I met Mr. Elias Khoury in Bucharest just before he presented his last book, The Children of the Ghetto – My name is Adam, at Bookfest, an international book fair held annually not only in the Romanian capital, but also in other cities across the country. His novel was recently translated in Romanian by Polirom Publishing House, and I was very honored to ask Mr. Khoury several questions about his book, about how he conceives literature, its meaning, its relation to reality and act of writing itself.
Pentru versiunea în limba română a interviului, click aici.
My first question is about your latest novel, The Children of the Ghetto, recently translated into Romanian. At some point, in the first part of the novel, Adam declares: “My loneliness is my writing”. How do you perceive the writer’s condition and the act itself of writing? Is it similar to Adam’s stance? Does loneliness define the writer’s condition?
Writing is a very contradictory act. It is done with and through others, so the writer is surrounded by others. But the act of writing itself can only be done alone. This loneliness is a very problematic thing: what does it mean to be alone? I don’t think anyone can be alone at any time, I think we are surrounded by the ghosts of others, by the ghosts of our lives, of our experiences, but in the end you feel that, as a writer, you have to make your decisions alone. Writing is a very complicated act, that has a sort of double nature. First, it is an act of love: you cannot write if you don’t love. Why write about others if you do not love? And it is also an act of death, because writing is a kind of profound communication with the unknown, with the dead – only writing can speak with the people who died and can bring them back. So in this sense, yes, you are lonely, you feel in the end that you are very lonely, because no one can save you. You are totally left on your own, you are totally left to your destiny, as if the words that you are writing are writing you, as if you are just a sentence.
And not even the text can save you, in the end?
I don’t think anything can save anyone.
Adam also says at some point that he writes to forget, not to remember, and I was wondering what was your purpose in writing your latest novel, The Children of the Ghetto: to ease the process of forgetting the pain or to help people remember?
Both. I think that in the end the novel tells a very tragic experience. The problem of this experience is that it didn’t end, that the Palestinian tragedy is still continuing to this day. Normally, when the tragedy ends, you write it, and writing becomes an act of healing, a way of forgetting. When you make a monument of your pain, then you forget it. In the case of Palestine, you cannot make a monument of the pain, because it is still there. The experience did not end, so the novel is an attempt to make a monument of pain, but this attempt is impossible, so Children of the Ghetto becomes the contradictory combination of two things: forgetting and remembering. This is one of the main specificities of writing about a continuous tragedy. Normally, we write about tragedies when they end, and in this case the tragedy has been happening for so long, that you cannot wait till it ends. So why are we writing about it? Actually, writing is a part of the pain, words are wounds, instead of being words. So it is an attempt to pace your destiny, to look at the tragedy when it is still there. I think this is what gives the book its special touch, because Adam is trying to reconstruct himself, his memories and actually destroys himself instead in the end.
Your novel is based on testimonies from Palestinians who lived in the ghettos. How long did it take to do the research needed to write Children of the Ghetto?
There were two types of research. The first was not actually research, it meant talking with people without having the idea of writing about them. The story was not there, I was not planning to write it, I was just astonished to discover something which was not known: that during the Israeli invasion of Palestine, Palestinians who didn’t leave their cities were put in ghettos. These places were named ghettos by the Israeli army. This was not known at all. So I was trying to investigate on the marge of my work, because I was writing another novel at that time. At one moment the personality of Adam began to take shape, and from then I worked at collecting the material. The investigation as investigation, a long process of getting familiar with his material, of reading, meeting people, gathering testimonies of the life inside the ghetto, took around three years.
I would also like to ask you what do we officially know about the ghettos from a historiographical point of view? What more can you tell us about this phenomenon and its extent?
Actually, historians never mention it, I haven’t read any historical account about it, neither from Palestinian historians, Israeli historians or European ones. The only thing I found written about the ghettos were some memoires of people from the city of Lydda and Haifa, who only mentioned the ghetto. This was during the first year of research. After the book got published two years ago in Arabic, everyone speaks now about the ghettos, but before, you never heard about them.
Literature can thus become a substitute of history, a sort of historical account?
Literature is the history of ordinary people, while History is the history of states, of power, of winners. The defeated cannot write history. The Palestinians are a completely destroyed people, all that is left for them is to write stories and to try to tell their experience. And what I was doing was not writing a book of history, but a story. Inside a story we happen to discover something, to put it forward and this something is very relevant: it can be a real symbol of the destiny of this people, who is still confronted with a difficult situation. This people is being denied the right to live in its land.
Is the chest in which Waddah Al-Yaman is burried a metaphor of Palestine?
This was the plan of Adam, to write a novel. It actually began with writing this story of the poet who died enclosed in a box, because he was buried alive after the king discovered he was his wife’s lover. So Adam’s plan was to write a metaphor. And so the first part of Children of the Ghetto is the plan of Adam’s novel. When he finds out that his own story, his life, is false, that he is not the son of his parents, and everything had been a lie, he decides to write instead about his personal experience. So he doesn’t want to use a metaphor anymore, but to write about reality. But while writing reality, he is frightened that his own story can become a metaphor. This is what Mamoun, the blind man, tells him when they meet, after a very long time, in New York: I always thought about your story as being a metaphor of Palestine. He is then terrified of the idea that he will never be able to escape the metaphor and to become real. This is the interior tension of the novel: someone who is trying to evade metaphors, but can become himself at any moment a metaphor. In everything that he writes he is trying to destroy the metaphorical dimension of his life, to speak about his life as a normal one, about his real experience. He tries to avoid any mythical approach to his writing, because for him writing is a coffin – he is covering himself with words. This is why he doesn’t want to publish this book, that will be eventually published by someone else, who found it and gave it to a publisher. For Adam, the novel was only the story of the young poet buried alive, the rest is an account of his life. This is why the book is a combination of stories, literary criticism, contemplations and everything you can imagine. He never wanted to publish it as a novel.
That is another aspect I wanted to ask you about: why did you choose this very heterogeneous formula for your novel? And what is your conception of the novel in general?
The history of the novel is very interesting, because the novel, the modern one, began with Don Quixote. And Don Quixote is not a novel as we understand the genre today, it is a combination of very different things. With the development of rationalism, the novel changed completely, towards realism, Flaubert etc. And now, in our postmodern times, we see that rationalism is meaningless, it cannot work anymore, so the novel is going back towards an open form, that we can find in One Thousand and One Nights. In the book, you have a narrator, a woman, and each character will enter the story and become a narrator, and this goes on forever. The story is totally open. I think this form can nowadays represent better the chaotic world in which we live. The rational concept was that the world is logical, that it is going forward, but now we don’t know where the world is going, it’s open. For me, this heterogeneous form is the adequate one to tell a story. I cannot tell a story in the old rationalistic way.
A recurrent theme in your novel is the judging of the victims. Does this seem a sort of general human attitude throughout history?
The thing that the Jews went through in the racist Europe of the Second World War was terrifying. But this gives the Palestinian story a very profound dimension, because the Palestinians are the victims of the victims, so they are double victims. And because they were the victims of the victims, nobody wanted to hear their story. So putting these two facts as mirrors to each other will give us the profound tragedy that people live now in Palestine. Politically speaking, the new Israeli right-wing wave is making things seem very simple and is transforming Israel into a classical apartheid system and actually destroying the Jewish spirit. But this is another story. To get back to our story, Adam actually lived a very complex victimization, he comes from a city that was totally destroyed, 90% of the population was kicked out by force from the city by the Israeli army, there was a huge massacre that took place in 1948, and he was trying to adapt. So he tried to study Hebrew literature, to integrate, but it was impossible for him. He finds himself as someone who is witnessing the madness of history. He doesn’t put it like that, he puts it as witnessing the blindness of history. That is what he is trying to tell us, this story and his point of departure is not only his personal tragedy, but also his personal love story. He was in love with a woman and at some point he discovered that this love disappeared. This astonished him and this made him lose the basis of his life, because we all understand how love begins, but we don’t understand how it ends. Unfortunately, like everything else, love ends. And so he was trying to answer himself, to put these questions forward and to try to answer them. I don’t know if he came to any answer, but at least he will come to formulate profound human questions which are not Palestinian or Jewish questions, they are human questions.
Adam doesn’t seem to have a coherent identity, he is born in the ghetto, he has this symbolical name, and he dies in flames far away from home, in New York. Is he the image of a humanity that has failed?
What I thought was that I am before an itinerary of life which is very rich, very interesting, and very sad. All stories are sad, because we all die. Somebody asks you: I want a novel with a beautiful ending. There are no beautiful endings, any real story will end by death. What I felt was that this novel is also about literature, about writing, about how, when we write, we rewrite others and how what is left in the end before us is a text, a huge text written by hundreds and hundreds of writers, as if all writers are writing one book. Which I would call The Book of Death. This is the whole issue of Adam.
I am not trying to say life is meaningless, life is meaningful: if you eat good food, that is enough to give life a meaning, if you love a woman or have children, it is enough for some to give life a meaning, but in the end it is of course absurd. Especially for someone like me who has no faith: I don’t believe in gods. So the meaning of things are the things themselves, the meaning of the experience lies in the experience itself, the meaning of life is this existence and survival. Survival is the meaning of life, there is not meaning of life outside it. And what Adam was trying to do all his life was to survive. In the end, he dies because he cannot escape this destiny. When he went to New York, he wanted to have a new beginning, and to become a writer. Ok, he worked in this restaurant, but actually his plan was to write a huge novel, which he didn’t write, unfortunately, about the poet Waddah Al-Yaman, metaphor, literature, poetry and love. Then, he will meet again Mamoun, the blind man from his childhood, and he will see this movie (it will appear again in the third volume of the novel) that speaks about the experience of Dalia, his lover. The movie is about a friend of Dalia’s, who committed suicide and the director didn’t know anything, he just took the story of the suicide and made a movie out of it, which made Adam mad. He was also mad because he didn’t know his own story and I don’t think he came to know it in the end. He never tried to search for his real parents, for him it was meaningless. He went mad because he didn’t know his reality and then, when he was faced with this fact, he didn’t search for it. His reality was in the end meaningless.
He also says that Palestine should become a text and that literature shouldn’t have or communicate a message. So does literature have to be a sort of art for art’s sake?
I don’t like this term, but you know, the aim of literature is to become like music. The real work of writers is on the musicality of the text. This takes the most of our time. We try to arrive at the harmony that doesn’t have a message, in the sense that I don’t have to tell it to you, but you, as a reader, will find the message that you want. This is how we listen to music, and this is how we read literature. Actually, great literature is like that, every time we read classical literature, we give it a different interpretation, because it’s like music. If you go back to Hamlet, it was a story about a struggle for the throne, but this is not important anymore. Every generation will give it a new interpretation. So this is the aim of literature, this doesn’t mean it has no message, it has, let’s say, multiple messages.
And also Adam believes that characters are more important than writers, that the Idiot is more important that Dostoïevsky, for example. I was wondering if you think the same thing, that characters are more real than reality itself?
The truth is reality is our memories about reality. And we are not sure that our memories are real. When you try to remember together with someone an incident that happened, let’s say, ten years ago, you will discover that everyone remembers it in a different way. Whereas literature will create a reality that goes beyond reality, that classical Arabic critics called the meaning of meaning. That is, the meaning that is beyond meaning, that we do not see. So in this sense literature is more real.
You said that The Children of the Ghetto is the first part of a trilogy. Can you give us more details about your present work and about the upcoming volumes?
I am just finishing the second volume, so I don’t know how it will come out, but the plan, when I started the novel, was to write a trilogy. Adam will continue to tell the story of his life.
So he will also tell the story of Palestine up to this day?
Yes, the story ends in 2005. In the second volume, he will go to Haifa, with his mother, who marries another man. This is only mentioned in the first volume. And then his experience in Haifa: he will go to school, then to University… The most important thing in the second volume is the discovery of the new husband of his mother, portrayed as a very bad man. His story was actually a huge tragedy.
In the first volume, there were two recurrent themes, that of the father wanting to kill his son and as a result, that of the son wanting to kill his father, the myth of Oedipus.
Yes, Adam’s fathers killed him, he was left by his biological father, then by Mamoun, who left the ghetto earlier. One of his biggest problems is that he doesn’t know his real name. Of course, when he was born, his parents gave him a name, but he doesn’t know it. The name Adam was given to him by the people of the ghetto, because he was the first born there. His major problem is not as Freud would put it, the Oedipus problem, but that of the fathers who killed their son. This is how history began, with Abraham.
Can we see a parallel between the destiny of Adam and that of Palestine, who was abandoned by the Western world?
Yes, if you want, of course.
But did you have that in mind?
No, of course not. I don’t like symbolism at all. I was telling the story of a real man, a story related to a very profound experience. In the end, Adam isn’t a metaphor, he is just like us.
The first language in which you wanted this book to be translated was Hebrew. What were the reactions in Israel?
The book came out a month ago, and till now there is only one review, that came out in Haaretz, it’s written in English by Avraham Burg. I am waiting for other reactions to appear. But because my previous novel, The Gate of the Sun, tells the story of the Palestinian exodus and the French perspective on Nakba, there were a lot of very different reactions after its translation in Hebrew. Everybody thought it was good literature, but there were some who were wondering if what I wrote was accurate or not. These stories of the exodus and of massacres that took place in the villages are testimonies that I collected from the people that lived them. Now, my translator in Hebrew just called me two days ago to tell me that the first edition of The Children of the Ghetto was sold out and that they are making a new edition. It is a great sign. It came out in French, now it is coming out in English, in October, I think.