Elias Khoury has enough to deal with in his hometown. The editor in chief of the weekly literary supplement of An Nahar, the secular, leftist Beirut daily, recently lost two colleagues: columnist Samir Kassir and publisher Gebran Tueni, both of whom were presumably murdered by the Syrian government. “Everybody like me — intellectuals who are still playing a part in the struggle for independence and against the dictatorship of Syria, people like us are in danger,” Khoury noted in a recent interview with the Forward.
And yet, for his new novel Khoury has taken on a different topic: the “Naqba,” the term given by the Palestinians to the “tragedy” that befell them when Israel was created. This book, “Gate of the Sun” (translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies), has been a success around the world: A five-hour film based on the novel (a joint French-Egyptian production) was shown at the most recent Jerusalem Film Festival; The New York Times Book Review called it “an imposingly rich and realistic novel, a genuine masterwork,” and Ammiel Alcalay, writing in The Village Voice, noted wryly that “the first true magnum opus of the Palestinian saga, ‘Gate of the Sun,’ has been written by a Lebanese novelist.”
Khoury — a Christian by birth, a graduate of the University of Paris in social history and a fierce secularist — is still marked by his radical student days in Paris in the 1960s. He has been engaged with the Palestinian cause ever since. His novel’s three main characters are Khalil, a young Palestinian who lives in the Shatila camp while caring for his mentor; Yunes, a weathered Palestinian fighter who, before his sickness, fought alongside non-fictional characters like George Habash and Yassar Arafat, and Nahila, Yunes’s wife, who remained in the Israeli Galilee with their children. “Gate of the Sun” graphically tells the story of Palestinians from the northwest Galilee, where the Palmach Israeli fighters fought during Israel’s War of Independence to retain the Galilee for Israel. The story extends to the aftermath of what happened to the Palestinians who ended up in Lebanese-based refugee camps and those who stayed in what became modern-day Israel. Yunes is in a coma in a Beirut hospital. By way of nursing him, Khalil is retelling stories to Yunes about his family and village, and about the Palestinian exit from Israel from 1948 to the present.
In the atmosphere of the Middle East — where each fact, figure and inch of land is heavily debated — a novel employing real people and real events alongside fictional ones was bound to raise some eyebrows. Indeed, when the book was published in Hebrew it met with critics even among the Israeli left. “Stories of this kind actually minimize or undermine the Palestinian tragedy to focus on things that didn’t happen,” Ha’aretz journalist Tom Segev wrote, referring to Khoury’s mixing of fact with fiction when describing the reminiscences of Palestinians who fled from Israel in 1948. Yet, historian Mordechai Bar-On, former chief education officer of the Israel Defense Forces, told the Forward: “The film and the novel give a strong image of the fact that what the Palestinians call the Naqba [the disaster] actually happened, and some 650,000 of them became refugees.”
Ironically, critics in the Arab world have also attacked the novelist, because, as Sasson Somekh, professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, said, “Khoury was steadfast in preferring to promote a literary dialogue with Israeli readers.”
For Khoury, the larger point of the novel was to portray the broad, collective Palestinian consciousness. “The art of writing is the art of listening to your characters,” he said. “If you don’t feel that the characters become independent and real, the whole work is a failure.”
“I never pretended that I’m writing history; that’s not my job,” he added. “These stories are real in the sense that they reflect the atmosphere in which the Palestinians live.… The novel tried to rebuild the atmosphere of both collective and individual memory in order to arrive at a point when the story can begin…. What the novel is saying is that this is the Palestinian memory.”
Khoury — who, with a handful of other Arab intellectuals, including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, protested against a 2001 Beirut conference that denied the occurrence of the Holocaust — also makes a point of raising this example of Jewish tragedy in his novel. As he sits beside Yunes’s bed, recalling Yunes’s past and the political turmoil of the Palestinians from 1948 onward, Khalil says to his comatose mentor: “Don’t tell me you didn’t know, and above all, don’t say that it wasn’t our fault. 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. Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us.” At a time when some Arab leaders are denying the Holocaust, Khoury is insistent on understanding the Jewish trauma.
Reflecting on the present, Khoury said that his “political position is that the only recourse for Israelis and Palestinians is a two-state solution, but to arrive in a decent way to a two-state solution we must arrive at a deep, deep understanding on an intellectual level. First, Israelis must admit that the Naqba was a crime and apologize for it, and the Palestinians and Arabs must integrate into their memory the tragedy and catastrophe of the Holocaust. To accept the other in a deep way is to accept its memory. I cannot accept the Jewish state if I don’t accept the Jewish memory and vice versa.”
In a few weeks, Khoury — who also teaches at New York University each spring as the global distinguished professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies — will leave the respite of Greenwich Village for Beirut, where daily realities will intrude. “We paid a price. It’s really sad and terrible,” Khoury explained, recalling his dead colleagues. “The only crime was in writing and defending freedom of speech and the independence of Lebanon. Death is terrible, this absence of people you worked with and loved, but freedom is so precious, you are willing to die for it.”
Jo-Ann Mort is a co-author of “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?” (Cornell University Press, 2003).