The Lebanese novelist reflects on the civil war engulfing the Middle East and what it takes to forgiveby Sameer Rahim / July 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
The great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury is not only one of the giants of Arab literature, he is also one of the sharpest observers of a region that has been coping with dictatorship and civil war for decades. Born in 1948, he was raised in a mainly Christian area in East Beirut. During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), he sided with the Palestinians, volunteering with the PLO’s military wing. He has worked as a journalist and commentator for many years, and has published more than a dozen novels in Arabic. His name is regularly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. His most famous work in English is “Gate of the Sun”, which describes the lives of Palestinians after the founding of Israel in 1948. Khoury’s new novel, “The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol”, follows Karim, who returns to Lebanon at the end of the civil war after years spent in France, hoping to reconnect with his divided family—and his divided country. I spoke to Elias Khoury in Beirut down the phone about the state of the Middle East, the death of Arab nationalism and what the role of the novelist can be in commenting on political events.
Sameer Rahim: It’s 25 years since the end of the civil war in Lebanon. Your new novel The Broken Mirrors deals with its legacy. Is Lebanon still living with the aftershocks?
Elias Khoury: I don’t think the civil war has ended. What’s happening in Syria shows the decomposition of the old nationalist, fascist system in the Arab world. The questions of Islamic fundamentalism and the despotism of the state are becoming a major problem for us and the world. Maybe our civil war was the rehearsal.
SR: You talked about the rise of Islamist extremism. Being an Arab Christian, do you feel Christianity is at risk in the Middle East?
EK: Firstly, I’m not an Arab Christian. I’m only an Arab. I come from a Christian family but I am not Christian. I’m just a citizen. I do not define myself through these terms. Also, it’s not only the Christian heritage being threatened: look at the catastrophe of the Yazidis. As for the Islamic fundamentalists, they have killed more Muslims than they have killed Christians—and many more Sunni Muslims, if you want to use those terms.
SR: Is Arab nationalism dead?
EK: The old idea of Arab nationalism is dead. Both the Arabs and the Jews went through this fantasy of reviving the past. The idea of Arab nationalism, as it was formulated, was the same as the revived idea of the Jewish right of return to the promised land in Palestine, which was also a kind of myth. On the other hand we are all Arabs. There is something cultural that unites us. It is not a unity principally about reviving something in the past—it is about a unity of the future. Now, nobody can survive on his own. Europe unites: you see unity all over the world because it’s rational. But the idea of reviving the past led us to fascism. What we need to do is to think about our future in a democratic, pluralistic, secular way.
SR: How can a novelist such as yourself contribute to building this new society?
EK: I don’t know what novelists can do. I write novels because I love telling stories and because telling stories is my way of life. Writing is a way to speak about the relationship between imagination and memory. So maybe in creating this imagined world, in piecing together the present, we rethink our memories. Literature is a form of deep communication. And in communicating, we discover what I call the spirituality of the human life and what is human in our experience. But we are not prophets, we are not political leaders, we are only writers.
SR: In your new novel The Broken Mirrors, you have two brothers, Karim and Nasim. Karim joins the Palestinian left wing and Nasim joins the right-wing militia the Phalangists.
EK: They are twins who give two different versions of the same reality. Reality has many versions and there are many ways of seeing it. If you don’t merge the two different versions together you can’t understand anything. This novel was an attempt to understand the two brothers. The other is always your mirror even if he or she is your enemy.
SR: So do you think it’s important for a writer to remain politically neutral?
EK: It depends. Myself as an individual, I was never neutral. I am never neutral. Part of my civic duty is to be a citizen, and to be a citizen is to express my point of view frankly. But literature is another world. In literature, although your views will infiltrate your work, the best thing is to be loyal to human nature, which is a combination of many contradictory things. We are all good and bad—we are all victims and victimisers. Literature cannot be used directly in the political field. My first novel Little Mountain is a love story between a man and a woman but also between the man and his land and the woman and her land. I was not trying to be a historian of the Palestinian war—but of course the war was there. I wrote it as an act of love, not as a political act.
SR: You once said that your job as a writer was to “defend life.” What do you mean by that?
EK: The major value in life is to defend life—to defend the right of human beings to live in dignity and freedom. Literature and religion are similar in this respect: they both want to talk about life and death and love; they are both ways of communicating between the living and the dead. But the difference is that religion has been overtaken by the exercise of power. Religion is a tool for power, whereas literature is only the human imagination.
SR: You wrote elsewhere that the civil war of 1975-1990 “liberated our memory.” What did you mean by that?
EK: A civil war is a school of memories. The unsaid of earlier civil wars lived with us for generations. At least our generation was aware that you must say what is going on, which opened us up for the first time to the value of memories. So in this sense it liberated our memory, yes.
SR: To recover from a civil war do people need to forget as well as remember?
EK: There is an Arabic saying that: “A man is a man because he forgets”. [In Arabic the word for “human” and “forget” are very similar.] We make a choice what to remember and what to forget but the unsaid in history must be said. The major condition for us to forgive and to forget is that we feel that truth was said. Those who committed crimes must at least admit them. This is the precondition of forgiveness.
As part of the Shubbak Festival, Elias Khoury will be speaking to Marina Warner at the British Library on Sunday 26th July at 5.30pm. Click here for details