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Interview: Elias Khoury

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Elias Khoury is playing with a spinning top: a miniature, red Eiffel Tower that’s dancing under his fingers. Watching him spin it reminds me that his latest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping, moves much in the same way, in layers of narrative circles that close in on themselves. He tells me it is actually the other way around — the structure helps the story open up, like a rose.

‘It is not easy to do it that way,’ he says. ‘I write. And then I rewrite. And when I have a book that is finished, done, I don’t publish it. I rewrite it again, from zero.’

As Though She Were Sleeping revolves around Milia, a young, beautiful Lebanese woman in 1940s Beirut. Milia is able to enter and exit her dreams at will, complex dreams that transport her to the past and future, and enable her to communicate ‘If you create a marvelous world, then the reader becomes the writer.’ with the dead. As the reader follows her in and out of consciousness, her history unravels and entwines with religious and social myths, and Lebanese folklore. ‘When you enter the book, you are in a world of mirrors,’ Khoury explains. ‘Every personality is doubled, and every story is doubled, and all the stories are mirrors of other stories.’ The novel does not have a realistic feel, which was intentional, but, as he points out, it is not ‘magical,’ either. ‘The Arabs call it “marvelous.” It has the vibrations of “real.”’

The method draws from classical Arab storytelling, and in particular, One Thousand and One Nights, which Khoury considers the most beautiful book ever written. ‘The hypothesis Nights makes is that the ending of one story is the beginning of another. If you create a marvellous world, then the reader becomes the writer. You can continue the story on your own, because the story does not end. The book is open.’

Khoury’s fiction is known for its complex approach to political themes and the effects of war on human behaviour, which he has not only witnessed but also personally experienced. Born in Beirut in 1948, he was nineteen when he traveled to Jordan to spend time in the Palestinian refugee camps. He went home to complete his BA in history and sociology, then left for Paris where he continued his studies. When he returned to Lebanon, the civil war had began and he fought in it. He insists that there was nothing heroic in his actions; he was simply following the spirit of his generation. Not that his bravado was a mere byproduct of youth. ‘I can do it again now, if needed. But now I’m wiser and can figure out whether it’s needed or not.’

Besides, there are other ways to fight. White Masks, one of his earlier novels, unreservedly exposes the havoc civil war wreaked in Beirut and its inhabitants. ‘I was the only one in Lebanon and Palestine who wrote a novel critical of the civil war, but I have a moral obligation to be critical in that way.’ He spent seven years researching and writing the highly acclaimed Gate of the Sun, a masterwork that narrows the immense scope of the Israeli-Palestinian saga down to names and faces.

As Though She Were Sleeping is set on the eve of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that forever changed the political, cultural and social landscape in Lebanon. ‘I wanted to show this society before catastrophe came to it. In 1946, nobody believed that Israel would occupy Palestine, nobody realized what was going on. Except for this woman, Milia.’

Khoury believes that it was important to write this novel from a woman’s perspective. ‘This profound sensibility Milia had is one that societies lack because they are dominated by male discourse. Only a female sensibility could link this historical movement with all the mythology she was bringing with her.’ The problem was, that sensibility was inaccessible to language. ‘Language is a structure of power and any structure of power is historically male. What I tried to do was discover the other side of language, the feminine side, which is full of nuances, kind of like a woman’s body.’

For Milia, words are insufficient. Hers is a language of dreams, and the only way her husband can communicate with her is through poetry. As Though She Were Sleeping is embroidered with erotic verse from classical Arab poets such as al-Mutanabbi and Abu Nuwas. ‘Poetry is another way to dream,’ Khoury says. ‘That is the role of poets — to put into words what we cannot put into words.’

The process of totally identifying with a woman and working through her was challenging, but it also had a lasting effect on him. ‘It took me five years to write this novel and I lived with this woman for five years. What she did to me is that she made me believe that death is a dream. I think that is the most beautiful formula of death we can arrive at.’ He puts his finger on the spinning Eiffel tower and it comes to a stop. ■

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