'A Boycott on Institutions Is a Good Thing for Israelis'

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Elias Khoury.Credit: Getty Images
Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Elias Khoury knows Israelis far better than they know him. He is quite familiar with Israeli literature and politics, whereas most Israelis make do with looking at his city, Beirut, through a gunsight. The acclaimed writer teaches Arabic literature at New York University one semester a year, but spends most of his time in the Lebanese capital.

One of his early novels, published in English as “White Masks” (2010), has now been published in Hebrew, as “White Faces.” I began our interview by asking Khoury what the book is called in Arabic, and whether he was alluding to Frantz Fanon’s formative “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952). It turns out that the original Arabic title is “White Faces” and that Khoury was not referencing Fanon, though he feels a strong connection to Fanon (the author of the decolonization classic, “The Wretched of the Earth,” who died in 1961).

“Fanon played a central role in the formation of our anticolonialist consciousness,” says Khoury, speaking by phone from New York. “His discourse was essential for liberating people. So there is a constant dialogue with him and with the concept of liberation, of how people need to liberate themselves. Primarily, though, ‘White Faces’ is about a particular event – namely, the Lebanese civil war – and the distinctive experience and specific composition of the different elements of the war. The Palestinian element is central, of course, but there are also other elements and a variety of perspectives. I wrote about the absurdity of that human experience.”

Khoury was born in Beirut in the fateful year of 1948, to a middle-class Orthodox Christian family. In 1967, he moved to Jordan and joined the Palestinian Fatah movement. He left Jordan after the events of “Black September” in 1970 (when thousands of Palestinians in Jordan were killed or expelled in the wake of an attempted coup against King Hussein). Khoury saw action in the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975, and was wounded and almost lost his eyesight. When I ask him for more details, he says they are not important, adding, “Naturally, it was a harsh experience, but there are difficult experiences all the time and there is a price to be paid.”

Khoury’s name is frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he is dismissive of such talk. “It’s all rumors and not to be taken seriously,” he says. “It’s not an important subject. Possibly it is important for the Lebanese and the Palestinians, but it will change nothing, and I don’t think one thinks about such things while writing. It’s something that might or might not happen.”

‘No coherent story’

Khoury wrote “White Masks” (to use the English title) while the civil war was still raging, but after he had ceased fighting. The novel, his fourth, was first published in Arabic in 1981.

“I was culture editor of the newspaper As-Safir at the time,” he recalls. “Before that, I was the editor of Shu’un Filastiniyya [Palestinian Affairs, a PLO quarterly] and was already a writer and an intellectual. I think that intellectuals have to be involved – you cannot be an intellectual without taking a stand when there is a national-liberation struggle. I feel constantly that I am part of the struggle.”

“White Masks” tracks the story of a murdered man, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, whose body is thrown onto a garbage heap in Beirut’s UNESCO district. The novel, which is told in the form of testimonies about the murder as collected by the narrator, presents several points of view, and also incidentally tells the story of the civil war in Lebanon.

“In fact, there are testimonies about violence,” says Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, who translated the book into Hebrew (see below). “There is constant talk about violence, but the testimonies are incomplete, they are lacking, there is no coherent story. It’s like a story of post-traumatic stress disorder or of survivors – survivors of rape or the Nakba or the Holocaust. Modern political theory generally disregards violence. The violence is always beneath the surface, it is not present legitimately, but with Khoury it is very obviously present.”

Khoury depicts violence as manifested on the body, as in a coroner’s report, Shenhav-Shaharabani observes: “He is actually signifying the inability to give testimony.”

I ask Khoury about life in present-day Beirut. It’s a brutal, tough city, he says, ensconced in a small country located at a key regional crossroads. “Lebanon is a fragile country with a highly distinctive political structure,” he says, before correcting himself: “Actually, I’m not really sure it’s a structure at all, but there you go – it is what it is.”

Beirut, he adds, “is the mirror of the region, its reflection. Life today in Beirut is like being on the edge of a volcano. You feel that the volcano could become active at any moment, and of course we are at the center of the Syrian tragedy, on the one hand, and at the heart of the Palestinian tragedy, on the other.

“We are surrounded by tragedies, and we have tragedies of our own,” he notes. “Lebanon is a country that has been destroyed several times, and Beirut was almost completely destroyed by Israeli aerial bombing in the invasion of 1982. We still have a feeling that survival is the central issue, and that survival infuses life itself with meaning.”

According to Khoury, one needs to find the meaning of life in the course of the struggle for survival, and in the effort to adjust to a situation of war and violent force. With regard to the situation in the Middle East, he admits to being very pessimistic. “The war will go on. There is no peace on the horizon. Not only Israeli-Palestinian peace – which, as we see, is collapsing, and is any event next to impossible to achieve – but peace in the region overall has also entered a tragic moment. A process of revolutions is underway, and I believe it will be a long one.

“These events are also impinging on the Palestinian issue,” he adds, “which was the source of this whole terrible situation, at least in the countries around Palestine – Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – which were under the Ottoman Empire and have been undergoing a dreadful nightmare since 1948.”

Unwilling to learn

The inhabitants of this region are experiencing a protracted process of change and destruction unparalleled elsewhere in the 21st century, Khoury avers: “It is the only place in the world that is mired in such deep trouble. I think the situation here will teach us important lessons about human dignity, peace and justice. These are lessons we must learn, however costly they are.”

For his part, Khoury believes that Israelis are unwilling to learn those lessons. At the moment, “this is a highly problematic dialogue”: The Palestinians surrendered totally during the peace process, and then were rejected, he states.

“What does it mean when you surrender and are then rejected? It means that the ‘other’ does not want you to exist at all,” he argues. “When you push people to feel that their existence is under threat, both as individuals and as a collective entity, you embark on a very dangerous path that will lead to catastrophe.”

The Israelis are not interested in peace at all, he says, and the peace process is a fiction: “Israeli society is not prepared to leave the occupied territories. Israel is undergoing the same phenomenon we see across the region, of religious mania, which holds that the occupied territories are essential – Rachel’s Tomb, Jerusalem and all that messianic madness. The truth is, we are still caught in that moment when [in 1969, Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir said there is no Palestinian people. We are still there.”

The Nakba (or “catastrophe,” the Palestinians’ way of describing the founding of the State of Israel) did not just happen in 1948, Khoury says: It is an ongoing process.

“To talk about memories of the Nakba is false, because we are living the Nakba,” he explains. “We have no time for memory, because we are living the tragedy itself. Politicians will tell you something else, but I am not a politician. Historically, I do not feel that we can start anything serious unless the Nakba is brought to an end. You can see it in Israel itself, with the Palestinians who live there, whom you call ‘Israeli Arabs’ because the Israelis don’t like their real name. On top of taking their land, the Israelis took even their name.”

Does Khoury see solutions on the horizon? He thinks the Israelis need to experience defeat: “Without feeling defeat, you are not a human being. Let’s talk about ourselves as individuals, not as nations and peoples. As an individual, if you do not feel the possibility of defeat, there is a problem with your human sensitivity – because each of us, as individuals, carries the potential of defeat at some point. Israeli society has the feeling that it will not experience defeat, and the result is a type of megalomaniacal power. If the Israelis do not understand that they can be defeated, they will not change, I regret to say. I come from a society that has been defeated hundreds of times, and I know whereof I speak.”

So why did you agree to have your book translated into Hebrew and published in Israel, and why did you agree to talk to me?

“I support the boycott, but I do not boycott individuals or newspapers. We boycott institutions, which I think is a good thing for the Israelis, because it might make them aware. This is not the first time I’ve been translated into Hebrew. My novel ‘Bab al-Shams’ [English title: ‘Gate of the Sun’] was published in Hebrew in 2002 by Yael Lerer’s Andalus Publishing, and afterward Andalus published my book ‘Yalo’ [available in English under the same title]. Literature has no borders. I also read and teach Israeli literature, and that has no connection with the fact that I am in favor of the boycott of Israel.”

Do you think literature can be transformative?

“I really don’t know. I know that many books have changed my life. Dostoyevsky changed my life. Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ – which I read when I was 14 – completely transformed my life. The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish changed my life. In that sense, literature has an influence on people. And literature also changes literature. We not only read literature, we also rewrite it. Every writer contains within himself all the writers in the world, and we rewrite all of the world’s literature. But from the political point of view, I don’t know. I don’t think you read a book and then go out to foment a revolution. You read a book and it enters your subconscious; you feel close to the characters and then you effectively rewrite the book. The reader rewrites the book in his imagination.”

‘Marvelous adventure’

For Khoury, literature deals with the big questions of life, death and love. It is also the only place in which we can conduct a dialogue with the dead.

“It is a very meaningful experience,” he observes, “because when we read a book, we don’t consider whether the author is alive or dead. He speaks to us and us to him. I think this form of dialogue is essential for our understanding of life, and its meaning. Because life, after all, is meaningless – you know that, right? What we try to do in literature is to give meaning to something that is meaningless. It’s a marvelous adventure.”

In contrast to many – if not most – Israelis, who are ignorant of Arabic literature, Khoury is familiar with many of the Hebrew literary works that have been translated into English. S. Yizhar’s 1949 novella “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the Israeli army’s depopulation of an Arab village in the 1948 war (English translation published by Ibis Books, 2008), made a profound impression on him.

“That work gave me an amazing insight,” he recalls. “Yizhar tried to do something very deep. He was a Zionist, of course, he served as a member of the Knesset; he was in the Palmach [prestate military strike force]. But as a writer, he dived deep into the tragedy in order to tell us that the Israelis created their own ‘Jews.’ He describes the Palestinians in the same way that the Jews were described in Europe. So now the Jews have Jews of their own. That is a wonderful insight.

“This year,” he continues, “when I taught the novella, we talked about how literature can go beyond – not in the sense that it can be controversial, but in the deep way in which it can give us the essence of things, and Yizhar gave us the essence. Not because he told about the Israeli atrocities, which everyone knows about (or at least we do, having experienced them), but in the sense that the whole concept was to create the Jews’ Jews. It shows us that literature can take us, even without the author’s intention, into the deep essential areas, in a way that political, sociological or anthropological interpretation cannot. That is why literature is important, and in that sense is transformative.”

There is, Khoury says, a big difference between Israeli literature and Arabic literature: “There is something in Palestinian literature that no one has noticed. In 1969, Ghassan Kanafani published a novella titled ‘Returning to Haifa.’ At the time, he was a member of George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Because of that he was murdered by the Israelis [Kanafani was killed after a bomb was planted on his car in July 1972, a month or so after the Lod airport massacre] – that is clear now, because the Israelis have already admitted it.”

The writer goes on to point out that one of the characters in the novella is a Jewish woman named Miriam, a Holocaust survivor, who is portrayed in detail.

“Mahmoud Darwish, too, has a Jewish character named Rita, who is a human being,” he continues. “That shows us how the Palestinians, though they are victims, have tried to open up to the ‘other’ and understand him. Not to accept, but to understand. They will never accept; they will compromise, but they will not accept.

“But if you take contemporary Israeli literature, from Amos Oz to A.B. Yehoshua, and even Alon Hilu with his novel ‘The House of Rajani’ – how is the Palestinian represented? Either he doesn’t speak because he is deaf and dumb and exists only in Hannah’s dreams in [Amos Oz’s] ‘My Michael’; or the Palestinians are part of the geography, as in Yizhar, or even for Oz in his short story ‘Nomad and Viper.’ In Yehoshua, the Palestinian is mute or a child, like Na’im in ‘The Lover.’ Even with David Grossman – the most open of the writers – in, say, ‘The Smile of the Lamb,’ the Palestinian is an insane character.

“The truth is that there is no Palestinian. It’s a big question, why there are no Palestinians in Israeli literature, and if there are, they are very marginal, they are a shadow. Whereas in the literature of the victims, all you have to do is read Kanafani and how he writes about Miriam to understand that to be defeated makes you more human.”

‘Colonial relationship between languages’

Prof. Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani, who translated “White Masks” into Hebrew from the original Arabic, is well aware that Israelis are turned off by Arabic literature. He bought the book in London, he says, and found that he could not go on reading it without also translating it. In fact, he translated it without knowing whether there would be a publisher, and without knowing whether Khoury would agree to have it published in Hebrew at all. In the meantime, the professor has also completed the translation of another Khoury novel, “The Journey of Little Gandhi,” which will be published in Hebrew next year.

“Since the demise of Yael Lerer’s Andalus publishing house, which undertook the great and important project of translating Arabic literature into Hebrew, Arab writers are not being translated, because no one here is interested in Arabic literature,” Shenhav-Shaharabani says.

“Do you know how many Israeli Jews are fluent in Arabic? Two percent. It’s outrageous! And how many Palestinians in Israel speak Hebrew? Ninety-two percent. What does that say about someone coming to a place and not speaking the language? That you are a tourist, or a chance tenant? It’s not logical. It shows the colonial relationship even between the languages.”

It’s only recently that Shenhav-Shaharabani, who was one of the founders of Keshet Hamizrahi Sephardi Democratic Rainbow – an advocacy group promoting rights of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) – has been translating from Arabic. He sees this as one way to express his Arab-Jewish identity. His own relationship toward Arabic started out as conflicted, he notes: “In my youth, I absolutely loathed the language, which is what was spoken at home.”

He did not return to Arabic in a serious way until 10 years ago, “and I had to learn it from scratch, including reading and writing.” Now he has another six translations on the way.

“I have come to love Hebrew even more since I started to translate from Arabic,” he notes. “The languages are so close, like twins.”