Elias Khoury: the price of authenticity

Renowned Lebanese author Elias Khoury closed the Shubbak Festival with a conversation that proved unflinching and inspiring

“We have to bring back this idea of international solidarity,” said Elias Khoury. “…We forgot that poor people all over the world have to have solidarity with each other. We have to put forward again the idea of solidarity between peoples:.”

Lebanese author, playwright and critic Elias Khoury proved to be an inspired choice to close the Shubbak Literature Festival, with humour, honesty and a belief that writing defends life itself a major part of his conversation with novelist Marina Warner at the British Library yesterday.

“For me, writing is an act of learning. I go to learn and I go to discover. This is the central thing – to discover,” said the author of Gate of the Sun and White Masks. “Writing is an outcome of journeys that we make and that we participate in.”

Khoury, who has written 10 novels and three plays and was editor of An-Nahar’s weekly cultural supplement Al Mulhaq for 16 years, described fiction as being between “memory and imagination”, between two types of dreams. “Between the ‘manam’ – dreaming at night – and between ‘7ilm’ – dreaming to invent the world”.

Also reading from three of his books, much of the latter half of his conversation with Warner related to current conflicts in the Middle East, with Khoury no stranger to war. He has, as Warner pointed out, led a courageous life. Seriously injured during the Lebanese Civil War, he temporarily lost his eyesight and was an active member of the left-wing PLO/Lebanese National Movement coalition, which was not only leftist in outlook but also Pan-Arab in both its composition and orientation.

The most important thing is to try all the time to be loyal to your convictions – loyal to what you believe in

Elias Khoury

“Actually, the term courage is very banal,” he said. “You can be courageous or the contrary depending on the situation where you are. But the most important thing is to try all the time to be loyal to your convictions – loyal to what you believe in. Sometimes it’s very tough, sometimes it’s rather impossible… I always had this feeling that we have to be where we must be and I come from this leftist tradition that we have to be with the oppressed all the time. And in this sense I never thought that what I’ve done was courageous. I thought it was authentic. And, of course, sometimes this type of authenticity can have a very high price. ”

What about the situation now?

“The major issue now in the region is how to survive and how to save life. And in this sense, I always felt during the Lebanese Civil War and afterwards and with the Palestinians that literature is a major way of surviving. Literature and art. So we must at least defend our right to write and to express ourselves and here we must not pay attention to the price. The price can be very high but it’s worth paying. Our enemies not only do not produce culture, they are against culture by definition.

“Writing is a way of defending life, and this is what we are trying to do, knowing that in the end we will all die. But we are not defending our personal lives we are defending the idea of life and the life of others.”