Truth is always revolutionary | Elias Khoury

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is one of the leading lights of Arab literature and he says that the Israeli occupation is classical colonialism built upon a rational and cynical project of ethnic cleansing

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury came to prominence as a novelist, commentator, editor and academic with unwavering political commitment in the tormented 1970s
Lebanese writer Elias Khoury came to prominence as a novelist, commentator, editor and academic with unwavering political commitment in the tormented 1970s

Celebrated Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is in Malta to participate in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed. 

I meet the 68-year-old writer and intellectual in his hotel in Valletta and I am immediately struck by his soft-spoken lucidity and profound humanity. 

Khoury came to prominence as a novelist, commentator, editor and academic with unwavering political commitment in the tormented 1970s where he was a direct witness of the brutal civil war in Lebanon.

But he says that literature cannot change the world, it only changes literature. 

“The major impact of literature is on literature itself because it is the history of the human experience and this history was written by hundreds of writers. And in each writer you find hundreds of other writers. So history is being rewritten, by writers who add new things too. 

“But mainly, writers are part of a huge book and if you are lucky you write a sentence in that book.”

But he does acknowledge that literature changes individuals and possibly more. 

“It affects language and when language changes, perspectives change. Language is not only a way to communicate but also a way of perception. It changes politics indirectly. I have a duty to take positions as an intellectual, that’s why I write articles. But when I write novels I don’t do it for political change.”

Palestine has long been a cornerstone of Khoury’s writing and activism, especially following the publication of Gate of the Sun in 1998 and he says that the novel on the Palestinian nakba – the catastrophe which followed the 1948 war – “rewrote the nakba from the point of view of the victims, which was never heard before. When you put forward the language and the perspective of the victims it is a political act.”

He adds that by definition literature is an outsider to power. “Politics is about tactics but literature is not and you cannot negotiate about the human condition.” 

Khoury has in the past also edited magazines and still writes a weekly column. I ask him whether journalism and activism can coexist. 

“Journalism should be as objective as possible. But what does this mean? Being objective means to show what is not seen in the political and economic realities covered by discourse.

“If you are objective you campaign. The role of journalism, like all tools of knowledge is to know, to go beyond what is given to us. To search for the truth that is always covered. Power, not only capitalism but power throughout history, covers its domination. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs said they were gods and if a journalist had to go back in time they would say ‘no he is only a human being’. That’s being objective and campaigning at the same time, but mainly objectivism. 

Truth is always revolutionary.’ 

Turning to the never ending Arab-Israeli conflict, Khoury points out that Palestinians represent human existence “not because they are victims, there are many victims. Not because they are refugees. There are many refugees. The number of Syrian refugees is bigger. The number of European refugees in the Second World War was bigger. The number of Holocaust victims is bigger. But because they are victims of the victims. And because their victimisation was covered.” 

“This is the first case history where the victims have no right to express themselves because their victimisation is covered by another victimisation and the colonial forces were cynical enough to wash their hands from Palestinian blood. The terrible thing is that in the daily life they not only not speak about their victimisation to others but they do not speak about it to themselves because the fabrication of reality has turned their cause into nonsense.” 

He adds that he supports Palestinians not because they are victims, nor because he loves Palestine or the Holy Land. 

“I love Palestinians, Jerusalem is like any other city in the world. Palestine is not sacred, the only sacred thing is human life. I identify with the Palestinians, not because I’m an Arab, not because I defend the revolutionary idea but because it is the example of my human sensibility.”     

To the question about the prospects of peace, he simply says “there is no peace and there never was a peace process.”

He argues that since Israel has never lost a war, it has lost sight of reality.

“We human beings are losers. If you win all the time you become mad. Nature is wise enough to make us taste both victory and defeat and learn how to be humble. This idea that you can win all the time makes you impossible. Israel is an impossible thing.”

Khoury insists that the nakba started in 1948 and never stopped. “We are still living in a nakba now. The first phase Palestinians do not exist, the second phase was that Palestinians cannot have an independent state but we’ll give them some autonomy and we’ll deal with them. Now it’s apartheid and they say it openly.” 

The Israeli government’s discourse reminds him of fascism, albeit “a different kind of fascism.”

“When you walk inside Israel’s nationalistic-religious discourse, you cannot move because prophets are everywhere in order not to arrive to a peaceful resolution, it’s like Abraham was only the father of Isaac but not of Ismail.” 

Pointing out that 30% of the population in Israel is Palestinian, Khoury says these citizens were first put under military rule for the first 30 years of Israel’s existence. 

“Now they are being pushed down, not to second class citizens because they already were, but to third class citizens as if they are immigrants. They are using the same discourse used against Muslims in Europe. It’s something surrealistic, which makes Israeli politics a continuous project of wars and catastrophe.” 

Khoury believes that Palestinians are passing from their worst moment in their history because the whole region around them is destroyed and the Arab world fails to defend them, at least in discourse, because he says, they never really defended them. 

“Israel is now in an alliance with the superpowers, US and Russia and they feel that they are free, and don’t understand that this kind of fascism will not only destroy their enemies but it will also be an auto-destruction of their society.”

Asked whether the international initiative to boycott Israel can work, Khoury says this is a legitimate movement but it should not be turned into a myth. “It should not be compared to the boycott on apartheid South Africa because it only worked once the colonial forces decided that South Africa as a project is no longer viable.”

The boycott of Israel, he adds, is not at that stage yet. “The US is still a major supporter but at the least the boycott will help to isolate Israel further and raise more awareness.”

Supporters of the boycott and critics of Israeli occupation are usually met by accusations of anti-Semitism. This he says is making the term banal. 

“When you use a term out of context you destroy its meaning. When you are anti-occupation and you want the dismantlement of illegal settlements and you are labelled as anti-Semite you might then think, ‘oh anti-Semitism is right.” 

Having been active in leftist movements for most of his life, I ask him whether the regrouping of leftist Palestinian parties ahead of the forthcoming local elections offers new hope or is it another false dawn?   

He says the biggest problem for the Palestinian left is that, with the exception of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it accepted to be part part of power and the peace process. 

“Being part of power was a big mistake and it took many people a long time to forgive them.”

He says the Palestinian Authority – which governs the West Bank – is a “terrible authority totally corrupted” and totally under control of foreign countries which fund it. 

“Leftist movements cannot be part of this structure. The new alliance is not something new. Something new must be born inside Fatah, although I know the situation inside the party is very problematic. But I believe there is one part of Palestinian people which is pure and intact, that is the political prisoners inside Israeli jails.”

He says leaders such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sa’adat, who authored the document for national unity which was not taken up by Fatah or Hamas are the only hope. 

“After all, Palestine is a big jail so why not have the leadership in jail rather than people pretending to be presidents which is all bad theatre which nobody buys into any more.”

Khoury says the Palestinians’ greatest enemy is not the lack of support from neighbouring Arab countries or internal divisions, but a classical colonial project “which is a very rational and cynical project of ethnic cleansing.” 

Turning to Syria he says that there are no good guys except for the Syrian people who have been killed, imprisoned or forced to flee the country. 

In a war which directly or indirectly involves Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US, the Kurds, Qatari sponsored Islamist militias and Saudi backed ISIS, Khoury says Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is no longer an influential player. 

The foreign powers and the armed militias, including the Qatari sponsored Al Nusra Front and ISIS are the key players, he says. 

“Syria shows us that in this postmodern world we are tasting the meaning of the destruction of values,” Khoury says, adding that “in all postmodern discourse there are no values, everything is there and not there as Jean Baudrillard once put it, the Iraq war never happened, it only happened on TV. But then you realise that one million Iraqis died and then you speak about TV, but actually the dominant ideology is to behave as if it is a TV show, and then you don’t feel, taste, smell the blood. This is now incarnated in the Syrian tragedy.” 

A big chunk of responsibility for the Syrian war should be shouldered by the Syrian opposition, he says, adding that “the weakness of the Syrian opposition and the weakness of the Syrian elite and as witnessed throughout the Arab Spring, the weakness of the left in the Arab world, mainly in Syria and previously in Egypt. We are the witnessing the weakness of the left all over the world.” 

Khoury says that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, everybody thought social democracy will win the battle but then social democracy became neoliberal and destroyed itself. 

“The left has no right not to reinvent itself because the left is the only tool to defend the people… The incarnation of this weakness and defeat of the left is an interior defeat, an auto defeat. It’s not only an intellectual issue, it comes at a big price and this price is blood.”

If the left cannot write a new narrative, Khoury says, “then we have no narrative.”

“In Syria there was a popular revolt, where hundreds of thousands were killed and imprisoned. Protests were oppressed by tanks and then the world went silent, and the left was unable to read this. During the first nine months there was a civil democratic opposition with leftist tendencies but this leadership was killed by the regime and then the doors were opened for the Saudi and Qatari sponsored militias and Iran.”

For Khoury, Islam is part of the equation but religion is not to blame for the unrest in the Middle East and terrorism in the rest of the world. 

He draws inspiration from the nineteenth-century Lebanese writer Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq who for a while lived in Malta where he translated the Old and New Testaments into Arabic. 

Khoury talked about the author’s fractured identity: Al-Shidyaq was born into a family of Maronite Christians in 1805, converted to Islam, and later rediscovered Christianity on his deathbed. He was then buried nor in a Muslim not Christian cemetery. 

“I like him, he is my teacher. I see no difference between religions.”

He says blaming religion for the cycle of death in the region is tantamount to blaming Christianity for the Crusades, something which no serious historian would conclude. 

Khoury, born a Lebanese Christian, says there’s no denying Islam needs to change. 

“Nineteenth century scholars tried to modernise Islam but all reformists were defeated by Wahhabism with money, through the help of the US and imperialism and the defeat of the Arab World in the 1967 six day war.” 

Winston Churchill had once said that he would create a state wherever there is an oil well in the Gulf and Khoury says that to understand the region one must analyse each State.

“We need to analyse their money, how their money was never used productively but only used to build mosques and spread Wahhabi ideology. Only then can we seriously discuss whether the reason for unrest is religion or socio-economic and political factors.” 

Quoting a character in his most recent book, Broken Mirrors, I ask him whether any cause is worth tormenting ourselves over?

“In 200 years time, historians will look back at the Arab-Israeli conflict and they will say ‘Oh my God what madness’ in the same way we do when we look back at the Crusades. 200 years of occupations, wars and massacres. This is evil, the banality of evil. History is banal and unfortunately we are agents of this blindness.”