Letter from Beirut

Khoury’s talismans

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Palestinians, together with Israeli and foreign activists, at Bab al-Shams, an area known as E1, near Jerusalem. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AP


Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Safira, the town they captured on November 2. Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/REUTERS

A meeting of the Arab League Foreign Ministers on Syria in Cairo on November 3. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Palestinian demonstrators at a protest camp in E1. Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

TUCKED away in Beirut's Verdun neighbourhood is the Institute for Palestine Studies (founded in 1963). On its upper reaches is the office of Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist and editor of the institute’s Arabic language journal, Majallat-al-Dirasat-al-Filastiniyah. Khoury is not Palestinian, but as a young man in 1967, he threw himself into the Fatah—the main organisation of the Palestinian resistance—while he lived in the radical milieu of Jordan’s Palestinian camps. An active role in the Lebanese Civil War and close relations with the intellectual currents of radical Palestinian life (alongside the writers Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish) deepened Khoury’s political anchor. Later he was to say of the editorial collective of a cultural magazine of those days, “We were neither on the liberal right nor on the classical left. Intellectually speaking, we were very much linked to the Palestinian experience.” This formula suits Khoury, who has kept his distance from Lebanon’s Communist movement and from the liberals who are too often able to make alliances with the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The certainties of the 1960s and 1970s no longer steel Khoury’s political ambitions. “Palestine is in a tunnel. How to get out of it?” he asked plaintively. “There must be an opening to a new way to see the Palestinian issue,” he said. The year 1948, when Khoury was born, was the Nakba (catastrophe or disaster) of the Palestinians, a term coined by the historian Constantine Zurayak in his book The Meaning of Disaster (1948). Zurayak was his predecessor at the institute. For Zurayak, the Nakba was a combination of the founding of Israel, the expulsion and erasure of the Palestinian people as well as the defeat of the Arab armies who tried to undo the first two events. This Nakba demonstrated the defeat of Arab nationalism in its first modern test. Khoury suggested that Zurayak was wrong to have thought of the Nakba as a singular event that took place in 1948. Zurayak himself knew this when he published a new version of his book in 1967, after the defeat of the Arab armies once more by Israel. In a speech Khoury delivered in Berlin last year, he spoke of the “continuous Nakba”, a “continuous reality that has not stopped since 1948”. The Nakba, he said, is “simultaneously an Arab memory and an Israeli continuous action”. The Palestinians have been forced to believe that the Nakba happened in the past and is now over, even as they are aware that Israeli state policy (through settlements, expulsions and targeted assassinations) continues to prosecute the Nakba. Because the “Nakba is a process without an end”, Khoury said, it left those who were on the side of the Palestinians in a permanent gloom. Everyone knew that the two-state solution was over, he pointed out, because the territory that the Palestinian Authority controlled was moth-eaten and unsustainable. As well, “a war is not on the agenda”, he said. “So the Palestinian issue must be rethought in a different way.”

Bab Al-Shams

Khoury’s face beams when he describes one part of the new way. For some years, Israel has laid claim to land just east of Jerusalem in a parcel named E1. Even the U.S., Israel’s steadfast advocate, has cautioned it against building settlements on this land which, by most accounts, should be part of the future Palestinian state. In January, 300 Palestinians set up tents on the land to form the village of Bab Al-Shams, the gate of the sun. The name of the village refers to Khoury’s most famous novel ( Bab Al-Shams, published in 1998), which tells the story of a Palestinian couple, Younis and Nahila, one a fighter in Lebanon and the other a defender of their home in the Galilee (Israel). The couple meet secretly in a cave called Bab Al-Shams, their haven. The activists who created the village called Bab Al-Shams the “gate to our freedom and steadfastness”.

The Israeli authorities destroyed the camp three times even though the activists had broken no Israeli law (they used tents, which do not require permits). The activists kept rebuilding their camp until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the area be designated a closed military zone. The young activists came out of the popular resistance committees. Their politics reflected their frustration with the strategy of negotiation and conciliation. “For decades,” said the organisers of the village, “Israel has established facts on the ground as the international community has remained silent in response to these violations. The time has come to change the rules of the game, for us to establish facts on the ground—our own land.” At one of their village evenings, the occupants heard from Khoury, who was on the phone from Beirut. “I was so moved by the experience,” Khoury recounts. This was a glimmer of the “different way” that he hopes will open up for the Palestinian cause.

The day after their encampment was first put up Khoury sent the citizens of Bab Al-Shams a letter. “I see in your village all the faces of the loved ones who departed on the way to the land of our Palestinian promise,” he wrote. “Palestine is the promise of the strangers who were expelled from their land and continue to be expelled every day from their homes. I see in your eyes a nation born from the rubble of the Nakba that has gone on for sixty-four years. I see you and in my heart the words grow. I see the words and you grow in my heart, rise high and burst into the sky.”

You can’t capture half a city

Nothing so hopeful comes out of our conversation over Syria. A week before we met, Khoury’s friend Yassin Al Haj Saleh had fled Syria. Saleh had been a part of the new Communist movement in Syria, for which he spent 16 years (1989-1996) in the Baath prisons. He emerged from jail critical of the regime, but now more from a liberal standpoint. When the uprising began in early 2011, Saleh went into hiding in Damascus to remain one of the few liberal voices trying to get word of the diversity of the rebellion even when it began to be overrun by forces inimical to everything he believed. Frustrated with the impossibility of the rebellion, and at the high point of a potential U.S. strike, Saleh begged futilely in The New York Times (“A Syrian’s Cry for Help”, September 9, 2013) for U.S. intervention. On October 12, having fled Damascus for his home town of Raqqa, Saleh penned an elegiac letter entitled “Farewell to Syria, for a while”. He explained in this note that Syria was being destroyed between the hammer of the government and the anvil of the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, or, in Arabic, Daesh). For Saleh, the ISIS invoked “the figures of horror, the ghouls, of our childhood”. Saleh’s exit, Khoury said sadly, indicated the end to this rebellion.

The entire rebellion in Syria, Khoury suggested, was hampered by a lack of purpose. It was “a rebellion without permission”, which emerged in lesser towns and tended to grow spontaneously. No party was able to shape the rebellion and give it a political form. Left forces such as the party of Riad al-Turk, the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, were too weak, and much of the Left leadership that remained by 2011 was hastily locked up in prison. Few of the Damascus Declaration signatories were spared (Michael Kilo, Aref Dalila, Anwar al-Bunni, Loay Hussein, Fayez Sara and others faced arrest or suppression). “A revolution without leadership in the context of terrible oppression cannot survive,” said Khoury. It was fated to defeat, or worse. It was the worse option that has triumphed, with Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeing the leadership vacuum and filling it with their proxies. The Saudis and the Qataris killed off the Free Syrian Army, Khoury said, and they weakened any political leadership in exile, who had to be subordinate to Riyadh and Doha. “These Arabs are as bad as the Syrian regime,” Khoury said. They are not democratic and do not know how to harness a democratic movement.

The worst was soon to come. “The rational outcome of Saudi ideology,” Khoury said, “is Al Qaeda. Saudis hate Al Qaeda because it turned on them. But practically their politics lead to the thinking of Al Qaeda.” The emergence of the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra is not a surprise—they are a direct outcome of the leading influence of Saudi Arabia over the opposition.

When the rebellion broke out, Khoury said, it had “no political horizon”. With little political leadership, the fight over holding cities became paramount. But the rebels, even with Saudi support, do not have the weapons to defeat the Bashar al-Assad regime. “You can’t capture half a city,” Khoury said, “and claim that this is a revolution.” But this is where things will linger. It is, he believes, in the interest of the external forces to bleed Syria rather than see a clear outcome. The Israelis “do not yet want to topple Assad”, he pointed out, because they do not know what will come after him.

The Americans are more cynical. The day after Khoury said this, The New York Times ran a long assessment of U.S. policymaking on Syria. The reporters described a visit that President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough took to Guantanamo Bay with some U.S. lawmakers. There McDonough “questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria”. McDonough argued “that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hizbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.” “No one can win this war,” Khoury told me the day before this report. “Syria has become a field for killing.” Indeed, the maximal positions staked out by the geopolitical powers are rhetorical postures that create political futility and enhance the killing fields. Nuance, the lifeblood of the novelist and the diplomat, is given no room in the debate over Syria.


Khoury ended his Berlin lecture in a fit of hope, “I am neither a nihilist nor a pessimist. I think that the moment will come when the people of the Mashreq will wake from this nightmare to discover that life is possible without wars and massacres and madness.” I asked him where this sentiment came from. “I am a novelist,” he said. “I want to tell stories, hear stories, and write stories.” The stance in that statement, Khoury said, “is that of a novelist and a political analyst. You must be part of your society, your world. You must behave like a citizen.” Hope comes from that deep faith in the human being and human possibility. “Man is not the slave of myths and ideologies,” he said. How to get from here to there is not clear to Khoury, as it is unclear to so many progressive intellectuals in West Asia. Khoury takes refuge in the language of human rights and democracy, talismans for a society that might be better than this one.