Silence as communication: a conversation with Elias Khoury

Elias Khoury is back with My Name Is Adam, the story of a man who decides to investigate what happened in 1948 in Palestine in the city of Lydda where he was born.

 

You’ve said that when you were working on My Name Is Adam, you collected stories that hadn’t really been public before. In response to your book, they’ve become history and are now out in the public sphere. What was the process of recording those stories and then making them public like?

I actually didn’t record the stories – I collected them. There’s a difference. I don’t record. The thing is that by mere accident I discovered something that was very little known. I suppose nobody knew it: that after the Nakba [the 1948 Palestinian exodus, ed] – where villages were destroyed, people were expelled – the Israeli army gathered people in one area of the cities, this area was encircled with wire, and the Israeli soldiers called it ‘the ghetto’. The Palestinians had never heard the word ‘ghetto’ before and thought it referred to an area where Arab people lived. This happened in many cities. Knowing that I started to investigate, to ask, to read. There were some writings about the exodus from Lydda which was the most well known exodus of the nakba. They had to walk into the wild, and it was July 1948, summer. Men, women, children, old people. Many died from thirst. But nothing was written about the people who were left behind, so I began to collect the stories of these people, how they lived, and then I decided to write this novel.

And this is the first of a trilogy?

Yes, the second novel is coming out in Arabic now, and I’m beginning to write the third one. It’s a long process. I collected stories from people who stayed in Lydda. I can’t go there of course, so I skyped. And then I met many people who escaped and went to Amman, to Jordan. But the major difficulty was how to recreate the life of the ghetto because very few people can tell you about it and most of them have died. So I had to recreate it myself, which opened a huge debate. 

Why was it that the story of the ghetto wasn’t written down before?

Well, most of the stories of the nakba weren’t written down. When I published The Gate of the Sun it was the first real account of the story of the Palestinian exodus and the massacres of 1948. It was never written down, that’s what happens with trauma.

My Name Is Adam is structured around the relationship between silence and speaking.  Silence is the major hero. People suffering from such a terrible trauma – for example the protagonist Adam – don’t want to remember. It needed time to come out, and now things are coming out.

It must have been an intense process of speaking to people.

It was very difficult. Victims don’t like to speak. When I went to them I went with huge knowledge, and because they knew about The Gate of the Sun, they knew me. That facilitated it. With Gate of the Sun it was much more difficult. I’m telling the story of an invented character, Adam. What I describe in the novel is about water, food, where they slept, their daily lives – that is true, but all the other things are of course fiction.

You’ve stressed in the past that your purpose is not to write history.

I write about the human experience. But in order to arrive there you have to put the background in. And unfortunately history is written by the victors, it was written by the Israelis. The details are mentioned in those stories, but they aren’t filled out.

So history is written by the victors and the rest is silence. Do you feel a responsibility to take on those stories?

It’s not a matter of responsibility, it’s a matter of love. I write because of love, not of responsibility. The major factor in life is loving others, and identifying with them. It’s an act of identification. The victors write history, but the victims write stories. And I think the stories will win. If there is a competition, the stories win.

Because they’re more powerful?

Yes, I think so. And they’re more profound. They give interior lives, real experience, while history is interested in power structures etc.

Isn’t it almost a contradiction to write about silence? As soon as you write you’re not silent anymore.

Consider the mother of my protagonist Adam: she never spoke, she spoke in fragmented words and stories, but she didn’t want and couldn’t speak. And afterwards you discover why: she didn’t tell him his whole story – that he was an orphan, etc. But how to portray the fragment of words that come from beneath the story? This was my challenge in writing it. How to create a dialogue with silence. There’s is this one sentence, when Adam meets a woman, that I like very much. When he describes her he says, You are beautiful like silence. 

Because silence is a gift?

Silence is a way of communication. We don’t need language all the time. We misinterpret communication. I think about personal communication: looking, touching, that is communication. And then there’s the silence of disaster, real disaster. A city that was totally empty, looted, destroyed, young men of the ghetto obliged to get dead bodies left in the houses and burn them. In such a situation silence becomes totally different.

It becomes healing?

Yes. There is another part to the equation. Mamoun, the one who was like a father to Adam, is blind. Mamoun describes he sees with his blind man, as if this blind history needs a blind man to uncover it.

What, for you, is the balance between entertainment and values in a novel?

Entertainment is part of the work of novels. We have to tell a well structured story that people can read, and which you as a writer want to live in. The condition is simple: if I believe the characters, that they are real, then I can continue writing the novel. You have to identify something which you can identify with, which people can identify with, and it must be well structured.

 


Elias Khoury is the author of thirteen novels, four volumes of literary criticism and three plays. He was editor-in-chief of the cultural supplement of Beirut’s daily newspaper, An-Nahar, and is Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. My Name Is Adam (translated by Humphrey Davies) is out now.