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From Jewish ghettos to Palestinian ghettos; Elias Khoury on his new novel

Image of Lebanese writer and novelist, Elias Khoury [MaltaToday/Twitter]
Lebanese writer and novelist, Elias Khoury [MaltaToday/Twitter]

Elias Khoury is a Lebanese writer whose latest novel, "Les enfants du ghetto: Je m'appelle Adam" (Children of the ghetto: My name is Adam) was published last year. As well as being a novelist, Khoury is a critic, an essayist and a columnist. His previous books include "Little Mountain" (1987), "The Little Man and the War" (1995), "The Chest of Secret"s (2009) and the very famous "Gate of the Sun" (2002), for which he was awarded the highest Palestinian literature prize and which was adapted for the cinema by Yousri Nasrallah in 2004. He is the current editor-in-chief of the Arabic version of the Palestinian Studies Review in Beirut. "Les enfants du ghetto: Je m'appelle Adam", translated from Arabic by Rania Samara and published by Actes Sud/Sindbad, is a new take on the Palestinian Nakba of 1948.

How can we summarise this novel which uses endless introspections? The author, Elias Khoury — or he might be his alter ego — lives in New York, where he teaches Arabic literature, and meets someone named Adam Danun, a falafel vendor. Following Adam's death, Khoury ends up finding two half-burnt notebooks which belonged to the deceased. They are actually unfinished novels. One tells the story of an Arabic poet from the Umayyad period, Waddâh Al-Yaman, who was the Caliph's wife's lover. She would hide him inside a chest but when the Caliph found out about the affair, he had the chest thrown in a well, where the poet drowned without saying a word. The second manuscript looks like an autobiography. It tells the tragic events that happened in Lod (Lydda) in 1948, when almost all the inhabitants were expelled; those who were left, among them the infant Adam, were gathered in a slum of a camp, which was later called a "ghetto" by the Israeli soldiers.

Throughout the novel, the author plays with reality, to the point where the reader can't tell the difference between him and has character Adam Danun. "Je m'appelle Adam" leaves the reader hanging on at the end. As it is the first part of a trilogy, perhaps it will reveal Adam's particular destiny, although through Adam's story, the author sheds light on Palestine since the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948.

Palestine: an underlying theme

The way Adam talks about the poet who was condemned in silence, sounds like a metaphor for Palestine. The story of this poet locked inside a chest is inspired by a story from "The Book of Songs", an encyclopaedia of classical Arabic poems. "This unfinished book that Adam wrote, is a metaphor of the victim," explains Khoury. "It echoes with another book from Ghassan Kanafani, 'Men in the Sun', which tells the story of Palestinians who would hide inside water tanks which were smuggled through Basrah [Iraq] to Kuwait. But they died; it's as if they were condemned to remain victims." He says that he has noticed that condemning the victims is something common within modern Israeli society. "People judge the European Jews who were killed during the Holocaust for not resisting the Nazis," he claims.

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Adam was a child of the Lod Ghetto but he had no clue about this until a witness of his childhood came along. "Mamoun, who's blind, went to New York to give a lecture about the use of silence in Mahmoud Darwish's poems," says Khoury. "When he heard Adam' story, Mamoun was really surprised that he didn't know who he truly was; Adam always thought that he was the son of Hassan Danun, who died in 1948, and of Menel, a nurse. When Mamoun revealed the truth to Adam — that he was found next to his biological mother who was dead underneath an olive tree — everything changed for him."

Mahmoud Darwish

Adam decides not to write about the Umayyad poet any more, but to write about the pieces of his own life. However, he won't publish the novel. In this book, there's no distinction between what is real and what is fictional; who the victim is and who the torturer is; between Palestinians and Israelis. "When reading his manuscript," Khoury notes, "I found out that Adam doesn't like my books. He is well-versed in literature; he knows Amos Oz, AB Yehoshoua, Kanafani, Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish. Adam starts to believe that the characters of the books he has read are real people. Thus, he thinks he knows one of my characters from 'Gate of the Sun'. He also thinks he knows the twins in Amos Oz's book, 'My Michael'."

Adam is a man who has lost his memory and who ends up having two mothers and three fathers. Step by step, he remembers his childhood through the story of the Lod Ghetto.

Borgès, Oedipus and Abraham

Throughout the whole novel Khoury pays tribute to the blind Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. According to Khoury, Borges' work pays homage to something that is very specific to Arabic literature, which can be found in the poems of Imru' Al-Qais, who is considered as one of the greatest poets of the pre-Islamic era. "We are talking here about the grammatical use of the 'dual'. This can be interpreted as a dialogue between someone or something and their shadow. The use of the dual is a direct link to the classical Arabic language. Its use has been forgotten and only Mahmoud Darwish uses it constantly. You can find the use of the dual in every single one of my novels, for I believe that using an alter ego or a double helps you to get to the depths of the human experience, because in doing so you're adding perspectives."

References to the myth of Oedipus and to the Biblical near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham punctuate the novel. One is a parricide and the other an infanticide, but both stories seem to haunt Adam, the man who has many origins but no real identity. "Adam doesn't even know his real name," Khoury points out, "he knows nothing. Which is terrifying. He is deeply traumatised by the idea of a father who kills his son. Oedipus is the son who kills the father, but let's not forget that first it was his father, Laius, who wanted to kill his son. On the other hand, in the case of Abraham, God was the One who stopped him from killing his son. According to Christianity, Isaac's sacrifice was the shadow of that of Jesus, who knew that his father would help him endure when he said "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani", the only Aramaic in the Bible, as if nobody has ever dared to translate it."

Elias Khoury is well-versed in the Scriptures. He makes frequent references to chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah, which speaks of the "agonising servant" being brought to the slaughterhouse without protest, just like the Umayyad poet, killed for loving the Caliph's wife. "Christians view this silent servant as the representation of Jesus," says Khoury. "Jews, after the genocide [of the Holocaust], viewed themselves as the silent servant. Nowadays, can't we ask ourselves if Palestinians are the image of this silent servant? I really got inspired by this concept of the victim remaining silent."

The silence of the lamb

In "Je m'appelle Adam", Khoury writes: "Despising the victims of the Holocaust will be the first clue of the spreading racism among the Israeli political class." He elaborates on what he means by this by pointing out that the first victims of Israeli racism were the Jews who survived the genocide. "After the Holocaust, in Israel, the survivors were degradingly called 'sabonim' (soap). People would say that they did not fight back and that they 'let themselves be taken to the slaughterhouse in silence'. Everything then changed in the sixties, with the [Nazi Adolf] Eichmann trial, when [first Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion turned the genocide into a memorial."

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In this novel, the author tries to confuse us deliberately, for we no longer know who the victim is any more. Adam, a Palestinian who is in love with an Israeli woman named Dalia, tries to pass himself off as an Israeli, while Dalia wants to be a victim like the Palestinians. "Adam is blond and has studied in Haifa. He used to say 'I am from the ghetto' when he was asked where he was from. For the Jews it meant the Warsaw Ghetto. He even pretended to be Jewish, saying that his father died in 1948 and his mother became crazy. He was not lying though. He was using chunks of his Palestinian life to make up his new Jewish life. He was 'Jewish' when he met Dalia. She found out that he was actually a Palestinian, and she's the one who made him look into his past, into the story of the Lod Ghetto. She keeps saying that if it had been up to her, she would have chosen to be Palestinian. For according to her, Palestinians are the victims and in order for her to become an authentic Jew, she needs to become Palestinian." As far as Khoury is concerned, "This idea of 'being a real victim' is very interesting."

The Arab ghetto and the memory

The autobiographical part of the novel talks about Adam's childhood in 1948 in the Lod Ghetto. Elias Khoury uses the "European term" of ghetto to describe a place which is surprisingly very similar to the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. "Gathering information about the Palestinian ghettos was a real challenge for me, for they are not well-known. I found out that after the Nakba in 1948, in many Palestinian towns you could find ghettos, and this was the case not only in Lod, but also in Ramallah, Haifa or Jaffa. These ghettos were closed, had barbed wire and were guarded by Israeli soldiers."

It took years for Elias Khoury to gather information about the ghetto. "Everything is fictional in this novel," he tells me, "except for the existence of this ghetto. How the ghetto works, the forced-labour, the people who had to bury the corpses of the Palestinian victims, all these were true. I used to teach at New York University, and I remember I had so many Palestinian students who were from these ghettos. Palestinians from Amman were also a big help in this investigation, so I was able to be as accurate as possible."

In Lod, the Palestinians learnt the word "ghetto" from the Israeli soldiers. For them, it became synonymous with "Arab neighbourhood".

"In Arabic, there is no such word as ghetto, it does not exist. We only have neighbourhoods. This word ghetto is directly rooted in the history of European Jews. Even today, if you ask a taxi driver in Lod to take you to the ghetto he will take you to the Arab neighbourhood."

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It's seems that people either ignore or forget about the tragic 1948 war, which is a key event in Palestinian history. Elias Khoury believes that the reason for this is simple: the archives. "Historians like Tom Segev and Ilan Pappé have documented the Nakba. However, it had already been documented by Palestinian historians, but only Israelis have access to the archives. This means that Palestinians have no access to their own archives so they have no access to their own history."

At some point in the novel, Adam gets the nickname of "trauma", as if he was a symbol of tragic events. I ask Khoury if we can say that the tragic situation in the Middle East is the result of two tragic events: the Holocaust and the Nakba. He puts the two apart straight away.


File photo of Palestinians fleeing their homes during the 1948 Nakba – 'the great catastrophe'

"There is a difference between the Nakba and the Shoah [Holocaust]. The Shoah killed way more people. European Jews were massacred, but for Jewish people today, that's in the past. On the other hand, for the Palestinians, the Nakba is ongoing. Nothing can justify the persecution of other people, not even the genocide of the Jews."

For Khoury, the Holocaust should not be used to justify what is happening to the Palestinians.

Let's not forget that Zionism, as a colonial ideology, emerged way before the Holocaust.

"Even Edward Said spoke about Zionism as one of the European colonial movements of the 19th century. In the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the ways that the Jews resisted the Nazis was by means of the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party which had no link whatsoever with Zionism; quite the contrary, in fact. Today, our views of Palestine have become a way of judging our humanity. Palestinians are double victims: they are the victims of the victims."

The Jews' Jews and the Arabs' Arabs

Adam has no recollection of his memories. Hence, he says, "In order to exist I must have not existed." For Elias Khoury, Palestinian survivors of 1948, up to today, can make this quote their own. Indeed, they are considered as "second class citizens". The absurd "absent present law" enabled Israel to grab Palestinian refugees' properties. "The people who left their villages have lost everything. This concept of 'absent present' has ruled the lives of 25 per cent of Israeli Palestinians since 1948. On a broader scale, these Israeli Palestinians have the feeling that even though they are not a minority, they are being treated as such in their own country."

Today these Israeli Palestinians represent 20 per cent of the population of Israel. "In the 1980s," concludes Elias Khoury, "they came up with the idea of one state for all, but they hit a wall. At that time they even lost their name, not being called Palestinians any more but Arabs. In my book 'Gate of the Sun', one of my characters says, 'Over there you become the Jews' Jews and over here you become the Arabs' Arabs."

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