Elias Khoury is a Lebanese novelist, writer and critic. A lecturer at the American University of Beirut and the cultural editor of the Beirut daily al-Safir, Khoury is also a frequent contributor to literary and cultural journals throughout the Arab world. An English translation of his second novel, Al-Jabal al-Saghir (Little Mountain), has just been published (University of Minnesota, 1989). Barbara Harlow spoke with him in Austin, Texas, in November 1989.
Could you articulate some of the changes that you’ve seen over the last decade and a half, particularly as a writer working in the midst of the civil war?
Through these long years, the main issue of writing has been to try to unveil a concrete situation in which I am living. This means going deeper into what I think the reality is. The only way I have of going deeper is language, itself another kind of veil. In this contradictory situation writing becomes mainly a witness. That is, the writer makes writing itself a question. I do not have a final statement or understanding of what writing’s role can be in society, except that it is not only an expression of what is taking place, but also a part of what is taking place.
I practiced another type of writing while working as a weekly columnist for al-Safir. What I tried to push for, all through the nine years I’ve worked there, especially after 1982, was the idea of resisting occupation on the one hand and interior destruction on the other and of recreating the conditions for civil society. I do not think that a writer can be a witness if he or she does not participate in the act of resisting. This notion of a writer as neutral is meaningless: In a civil war, civilians are fighting. The writer is a civilian.
How do you assess the crisis of 1989?
We must understand what has been taking place in the region since the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the departure of the PLO from Beirut. The civil war continued under new terms set by the Israeli invasion. There are in the region now two main options. One is presented by the Palestinian intifada. The intifada demonstrates that, if people work in politics, if they go to the streets, if they organize themselves, they can unite and create a national identity against the occupying forces. The intifada demonstrates that democracy is the main issue in Arab society.
The other option I will call the Lebanese one. It is what Lebanon is meant to be in this particular situation: more civil war, more destruction and self-destruction. The population will once again be enslaved by sectarianism, by confessionalism and by a tyranny very brutal and very elementary.
I see an important link between the two options: The second is used to destroy the first. My reading of the Palestinian intifada is that it is an outcome of a long Palestinian struggle. Two phases were civil wars in Jordan and in Lebanon. This outcome is something very different from a civil war, as if history is teaching us its very painful lesson.
What do you see as the possibilities for the future?
The Lebanese dilemma now, the possibility of partition, exists because partition will make it possible to destroy not only the Palestinian intifada but all the possibilities which the intifada is opening up, at least in what we call the Mashriq, the Arab east, the crescent of countries which surround Palestine and which have always been affected by the Palestinian issue. The crisis started with the failure of the agreement between [Syrian President Hafiz] al-Asad and [US Assistant Secretary of State Richard] Murphy on the election of a new president last summer . Two governments were created afterward. Gen. Aoun’s project is a typical Third World military coup d’etat. But the complications of the Lebanese situation did not permit this. The only option for Lebanese civil society now is to create a broad resistance movement to face the prospect of partition.
I know this cannot be done with the old regime, or even with the Ta’if agreement. This agreement is not a solution, but it gives us a little break from the civil war so that we can think how to resist the old regime which is trying to rebuild itself through the election of Mouwad. Lebanese civil society now needs a break from civil war, needs to reunite itself on a new basis, mainly based on the labor unions, and other popular and cultural organizations. This is a very long road, but this is the only option, as I see it.
I insist on an idea which I wrote about several times: that Beirut is being punished. Schultz, when he was secretary of state, described Beirut as a “plague city” — because it was the only place which had opened itself up to the Palestinian resistance and to the Arab opposition, and to a democratic option, not only for Lebanon but for the Arab world. Beirut was punished in 1976 when the Syrian army entered, in 1982 when the Israeli army entered, and since, with all the militias working for the confessions and for foreign forces.
Is there something coherent about these different punishing angels?
Lebanon as a country, and Beirut as its capital, was not understood by us — I am talking about myself — until it was falling apart. We discovered our country when it nearly was no more. Beirut, and Lebanon, when it was created in 1920, was meant to be a bridge between the West and the Arab world, a cultural and economic base for Western influence in the Arab world. But the same road goes in two directions. Because liberalism was necessary for this kind of economic development, Beirut became the only center for liberalism in the Arab world. This included all kinds of new forces. All kinds of newspapers were published, for instance. I do not think even in the United States you have anything like it. As a result, when the Palestinians were kicked out of Jordan and everywhere in the Arab world, Lebanon was the only place to accept them.
In this sense, the threat of the Lebanese National Movement to take power in 1976 was a threat not only to the Israelis but also a threat to the Arab regimes. This was why they gathered — ironically at Ta’if, the same place where our parliament is gathering now, in Saudi Arabia. There, in 1976, a small Arab summit decided the Syrian army would enter Lebanon. The first thing the Syrians did after they entered was to occupy the newspapers. Afterward, the new Lebanese government under Elias Sarkis passed a censorship law against the newspapers, which meant censoring all kinds of opposition in the Arab world, not only inside Lebanon.
The heavy Israeli bombardment of Beirut during the 1982 invasion cannot be understood militarily. The shelling was meant to destroy this city as a place of recruitment against the Arab regimes, against Israel and against imperialism. Then after 1982 the militia men occupied Beirut. These are no mere militias; they are a type of professional army also trying to destroy the idea of the unity of the country and the idea of an Arab city in Beirut. In this sense there has been a convergence between different interests to destroy this place. I’m really not trying to make of Beirut a symbol — I don’t like symbols at all. I’m just trying to read the experience of the city with these different forces.
What are the priorities now for reconstructing society and political life?
We have the choice between two bad options, one worse than the other. Total partition will create a dynamic of collapse. The Ta’if reforms are not real reforms but can, I think, stop the shelling. Inside this agreement, you have the second option: for the three main militias — the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialists and Amal — to rebuild the country as some kind of federation that would serve the interests of the warlords. This other option is not an option of unity either, but it is a way to stop the civil war, at least for a moment. And stopping the civil war will permit what remains of civil society to work.
Here I remind you that before the election, in 1988, a very large democratic movement was emerging, a unified, popular campaign against the civil war and for the reunification of the country. When the shelling and the fighting stops, this movement can create its own momentum, which is a momentum both of opposition to the regime and for reunifying the country. I am describing two contradictory roles. But I think it cannot be otherwise in the Lebanese context.
I find this very important for the intifada. If Lebanon collapses, we will not have Palestine. And if we have Palestine, we will have Lebanon. This long, very long struggle — the Palestinian struggle in Lebanon, and the fighting with some Lebanese factions — will lead us to such a conclusion which is also paradoxical. The destinies of these two countries are so much related that if one does not exist, the other will suffer the possibility of not existing also.