Authors: Elias Khoury
Elias Khoury is the author of eleven novels, including the
Gate of the Sun, Little Mountain,
The Journey of Little Gandhi.
He is currently a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, and editor in chief of the literary supplement of Beirut’s daily newspaper,
He lives in New York and Beirut.
Also by Elias Khoury
The Journey of Little Gandhi
The Kingdom of Strangers
Gate of the Sun
Translated by Maia Tabet
Foreword by Edward W. Said
Copyright © 1989 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Foreword copyright © 1989 by Edward W. Said. Translation copyright © 1989 by Maia Tabet. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the ease of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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E-mail: [email protected]
The Koranic quotation on p. 133, Chapter 5, is Chapter XXVII, “The Ant,” verse 34, and was taken from A. J. Arberry,
The Koran Interpreted,
George Allen Unwin Ltd, 1965.
Originally published as
First published in the United States by University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
First Picador Paperback Edition: December 2007
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To the memory of
Mohammad Shbaro and his companions
The first English translation of Elias Khoury’s novel
needs to be set in the context of the Arabic novel, from which, in equal measure, it derives and departs. As a contemporary Lebanese writer, Khoury embodies the curious and tragic dialectics between his country and its surrounding environment, recently thrust into literary prominence by the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Naguib Mahfouz’s achievement as the greatest living Arab novelist and first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize has in small but significant measure now retrospectively vindicated his unmatched regional reputation, and belatedly given him recognition in the West. For of all the major literatures and languages, Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded by Europeans and Americans, a huge irony given that all Arabs regard the immense literary and cultural worth of their language as one of their principal contributions to the world. Arabic is of course the language of the Koran and is therefore central to Islam, in which it has a hieratic, historical, and everyday use that is almost without parallel in other world cultures. Because of that role, and because it has always been associated with resistance to the imperialist incursions that have characterized Arab history since the late eighteenth century, Arabic has also acquired a uniquely disputatious position in modern culture, defended and extolled by its native speakers and writers, belittled, attacked, or ignored by foreigners for whom it has represented a last defended bastion of Arabism and Islam.
During the 130 years of French colonialism in Algeria, for example, Arabic was effectively proscribed as a quotidian language; to a lesser degree, the same was roughly true in Tunisia and Morocco, in which an uneasy bilingualism arose because the French language was politically imposed on the native Arabs. Elsewhere in the Arab
Arabic became the focus of hopes for reform and renaissance, and as Benedict Anderson has discussed the matter in
the spread of literacy spurred the rise of modern nationalism, in the midst of which narrative prose fiction played a crucial role in creating a national consciousness. By providing readers not only with a sense of their common past—for example in the historical romances of the early twentieth-century novelist and historian Jurji Zaydan —but also with a sense of an abiding communal continuity, Arabic novelists stood squarely wherever issues of destiny, society, and direction were being debated or investigated.
We should not forget, however, that the novel as it is known in the West is a relatively new form in the rich Arabic literary tradition. And along with that we should keep in mind that as it develops mainly in the twentieth century the Arabic novel is an engaged form, involved through its readers and authors in the great social and historical upheavals of our century, sharing in triumphs as well as failures. Thus, to return to Mahfouz and to connect what I have been saying with his particular situation as he was accorded the 1988 Nobel Prize, his work from the late 1930s on compresses the history of the European novel into a relatively short span of time. He is thus not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, Zola, and Jules Romain. In addition —as the almost comic consternation followed by journalistic silence that attended on the Stockholm announcement attests —his work is scarcely known in the West. Seven or eight of his novels in barely serviceable translations are available in English, none of them in currency or a part of normal literacy. It is perhaps worth adding as a pendant to the eccentricity of this Scandinavian episode, that a few years ago when I was asked by a major New York publisher to recommend some Third World fiction titles for translation, Mahfouz was at the top of my list. When my recommendation was turned down, the publisher offered by way of only slightly embarrassed explanation the rueful observation that “Arabic after all is a controversial language.”
Surrounded therefore by politics, and to a very great degree caught up in the contests of the native as well as the international environment, the Arabic novel is truly an embattled form. Mahfouz’s allegorical novel,
(1959), also takes on Islam and was banned in Egypt when it was about to be published in book form (it had already appeared in serial form). His earlier Cairo
(1956-57) traversed the phases of Egyptian nationalism culminating in the 1952 Revolution, and did so critically and yet intimately as a participant in the remaking of Egyptian society with it.
(1967), his Rashomon-style novel about Alexandria, puts a sour face on Nassers socialism, its abuses, anomalies, and human costs. During the late 1960s his short stories and novels addressed the aftermath of the 1967 war, sympathetically in the case of an emergent Palestinian resistance, critically in the case of Egyptian military intervention in Yemen. Mahfouz was the most celebrated writer and cultural figure to greet the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and although his books were banned in Arab countries for a time after that, his stature was too solidly great to be diminished for long. Even in Egypt the position he took was apparently unpopular, yet he has not only survived the temporary opprobrium but has emerged (if anything) more august and admired.
Mahfouz’s career is of course distinguished in the Arab world, not only because of the extraordinary length of his writing life, but also because his work is so thoroughly Egyptian (and Cairene), based as it is on a territorial and imaginative vision of a society unique in the Middle East. The thing about Mahfouz is that he can and has always been able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt. For all its tremendous age, the variety of its components and the influences on it—the merest listing of these is inhibitingly impressive: Pharonic, Arab, Muslim, Hellenistic, European, Christian, Judiac, etc.— the country has a stability and identity that in this century have not disappeared. Put differently, this is to say that the Arabic novel has flourished especially well in twentieth-century Egypt because throughout all the turbulence of the country’s wars, revolutions, and social upheavals, civil society was never eclipsed, its existence was never in doubt, was never completely absorbed into the State. Novelists like Mahfouz had it always
for them, and accordingly developed an abiding institutional connection with the society through their fiction.
Moreover, the historical and geographical topography of the Cairo mapped by Mahfouz has been handed down to the generation of writers who came to maturity in the post-1952 period. Gamal al-Ghitany is like Mahfouz, in that several of his works are set in Fatimid Cairo (for example, his recently translated
in districts like Gamaliyia, which is where Mahfouz’s realistic work of 1947,
is also set. Ghitany considers himself one of Mahfouz’s heirs, so that the overlap in setting and treatment confirms the generational relationship between older and younger man, made easier and dependable through the city of Cairo and Egyptian identity. To later generations of Egyptian writers then, Mahfouz’s precedence assures them of a point of departure, just as for Dickens, the work of Fielding, Defoe, and Smollett had established the discursive patterns of a narrative structure that was not merely a passive reflection of an evolving society, but an organic part of it.
Yet Mahfouz as, so to speak, patron and progenitor of subsequent Egyptian fiction is not by any means a provincial writer, nor simply a local influence. Here another discrepancy is important and worth noting. Because of its size and power, Egypt has always been a locus for Arab ideas and movements; in addition Cairo has functioned as a diffusionary center for print publishing, films, radio, and television. Arabs in Morocco, on the one hand, Iraq, on the other, who may have very little in common are likely to have had a lifetime of watching Egyptian films (or television serials) to connect them. Similarly, modern Arabic literature has spread out from Cairo for the whole of our century; for years Mahfouz was a resident writer at
Egypt’s leading daily. Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at the very same moment that Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.
What I have sketched so schematically is something of the background assumed when a contemporary, non Egyptian writer of substantial gifts wishes to write fiction in Arabic. To speak of an “anxiety of influence,” so far as the precedence of Mahfouz, Egypt, and Europe (which is where in effect the Arabic novel before Mahfouz came from) are concerned, is to speak of something socially and politically actual. Anxiety is at work not only about what in so fundamentally settled and integral a society as Egypt was possible for a Mahfouz, but also about what in a fractured, decentered, and openly insurrectionary place is maddeningly, frustratingly
possible. For one, in some Arab countries you cannot leave your house and suppose that when and if you return it will be as you left it. For another, you can no longer take for granted that such places as hospitals, schools, and government buildings will function as they do elsewhere, or if they do for a while, that they will continue to do so next week. For a third, you cannot be certain that such recorded, certified, and registered stabilities in all societies —birth, marriage, death —will in fact be noted or in any way commemorated. Rather, most aspects of life are negotiable, not just with money and normal social intercourse, but also with guns and rocket-propelled-gre-nades (RPG’s).
The extreme cases in which such eventualities are daily occurrences are Palestine and Lebanon, the first a state that simply stopped existing in 1948, the second a country that began its public self-destruction in April 1975, and has not stopped. Yet in both polities there are and have been Lebanese as well as Palestinian people, for whom their national identity is threatened with extinction ( the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political, and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies (Egypt’s, for instance) is only replicable by Palestinian and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. And above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic.
Take first two Palestinian novelists, Ghassan Kana-fani and Emile Habibi. Kanafani’s seems at first sight the more conventional mode, Habibi’s the wildly experimental. Yet even in
Rijal fil Shams
(Men in the Sun, 1963) Kanafani’s story of Palestinian loss and death is undermined as a narrative by the novel’s peculiarly disintegrating prose, in which within a group of two or three sentences time and place are in so relentlessly constant a state of flux that the reader is never absolutely certain where and when the story is taking place. In his most complex long narrative
Ma Tabaqqa Lakum
(What is Left for You, 1966) this technique is even more pronounced, so that even in one short paragraph multiple narrators speak without, so far as the reader is concerned, adequate markers, distinctions, delimitations. And yet so definitely pronounced is the unhappy fate of the Palestinian characters depicted by Kanafani that a kind of aesthetic clarification, by which story, character, and fate come jarringly together, occurs in their terrible encounter with it. In the earlier work the three refugees are asphyxiated in a tanker-truck on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, in the later novel Mariam stabs her abusive and bigamous husband while her brother Hamid faces an Israeli in a mortal encounter.
(1974) is a carnivalesque explosion of parody and theatrical farce, continuously surprising, shocking, unpredictable. It makes no concessions at all to any of the standard fictional conventions. Its main character (whose name jams together Pessimism and Optimism) is an amalgam of something out of Aesop, al-Hariri, Kafka, Dumas, and Walt Disney, its action a combination of low political farce, science fiction, adventure, and Biblical prophecy, all of it anchored in the restless dialectic of Habibi’s semi-colloquial, semi-classical prose. Whereas Kanafani’s occasional, but affecting melodramatic touches put him within reach of Mahfouz’s novels in their disciplined and situated action, Habibi’s world is Rabelais and even Joyce to the Egyptians Balzac and Galsworthy. It is as if the Palestinian situation now in its fifth decade without resolution produces a wildly erratic and free-wheeling version of the picaresque novel, which in its flaunting of its carelessness and spite is in Arabic prose fiction about as far as one can get from Mahfouz’s stateliness.
Lebanon, the other recently eccentric and resistant society, has been rendered most typically in language not by novels or even stories, but by far more ephemeral forms—journalism, popular songs, cabaret parody, essays. So powerful in its disintegrating effects has been the Civil War which officially began in April 1975 that readers of Lebanese writing need an occasional reminder that this after all is (or was) an Arabic country, whose language and heritage share a great deal with writers like Mahfouz. Indeed in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.
Thus at the other limit from Mahfouz we can disengage the politically committed and, in its own highly mobile modes, brilliant figure of Elias Khoury whose earliest important work of fiction,
(1977), now appears in English for the first time. Khoury is a mass of paradoxes, especially when compared with other Arab novelists of his generation. Like Ghitany he is, and has been for at least twelve years, a practicing journalist; at present he edits the weekly cultural page of the Leftist Beirut daily
Unlike Ghitany—whose gifts for invention and sheer verbal bravura he shares — Khoury was from his early days an actively engaged militant, having grown up as a 1960s schoolboy in the turbulent world of Lebanese and Palestinian street politics. Some of the scenes of the city and mountain fighting during the early (autumn 1975 and early 1976) days of the Lebanese Civil War described in
are based on these experiences. Also unlike Ghitany, Khoury is a publishing-house editor, having worked for a leading Beirut publisher for a decade during which he established an impressive list of Arabic translations of major postmodern Third World classics (Fuentes, Marquez, Asturias, etc.).