Beirut – My Name is Adam, the latest novel by Elias Khoury, a novelist, playwright, critic, cultural journalist and public intellectual, is set in the Palestinian town of Lydda in 1948. It explores life for the Palestinians who remained in what Israelis dubbed “the ghetto”.
Khoury has also written about Lebanon’s civil war and spoken publicly about the wave of revolutions that washed over the Arab world in 2011, which he calls a “big step” whose ramifications are still unfolding.
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Khoury spoke with Al Jazeera about how his novels help to mark the difference between past and present, about the ongoing violence in Israel, and about the Arab Spring five years on.
Elias Khoury: My first novel about the civil war, Little Mountain, was published in 1977, so it was written in 1975 and 1976, during the war. My idea was that we have to write what we are living, because this separation between writing and living, between spoken and written, must be destroyed. Speaking about something that happened 10 years ago is not the past, it’s present – otherwise everything is past. Ten minutes ago is the past. It becomes an absurdity.
I’m telling stories, I’m not teaching lessons in history or philosophy. I’m just telling stories – love stories, life stories. I love these characters and I find them interesting, and through them I discover different aspects of reality.
The revolutions happened because it was the end of an era and people couldn’t take any more of this type of regime.
Al Jazeera: Is your new novel, My Name is Adam, the long-awaited follow-up to Gate of the Sun [a previous book that chronicled the Palestinian saga]?
Khoury: It’s set in Palestine and this book is the first volume. It’s supposed to be a trilogy, but every book is independent. It is a continuation of Gate of the Sun in the sense that it chronicles the Nakba and the aftermath.
It begins in the city of Lydda, and it tells a story which is not known at all. The biggest massacre of 1948 happened in Lydda, but this is not the issue. The issue is that the people who stayed in Lydda were quite a small number. From 50,000, something like 500 or 600 people stayed. The Israelis let them live for a year and two months in an enclosed area, surrounded by razor wire. There was one door and they couldn’t leave, and the Israelis called it the ghetto.
This novel is entitled My Name is Adam because the narrator’s name is Adam. He was born in 1948, so he was the first baby born in the ghetto.
He’s telling the memories of his mother and the people with whom he lives in this first year in the ghetto, which was a terrible year, because the Palestinians who stayed were obliged to do forced labour and the labour was terrible, because the major part of it was to collect the corpses from the streets of the city.
Al Jazeera: How did you research the historical background?
Khoury: There are some testimonies which were written about Lydda, but very few, and I collected a lot of oral testimonies. It was very difficult because I could not go there.
For Gate of the Sun, it was easier because I was working in the camps here in Lebanon. This time I had to collect information by Skype and phone and WhatsApp and Viber – actually, I learned to use this technology because of this. There were also many people who I met, in New York and also in Jordan.
Al Jazeera: What do you make of the renewed wave of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories in recent months?
Khoury: I think in the Arab East, we are going through something new. My feeling is that we are entering a new phase, and maybe it’s the toughest phase of our contemporary history. If we take the Palestinian cause, what we feel is that there is no political option. The Palestinians have no options at all.
In the Oslo Accords, which came as a result of the first intifada, the Palestinians surrendered. The Oslo Agreement is a total surrender by a people who accepted losing 78 percent of their homeland.
The condition of surrender is that if you surrender, you have to survive. The Israelis have proved that they refused the Palestinians’ surrender. They are continuing the occupation and it’s becoming unimaginable now to think about the Israelis agreeing to the two-state plan.
I think it’s impossible for the Israelis to agree to it now; it would lead to a civil war in Israel. They have created a situation that’s irreversible. What does this mean? It means that the Palestinians have to accept to be stateless.
It’s an apartheid system without recognition of the Palestinians as citizens. In a sense, we’ve gone back to the origin of things, where survival is resistance. My reading of the resistance that’s taking place now is that it’s not led by anybody and it cannot be stopped by anybody.
These are the first signs of a new type of resistance, which is resistance against an apartheid system.
Al Jazeera: You gave a keynote speech about the Arab Spring back in 2012, in which you spoke of the revolutions as a positive force for change. Do you still feel this way?
Khoury: Positive or negative, history decides. We are living it and we cannot see what will happen and how things will unfold, but I think what happened in the Arab states is a big step and nothing can go back to the status that was before.
Look at Egypt, where they tried to bring back the status quo with Sisi; it’s undoable. That system is over. But on the other hand, the failure of the secular political groups is terrible. We are going through a very tough period.
I don’t see any end for the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. And, of course, one of the terrible outcomes of this is the collapse of society. I don’t think it’s the revolutions that are responsible for this catastrophe.
The revolutions happened because it was the end of an era and people couldn’t take any more of this type of regime. But the savagery of the despotic apparatus led a revolution towards a sectarian civil war.
We are in a very terrible moment, and I don’t think we can rethink the destiny of the states one by one. We have to rethink the destiny of the region.
It’s all related. I think this is the last struggle of the ancient despotic ways of governing and thinking. They are fighting their last battles and they will be very bloody and they will defend themselves to the end, but there is nothing that can save them. This is the end of an era.