City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury | The Nation


City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury

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The idea of literature as confession, testimony and witness has quickened Khoury's writing for a long time, gathering impetus from the state of ruin in Lebanon. Born in Beirut in 1948, Khoury experienced the ruin firsthand. An early solidarity with the Palestinian cause led to membership in Fatah and work at a Palestinian journal edited by Mahmoud Darwish. After finishing a doctorate at the Sorbonne about the sectarian strife in Lebanon that culminated in the 1860 civil war, Khoury returned to his country in 1973 only to see it plunge into another civil war. Khoury joined the left-wing, largely Muslim forces, an unusual choice on the face of it. He is Christian, and if he had clung to the obvious sectarian alignments, he would have fallen in with the right-wing Christian militias that, backed by the Israelis, carried out brutal massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Instead, Khoury committed himself to what he considered the underprivileged, progressive force, which in practical terms meant abandoning his family home in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyyeh.

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The street warfare Khoury experienced during those years permeates his slim novel Little Mountain, published in 1977 and first translated into English in 1989. The novel's title refers to the neighborhood where as a young man he suddenly became one of the enemy. The attempt of Palestinian militants to take Beirut block by block, fighting for every street and building, appears analogous to Khoury's novelistic approach, which lurches from part to part, occasionally winning a skirmish but never providing a sense of a larger picture or a final outcome. While Khoury offers us stories of a frustrated civil servant in Beirut, a Lebanese man adrift in Paris after the war and a couple on a beach, he makes the heart of the novel the first-person narration of a guerrilla fighter caught in the civil war. In many ways, Little Mountain resembles the rapid montage of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, with hallucinatory scenes of ruined churches and sniper fire woven in with slower, meditative sections about life outside the war.

In subsequent works, too, Khoury has used the novel as a means of both engagement and withdrawal. It looks outward, attempting to grapple with the larger conditions within which it exists, yet it retreats indoors quite as often, trying to create a safe haven for individual and community memories. This approach is most successful in Gate of the Sun. Published in 1998 and translated into English in 2006, the novel is a lyrical and haunting meditation on Palestinian history from the Nakba of 1948 to the early '90s, depicting the life of a people from the time they fled their villages to the period when internecine warfare, Israeli aggression and Syrian scheming destroyed hopes of a resurgence of spirit among the refugees.

The novel is set in a hospital room in the Shatila refugee camp, where Khalil Ayyoub, a Palestinian partially qualified as a doctor, sits in vigil over the comatose body of Yunes al-Asadi, an elderly Palestinian fighter. The narrative takes the form of a monologue by Khalil, within which he weaves many stories and voices, ranging out to the camps and villages of Palestine and focusing especially on a cave called Bab al-Shams (the Gate of the Sun of the title). The approach showcases Khoury's method of choosing a few resonant settings (hospital room, cave and camp in this novel; the forest, the Paris Métro and the police station in Yalo) that are almost like stage sets in a play, places where conversation and memory are the means for comprehending the flux of nation, city and history.

Khalil is a child of the Lebanon camps, his life running parallel to the long, ongoing exile of the Palestinians. Yunes, on the other hand, is a survivor of the Nakba, legendary because of his military exploits and his regular incursions into occupied territory to see his wife, Nahilah, who stayed behind in their village. Yunes and Nahilah meet in the secret cave Bab al-Shams, a country of their own set up in defiance of the modern states of the region. At the end, after Nahilah's death, when her son Salem seals the cave in accordance with her wishes, it is as if a country built out of imagination and love has died under an onslaught of razor-wire fences, sandbagged checkpoints and identity cards.

Khalil and Yunes, his silent listener, are said to have been close, almost like father and son, yet they are contrasting figures. Yunes is the strong and earthy peasant fighter, defying the Israelis as much out of love for his wife as for the sake of his homeland, while Khalil is an intellectual, afraid of violence and death, humiliated in his dealings with the Palestinian resistance and unwilling to say much about the killing of his lover, Shams. There's something schematic in this characterization, yet Khoury complicates any nostalgia we might have for the seemingly authentic Yunes. Yunes is pragmatic, brave and loving, but he is also shown to have been strangely oblivious to the needs of his wife, who reveals at the end that she had to depend on money from young men in the village for subsistence. As for Khalil's apparent cowardice, this has to be measured against the violence rippling through the camps:

Now I call Shams' killing a massacre rather than an execution, as I used to.... They tricked her, asking her to go to the Miyyeh wi-Miyyeh camp to be reconciled and to pay blood money, and they were waiting for her. A man with a machine gun came from each family; they hid themselves behind the mounds lining the highway, and when she arrived--you know what happened. There's no need to describe the shreds of woman stuck to the metal of the burned-out car.

Against this background of death, Khalil's decision to nurture Yunes and tell him stories becomes both an affirmation of life and a deflation of militant masculinity. After all, the women in this novel are the most appealing and interesting figures--Nahilah, Shams and Umm Hassan, a midwife who is of Yunes's generation--and Khalil is especially sympathetic to them. Since the novel opens with Umm Hassan's death, Khalil's decision to follow her advice by sitting in vigil over Yunes and telling stories is an affirmation of this tender feminine wisdom, much needed amid all the violence.

As Khalil tells his stories to Yunes, presenting different versions and interpretations, his voice becomes increasingly attractive, offering touches of melancholy and comedy that balance the harsh content of his tales. He offers an account of the death of Yunes's son Ibrahim, leading us through a looping narrative full of symbols, foreboding and dreams, with Nahilah presenting two versions of her son's death to Yunes. In her second, apparently more truthful version, she says Ibrahim was injured while playing with Jewish children at a new settlement near their village. It may have been an accident or a deliberate injury--there is no way to know--but what is certain is that the Israelis refused her a permit to take the boy to a hospital. Yunes, on hearing this, makes elaborate preparations to attack the settlement. Yet he changes his mind when he is about to act, concerned about the reprisals that will fall upon the Palestinian villagers. Khalil, however, thinks Yunes grew afraid and his excuse was a way of making fear seem like tactical wisdom. "Have you noticed how things have changed?" Khalil asks. "Those days were heroic days, these are not. Yunes got scared, so he became a hero; I'm scared, so I've become a coward."

"Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero," a character cries out in despair in Brecht's play Life of Galileo. Khalil would like the answer Galileo gives: "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero." In Gate of the Sun, Khoury's achievement is to show the tumult from which the need for "heroic days" arises while being quite clear that such a need brings with it other limitations, including a tendency toward violence that is often directed inward.

In that sense, Yalo is a shrunken version of the earlier work, even as it takes up similar concerns. For the Christian Lebanese militants who are Yalo's companions, and even for Yalo, heroism doesn't amount to much more than discovering how much pain can be inflicted on another human being. They possess none of Yunes's sense of rootedness to land and family (a rootedness that survives displacement); they are dogs of war intent on the destruction of others and on their own survival.

This is what makes Yalo a lesser work than Gate of the Sun. It is powerful in its own way but distilled far too much into an essence of violence, whether that of the Lebanese state or of Yalo. There seems to be no person in the novel not touched by violence (unlike Khalil and the women characters in Gate of the Sun), and although this may well have been Khoury's intention, one wonders if this may not have become a trap for him. Khoury's characteristic approach of shifting perspectives and fragmented stories also seems to have become limiting. In a foreword to the English edition of Little Mountain, Edward Said pointed out that Khoury's style is almost deliberately unlike the monumental Arabic novel exemplified by the work of Naguib Mahfouz. Said noted that this was in many ways a reflection of the very different societies Mahfouz and Khoury were writing about, the former representing a Cairo that has existed through millenniums while the latter was depicting a Beirut always forced to question its existence. In Yalo, though, Khoury's usual narrative method comes too close to the worldview of the characters, from Yalo's plea that his story cannot be told straight to Ephraim's belief that books are windows opening onto the infinite, through which "we see fragments, as if we are peeking." This may be why there are moments in Yalo when a reader wants fullness, where the very glimpses Khoury offers create a need for a longer, steadier gaze. It seems unfair to demand of Khoury a shift from the aesthetic that has served him so effectively, but Khoury has taught us about the need to overturn entrenched views, even when they are our own. Having presented Beirut to us as broken and splintered, Khoury may need to show it to us again, this time in full.

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