the post-panel chatting, more than a dozen of us climbed down the stairs to the street, where we waited to get taxis to a restaurant in the Meatpacking District. When I asked Khoury how it felt to be back in Beirut, since he no longer taught at NYU, he stiffened a little. He said that he’d taught only one semester a year at NYU. “I never left Beirut.”
But he did miss New York City, he said, looking past me at the street.
His novels have certainly never left Beirut, except to sneak across the border into Palestine. His 2002 post-civil-war novel Yalo is his most frightening, an entanglement of writing, memory, rape, and torture. His 2007 As Though She Were Sleeping is set in the 1930s and 1940s, and moves easily between cities that are now impossibly separate: parts of Palestine, Lebanon, Israel. As Though She Were Sleeping is Khoury’s first work to fully engage with a female character on her own terms; it’s his gentlest novel, and also his most beautiful. His most recent, the epic Sinalcol (2012), returns to Lebanon’s civil war with echoing near-twin-brother characters.
A few left in a taxi, but ten of us continued to wait, and Khoury lit a cigarette, insisting that the rest of us must be too healthy and American to smoke. I bounced on my heels, declining a cigarette. I asked about his new novel, which he said would be out in December (“in Arabic”). I asked what it would be called. As of that moment on the street, he hadn’t decided.
No one talked about the wave of violence in Jerusalem, nor about recent events in Beirut.
We stood and stood, but taxis wouldn’t stop in front of the Center. In the end, a stretch limousine pulled up, and the LAL’s managing editor bargained down the driver for our trip to the restaurant. For several of us, including myself, it was our first time inside a limo. For me, the experience was disorienting, like finding out that life among the glitterati was just like squeezing into a Cairo microbus or a Beiruti servees.
Inside the restaurant, one of the LAL’s executive editors nudged me to sit next to Khoury, as a friend might insist you grab a chair next to a cute boy. I did, reluctantly, feeling exactly like that awkward thirteen-year-old girl. Meanwhile, a waiter stood at the head of our large table and rattled off dinner choices. It was a jumble of oral information, and I selected the risotto and a chocolate soufflé without much thought.
For the first part of the meal, I was relieved that Khoury turned to his left and spoke with the writer-scholar Robyn Creswell; I could faintly hear Creswell talking about his recent research. Meanwhile, I was able to talk comfortably about my kids, and other domestic nonsense, with the woman on my right.
But then my risotto appeared. As I saw it, I remembered how the waiter had called it a vegetarian risotto “with no added vegetables,” which I’d ignored as absurd. But here it was, a plate of white rice. Khoury was outraged on my behalf, half-serious and half-amused at Americans’ incompetence with food. He insisted repeatedly to the others across the table that this was not a risotto, it was plain rice!
The others enjoyed the oddity, sure, but it was Khoury who adopted it as a narrative, insisting that I should take half the food from his plate. He began several times to shovel food from his plate onto mine. When I declined, he said that I shouldn’t write that he hadn’t offered me his food! Digging further into the moment, he told a Guha story wherein the wise fool had forty children. Guha had given each a boiled egg but had taken none for himself, a feint at selflessness. After this, each child was moved, and gave their father half an egg.
Khoury suggested that everyone at the table should give me half of his or her dinner.
Although a complex mix of overlapping identities, Khoury has also chosen to remain firmly Arab. He remains a firm ally of Palestinian resistance, a firm devotee of his grandmother, who he called, at the Shubbak Festival, “a saint, by the way.”
“This is not your house,” I told him, after the sixth or seventh attempt to shovel his food onto my plate. “This is a restaurant.”
“If you were at my house, there would be no question. You would just eat.”
“I never left Beirut.”
I remembered a time I’d heard Khoury several years earlier, at an American University in Cairo (AUC) event with filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah and translator-scholar Humphrey Davies, who has translated several of Khoury’s big works as well as al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg.
At the AUC, Khoury talked about aspiring toward invisibility. He described the first time he met the short-story writer and playwright Yusuf Idris (1927-1991). He was very young, he said, and had sat goggling at the great Egyptian writer.
“And after one hour, he was bothered with this. He told me, ‘Why you are looking at me all the time?’ I told him, ‘Not only are you a great writer, but you look like a great writer.’”
Not all authors look the part, Khoury had said, with proper comic timing.
“He replied to me with this very beautiful story. He told me, ‘No, my friend. The great writer is someone who becomes like the author of the stories of Guha. When someone is really a great writer, you disappear.’ So when you see that I’ve disappeared, then you’ll really know that I’m a great writer.”
Yusuf Idris must surely have meant the story. On the other hand, he also reportedly fell into a severe depression when fellow Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
After this, desserts started to come, and we speculated about what sort of plain white dessert I might get, a rice pudding, or perhaps Om Ali, which Khoury acknowledged was good even though it came from Egypt. This led to a discussion of the pharaonic roots of falafel. The only thing Khoury said he liked about American food was cheesecake, of which he had a slice.
We were both disappointed, narratively, when I got the lovely-looking chocolatey thing I had ordered.