Archive for the ‘Elias Khoury’ Category

Little Mountain

April 20, 2018

If we require any warning regarding how long the current conflict in Syria might last, we could consider the Lebanese Civil War which lasted between 1975 and 1990. It, too, was a confusion of religion and politics, with roots in European interference in the region (Lebanon had been a French colony, whose status quo was destabilised by, among other things, an influx of Palestinian refugees after the creation of Israel, and again in the aftermath of the Six Day War). Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948 and fought in the civil war, drawing on his experiences to write Little Mountain, his second novel, which was published in 1977, and translated into English by Maia Tabet in 1989.

The novel makes no attempt to explain or examine the circumstances of the war but instead presents an impressionistic series of moments interspersed with memories. The first chapter, for example, returns three times to the following scene:

“Five men come jumping out of a military-like jeep. Carrying automatic rifles, they surround the house… They come up to the house, knock on the door. My mother opens the door, surprised. Their leader asks about me.”

The second description is much as the first, with subtle shifts in punctuation, but by the third we are told “five men break down the door”, as if the memory, or the emotion behind it, has intensified. In between, the narrator remembers his childhood, a rural idyll, encroached by ‘progress,’ which is often represented by cars:

“We got bigger and the cars got bigger.”

Eventually the cars are like dangerous animals: “The cars gnaw at the street with their teeth.” Corruption also threatens (“Instead of the old kind of robberies…there was now organised robbery. Gang robbery, premeditated and merciless.”) as well as political instability (“1958: barricades in the neighbourhood. Sombre faces. The Muslims want to kill us.”). Rising religious tensions are obvious when they find the church (“the heavy door that was always open”) closed.

A church is central to the second chapter, but now it is a defensive postion in the civil war. One of two remaining priests, Father Marcel, was once a French soldier:

“I believed like all French soldiers, that we were the bearers of a civilising mission to the oppressed peoples of the Orient.”

He is now convinced that ‘civilisation’ comes not via armed force but through culture and religion. Talal, one of the soldiers, disagrees:

“You’re just colonisers, coming in with the ten commandments. Giving us the commandments and taking the land.”

Politics runs through the novel in this way, in snatched conversations and statements, often in the midst of violence. In this chapter the questions, “What is the difference between a priest and a cop?” and, “What is the difference between war and civil war?” are repeated as if they are children’s riddles, challenging the reader as well as the characters. Also repeated is the idea that “the sea is our goal”, a military objective of reaching the coast which takes on mystical associations. The church is frequently compared to a ship (“and the world is a rough sea”):

“We are together, living close to the sea in a wrecked ship. When we reach the sea, our ship will sink and our story will be over.”

By the chapter’s end, however, it is the coffin of one of the soldiers which is likened to a ship:

“A long wooden ship floating in the sea. The ship sways on the uplifted hands.”

Though Khoury’s writing can seem immersed in the impressionistic chaos of detail, it is also laced with such recurrent images, a reminder of how carefully crafted it is. As the reader becomes accustomed to the novel’s style, the relationship between memory and the present becomes clearer. Often one scene – for example the scene between Talal and Mariam on the beach in chapter three – is repeated intersperse with scenes of the fighters. Further, that initial memory sparks off other memories which then surround his conversation with Mariam. In this way we are both reminded of the humanity of the soldiers and their previous lives. Here, Khoury cleverly emphasises that Talal is the same person as he was then as Mariam’s phrase, “You’re a romantic,” is repeated by the narrator, a fellow fighter.

Though the war was only two years old when the novel was published, Khoury sets the final chapter in exile, in France. Here it takes on a despairing tone, ending with the memory of a hanging and the statement that, “Ropes are more important than books.”

“Next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with stealing the rope, we should break it; next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with overrunning the squares and the buildings, we should destroy them.”

Little Mountain is a stark reminder of the effects of civil war, where the ravaged landscape of Lebanon echoes the devastation of its characters’ lives, and the scattered memories of happier times are like glowing coals among the embers. It confirms Khoury’s place as one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.


April 9, 2010

Yalo is Elias Khoury’s tenth novel, though not all of his previous work has been translated into English. You don’t have to look too deeply to see the reasons for this. A Lebanese author, he writes about the complex history and troubles of a part of the world that many of us might not want to be reminded of outside of news broadcasts. Equally, his style could not be described as reader friendly, relying on interior monologue and other initially narrow narrative viewpoints. Yalo tells the story of a young man, Daniel, whose complicated upbringing leads to involvement in the civil war in Beirut, desertion to France, and finally arrest and interrogation, accused of robbery and rape. The story, however, is not told chronologically – Daniel – or Yalo – is already under interrogation when the novel begins. It is also told entirely from Yalo’s point of view, generally in third person, but interspersed with first person confessions that Yalo is made to write, and then rewrite, in the course of his interrogation. From this initially confusing and uncompromising approach, however, emerges a powerful portrait of a troubled young man who struggles to understand the world around him.

At the heart of the novel lies Yalo’s love for Shireen, the woman who has accused him of rape. He meets her as a result of lying in wait in a secluded spot, armed with a Kalashnikov, for lovers in their cars, with the intention of robbing them, and perhaps raping the women. He claims that this began by chance:

“Then he put his hand into his pocket and gave me a handful of dollars and Lebanese lira. I hadn’t planned to rob him. I hadn’t a plan at all. I’d only wanted to watch.”

With Shireen, however, it is different:

“But I confess before God and before you that I used to rape women, because you call it rape, and because after I became enamoured of Shireen I discovered that it was rape compared with the beautiful, fantastic sex a person can have with the woman he loves.”

The phrase “you call it rape” reveals that we cannot trust Yalo to know if it is rape or not. It is also clear that he stalked her:

“Yes. I used to wait at her flat. The when she came out, I’d follow her to work and wait. Then I’d follow her back home.”

On the other hand, Shireen claims to have been there with her fiancé the night they met, whereas Yalo says it was another man, a doctor who performed an abortion on her, something he has no reason to lie about. Shireen also meets him a number of times after that night. Is this simply out of fear? Questions like these mean that our sympathies for Yalo tend to fluctuate as the narrative progresses.

The interrogation itself gives us reason to sympathise with him. Brutal throughout, it includes placing the lower half of his body, naked, in a sack with a cat and then beating the cat, and also forcing him to sit on a Coke bottle. It also becomes clear that they not only want him to confess to the rape, but to other crimes he has not committed:

“Do you really think we’re stupid enough to believe that it’s just about playing the peeping tom and doing your dirty business? We want all the information about the network that’s been planting bombs and wreaking havoc around the country.”

Despite his crimes, Yalo often appear the victim, not simply of his interrogators, but of chance. Even his background is a matter of chance: his grandfather, who raises him with his mother, was born a Syrian Christian, but brought up by a Muslim Kurd, only to return, later, to his roots. Yalo, though raised a Syrian, speaks Arabic. In this way Khoury dramatises the complex histories and relationships of the area. Yalo’s current job as a night watchman is also a matter of chance as he met his employer in Paris, after being abandoned there by the fellow soldier he had stolen money and deserted with. It is perhaps the fact that, as his life unfolds before us, we realise that meeting Shireen is the first time that he has experienced love, which makes his story so affecting. However sympathetic we feel towards him by the end, though, Khoury has undoubtedly created a complex, three dimensional character who resists our judgement.

Can it win? This is a very fine novel, and Khoury is exactly the kind of writer the Prize is designed to promote. It should make the short list at least.