Elias Khoury’s The Kingdom of Strangers (1996, Mamlakah al-Ghuraba 1993) is a slim book which interweaves the reflections of the narrator (identified with Khoury himself), the folk legend of the Lebanese monk Jurji Khairy, and the story of the “Circassian” Widad. These stories are retold by a narrator to us, and to two interlocutors, with the narrator telling the story of the monk to his friend Emil Azayec described as “the first Israeli I’d ever met” in 1981 in New York, and the story of Widad to Salman Rushdie, in a wandering narrative which moves back and forth between past and present, held together by repeatedly returning to Jesus as “the only real stranger. A stranger in the kingdom of strangers He tried to establish.”
While Khoury’s earlier novels centered around war-torn Beirut, this novel looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the story of Jurji Khairy. The legend of the monk, the narrator discovers during his doctoral research, had its origins in an actual event reported in papers in 1946.
While I was doing my research at Columbia university in New York I came across an article in a newspaper that was called al-Quds about the murder of the Lebanese, Jurji Khayri, of Douma, Lebanon…therefore what the Palestinian woman had told me was not a folk tale after all. It was an actual event. Here the question arises, what is the difference? How do I deal with the story of the Lebanese monk? Should I revise the Palestinian woman’s story, in accordance with Vladimir Prop’s prescription with respect to folk tales? Or should I search for the truth?
As one version of the legend has it, Khair left his village for a monastery in Jerusalem. However, after suffering persecution at the hands of the Greek administrators of the monastery for seven years, Jurji leaves and becomes a Robin Hood figure in the Galilee, although other versions have him becoming a criminal and a thug and the leader of a gang that abducts Jews. Finally he returns to Jerusalem and rents a room in the Christian quarter. On holy Thursday he takes a huge cross through the streets, announcing that this was the cross of the Arabs, which they would carry for a hundred more years. When he reached the Jewish quarter of the city, he is reported to have been stoned to death.
In telling the story of the monk, the narrator also tells the story of Emil and his father Albert who fled Poland for Palestine, who saw the truck taking Jewish prisoners to the death camps and saw his brother on this truck. This journey to Palestine is related to the story of Faysal, an eleven year old boy who dreams of a mass return to Palestine, except for a busload of refugees from Shatila who choose to stay together and build a new village. The narrator comments: “He knew he would never return to Palestine – he would go there. No one will return. Return is a fantasy. We return – that is to say we go” (26-7). The distinction between going and returning is further elaborated inthe story of Emil’s father:
“My father didn’t want to return to Palestine,” Emil said.
“You mean go,” I said.
As Julie M. Peteet notes, this explores the difference between a Polish Jew ambivalent about going to Palestine, whose son calls a return, while Faysal’s dream about return in the present context turns about to be a dream of going rather than returning.
Emil and the narrator disagree about how to represent the monk, Emil suggesting changing the part where he kidnaps the Jew because it makes him anti-Semitic. The narrator objects that cutting this reported version out would be eliding the fullness of reporting this legend, pointing out that stories are important even if not true because “they are a kind of psychological compensation.”
He had really loved the character of the monk. He said he was worthy of having an entire novel written about him – an Arab folk hero, like Robin Hood. But Emil thought the monk might be accused of being anti-Semitic. He suggested changing the part where he kidnaps the Jew. I told Emil that the monk did not kidnap any Jews, that folk tales say things so they won’t happen, they are a kind of psychological compensation (24).
The story of the monk is centrally about how the past turns into stories. The first line of the novel is “I told her I could smell the aroma of memories” (3). Within a few pages, this is expanded on:
With her I learned that stories are told because they are known and that when they tell their stories to each other, people transform the past into the present. Stories exist solely for the purpose of making the past present (5)
We betray the dead, constantly. Writing about them is the ultimate betrayal of the dead. No this is not correct. The very fact that we continue to live in spite of all this death is the ultimate betrayal. And so we take refuge in memories to avoid being disloyal but in the end what do we remember? Nothing but ourselves.
The narrator is troubled particularly by the fickleness of memory, by the loss of the past even in the effort to make it manifest:
Lets suppose everything went back to the way it was and Ali is standing there reciting his memories for us, old age having left its white mark on his head. What would he tell? Would he find enough space in his memory to differentiate between the battle of September 1970 in Jordan and the 1985 siege of Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut.
The second story, the story of Widad, begins with Iskandar Nafaa, a man who is married to rich woman from Beirut. Iskandar buys a girl identified as Circassian, although she turns out to be Azerbaijani, and converts to Islam to marry her. When he dies she forgets Arabic and begins to speak in her native language.
The doctor said it was a well-known condition in geriatric medicine in which the brain covers up the past blots it out and brings back the past. Even acquired language goes and nothing remains on the surface of the brain except the memory of childhood and the language of childhood (76).
Soon thereafter, Widad takes to wandering, in reality as in her memory:
…three days later a body was found on Damascus road near the entrance to birjawi quarter. She walked alone and then she died. Maybe she was searching for her homeland which had awakened in the hollows of her memory. Suddenly her memory woke up, opened up, revealing the bottom of a demo welll and then the grave swept it to where there is no return (77)
In retelling this story, the narrator embeds a reported conversation between the narrator and Salman Rushdie on language, memory and belonging:
I asked him how he relates to his native Urdu. He told me he came to England when he was six years old and that in his dreams he spoke in English and Urdu but eventually English took over….I told him we could write a novel about an Indian writer who comes to London at age six and writes his novels in English. At a certain age he gets that memory sickness and so he forgets English and goes back to speaking his native tongue and cant read his own novels.
“But I haven’t forgotten Urdu, so I can’t then remember it, as your Circassian heroine did. I chose English consciously.”
He talked to me about how he relates to the English language and how he felt he had control of it.
“Language is like land,” I said to him. “We can occupy other people’s languages just as we can occupy their land. But the question is who are we? Are we running from one enemy to another enemy? Can we accept telling a story, and rather than have the stories we write be read, become instead a story ourselves.”
I remember Salman Rushdie gave me a copy of his Satanic Verses manuscript that day. We were discussing his novel Shame and I was telling him what scared me about Third World literature was its peculiar tendency to turn into a page out of history and become classified in the West under the category of “oddities whose problems have no lodged solutions.” (79)
This last part on Third World literature is something Khoury has spoken about in an interview:
My basic fear has always been that my works would be translated as social documents as is the case for most examples of Arabic literature in translation including those of Naguib Mahfouz.
And yet, the idea of novels as deeply important social documents is something that is brought up in an interview in August 1993 edition of the Lebanese monthly literary magazine Al Adab, where Elias Khoury said:
The first thing I discovered is that we live in an oral society that doesn’t write things down…my fear has been that our present and our past were subject to destruction. The other thing is that I am Lebanese…I discovered that this society had erased its history, as if carried along with it a big fat eraser with which it blotted out its own history. So we have a situation where there is no written text about the war of 1860 and nothing about the revolution of 1920 or the revolution of 1958. What terrified me was that I was living a war (1975-) whose fate might well be similar to the fate of the wars that preceded it and so I had to write it myself.
This is something that is embedded in The Kingdom of Strangers, which recognizes a difference in storytelling now:
In the past, stories of this kind were left in the hands of time. And so time would revise them and reshape them into myths of a sort, or folk stories at the very least. In the myth, the individual and collective components of the subconscious meld together, whereas in the folk story, these components become symbols that speak to the subconscious and over time they become children’s stories. Yet now we are living in the age of writing. That is when we new record the event at the very moment it occurs, we cancel its mythical potential. (97)
This concern with recording the past and the distinction the narrator draws between myth and history, belief and truth, has to do with wars and the feeling of defeat:
Man forgets, as the Arabs say. But no, when he forgets, he remembers. This is how we are, we remember and don’t forget. After all, weren’t these wars excercises for the memory? They say war is an exercise in forgetting since if we did not forget these slaughterhouses we so vigorously enter into, the rebuke of a guilty conscience would kill us. (77)
We believe because we feel defeat. The victor is concerned with the truth. He separates time into stages, distinguishing between one stage and the next, because he wants to control the past and the future. As for us?…we haven’t been defeated yet.
And what do you call what’s going on?
One defeat after another. But I can’t believe it.
Later, the narrator puts this sense of successive failure, “one defeat after another”, into a failure of narrative, a lack of order:
“We find stories tossed in the streets of our memory and the alleys of our imagination. How can we bring them together, to impose order on a land in which all order has been smashed to pieces?” (84)
In the Preface to the translation of the novel, this sense of fragmentation is linked to the narrative technique, which is described as
less in the tradition of the modernists, such as Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and more in the direction of postmodern Third-World writers such as Fuentes, Marquez and Asturias.
This identification of Khoury’s writing as “postmodern” is problematic – something Stephen Meyer deals with in tackling Edward Said’s foreword to Khoury’s novel Little Mountain, as Said similarly calls Khoury postmodern. The problem of including practitioners of the new Arabic novel within the rubric of postmodernism is, as Faysal Darraj argues, a problematic transplanting pf a “western typology that has been applied to a body of literature with a long history of modernist antecedents onto a part of the Arab world that is largely without such antecedents.”
However, this is a novel that is written not in a linear fashion but through flashbacks ranging from simple declarative statements to extremely involved periodic sentences. As Meyer notes, this is:
A work written more in the style of a reflective essay than a novel and also incorporates elements of folk tradition. Khoury interweaves several stories with one another, and intersperses these with his own thoughts and musings.
Tradition, modernity, and postmodernity in Arabic literature
The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant
Landscape Of Hope And Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps