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Review by Liel Leibovitz in Jewish Week for Gate of the Sun

The Iconoclast

2006-05-19

Writers seldom make headlines these days, and when they do their names are usually painted with the sparkling gold of great financial windfall or the deep red of political controversy. It was in the latter camp that Elias Khoury found himself last week. A famed Lebanese novelist, playwright and public intellectual, Khoury was concluding a year-long professorship at New York University when he was invited to attend the PEN World Voices New York Festival of International Literature, a prestigious annual event drawing prominent writers from across the globe. On the agenda, he was told, were several discussions with Israeli novelist David Grossman, the chief of which was to take place on a Sunday afternoon at the Center for Jewish History. And so, the week passed: On Monday, Khoury and Grossman, old acquaintances, sat down for a lengthy interview for a future PBS documentary about literature and politics in the Middle East. On Wednesday, both authors participated in a reading in Manhattan’s Town Hall. That morning, however, an acquaintance phoned Khoury with a troublesome bit of news: The festival’s Web site, he said, was thanking the Israeli government for its support in making Grossman’s participation possible, having paid the Israeli writer’s travel expenses. Khoury was angry. “I think,” he recently told The Jewish Week, “that my authenticity as an independent writer and intellectual prevents me from being sponsored by any government.” On stage at Town Hall, he announced that he was withdrawing from Sunday’s panel discussion. He had nothing, he stressed, against Grossman, and was happy to debate him earlier on that week. And it was not just because the sponsoring government was Israel. “I don’t participate in anything organized by my government,” he said, referring to several instances, occurring over the past several years, in which he had turned down invitations to participate in events sponsored by Lebanon. “So there was no point in participating in something sponsored by the Israeli government, especially when the Israeli government is occupying Palestinian lands. This is a point of principle,” Khoury said. Khoury was quickly replaced by the writer Jonathan Levi, sending some in the world of letters into an enraged romp and causing such noted men of letters as Andre Aciman, the Egyptian-born Jewish author, and Carlin Romano, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s literary critic, to accuse Khoury of everything from betraying the festival’s universal spirit to harboring trepidations about Jewish wealth. But the controversy, in a sense, perfectly captures the delicate, complex and often impossible challenges secular Arab intellectuals are faced with as they struggle to navigate the tempestuous waters of regional identity politics. Khoury is a case in point. In March of 2001, for example, he was among the most visible signatories of a fiercely worded statement opposing the holding of a Holocaust denial conference in Beirut. The Israeli ambassador to France, speaking to Le Monde, praised Khoury for his courage, only to receive a sharp response from the writer, condemning Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is precisely such intellectual insubordination that renders Khoury’s writing, even more than his activism, its depth, clarity and force. Take his latest novel, ”Gate of the Sun” (Archipelago Books). Published in the United States in January, it is a reconfigured “1,001 Nights,” in which Khalil, a young Palestinian refugee in the Lebanese camp of Shatila, tells stories to his aged friend Yunes, a once-famed guerrilla fighter lying comatose in a hospital bed. The stories are rich with history, deftly narrating the events of the Naqba, the word meaning disaster that Arabs use to refer to the flight of Palestinian refugees as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Into the stories of Yunes and his wife Nahila, two lovers who find themselves living on opposite sides of a suddenly impassable border, he in Lebanon and she in Israel, Khoury weaves facts, insights and observations that bring to life, for the first time ever, what is arguably the seminal event of Palestinian nationalism in particular and of modern Arab political thought in general. But Khoury insisted he is no historian. “I do not pretend that I can make a Palestinian history,” he said. “All I wanted is to create a love story, because I think a tragedy like the Palestinian tragedy can only be dealt with through love.” Love, the ideal conduit for humanism, not only makes the Palestinian tragedy palpable and personable, but also creates an atmosphere conducive to uncompromising honesty and sensitivity. It allows, for example, for Khalil to make a statement about the importance of Holocaust commemoration. “You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner,” Khalil says in the book. “Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us.” In another instance, Khalil, deriding an attempt to conceal a theft of livestock by blaming it on Israeli soldiers, laments, “Everything foolish we do, we blame on the Jews.” Such passages, Khoury said, irked some Arab critics who, while praising the book as “filling the gap” and being the first narrative of the Naqba, nonetheless took umbrage with its nuanced approach to a conflict so often debated in bold, stark terms. And still, Khoury doesn’t despair. “When I was younger,” he said, “I thought literature can change the world. Now I think that literature can change literature. But changing literature is not a small thing. Changing literature is very important because you change the perception. But it’s a long route. When you are in a historical dead end like the one we’re at now, I think the role of literature becomes more important, because it can open windows to the soul.” In that respect, he added, his Israeli counterparts, while he respects them a great deal as writers, still have a considerable distance to travel before they succeed in changing perceptions. “In their literature,” he said of authors such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, “they try to, everyone in his way, to put forward what was not put forward in Israeli culture, which is that the Palestinian culture is there.” Still, he pointed to the Israeli authors’ recurring choice to portray the Palestinians in their books as dumb, mute, young or mad as a sign that Israeli literature, even when allowing Palestinian characters to flourish, is nevertheless not ready to award them with the most precious literary gift of all, the gift of agency. “[The Israeli authors] did not arrive to present Palestinian characters as human beings, as they must be presented, for many reasons,” Khoury said. “One can be ideological obstacles,” mainly adherence to mainstream political thought, “and another can be that they don’t know them. It’s not evident that you know the other. You have to work on it.” Khoury himself did just that; to write “Gate of the Sun,” he interviewed extensively, talking not only to Palestinian refugees but also to Lebanese Jews, Israelis and everyone else relevant to his 550-page opus. And it is just such an attempt at embracing points of view, he said, that could bring a solution to the conflict. While he believes that certain steps, such as complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state are non-negotiable and vital, and while he supports the two-state solution despite believing, like Martin Buber, that only a bi-national state will finally bring about peace, he is also persuaded of the power of honest dialogue. Just like he prompted his literary protagonist to speak of the Holocaust, he expects Israel to apologize for the plight of the 1948 refugees, take moral responsibility and acknowledge the Palestinian right of return. These, he was quick to add, are not necessarily political imperatives wi
th concrete implications, but rather a starting point in which both national narratives are brought forth. After all, he said laughingly, it’s very much like poetry. “You cannot practice poetry. Poetry is to be poetry. Many poets think about madness, they love madness, because it’s beautiful in literature, but madness, in life, is terrible.” Similarly, asserts Khoury, an admission of right to return, while it may have some concrete implications, stands primarily as an important symbolic statement. And yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he acknowledges, does not exist in a vacuum. Khoury sees an overall solution to the region’s problems in the framework of a struggle against religious fundamentalism, a struggle that is often a harrowing one for secular Arab intellectuals such as himself. “We are in danger,” he said. “The fight is not to accept to be marginalized. On the cultural level, we’re not marginalized, we are still the bulk of the Arabic culture. But on the political level it’s very difficult now, and the major tendency in the world is to marginalize people like us.” In the battle against marginalization, then, literature is a sturdy bastion. Addressing why it had to be him, a Lebanese-born Christian with no family relations to Palestinians, who wrote such a seminal Palestinian narrative, Khoury said that “for the Palestinians, the Naqba is not finished; now the Naqba is taking place in the West Bank. You cannot write about something that’s going on. You feel like you have to defend what’s left. Literature must defend what’s left.”

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