Just after Gate of the Sun was published I was teaching at NYU. A young man said he wanted to take my class because he read the novel, which had been translated into French and Hebrew, but not yet English. This young man was Israeli and he had read the novel in Hebrew. I asked him what his name was, and he told me that he had changed his name to Naji. Naji is the name of a small child in the novel who, during the exodus of the Palestinians, was left under an olive tree by his mother, because she had many other small children and couldn’t take care of him. Another woman picked him up and gave him back to his mother at the Palestinian and Lebanese border. The Israeli student told me he identified with this Palestinian boy. And I think a moment like that gives all the dimensions of what it means to take sides in literature. Essentially, it was an act of identification, where the reader became part of the story—he became part of the writing of the story. Because the story does not finish when the writer stops and gives it to the publisher. The story only will begin with its readers, and then it will be rewritten in the deepest way.Later in the conversation, we get another glimpse of Khoury in the classroom:
I was discussing this with my students. We were reading a Palestinian novel and an Israeli novel and comparing them. I told them, “Look, in two hundred years a historian will say, ‘What was this? This is so stupid! People are continuing to kill each other because someone thinks that God gave him this land and the other one thinks that the prophet came from that land,’ and so on. And we are wasting our lives. Gods can fight forever because they do not die—but we die.”Nuruddin Farah also tells some wonderful stories in the course of their conversation—like the one about how he came to write in English:
If I chose not to continue writing in those two languages, it was mainly to do with typewriters. English had sophisticated, strong, American-made, Royal Typewriters. People my age will remember Royal typewriters. They didn’t break down. Afterwards I learned Italian and started writing short stories in Italian—but every Olivetti I had broke down continuously. So I decided to write in English because of the typewriter.Plus this remarkable story, which he offers as explanation for how he learned to write from the perspective of female characters:
To earn a bit of pocket money I started writing letters for elderly men and women who couldn’t read. I was writing in Arabic at that time. One day a man came and he asked me to write a letter to his wife for him. He said to his wife in the letter, “You have been gone for a very long time and you are my wife. I want you to come back and if you do not come back in three months, I will come to the town where you are living”—which was about three hundred kilometers away—“and I will break every one of your bones and drag you all the way back to this town.”The transcript is not online, but you can order the issue here.
So I changed what he told me—because the power of writing gave me the authority to do so. I wrote, “If you do not come back in three months, you may consider yourself divorced.” She took the letter to her brothers, and they waited for three months. Then they went to a judge and he declared her divorced on the basis of the letter—a very respectful letter, the judge must have thought. Six months later, the husband went looking for his wife and found her married to somebody else. And he was told that he had written a letter that the she could consider herself divorced if she hadn’t returned in three months. He came back to the town in which we were living. He told my father, and I was then forbidden to write letters from that point on. No more pocket money.
(Photos of Khoury and Farah by Beowulf Sheehan.)