Elias Khoury on Why the Greatest Authors Are Invisible

Last night, author Elias Khoury, translator Humphrey Davies, and filmmaker Yusry Nasrallah spoke about the novel(s) and film باب الشمس (Gate of the Sun) in the context of “Translating Palestine”  at the AUC’s downtown campus.

One of the many interesting topics, briefly touched on, was the author’s relationship to his work.

It’s common for translators to talk about their invisibility. This can be both a positive, as when readers say “I thought the book was written in English!”, and a negative, as when translators complain of being undervalued. But, in fact, Davies was the only one of the presenters who did not refer to his invisibility.

During his presentation, Khoury frequently spoke of detaching himself from باب الشمس. The book, he said, ultimately did not belong to him.  “Because the writer is only an agent of literature, an agent of the human experience. The name of the author is only a name, which…will be forgotten. What will be remembered is the story itself. And here I remember the first time I met Yusuf Idris.”

The first time Khoury met Idris, he said, he was very young, and he just sat goggling at the great Egyptian author.

“And after one hour, he was bothered with this. He told me, ‘Why you are looking at me all the time?’ I told him, ‘Not only are you a great writer, but you look like a great writer.’

Khoury added that not all great writers look the part.

“And he replied to me with this very beautiful story. He told me, ‘No, my friend. The great writer is someone who becomes like the author of the stories of Goha. … When someone is really a great writer, you disappear.’ So when you see that I’ve disappeared, then you’ll really know that I’m a great writer.”

Yousry Nasrallah, who talked about making باب الشمس into a movie—with Khoury’s assistance—also spoke about how, when making a movie, “you disappear behind the film.”

Nasrallah did raise his eyebrows a bit when Khoury spoke about someone re-cutting the film to make it shorter. But Khoury seemed to insist that these stories and characters had been unleashed by him, but they did not belong to him.

And yet he also noted that “this is not the whole book,” and mentioned that the novel that he’s working on now begins with Khaled, his protagonist, in Palestine.

I will continue to type up my notes and tapes from this interesting discussion; thanks to Samia Mehrez for organizing it and to Elias Khoury for giving us the gift of reading aloud from باب الشمس. As he said, he had to “really rehearse this, because I cannot read this book.” For a long time, he said, “I used to refuse to read because I used to cry.”


  1. Nice point about Humphrey Davies being the only one not aspiring to invisibility! Perhaps it’s because Elias Khoury and Yousry Nasrallah both took the rhetorical position that their work was just “translating” (conveying, ferrying across) the stories in Bab al-Shams, Palestinian stories, to another genre — rather than creating something. It didn’t ring false, exactly: one believed EK when he said writing the book had been a “humbling” experience because even now he doesn’t own the stories in it. But it’s also true that when you’re comparing yourself to the author of the Juha stories or the Arabian Nights you can afford to be humble.

    1. Yes, and part of the context was also the younger Elias Khoury, who as a researcher in 1970, wanted to collect stories and tell the (grand) story of the Palestinians. I think humility and pride, ownership and letting go are all sides to this…er, coin.

      Yusuf Idris was also of more than one mind of this, reportedly devastated when the Nobel went to Mahfouz. Which is not exactly aspiring to invisibility.

  2. Between the Ideal (of invisibility) and the reality (of ego)… Fascinating piece, will share. Meantime, here’s Beckett, in conversation, on dying before you die: “What is demanded of the artist is that, as an individual, he vanish from his work… One must stand where there is no pronoun, no solution, no reaction, no tenable position… That’s what makes work so diabolically difficult.”

    1. hehe. if you’ve ever seen a copyright contract for staging any of beckett’s plays, you wouldn’t be quoting him so vehemently on the vanishing act. just sayin’.

      on the topic: i’m so jealous of all of you being there. *grumpy*

      1. They have plane tickets, you know. They sell them over this here Internet.

  3. No vehemence here, bibi, just echoing sentiments above. Because he strove for the thing, does not mean he achieved it. And, as I said, between the ideal and the reality…

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