City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury

City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury

City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury

Elias Khoury and the literature of witness.


Maria SöderbergElias Khoury

The fragments of the past never add up to a whole in Beirut. The city seems to communicate in images rather than in narrative, presenting a kaleidoscope of car bomb assassinations and refugee camps, Israeli warplanes and Hezbollah fighters, shards that whirl before our eyes without yielding much meaning. And these pieces are only from recent years, thrown up by a city that already holds in its subterranean layers the 1975-90 civil war, with its militias and massacres, and long before that the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and colonial occupation by the French. When a writer attempts, then, to make Beirut the source of his work, one can understand why the first principle of his aesthetic is that a fragmented city demands a fragmented novel.

Yalo, the tenth novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, is such a book. Published in Arabic in 2002 and now available in a translation by Peter Theroux, Yalo is set in 1993 and revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of itself or its surroundings. Its opening sentence is “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and its closing line is “And if I don’t find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?” In between lies a work that is both one story and several, perpetually revised under the torque of history, memory, desire, fear, understanding and loathing.

The novel mostly takes the form of a series of confessions ripped out of Yalo, a young Lebanese Christian man in prison for rape and robbery. Although only in his 20s, Yalo is a hardened veteran of Lebanon’s civil war. He knows a lot about urban warfare but not enough about fellow fighters like Tony Atiq, who hatches the idea of stealing money from the militia barracks and escaping to France to live off the spoils. Yalo accompanies Atiq to Paris, where he is promptly deserted by his friend. “I left the hotel and became a clochard,” Yalo recalls in one of his many confessions, his language wavering between the lyrical and the banal:

That’s what they call homeless people there. I became a clochard, and didn’t have the price of a bite of bread. That is, I became a beggar sleeping in the Métro tunnel at Montparnasse Station.
 I met Monsieur Michel Salloum, may God honor him, in the Métro station. He took me to his house at 45, rue Victor Hugo, bathed me, dressed me in new clothes, and fed me. When he heard my story he offered me a job in Lebanon.

The job is that of a watchman in Salloum’s villa, the accessories a Kalashnikov rifle and a flashlight. Yalo adds idiosyncratic touches to the position. He makes love to Salloum’s wife when his boss is absent and hovers, in the evenings, at the edge of a nearby forest. At first, dressed in a long black coat and rubber-soled shoes, he does no more than watch lovers driving into the forest. Before long, however, Yalo has become a predator, tapping at the windows of a car with his rifle or probing its interior with his flashlight, acts he follows by robbing the men and raping the women.

The lovers Yalo interrupts are not particularly romantic figures. The men are usually well-heeled members of the Lebanese bourgeoisie out on pleasure cruises with prostitutes or troubled young women, willing to abandon their sexual partners at the slightest whiff of danger. Yalo’s mistake, in this setting, is to confuse his predatory impulses with passion. After raping a young, urbane woman called Shirin, he decides he has fallen in love with her and takes to meeting her for long conversations about Lebanese food, Arabic music and Egyptian films. Yalo says he is courting her, but Shirin understandably feels she is being stalked, and it is her eventual complaint to the police that will land Yalo in prison, to be charged not only with rape and robbery but also involvement in a bombing plot supposedly orchestrated by Israel.

Although Yalo is always eager to assure his interrogators of the intense purity of his feelings about Shirin, his almost unthinking capacity to inflict violence seems clear enough. But the establishment of criminal guilt is a fitting end only for a conservative mind. For Khoury, the fact that Yalo has committed some or many of the acts credited to him is only one strand of the story, to be woven in with braids from Yalo’s past that show who he was before coming into his inheritance of crime and punishment, as well as how he is remade by a Lebanese state demanding a confession.

The interrogators who question Yalo, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, possess no names and have few defining features. This is because one sees them from Yalo’s point of view. Starved, beaten, humiliated and subject to what the interrogators call “torture parties,” Yalo understands quickly enough that he must provide a story these men consider satisfactory. Of course, it becomes apparent that the investigators are not interested in verifying the truth of Yalo’s confessions as much as in extracting a version of truth that suits their needs and is presented in a suitably bureaucratic language.

No matter how outrageous the methods of torture might seem–one involves a sack with a cat into which a naked Yalo is inserted, another a Coke bottle on which he is forced to sit–Khoury in some ways is working as a realist in his depiction of the police. In its critical appraisal of the violence of the modern state, Yalo is part of a long tradition of Arabic novels concerned with prison and torture, including Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdelrahman Munif’s East of the Mediterranean (1975) and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café (1974). Yet in all other respects, Khoury is not a realist: he forces readers to negotiate shifting points of view, constant revisions in the story and dizzying jumps in time, so that even as one recoils at the violence of the interrogators, one shares some of their dissatisfaction with Yalo’s jumbled confessions. It is all so complicated, from Yalo’s relationship with Shirin to his interaction with his family members, and so contaminated by injections of politics, history, family and religion, that there are times when our patience with Yalo runs out and we too long for a simpler, linear story.

It is never provided, unless we’re willing to accept the court verdict presented near the end of the novel. Yalo’s memories, meandering through the past, seem saturated with tenderness as well as violence toward Shirin. He sees himself as her savior, protecting her from other men, including her selfish, plump-thighed fiancé, Emile, and the odious Dr. Said, who carries out her abortion and sexually exploits her. But Shirin too is a savior of sorts for Yalo. She offers him the dream of another kind of life, of becoming part of a Beirut quite different from what he has known, a place of privilege and sophistication that he thinks of almost with an immigrant’s yearning:

Yalo told himself in the mirror when he was shaving the next morning that he would marry Shirin; he would buy all the cuttlefish in the world and eat them with her, and live in her house. He had not said the words “her house,” but when he thought about marriage and the house and the children, he saw the entrance to her building and the sycamore tree on the sidewalk opposite and imagined himself under that tree, playing ball with a blond child speaking French. He remembered his grandfather and wondered how he would speak with his grandson’s son, and in what language?

The problem with such visions is that they are fantasies involving a willful denial of all other aspects of Yalo’s life, including the past embodied in the figure of his grandfather. A Syriac Christian priest who names himself Abuna Ephraim, Yalo’s grandfather has surrendered in ecstasy to his ancient religion, turning his back on a contemporary world that seems bereft of ritual and faith. But it is an immersion that has obliterated everything else that shaped his identity: the name given to him in childhood by a Kurdish mullah who adopted him, the distant village of Ain Ward where he grew up, his mother, his first wife and his work as a layer of tiles on Beirut construction projects. Ephraim figures in all of Yalo’s recollections of his family. He is a tragic and demented patriarch who perpetually seeks a meaning beyond everyday existence but also ends up distorting the daily lives of his daughter, Gabrielle, and his grandson, Yalo, forcing his obsessions with purity and faith upon them. Ephraim interferes in the relationship between Gabrielle and the tailor Elias, and when he legally adopts Yalo, he seems to be motivated at least partly by the desire to keep the father (who could be Elias or another man) out of the picture. Even after his death, Ephraim seems to hover constantly around Yalo, in the excursions with Shirin as well as during the later torture sessions in the prison cell, where the policemen’s demands for a confession from the adult Yalo echo the grandfather’s insistence on confessions from the child.

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.

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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