Interview of Elias Khoury by Geneviève Simon
Conducted in Beirut, published on La Libre Belgique 22.11.2011
Translated by Cathia Jenainati
For the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, the fantastic is the essence of literary work. A meeting with this privileged witness of the Arab Spring, anxious to see Beirut on the brink of losing its soul.
Interview in Beirut, 31 October 2011.
In the taxi that winds its way through the unrestrained traffic, punctuated by incessant tooting, the conversation quickly turns to the Lebanese’s principle preoccupation, a source of palpable anxiety: the situation in Syria and its inevitable consequences on Lebanon. Elias Khoury agreed to meet us at Achrafieh, a quarter of East Beirut where he lives. Since three years ago, the writer of “Gates of the Sun” quit his post as editor-in-chief of the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper “Annhar” and is now directing the “Journal of Palestinian Studies” all the while residing four month per year in New York where he teaches comparative literature at NYU. This is a meeting with a writer who is a star in his own country.
“If you have really seen what you recount, this means that you have seen extraordinary things and, if you have not seen what you recount, this means that you are a good writer.” Does this quote, by Calif Harun, used as the moto of “Coffre des secrets(i)”(Actes Sud, 2009) guide your work?
No, it’s the difference between the imaginary and the real. I think that writing is a big window, that the imaginary leads us to the unknown, whereas we fabricate the real, the concrete. This relationship between the concrete and the unknown takes us to a world that the ancient Arabs called the marvelous. And the marvellous is not totally detached from reality but is its ultimate manifestation. I found this translation in an ancient book. It moved me and gave me proof of what I have always tried to do in my writing: a world invented by stories which are themselves mirrors of stories. This world takes us to the marvelous, to the unknown which is, I think, the essence of literary work.
How did you become a writer?
I have always been one. But we become a writer when others think that you are a writer. The act of writing has nothing to do with the fact of being a writer. Writing, is a way of life. In this sense, I think that the true writer is the reader. Because he creates the final version of the literary work. If you ask me to tell you the story of the “Le Coffre des secrets”, for example, I will have to re-do it, I cannot re-tell it.Therefore being a reader is another way of being an author. I too continue being a writer through my readers. The stakes are complex, because fantasy dominates your personal life. And if you’re not known, others may take you for a fool.
What is a story that deserves to be told?
All stories deserve to be written. What is important is how we tell them. I have borrowed by way of telling from the “Thousand and one Nights”. Therefore I think that the writer is the first victim of writing: he is the servant of a world that develops, he must be able to listen to others and to accept that he is nothing more than an agent of history, at its service.
Do you want to “throw”(ii) the reader by using the strategy of mirroring?
No, writing is a very personal adventure. It is I who has been thrown by the discovery of this approach, which I find difficult, and is the best mode for writing the story that tell. It was a dangerous experience. Then, if this throws the reader or not, if this changes his point of view or not, this depends on readers. We can never know.
This means that, when you write, you do not think at all of the reader?
The authors who think of readers are those who write best-sellers. When we write, we undertake a specific challenge which we must respect. Each time we write, the writing takes us towards places that we neither know nor expect. My plans are, each time, thwarted by the characters of my novel. I think that are real, that they have their own life, and I respect them. It is they who push me towards something new, something different, and I have to accept it. The book is theirs, I am merely the signature. When a novel becomes real in the conscience
of readers, the writer becomes marginal. A writer’s fate is be erased by the fate of the characters he has himself invented.
“The dream ends by immigration,(iii)” have you written…
There are fifteen million Lebanese who have emigrated versus four million who live in Lebanon. It is a poor country, that has known numerous historical catastrophes, which explains why migration is part of the Lebanese collective unconscious. But this is also a metaphor. We are all strangers. The human condition, our relationship with death, with life, with separation, causes us all to be strangers, in a sense.
Could literature help us live through this alienation (strangeness)?
Literature can only familiarise us with this alienation because it is link (bond) between the living and the dead. Religion could also play this role. This is the reason that in Arab culture, there are constant conflicts between literature and religion. But these are different courses. With religion, it is the power to dominate, whereas with literature it’s communication, the free exchange between the dead and the living. Literature familiarises us with the idea of death, without changing anything.
“Is memory murderous (deadly)?” you ask in “Le Coffre des Secrets”…
In Arabic, the words “Men”iv and “Forgetting” are very close, they are written using the same letters. He was called man because he forgets. The challenge is not the remembering, it’s the forgetting. Our life is based on forgetting: we cannot live without forgetting. In order to heal from the civil war, we, Lebanese, have to work our memory, because it is very dangerous, it’s a prison. The Lebanese have always refused to admit their responsibilities in the civil war, maintaining that we are innocent, which is wrong. When there is no settlementv with memory it becomes murderous in the sense that it remains alive.
How are the Lebanese living the Arab Spring?
Beirut and Lebanon know the ultimate pain: we are paying the price of this political structure that was established after the civil war, a structure based on the balance between different Lebanese denominations. Which has resulted in the total paralysis of the country. Beirut which was the capital of democratic struggle, of freedom in the Arab world, is now silent in the Arab revolution. The Lebanese denominational clans only think of ways in which they can use the Arab revolution to their own benefit. These partisan intentions have nothing to do with the spirit of the Arab revolution, with the desire of civil society to create a democracy. We cannot have a democracy with a denomination-based structure. Therefore Lebanon is, I think, in a situation that is more delicate than in the days of the civil war. Lebanese youths have tried to do several things, but they have been repressed par pro-Syrian militia. I am truly ashamed and I believe that if Beirut continues on this track, she will lose her soul. Today, the challenge for Lebanese culture, for Beirut as a city, is to die or to join the revolution that’s in the making.
i Elias Khoury’s novel Le Coffre des Secrets was translated to French and published by Acts Suds in 2003. It has not been translated to English yet.
ii Bousculer= push, hustle
iii This is a quote from Le Coffre des Secrets
iv The French text is somewhat unclear here. The Arabic word for Man (as in human) is Insan, its plural is Nas (Men or Humans). The word for “forgetting” is Nasaian (Nasayan). Khoury is commenting on the similarity between the word for humanity and the word for forgetting (Nas and Nasayan)
v Coming to terms with memory