I’m posting this list of participants in Israeli war crimes in Gaza 2008-09 principally because the British government wants to dilute universal jurisdiction so as to welcome them, some quite specifically, to these shores. It’s hard to think of anything more sickening or shameful. However, first Gordon Brown’s government and now this curio of a government, ‘Justice’ Minister Ken Clarke specifically, wants to encourage more suspected/seasoned war criminals to visit Britain. Rather than prevent or punish acts as abhorrent as those committed by the state of Israel in Gaza alone, they want to promote, praise and pull in more killers like this not -as I say- to put them on trial and imprison them in perpetuity but to sit down to lunch and revive trade in arms and ‘intelligence’. I guess that this is the paragon of western civility that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had to die for in an effort to promote “our” values? Yes that is precisely one of the things it is…
I enjoy unlikeliness and it seemed unlikely to me that Candia McWilliam would find herself in Edward Said’s memoir of his early life; Out of Place: A Memoir [Granta 1999]. That she does so in her own memoir [What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness Cape 2010/Vintage 2011] is one of many endearing things about it and its author. Also a high recommendation for Said and his own memoir.
I spent a number of mornings in June this year running past one end of Edward Sa’id Street in Ramallah, actualising the way he and his work feature near the beginning of my adult life and have been returned to repeatedly ever since. I’m posting an old review I did for The Independent of his collection of pieces The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after [Granta 1999 -out of print/PenguinRandomHouseUS 2001 -linked] [BELOW]. Read almost anything of Said’s [especially on the question of Palestine] and the absence of a voice like his today makes you weep.
Slavoj Zizek London 1998 [photo Mykel Nicolaou]
I first met Slavoj Zizek in Bloomsbury in 1998 to conduct a relaxedly spontaneous, short but full-blooded interview in what I was to discover is the authentic Zizekian mode. I knew his work, had seen him speak, admired his reworking of various Idealists more than the brilliant-but-familiar bug-eyed film theorist and, armed only with a dodgy autobiographical preface, wondered about who he was. I’ve just found the 22,000 word transcript of that first meeting. Afterwards we wandered through Georgian Squares in the University quarter and he graciously accompanied me as far as possible whilst exchanging gossip eagerly, before cutting back to a meeting.
That initial meeting was something of a rehearsal for a plan for me to go to Ljubljana -before easyjet!- to spend a week doing a series of focused interviews. Whilst in that memorably lively city, Zizek would introduce me to key figures from Slovenia’s recent underground; activists, politicos, Laibach, Mladen Dolar and the Lacanian gang, etc. Those sessions produced 14 hours of tape containing dense and agile theorising, but the generous backers of my trip bottled out of publishing the resulting coup [editor had been ‘moved on’, their ‘reliable’ stand-in quoted Bertrand Russell approvingly, as in ‘the only thing I know about Hegel is what Bertrand Russell said…” Weep] -as was always an open possibility. A possibility that had liberated me to do it fully and properly.
Thereafter, there were some telephone conversations and emails and Zizek sent me his “Kosovo 4.99” piece on the double bind of supporting exceptionally belated foreign intervention to stop Serbian fascism’s campaign of ethnic cleansing; Against the Double Blackmail. A phrase from a clarifying phone call I made to him went in to the first substantial piece published on him in a UK journal [below] around publication of The Ticklish Subject and The Zizek Reader in 1999.
The so-called “Kosovo 4.99” text Zizek sent me was then staged as an exhibition of wall-texts [with a pirate radio installation by Gregory Green] at Cubitt Gallery and as an insert in the pages of Third Text magazine. I came across the original email to me with that ‘lost’ interview transcript. At the time I asked Cubitt to remove the note from SZ with thanks to me from their website because I was embarrassed! Somehow, they took the whole text down instead. After all this time, I’m linking to a pdf of it below with no shame at all.
I was wrong to describe it [earlier] as out of print, since it’s available in the US from Lynne Rienner Publishers here. LRP do have a London office too; the two Kanafani books I link to below are available from their UK distributors here. [I’m correcting my original post which criticised the lack of an equivalent British publisher. Does it matter in our cowardly new world? I think it does actually, yes.]
Men in the Sun [Rijal fi-al-shams [1962/3] was one of the first books by a Palestinian writer I read; entry point, beginning. I admired it first time up but wasn’t able to get a real hold on it or place it in a wider [Palestinian] literature.
I expect that this is a common experience in general, although if Mourid Barghouti‘s classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is a similar entry point for many today -as anecdotal experience suggests- the effect will also differ. MB’s book is more self-contained in this sense, its brilliant opening chapter The Bridge carries the voice of these men in the sun [amongst many others and much else] back home. Readers familiar with both will, I hope, forgive the purposive crudity of such an analogy.
I re-read Men in the Sun recently in a slim and very simply produced Heinemann/Three Continents Press edition [it first arrived in English in American University of Cairo Press, AUC, whose excellent back- and ongoing list is emerging through the wonderful Arabia Books in the UK] I was almost shocked by just how good it is; beautifully spare prose, precise and haunting altogether and, so far as I can tell, very well translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.
So why did I have to rely on the British Library to read it? I ask the question still even though my persisting with it did elicit a link to its blameless distributor in London through its entirely admirable publisher based in Boulder, Colorado. I leave it to you to decide or tell me whether it makes any difference…
This is an audio of Richard Hamilton’s talk, currently up on the Serpentine Gallery’s site. I’ve made extensive notes of what is newest in it below, which concentrates on previously unexhibited work towards the end of the talk. Most of the 119 minutes here is RH himself; beginning at 11 mins in and ending at 87 mins after which is a short discussion with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The audio ends at 109 mins in fact.
Much of what he says about individual pieces through his career he has said before in interviews recently republished in Richard Hamilton October Files 10, for example. However, even if you know those well it’s different, of course, to hear how he talks about the word pop and his emphases, hesitations, digressions in general. Especially interesting is what he has to say about Palestinian dispossession and the work it has generated.
RH starts by saying he wants “to give you some impression of what my work is about” beyond the political works at the Serpentine show. So he begins with the “cool fifties”;
Hers is a lush situation . “So much was happening at that time … I was fascinated in the uncertainty principle for example … influence I felt most was that it was not a good idea to get involved in value judgments …“
Hal Foster is, as ever, good on the transition from “the “tabular” pictures in the late 1950s. This suite of paintings, still too little known, explores the emergent visual idioms of postwar consumer society … in a mode of suave pastiche…
In subsequent work by Hamilton, this satirical edge subsides, yet a political dimension persists. It is often subtle, however, because Hamilton is concerned to capture less the political event than its mediation -how it is produced for us precisely as an image- and it is this mediation that he both elaborates and exposes.” [my emphasis]
It was a bleakly difficult year. The consequences of a series of deaths and accidents were felt thickly while I struggled with the scale and depths of my research on Gujarat, committed to writing a book worthy of a fascinating people/place and my own journeying ‘to the end’. Simultaneously, global indifference to the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of Palestinians combined unique chronicness with acute horror to maddening effect.
What to do, exactly?
Click on cover to ‘see inside’
Ahdaf’s brilliant piece on Palestinian writers, in particular, lit a double pathway. It reminded me why critical journalism can be worthwhile and inspired the discovery of a way to channel outrage into something positive and productive.
Surely part of the reason Britain has supported the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, part of the reason the British government raced into Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is willful ignorance. Ignorance about the people, their history and a culture only perceived mutely at the end of a gun, as a cross on a screen inside an aerial bomber or a cruise missile launcher.
I decided to discover as much as I could about Arabic and particularly Palestinian writing in English and to champion it in any way I could. In those 6 years there has been some increased attention beyond 2 or 3 best sellers but, just for instance, why is the assassinated Ghassan Kanafani so hard to get hold of in the UK [on this see here]?
More recently, I’ve been learning Arabic and because of the unique way in which it opens up the culture I would advocate a campaign to make a British passport holder fluent in Arabic for every bullet and bomb aimed at an Arabic-speaker in this century, never mind the last.
Take Iraq alone; if for every hundred thousand Iraqis killed by the angels of Democracy, there were an equivalent hundred thousand new Arabic speakers in Britain…
Meanwhile, in her introductory preface to Mezzaterra [dated London June 2004] AS wrote: “Personally, I find the situation so grave that in the last four years I have written hardly anything which does not have direct bearing on it. The common ground, after all, is the only home that I and those whom I love can inhabit.”
Towards the end of the preface she wrote; “The question of Palestine is of paramount importance not just because of humanitarian concerns about the plight of Palestinians. It matters that now, in full view of the world and in utter defiance of the mechanisms the international community has put into place to regulate disputes between nations, a favoured state can commit vast illegal acts of brutality and be allowed to gain by them. If the world allows Israel to steal the West Bank and Jerusalem and to deny the history of the people it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 then the world will have admitted it is a lawless place and the world will suffer the consequences of this admission.“
This is to put it as gently -with hard earnt civility and width of appeal- as possible. Six years on settlement activity has flourished and is ongoing, Palestinians [and Lebanese] have been massacred, partly with US dollars and British military equipment, part of Palestine remains under total siege, anyone brave or desperate enough to protest or object is bombed to pieces by a state that is a close ally of the US/UK and EU. At the same time Britain’s fantastically profitable supermarkets are full of reliably cheap Israeli produce.
Instead of making any substantive attempt to stay this aberrant hand the British government has sought ways to weaken the application of International jurisdiction as it applies in Britain, so as to encourage links from the perpetrators of what the UN describes as war crimes. When Rudolf Hess fled to Britain from a mortifying regime he was imprisoned for life. Now the British establishment welcomes leaders who are not fleeing but arrive proud and boastful about their very own mortifying regime.
When despair is insistent it must be resisted. Resistance of this and all kinds is the propellant along an inexorable path towards justice; the easily achieved human justice of courts and a more open and potent recognition of truth. The rhetorical arc of Never Again peaked and fell into Yet Again during my own lifetime but that doesn’t reduce the universal import or urgency of achieving substantial justice in this particular instance. Free Palestine any which way but minus the cant.
Here are some links to directly related pieces by AS:
‘Under the Gun A Palestinian Journey’ The Guardian Dec. 2000 here.
Pt 2 ‘Our World is Upside Down’ here.
‘Do Something’ The Guardian Letter to Blair April 2002 here.
‘The Waiting Game’ The Guardian Nov 2003 here.
NB In between came ‘Palestinian Writers’ The Guardian Sept 2004; an abridgement of an excellent essay republished in Mezzaterra on the richness of Palestinian writers and writing. It is not online.
‘The Palestinians say; “This is a war of extermination”‘. The Guardian Jan 2009 here.
PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature 2010, is ongoing here.
Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground,
by Ahdaf Soueif
A glimpse of hope in a polarised world
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Tuesday, 9 November 2004
Ahdaf Soueif is best known for The Map of Love, a novel which did much to open up the minds of English-speaking readers to Egyptian modernity. It brilliantly interwove the love affair of an English colonial woman and an Egyptian nationalist in the early 20th century with a burgeoning national “renaissance”, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.
That book followed an earlier novel and two collections of stories. However, the political writing she began in 2000 with Under the Gun has made her a writer of special importance. Mezzaterra includes “The Waiting Game”, her brave, despairing return to the occupied heart of Palestine, and a recent portrait of Palestinian writers under existential siege.
Mezzaterra‘s second half, literary pieces from two decades in London, is the surprising bonus. It includes reviews of writers from Jean Genet and Amitav Ghosh to Philip Hensher, along with pieces on al-Jazeera, Islamic “queens” and “the veil”: a term without an Arabic equivalent. Each exhibits Soueif’s demanding exactitude, whereby she will apologise for making “small points” before demonstrating their full import. Words, she proves repeatedly, matter.
Soueif is obsessed with language and power, the way words like “freedom” and international laws are abused when applied to Islamic contexts. She dissects sloppy mistranslations of Arabic and ideological clichés about Islam. More subtle difficulties loom when transliterating her own name from the Arabic as Soueif, in contrast to her brother, Ala Swafe. Reviewing William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal, she takes elegant revenge for Ala’s anonymously belittled efforts to coach the author in such subtleties.
The brilliance of this collection lies in Soueif’s linkage of “small” things to universal categories. She praises her friend Edward Said for being “human”, “fair” and “inclusive”, qualities that describe the “mezzaterra” of her title. This common ground, where differences enrich rather than clash, is civilisation. A “with us or against us” world, with its “war on terror” and “peace process”, is the opposite.
Souief is transfixed by the Palestinian uprising. She writes, contra Said, of having always felt “essentially in place: Egyptian, Muslim”*. So, writing about Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in front of a wilfully diverted world, her combination of centred gravity, minute precision and insistent humanity generates highly clarified truth.
The truth makes for bleak reading, as her nightmares materialise in massive new Israeli settlements. “And yet there is still hope,” she writes, even in ravaged Ramallah where Palestinian writers like Liana Badr and Adania Shibli** shape exquisite stories against chronic injustice. The only real hope is for “a viable Palestine”. Although it may require courage, take these marvellous essays to heart.
* AS does write this here, but I’m aware that she has also described a more complex relationship to this identity during earlier years of living in Britain. In 1999 for example she explained to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at The Independent that “15 years ago I think I might have said I was both Egyptian and English. Now I long for Egypt. I feel an anxiety that I am not in Egypt more often; that I am in this place but not of it.”
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Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award (Updated Apr2018) aka the Dublin Lit Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as I did. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories shattering any last delusions/illusions.
I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession -which obviously undermines her fondness for exception and the you-can’t-be-entirely-serious rhetoric around “winners”. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head . Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year about Rachel Corrie’s Journals (link to myth-busting re RC not CO’s toxic piece) is not included.
Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon (not yet; Apr 2018!). Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance (in every sense and so its own limit) of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts (hmmm and hmmm again and again). Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.
Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.
If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.
So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.
We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.
Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.
We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that. Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.
Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.
Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”
These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.
Elias Khoury’s Yalo was one of my stones stepped in 2009 [see Categories] and it’s on the long-list for The Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, announced here. Competition is stiff, needless to say, but I hope it wins.
I posted a link to the interview-based piece I did around the seminal publication in English of Bab-al shams [Gate Of the Sun] in 2005 -the first of its kind in English- and now post it below. Gate of the Sun is a monumental work of fiction; a brilliant creative achievement which is both important and highly accessible. That is, it’s so compelling that there’s no excuse for not realising the necessity of reading it.
In the US Archipelago Books is promising two new Khoury titles; a novel called White Masks in 2010 and another novel As Though She Were Sleeping in 2011. There are already two more works of fiction published in the US by university presses. I’m looking forward to the day when his critical writing becomes available to the English-speaking world.
Wherever you start with Khoury [an earlier novel, Little Mountain Collins Harvill 1990 is out of print] you’ll be hungry for more.
Elias Khoury: Myth and memory in the Middle East
Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is one of the leading lights of Arab literature. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him
Friday, 18 November 2005
Elias Khoury is the kind of writer who wins the Nobel Prize for literature to sneers from the English-speaking world. When the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was greeted in this way in 1989, the late scholar and activist Edward Said remarked sagely that “Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded” of major world literatures. At the same time, Said pointed to the future, celebrating the promising achievements of Khoury – a “brilliant figure” – and Mahmoud Darwish: a Lebanese and a Palestinian writer respectively.
The word “brilliant” is etched across Khoury’s new novel, Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker, £17.99) and on my mind when we meet in London for lunch. His reputation as a novelist, critic, commentator, editor and academic with real political commitment is formidable. Khoury came to prominence in Lebanon – and therefore the Arab world – in the mid-1970s. Still in his twenties, he was working in the Palestine Research Centre, editing the literary pages of its journal and writing his second novel, Little Mountain, which re-worked his experiences in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 almost as they happened.
“It’s meaningless!” he thunders, when I ask him what it means to be Lebanese. Then, speaking rapidly, he develops a characteristic response which ends with a modified repetition of the phrase. In between, he sketches a history of Lebanon’s many civil wars since the 19th century, describes similarities in dialect and cuisine between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and asserts that “I feel more Beiruti. If you are a Beiruti, you are an Arab. You are open to all types of cultures, and to innovating in the Arabic culture at the same time. You are in the Lebanese dilemmas and you are so near to Palestine”. So you feel “that the Palestinian tragedy is part of your life.”
By this he means sheer physical proximity – “It’s a matter of 100 kilometres” – but also that he has grown up with the Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948, the year of his birth. All of this is the subject of the epic Gate of the Sun, which has already been cheered in Arabic, Hebrew and French editions during the seven years it took to arrive in this elegant English translation by Humphrey Davies.
Gate of the Sun, or Bab El Shams, is an attempt to render the Palestinian nakba – or “catastrophe” – of 1948 and its tortuous aftermath. Specifically, it contains the stories and lives of people whose ancestral villages in Galilee, now in northern Israel, were “wiped out of existence”, forcing them into desperate flight by land and sea to Lebanon.
“Actually,” says Khoury, “I was writing a story about Galilee, because it’s in-between” and home to many Palestinian writers, including Darwish. “I was not writing a history of Palestine. Of course, many ask why it was a Lebanese not a Palestinian who wrote this story. I really don’t know. What I know is from the experience of the Palestinians I worked with,” he explains.
The nakba of 1948 was “a shame, a total defeat; it’s a disaster, a real personal disaster. There are stories here about the woman who left her child, about a woman who killed her child. So it’s not easy to talk about. The Palestinians did not realise, and if they realised they did not believe that this could happen, because actually this is something unbelievable.”
Khoury had the initial impulse to turn stories he heard in refugee camps into a memorial narrative in the 1970s. He spent much of the 1980s gathering “thousands of stories” before writing this extraordinarily accomplished novel. Gate of the Sun is essentially a love story set in a world turned upside down. It involves a dying fighter called Yunis and his wife Naheeleh, an internal refugee in Galilee, whose relationship forms during stolen visits across the border to a cave renamed Bab El Shams. The cave is “a house, and a village, and a country”, and “the only bit of Palestinian territory that’s been liberated”. It produces a “secret nation”: a family of seven children who have borne four more Yunises by the end of the book.
However, this is no parable. For Khoury, “Yunis, of course, is a hero. He used to go to Galilee, he used to cross the borders… but in the end we discover that he was nothing, that Naheeleh was this whole story; her relationship with the children, and how she actually defended life. In the refugee camps I met hundreds of women like Naheeleh. Then it’s no more a metaphor. It’s very realistic.”
This reality is the “revolution of actual work carried out by our mothers”, which the poet Mourid Barghouti articulates so well in his memoir I Saw Ramallah. It is “realised every day, without fuss and without theorising”.
Khoury’s story of love and survival is told by Khaleel, an untrained “doctor” at a redundant hospital in Shatila refugee camp. Shatila was the site of a notorious massacre in 1982, overseen by an Israeli army commanded by Ariel Sharon. During the months that Khaleel attends to Yunis’s lifeless body, he stitches together his honorary father’s stories in order to bring him out of coma. Gradually, Khaleel’s own story emerges: of his love for a female fighter called Shams, and his experience of the camp massacre.
If this evokes the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade tells stories to keep herself alive, it’s the structure and act of telling that are important. Edward Said praised Khoury’s innovations in Little Mountain and the author takes the compliment, but says that “when I came to write Little Mountain, I discovered that real experimentation is not intellectual”. Instead, you have to “go deep to your own experience”.
In 1967, aged 19, Khoury travelled alone to Amman to join the Palestinian resistance after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. In 1970 he finished his studies in Paris before writing his fictional debut, a nouveau roman. In 1975 he fought for revolutionary change in Lebanon, his disillusionment captured elegantly by Little Mountain. These years involved “a very deep engagement about what is justice, what is a human being and what is life”.
It is this experimenting with life, combined with such testing experience of it, that makes his writing less “experimental” in the literary sense than naturalistic. Crucially, he developed a faith in oral narratives; encompassing both the colloquial forms used in telling a story, and the non-classical type of Arabic that such stories are told in. “I don’t think there is any story we live from the beginning to the end,” he says. In this novel, “the structure is oral telling – openness. That is, you begin a story, you enter another story, and then you come back”.
In the novel, Khaleel complains about fugitive “snatches” of story that he’s struggling to remember and narrate. He blames the influence of tarab, the ecstasy generated by the rhythms of Arabic music and – by extension – poetry for the sidelining of descriptive skills. Khoury elaborates: “It’s repetitive, but every time you repeat, you change. Also in prose you create music, repeating the same story three, four, five times, and every time it’s a very slight difference. This is the Thousand and One Nights, this is the musicality of the oral and this is tarab.”
One of the results is that it produces “suspense from a totally different perspective. If you want to know what will happen to Yunis, he will die, so close the book and go home; but it’s another type of suspense.” It is this rhythmic accumulation of story that makes Gate of the Sun so unexpectedly compelling. It’s also this democratic form of telling which has enabled Khoury to approach the subject; to piece together fragments into a masterfully executed novel. The resulting mosaic of suggestive truths complicates any simple metaphorical reading while returning over and over again to discrete realities.
“Reality,” he summarises, “can become metaphor or a myth. But a myth, if it will become a reality, it’s the most savage thing in the world. The Israeli project is to make a myth into reality. This is the problem.”
Khoury’s iteration of inconvenient realities is rigorously ethical. It is there in his responsibility towards Jewish history as well as to Palestinian dispossession, and in his novel’s investigation of love’s work. It informs his efforts to modernise Arabic by means of colloquial speech, and his commitment to grassroots democratic movements in Lebanon and Syria.
Khoury’s experience of life has generated a sophisticated optimism. He takes the long view, having resettled in the ancestral home in Beirut from which he was driven in the 1970s. He is both worldly and warm, a man of heart as well as passionate intellect. Nothing is off-limits and he answers every question fully even though we have, literally, eaten into preparation time for an evening reading. Before parting, though, I must ask the author of Gate of the Sun about the theory that “to narrate is to return”.
“No, I think that to narrate is to reconstruct, to appropriate but,” he breaks into a story from one of his novels before resuming, “one of the biggest, er, pleasures of the Palestinians was to regain your name, to be Palestinians. And once you regain your name – and I think this is narration, to regain the name – then you prepare yourself to go: that is, to create a Palestine, not to return to a Palestine which was.” These paradoxes and “pleasures” find potent resolution in Gate of the Sun. It’s a novel that will outlive us.
Biography: Elias Khoury
Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948, to an Orthodox Christian family in the East Beirut district known as Little Mountain. As a sociology undergraduate, he volunteered for Fatah, the military wing of the Palestinian revolution. During the 1970s he worked in PLO organisations in Beirut, and helped found the journal al-Karmel with the poet Mahmoud Darwish. He speaks Arabic, French, English, Syriac and “a little Hebrew”. Author of 11 novels, four non-fiction books and three plays, he also scripted a film of Gate of the Sun. The novel is published by Harvill Secker this month. Khoury is now an editor with the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He lives with his wife in his great-grandfather’s house on Little Mountain.
I want to write something simple, direct and therefore probably clumsy about what is going on when established art critics ignore and/or get snippy about a piece like Richard Hamilton‘s bold, brave and irreducible [this is the rub of course] work; Maps of Palestine.
Recognising the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and subsequent six decades of uniquely chronic entrenchment, overt war crimes slash crimes against humanity [oh those yada yada], ever more settlements and greater delusional sanctimony is forbidden in public discourse in Britain. Hence my ‘clumsiness’; you’ll need an open or well-informed mind to read on while I stumble through the ‘unsayable’.
It’s forbidden -or ‘unsayable’- partly because establishment Britain continues to offer cover as well as arms to the brave pre-pre-emptive killers of uniquely dispossessed, starved, besieged, picked off, randomly bombed, endlessly redisplaced and remassacred Palestinians, but also because it looked the other way for so long during a genocide much closer to home.
Maps of Palestine  Richard Hamilton [w. thanks Eyal Weizman]
RH’s monumental maps are heart stopping; their allusions more shocking than anything that Koons and the Gang can muster. Art critical consensus mutters divertingly that it’s not really art is it? and if it is, it’s not really any good, is it? And, oh aren’t we a bit bored of this? They can’t say that about Unorthodox Rendition because it resonates visually with the equally ambiguous, uncannily similar, iconic image of Jagger and Fraser, Swingeing London 67, which is secure in art history, but Maps is fair game, it’s easy…
Easy to ignore or disparage; bad politics and/or bad art. One of its actual characteristics is ‘simply’ political; the fact that it is a bald rendering of two maps of Palestine which make it evident that Palestinians have been cleansed from their homes and land and are now confined to tiny littering ‘camps’ [in Agamben’s sense, yes, but not exclusively here]. There is no disputing possible, no interpretation; this is simply the case. Which is why it’s not art, innit? That is; ideologically blinded by a perception that it’s ‘simply’ political, they can’t see anything else.
I want to say something about the way in which it is art in definitive ways and how its potent ambiguity as an object also makes it strikingly good, or anyway, lasting, art. It crystallises something unseen/unrecognised about the present which will resonate/fascinate in the future when ‘we’ will see better and with unerring perspective. In order to make that point carefully and probably clumsily I want to tell you another true story about Palestinian dispossession with covert establishment support.
The first time I actually met Mourid Barghouti, the great Palestinian poet and memoirist, was at a writer’s event in Norwich in 2005. These kinds of things; lots of writers from all over the place brought together for a ‘productive’ exchange, are often dire but this was not, I think. However, there was a round-table event that was profoundly degrading as well as terrifying in its way. A writer called AB Yehoshua was present, a man whose work is credibly literary, presumably the work of an agile albeit conservative mind. I don’t say this in the corruptingly ‘even-handed’ way that has so glossed Palestinian dispossession, but because I had positive expectations of him.
At one session, Mourid spoke very precisely about his own displacement and of place itself with a minimum of nomination, though of course when you tell the truth, even glancingly, it’s likely to hurt someone. He was calmly precise in mentioning some facts and asking open albeit suggestive questions. It was scrupulously exact and even respectfully polite; therefore very potent. For those who knew the background in depth it was clear that merely being allowed to stand there and say anything as a Palestinian was a mould-breaking, radical fact in itself.
[Actually, you can judge my memory because Mourid’s paper Place as Time is online here and, in fact, pertains to what I’m trying to say here more broadly than I remembered]
When it came to Yehoshua, the tank-like figure that had barged and roared into the room morphed all-too easily into the Sharon-like Commander of US-supplied artillery. Spotting a Palestinian he opened fire with all he had to hand, no questions asked, perfect immunity assured and, however often this happens in actuality, it was extremely shocking to witness. His blind rage, I mean in particular, and boy did he bluster and wow was it obvious that this is how it goes. He objected to something that all present knew to be the case; a recent example of Palestinian women being forced to give birth at illegal checkpoints erected on occupied territories held against International law [and more profound things] for decades.
The mere mention of this incontrovertible fact as an open question sent Yehoshua off into a reflex torrent of incoherent, self-defeating abuse in which he sought to say in essence; well if you weren’t intent on murdering lil’ ‘ol me I wouldn’t have to do it … if only you could grasp the relentless responsibility-taking that I do each and every day… but what would you know about that?
Somewhere in his rage he was complaining about the responsibility of the artist for what they say and/or do. The obscenity of his violent outburst centred on his abuse of the most responsible of poets who had just given a very precise and elegant paper which exemplified the burden of artistic responsibility to perfection. Yehoshua meanwhile, abused his presence, his voices volume, the complicity of the British establishment, and raged on irresponsibly, not only refusing to take any responsibility for actual ongoing crimes, but abandoning any claim of artistic writerly responsibility in any and every conceivable way [and yes, I raise that to the highest, broadest of ethical categories].
His behaviour was obscene and cowardly; safe in the knowledge that he was squatting on a tank. It was terrifying because it revealed an entirely warped mindset, deeply entrenched in mass violence and practised impunity. At home his tank contains missiles. After missiles. After missiles. Here, his words were unleashed with the same intention; to kill the poet, the Palestinian, the other and any substantive sense of responsibility in art or elsewhere. What was shocking, indeed terrifying, was the knowledge that this small incident is played out endlessly, on a much greater scale, with blood and families and farmland and has been for more than six decades.
Almost more shocking was that the Chair made no sign of complaint, didn’t even notice anything unusual. It wasn’t that he felt awkward about how to rein in the verbal violence and lack of elemental human decency but that he was [I’m being kind] so immured to the established British discourse that he didn’t think there was anything even slightly odd about the outburst.
Art critics querying/ignoring Hamilton’s particular piece are not the Yehoshua in the story so much as the Chair; doing the work of casual complicity, blind to what is before them, ignorant of the artful potency of facts or the potency of facts used artfully.
The point about Hamilton’s piece of work is that it shows two separate realities -one potential and one actual- and makes no attempt to force meaning between them. No pointing, telling, explicating, merely the erection of two objects in space and time alongside each other; all relations open, a deep elliptical hole -more mysterious than a slathered over Anish Kapoor- of perfect ambiguity. As a work of art this is as close to the essence of what it is as you can get without it needing to be the most brilliant piece of art ever made or seen. To question this as art is to cancel art as a category.
Think of poetry and how it’s essence lies in Agamben’s reworked classicism; the enjambement of sound and meaning. Without the non identity of metre and sense text is not poetry at all; it only emerges as poetry in the very ellipsis formed [and is otherwise ‘mere’ prose] [See my Introduction to MB’s Midnight & Other Poems]. Similarly, it is the openness of the relationship between images [as well as viewer/s] here that makes it art.
One response to it is indeed simple, factual and unchallengeable; it is a map of ethnic cleansing yes, every bit as rigidly horrifying as aerial photographs of the infrastructure of death camps in the early mid-1940s [or that of settlements in the late 20th and early 21st century]. Infrastructure which, as here, war machines flew over without blinking, noticing, taking any responsibility for. ‘Camps’ which suit a purpose, a game ‘larger’ than the facts of chronic ethnic cleansing on the occupied ground.
A work of art, like a poem, that reminds me or exists only in this most elemental threshold zone is a blessing to receive. Before you tell me -or yourself- that this is not art or that it’s bad art, or that it’s ‘message’ is not very successfully conveyed, sit down and articulate to yourself what the relationship is between these two objects or images and then what the relationship is between them or that and you as a viewer. You might have to talk very precisely in general, and especially around how you distinguish the form that these two objects take from, say, two naked human figures stood in marble alongside each other. Why is that art? Why is that not bad art? Are you beginning to get it?
In fact this particular piece is not only a purified form of art, it is also fantastically humble and/or profoundly ethical art-making; an act undertaken for the other and otherness in its widest sense. I’m tempted to equate the refusing of it [the refusing to see or acknowledge it as art] with if not a crime but arguably an act against humanity.
I’m reminded of the sophistry that Emmanuel Levinas betrayed in an important and fascinating exchange in the immediate aftermath of the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, when a profound ethical response from a position of strength [the head of state responsible for those particular massacres said ‘No-one can teach us anything about morals’; an approach adhered to across the end of the century and beyond] might have helped [see; The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand pp 289-297 Blackwell Oxford 1989]. If he misrepresented himself in the friendly context of the exchange, then it too was an ethical failure, surely?
Here is the contemporary face of ethical art making [with all its responsible innocence]. Today it is what it is, one day it will have extraordinary potency as a cultural object, a work of art. This image is only possible now; it is today writ large, in all its stark horror and misrecognition. Tomorrow it will seem inconceivable, impossible, absolutely mysterious. Tomorrow no-one will casually dismiss its status or its efficacy as art.
Tomorrow all those smugly complicit commentators will be eager defenders of the importance of memorialising the Nakba; the most committed to never again allowing humanity to descend to such depravity for so extended a period; the most insistent on the uniqueness of this horror, resistant of diluting comparisons to any other. But not until tomorrow.
Hamilton’s show contains a number of contemporary icons, stretching across the years and building potency in the present. With the new work, shockingly radical because so little else is, the show could almost just as well be called This is Tomorrow, but then that sounds strangely familiar…
I’m linking to a six-part blog I wrote for English PEN around the publication in December 08 of Mourid Barghouti’s Midnight & Other Poems, to which I contributed a substantial introduction [you can read it here.]
Midnight is available from ‘all good bookshops’ as well as its publisher whose resourceful pages begin here. A properly weighty review of Midnight by Boyd Tonkin of The Independent appeared in January 09.
Mourid Barghouti’s excellent website is here. His classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is widely available, not least from its UK publisher whose site also contains an extract which demonstrates how essential, tough-minded and exquisite it is. A sequel appeared in Arabic in 09 [with a title that translates as; I Was Born There, I Was Born Here] and is on its way into English.
The Bombing and the Brink
by Guy Mannes-Abbott [with thanks to Sophie Mayer and English PEN World Atlas.]
Words did not and cannot defend displaced and besieged civilian populations against the use of white phosphorus, for example, but they can and should undermine attempts to justify or deny that use and, most critically, hold its users to account.