Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

»Death liberates the memory«

Interview with the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury

Sonja Mejcher

The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury (born 1948) is today one of the most outstanding figures in Lebanon’s cultural, intellectual and literary life. Internationally he is mainly known as a novelist. His novels have been translated from Arabic into English, French, German and Italian. His first novel was published in Beirut in 1975, the same year the Lebanese civil war broke out that was to last until 1990. His later novels are intervowen with the experience of the civil war. »Khoury is an artist giving voice to rooted exiles and trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages«, states Edward Said.

Besides being a novelist, Khoury has been writing short stories, theatre- and filmscripts and literary critique. With »Three Posters« he lately also engaged in performance and video art.

Khoury studied history and sociology in Beirut and Paris. He subsequently worked as a journalist for various Lebanese and Palestinian journals and newspapers. Since 1992 he is the editor of the cultural supplement of the biggest Lebanese daily newspaper »an-Nahar«. He has been teaching Arabic and comparative literature at Lebanese and American universities, most recently he was a visiting professor at New York University. Since 1996 he is participating in organizing the yearly »Aylul« festival in Beirut, which brings together young Lebanese and foreign artists.

The following interview was conducted in Beirut in December 2000. It focuses on Khoury’s role as an artist and intellectual in Lebanon during and after the civil war and on his perception of Beirut.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] Since 1992 you are the editor of the »Mulhaq an-Nahar«, the cultural supplement of the Lebanese newspaper »an-Nahar«. What have been your objectives with the »Mulhaq«?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] Our objective is to link journalism, literature and art to the daily life. We want to create a space where we can behave as intellectuals in the proper way. This means that we try to tell the truth – also about what happened during the Lebanese civil war of 1975 and 1990 –, take positions, defend freedom and the freedom of expression, defend the poor and the marginalised in society and fight discrimination of any sort – be it against Palestinian refugees, Syrian workers, Sri Lankian domestic workers, women or children.

The Palestinian issue has been of particular interest to us not only because of my personal engagement but because I believe that the Palestinian issue is one of the central issues of the Arab world. We cannot ignore it and in Lebanon we have witnessed a melange between the Palestinian issue and the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, which lasted for 22 years.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] At the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war you were fighting on the side of the Palestinians until you were severely hit in the eyes. What was your attitude towards the war and how has it changed?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] I cannot say that I liked the war, nobody liked the war. The war was very savage. Any war is savage. But what happened in Lebanon was a real explosion. I think that in 1975 Lebanon had no other alternative. War was inevitable because of the components of the Lebanese social, economic and political life. To say it was the war of the others is stupid. Practically the whole concept of the others collapsed after the Israeli invasion of 1982. The Palestinians left and war went on. The big massacres of the Lebanese civil war took place in 1984 in the mountains after the Palestinians left. It was between the Maronites and the Druze. So who are the others? The Lebanese are the others for the Lebanese. We are the others. Why we are the others, this is a big question.

My attitude towards the war changed in January 1976 when in response to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Beiruti refugee-camp of Tel az-Za’tar the Fida’iyin (the Palestinian resistance fighters) occupied the Christian town of ad-Damur south of Beirut and took their revenge on its population. At that moment I thought that I could not continue to fight because we were as savage as the others. I continued to fight but personally it was a catastrophe. It was the crucial moment for me to discover that our ideology did not protect us from behaving in a savage, fascist way. What is the meaning of all our discourse and all our ideology if we will kill children, women and men because they are Christians or Muslims or whatsoever?

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] In your literature you criticised the civil war from the very start. How do you explain to yourself that you were participating in the fighting and at the same time criticising it?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] The imaginary level that is part of every fiction gave me the possibility to create a distance to the political practice and to criticise it. I was fighting and at the same time I was criticising the civil war in my literature. There was a contradiction between the euphoric optimistic ideology I believed in and the literature I wrote. I used to think that literature was something else. Then I discovered that life and literature cannot be separated from each other and that there must be something wrong in our optimistic ideological approach. Ideology cannot work in literature and it cannot really work in life because it covers reality and it covers atrocities and I cannot be part of that.

When I met the French writer Jean Genet in 1972 he told me: »Why do you write literature, you have to make a revolution. You do not need literature. What you need is a revolution.« I make a revolution if I want to and we did but I do not write literature to make a revolution. In this sense Jean Genet is right. Literature cannot be in the service of a direct call. But literature is always a need. You cannot live with making a revolution only. To live you need spirituality, different levels of life which literature and art can provide.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] How has life changed after the war and what effect did the war experience have on your literary production?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] After the war life changed, the rhythm of life changed. During the war the rhythm and the personal priorities were different. You did not have time. You were busy protecting yourself and your family from death. You felt that you could die at any moment. Now you take your time in life like in writing, you take it easy. I myself became more relaxed but I do not know if having more time will make better literature. Some people talk about the »war literarture« now. I do not like this expression. But I do think that the experience of the civil war had a great effect on literature. Before the war we could speak about a Lebanese novelist, today we can speak about a Lebanese novel as a literary movement. It is the most experimental novel in the Arab world and this has to do with the experience of the civil war. The non-said in the Lebanese society had been very powerful. We never studied what happened in the 19th century, we never knew what happened at the beginning of the 20th century. The only history we knew was the history of our great Arab ancestors. There was a gap between the present and the past. It was as if the recent past did not exist. With the civil war everything exploded and the recent past so long suppressed came to the fore.

In a way the civil war liberated our memory. Death liberates the memory. If I die tomorrow you can say that I told you this and that and nobody will discuss with you if it is true or not. It was like this with Beirut. When Beirut died it liberated our memory and our imagination. On the personal level the Lebanese civil war revealed to us that man, the human being, is not accomplished.

In adapting ourselves to the civil war we accepted to live in a city where very close to us people were being kidnapped and killed. We accepted to live in a city where anyone could kill anyone. If man is able to adapt himself to a situation like this he can adapt himself to anything. He has all the possibilities from being an animal to being a god. The belief that the human being is good is a myth. It is not a matter of being good or bad, it is a matter of being in this or that condition. Everybody who lived through the civil war experienced the feeling of turning into an animal and reacting as an animal and worse. One way of dealing with such an experience is amnesia, people try to forget everything. Another way is to try to understand how it could have happened. This implies that we try to understand ourselves and how we work in order to engage in finding out ways, morals and ethics that can prevent that the animal inside everyone of us takes over.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] How has Beirut changed after the war?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] Like all the cultural cities of the world Beirut was not Lebanon ? New York is not America, Paris is not France ... You could have been a Beiruti without being Lebanese. Beirut was not only the place where all Arab writers, artists and intellectuals who opposed dictatorship were present, Beirut treated everyone as a Beiruti. Beirut of the late 1950s was the only city left that had inherited the Levantine cosmopolitan way of life. The Levantine cities all disappeared. The European idea of the nation state adopted by Turkish and Arab nationalism destroyed them. Beirut used to accept its diversity. It was not until the Israeli invasion of 1982 after which the Lebanese hinterland invaded the city that Beirut turned into small confessional villages. It became very Lebanese. Today we do not have a cosmopolitan Beirut anymore and we cannot have it unless we change Lebanon. This very much complicates our job as intellectuals.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] The reconstruction of downtown Beirut was mainly carried out by »Solidere« (Societe libanaise pour le developpement et la reconstruction de la centre ville de Beyrouth), a real estate company owned partly by the billionaire and prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. You very much criticised the way the reconstruction was carried out. What were the reasons for your criticism?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] The Hariri-project gave the impression that everything was going to be destroyed, even the memory ? not the memory of Beirut before the war but the memory of Beirut during the war which is more important because it is the only time that we can really speak about our memory. This memory was to be annihilated as if the war never happened. It is very much in line with the general amnesty concerning all war crimes the state promulgated in 1991. In Beirut nothing is sacred not even the city’s own body. The Hariri-project began with the destruction of downtown Beirut. Most of the old houses were torn down by bulldozers after the war in order to create a »Manhattan at the Mediterranean«. The so-called ugliness of Beirut was going too far. In criticising the Hariri-project we tried to defend downtown Beirut. We did not realise that it was not only an issue about architecture but a big cultural and political issue. Our struggle against the Hariri project failed but culturally it was very important. It was the first public debate after the war and it was the first time that architecture entered the public debate. Today the old beautiful houses of Beirut are turned into restaurants and folklore. They are becoming exotic restaurants even for us Lebanese as if we were tourists in our own houses. The struggle over downtown Beirut has to continue in order to avoid the separation of downtown Beirut from the rest of the city. Downtown Beirut cannot only be a place for the rich and privileged. We also have to think about housing for the lower middle class and the poor. Anyway I think that the people will reoccupy downtown Beirut.

[b]Sonja Mejcher:[/b] How do you perceive Beirut today?

[b]Elias Khoury:[/b] Today I have the feeling of living in Beirut. At the same time this is not Beirut. We have the margin of liberty in a way incomparable to the neighbouring Arab countries but still Beirut is not a free place. Of course we can defend the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife as we have done last year but we do not any longer play our role in the Arab world. If Beirut was a free place today somebody like Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid who was accused of apostasy in Egypt would have found exile in Beirut and not in Holland. Today our journalism is marginal compared to the Saudi journalism which has become the dominant and the only pan-Arab journalism.

It is a new Arab world in which Beirut is only the shadow of the city it used to be. I do not have the illusion that we can revive the city from its ashes. In fact I dislike the phoenix myth because I think that when someone is dead he has to die. Something new has to emerge. The idea of a rebirth has been very strong among Arab intellectuals and poets. I do not think that Beirut can re-emerge from the ashes. But also I cannot accept to live in a shadow. The experience of the civil war obliges us to transform Beirut into a social and political reality. I am not sure that we can create a new Beirut but I hope that Beirut will play a role again.