Ten years ago, in October 2008, the eminent Lebanese author Elias Khoury gave the inaugural talk at the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. He was here to speak about his 1998 novel, Gate of the Sun, an epic re-telling of the Naqba, which many people consider his masterpiece. This week, Khoury is back in Abu Dhabi to discuss how Arab literature has changed since his previous visit.
But writers respond to the world around them. So if we want to understand how Arab literature has changed, we first need to understand how the Arab world has changed. Khoury believes that the events of recent years, including the Arab uprising and its bloody aftermath, are comparable to the Naqba. There is now, as there was then, Khoury says, “a huge feeling of loss”.
“In the past 10 years, we have seen great hope, great disappointment, great ambition, and great catastrophes,” says Khoury. “The two major problems facing Arab novelists today are: how to give that pain a voice and how to listen to the silence of the victims. The question of how Arab literature has changed is premature. We are still waiting for the new language – the new perspective – to be crystallised.”
Khoury's latest novel, My Name is Adam, the first of his Children of the Ghetto trilogy, was published in 2016 (the English translation will be released on October 11). It tells the story of a Palestinian-Israeli man called Adam Danun, who was born in 1948 in Lydda, the Palestinian city captured that year by Israeli troops. Hundreds of Arabs were massacred as they fled the city of Lydda, which is now Israeli and known as Lod.
Danun later emigrates to New York, but when he discovers that the woman who raised him may not have been his mother, he sets out to discover what really happened to his family. One critic has described My Name is Adam as "another layer in the Palestinian story as it hasn't been told to Israeli Jews since 1948".
It is of particular significance, then, that My Name is Adam has been translated into Hebrew. "The main issue is that the novel can travel through different times, speak to different cultures, and be a part of the human consciousness," says Khoury, who insists that his writing is not political.
This is surprising. Khoury, who was born in Beirut in 1948, has a long history of political activism. He volunteered with the Palestine Liberation Organisation during the Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1990) and helped to establish the Democratic Left Movement in Lebanon in 2004. Many of his 13 novels deal with the consequences of the conflicts, often brought about by political decisions, in the Middle East.
“What’s the meaning of political?”, asks Khoury. “Nothing will be left of politics in literature,” he says. “Either literature can speak to our souls or it’s meaningless. Of course, the novel is political in that it takes place at a very definite time, but the importance of politics here is minimal. The most important thing is to investigate the human experience. This is why a reader from anywhere in the world can identify with the novel. Forget that it’s set in Palestine because it is a story about the human dream and how people can survive catastrophe.
“Our duty as writers, intellectuals and citizens of the world is to try and find our way out of this madness,” he says. “It’s up to the reader to find their own way through a novel. It is the reader who gives a novel its meaning and its life.”
Khoury is not optimistic about the future of the Middle East. “I feel that we are beyond despair,” he says. “Unfortunately, it is not only in the Middle East; the whole world seems to be going through this. [Look at] the alt-right; the rise of populism.
“The things that have caused suffering from the beginning of human history – power, tyranny, dictatorship, racism – are repeated all the time. We haven’t learnt anything from history because we continue to repeat these stupidities.”
Does he believe that novels have the power to bring about change, though? “If we are waiting for a novel or a poem to start a revolution, this is childish,” he says. “Novels do not have a direct effect. They can have a profound effect, but it is indirect at the same time.”
And yet despite this, Khoury maintains his faith in literature. "Writing is a way for me to know more," he says. "While writing the first novel of the Children of the Ghetto trilogy, Adam became my friend. He led me towards a profound wisdom. Every novel makes me wiser."
Elias Khoury will speak at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on October 7 at 6.30pm. For more, visit www.nyuad.nyu.edu