Under the kind of Occupation that Palestinians have been for decades there is literally no room for manoeuvre, very few forms of resistance. A new P.A. law banning the sale of Settlement produce -and Palestinians to work in the Settlements by 2011- is a difficult yet undeniable achievement. The difficulty is that working within these illegal zones [42% of the ‘west bank’ and rising] has been a scarce source of income for those imprisoned in the Palestinian hills.
There are many things wrong with the P.A., here is one thing they’ve got right. My own recent realisation that most of what is possible to eat in occupied Palestine is prison food -controlled/supplied by the Occupation- was mortifying and underscores why this ban is a difficult one to make and sustain. Outside occupied Palestine, it’s the easiest thing in the world to boycott the fruits of this uniquely chronic and brutal Occupation. It’s dead simple; do you want to be sustained by crimes against your -or your children’s- own humanity?
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 [quoting Bertrand Russell approvingly; oh dear] -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]
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.
while baroda burns
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
In 2004 TANK reprinted extracts from my extensive notebooks on Gujarat in western India. They’re taken from the days of “mass massacres” when I was locked up under curfew in my room on the 4th floor of a hotel, forbidden to leave the building or even to go as low as the 1st floor.
The whole story of witnessing state-sponsored pogroms while trapped with Bhupen Khakhar in his car on the outskirts of Gujarat’s second city and its various contexts form part of my forthcoming book A Gram of Gujarat. A part, but only a part. A part along with many other equally vivid, penetrating and suggestive parts! Taken together they provide a unique insight into Gujarat and contemporary India which enables a proper grasp of these signal events.
These particular extracts reflect something of the raw experience of being trapped in a room [tall building, complicit city and bone-shaking witness] looking out of a window onto a building usually only ever animated by women. I watched discretely as the traditional rhythms of everyday life went on in an abstracted way. Above rose black impressions of the terror being inflicted on Baroda’s old city; common, abstract again [literally framed by my window] but presumably at least as intense as those I’d been caught in. Otherwise; silence.
After two or three days it occurred to me to take photographs [some of which are poorly repro’d here], as the oddity of life in the building and the realisation that the smoky evidence was likely to stop if or when the army eventually took control of the city dawned. Obviously I was as visible as the people opposite and didn’t want to impose on them, so each image was snatched and for me condenses hours of the life it captures. Similarly, I only took one image of the smoke at the end and with confused reluctance; a feeble effort all around.
The politicians and authorities responsible for the massacres believe that the subcontinent is both Fatherland and Holyland; that the very dust is bound up forever with the dharma/spirit of each and every Hindu. Hindutva is a terrifying ideology, drawn from European fascism and Nazism specifically and these “mass massacres” a direct and logical result of it. Followers believe that a Hindu never loses their dharma and so India’s 150 million Muslims must recover theirs and renounce Islam -or they can ‘leave’.
Press PDFS to Enlarge
This is the same India that has a secular constitution and which was once the proud centre of the Non-Alignment movement but which has never reconciled itself fully with several centuries of Islamic dominance and conquest. Not even though a consequently rich Islamic heritage forms just one part of the subcontinent’s definitively syncretic culture. This is part of the specificity of hindutva, and why it’s worth reading VD Savarkar on the subject and understanding what there is of substance beyond the shudderingly crude race hatred that so corrupted his mind and thought.
The same India where some of the nicest people I met, seasoned secularists of various stripes, were the most complacent/deluded about the pressing actuality. It’s distressing to listen to someone making fun of their own Muslim upbringing, poo-pooing any intimacy with Islam or its wider culture, laughing at the notion that they would have any insight into such a subject when their own work, memoirs and even academic cv contradicts them. Frustrating when the point is simple; ‘they’ perceive you to be Muslim whatever your self-image. This is the nature of racism, fascism and lest we forget Nazism specifically.
Any conversation of that kind contains the unmistakable presumption that as a Foreigner I can’t possibly understand. It’s all a very complex, internal affair and only one of us can really appreciate it. In such instances they were clearly mistaken. In one exemplary case, when politely listening to an excited account of brief passage through a ‘secret’ outpost on the edge of the Rann of Kutch, I kept to myself the knowledge that I’d ridden out to the same particular outpost four times, found a floor to stay on inside its walls, a cave to sleep in beyond them.
Such an intense, ‘deep’ encounter with place and people was the yardstick I developed , which is why I was able to contextualize just how much or little right-minded, out of touch secularists of this kind understood about their neighbours [and to contextualise their insulting and short-sighted presumptions]. It’s for this reason that what happened to that particular individual and to other Muslims [religious or otherwise] across the State was profoundly shocking to me, but not a surprise. This is why it all made a horrible kind of ‘sense’.
Whilst ‘Metro’ secularists disown, deny and delude themselves about what “mass massacres” meant for India, I’d been encountering it in mud and urban kitchens, chai stops in deserts and forests, main roads, side streets and camel tracks, mandirs, dharamsalas and masjids, chellahs, tirths and tuks, Bohra wads, mohallas/pols and Societies, forts, havelis, universities and cool alleyways across the state. I listened to barots and charans, dalits and Brahmins, shia and sunni, professors and ‘local’ historians, ram sewaks and their Big Men financiers, MPs and MLAs, victims and perpetrators, writers and architects. I’d witnessed what it meant for months before this discreet horror and for months afterwards.
Understanding requires a real engagement with a wide range of things, places, peoples and times. It requires the articulation of distinct and interrelated elements in an authoritative portrait of a people and their place. Such a portrait would enable understanding of these particular events but also a much wider context. If it succeeded it would reveal the interiors of Gujarat as a whole and provide a unique insight into subcontinental India. This is what I’ve attempted to do with A Gram of Gujarat.