Elias Khoury: an upheaval in “souls, bodies, imaginations…”

Click to listen to novelist Elias Khoury in conversation with Chris Lydon on the Arab unpheaval. (27 min, 12 meg)

This revolution is mainly a cultural event, not a political event. It was an explosion — against the madness, irrationality and brutality of the situation. It happened with no mediation by intellectuals, no strategy, no “idea.” It came from the depths of the society, spontaneously. Even the participants were totally astonished, even the “heroes” were taken by surprise…

Elias Khoury with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 15, 2012

Elias Khoury on a visit to Cairo
Photo Credit: Mosa’b Elshamy

CAIRO — Elias Khoury is the sort of novelist we rely on to tell us what is going on. Himself of Lebanese and Christian antecedents, he wrote Gate of the Sun (1998), a stylized and much-admired fictional account of the Palestinian naqbah or “catastrophe” from 1948 to the infamous Sabra and Shatillah massacres in Lebanon in 1982. Writing, he remarks, is his means of discovering his ignorance and overcoming it. When we meet, almost by chance, in Cairo, he jumps to extend the cultural and emotional frame around the Arab upheaval:

We crossed the bridge of fear. Go back to the dialectics of the slave and the master, of Hegel, the German philosopher. I mean, there is a master because you are a slave. He will continue to be a master because you accept to be a slave. If you don’t accept being a slave, he is no more the master. These regimes created an era of terror, which made people believe that the people itself as an entity is the problem… Society is afraid of itself. So once a bunch of kids decided not be afraid, everything collapsed.

I feel when I come to Cairo, people are still poor; they are even more poor. The economic problems are still there, and even more complicated. But you feel freedom. You feel people are at ease with their bodies. Even the women who are covered are so sexy! Here the veil is not an Islamic sign; it’s a mode; it’s a social sign. Not every woman who has a veil is an Islamist — on the contrary! So you feel their body language has totally changed. And you feel people feeling their power. Which means that no one can repeat dictatorship. So this is a profound change. Now how to create from this change a real victory of the revolution? It still a long way… In world history, most revolutions failed, by the way. But this process itself is liberating our souls, liberating our bodies, liberating our imaginations. Now it is the big challenge for Arab societies to prove their reconciliation with history. The Arab people were totally kicked out of history — by these dictators, by their failures, and by their defeats. Now we have to prove that we deserved this reconciliation, that we can build upon it.

Elias Khoury with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 15, 2012

“This is a very precious, very rich moment in Arab life,” Elias Khoury is telling me through the din and dread of cruel news from Gaza. “I am not pessimistic at all. We are in a process of rebuilding the concept of democracy, and putting it together with social justice, and reestablishing the idea of security in the region.” It has been an “empty region,” he says, since Egypt went its separate way to peace with Israel at Camp David in the 1970s… It will be a long and interesting and difficult task.”

The Muslim Brotherhood prevailed in Egypt’s presidential election “because there was nobody else, not because people wanted them.” But the Brotherhood is part of the old regime and time past, when it was cast as the outlaw opposition. To Elias Khoury today the Muslim Brotherhood looks unprepared to govern — not least, he says, because political Islsam is a machine without a culture. “In 80 years political Islam has not produced any writers — not one poet, not one playwright, not one novelist, not one philosopher. People who do not produce culture cannot run a country. For what Gramsci calls ‘hegemony,’ you need culture.”

Arabic cultural production and Islamic religious life have been separate spheres since the time of the Prophet, Elias Khoury tells me. “Cultural production will continue in the secular frame of everyday life, not the sacred. Daily life is more powerful than sacred texts… What’s sacred is life, not texts about life.. Life will win.”

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  • Robert Zucchi

    Mr. Khoury is open-hearted enough to credit the impetus for the uprisings to the Egyptian and other Arab peoples themselves, who rose as one, as if by instinct, to demand from dictatorship that their dignity and autonomy be restored. It was, in light of Egypt’s history, a reckless action, one born of a desperate courage; but it was also foreordained to be successful, because the people’s spirit was almost supernaturally set against failure. Mr. Khoury
    detects, if not yet a political liberation, a personal, almost spiritual manumission: even amidst worsening poverty, people are reclaiming their lives; “…people are at ease with their bodies.”

    Intellectuals will interpret these events in their artistic imaginings through fable, legend, and allegory, and impart a richer signification to what remains at the moment a chronology. Mr. Khoury may well address himself to that task, but for now I was delighted to have him speak so engagingly about the possibilities he discerns in the prevailing uncertainty, employing a narrative style I found to be a very high art form in itself.

  • Potter

    Khoury concurs, it seems, with Fahmy: waking up, slaves no longer.

    You talk around this but I compare and include it: Israelis ( those that hold sway) have this same issue; they are slaves to history and their fears and too their leadership (chosen!). Admirably, they have built quite a country. But it sits on a shaky foundation which must be repaired. When you talk of the Palestinians, you talk about this too. I agree with Khoury that the third Intafada may very well need to happen.. non-violent and broad, better, more effective than the others, and a better way than missiles.

    The Middle east seems to be about separately paced (or still stagnant) evolutions. Syria is so heartbreakingly bloody. I can only admire the Egyptians and the Tunisians. Khoury is Emersonian, evolved; I love that he is not stuck in names and identities.

    There is so much to be thankful for this day here— this as well! Happy Thanksgiving– a great American holiday.

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