Elias Khoury’s latest novel to be published in English, White Masks, is actually a work from 1981, written in the heat of the Lebanese Civil War on the eve of the Israeli offensive against Beirut. We need to dig deep into Khoury’s back catalogue: the fact is, he does not write enough. He recently said, “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.” A man so painstaking is never going to be prolific. Khoury has only written two novels in the decade since the Gate of the Sun, the work widely regarded as his masterpiece, arrived in English translation.
Gate of the Sun was also the name given to Bab El-Shams, a protest village in Palestine. It was a fitting tribute to Khoury, as Gate of the Sun is regarded as the great Palestinian novel. Khoury was in charge of collecting Nakba survivors’ testimonies for the PLO records office. His novel weaves some of these accounts together using a framework borrowed from the Arabian Nights: a Palestinian field doctor, demoted in peacetime to the role of a nurse, tells stories night after night, as he slowly circles the questions that truly interest him, love and betrayal. Until Gate of the Sun arrived, many regarded the earlier White Masks as the quintessential Palestinian novel. This told the story of a corner of Beirut run by the PLO in the period when every militia functioned as the government of its own fiefdom in the fractured Lebanon.
The surprise is that Elias Khoury is not Palestinian but an Orthodox Christian from Lebanon. The Maronite community, Lebanon’s other Christian sect, had formed an overtly fascist party as far back as the 1930s, known as the Phalange. As Lebanon’s Orthodox community were predominantly left-leaning, the rivalry between the two communities reflected a wider ideological divide: Fascism versus Leftist Internationalism. Orthodox Christians were sympathetic to Fatah as a multi-faith leftwing organisation, but Khoury went even further, joining Fatah and fighting in Jordan and Lebanon until a serious eye injury ended his time as a soldier. As an autobiographical touch, a PLO militiaman in White Masks also has a serious eye injury.
Khoury makes a habit of being an outsider. He is closely associated with the poets Adonis and Darwish, from their time together at the literary journal Mawaqif, yet he is not a poet himself. Foreigners rarely grasp the intense relationship that Arabs have with poetry, or the widespread conviction that Arabic is poetic at heart. Khoury prefers to write in prose, which sets him apart from almost every Arabic writer who has ever lived. It is almost as if he had to free himself from the attractions of poetry to find a route into fiction.
Khoury’s reputation is growing almost month-by-month as his earlier work is rediscovered—and let us not forget that, in the West, fiction tends to be preferred over poetry. Each year, when discussion of the Nobel laureate comes around, there is an expectation that Adonis will at last be awarded the prize he so richly deserves. I would be willing to bet his old friend, Elias Khoury, gets there first—and he is no less deserving of the honor.