The Future (and Availability) of Elias Khoury’s Classic ‘Bab al-Shams’

Elias Khoury is, with Hanan al-Shaykh, Lebanon’s best-known and most widely acclaimed living novelist.

It was Khoury’s 1998 novel, Gate of the Sun, that propelled him to this (co-)position. In the original, باب الشمس was named one of the “105 best books” of the last century by the Arab Writers Union. In English translation, Gate of the Sun was a a New York Times notable book, named “best book of the year” by the Christian Science Monitor and San Francisco Times; Humphrey Davies’ translation won the inaugural Banipal translation prize. Khoury’s name is, now and again, floated for the Nobel Prize.

At his talk Monday night at the AUC’s downtown campus, Khoury spoke about the “future” of his widely respected, open-ended novel. He opened his talk by noting how “bizarre” it was to be in revolutionary Egypt speaking in English about an Arabic novel. He might also have noted that it was pretty bizarre to be in revolutionary Egypt, where his stunning, terrifying Yalo is still subject to seizure upon arrival, and where the film inspired by his book, also titled Bab al-Shams, cannot be sold, according to the AUC Press Bookstore.

We must continue to work for these censorships to be lifted.

From my commentary on the novel’s “future” for Al Masry Al Youm:

Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, who adapted “Gate of the Sun” to a four-and-a-half hour film, talked about the difficult relationship between Egyptians and Palestinians. Regimes such as Mubarak’s, he said, had been “using Palestine to repress us.” Those regimes told people: “You do not exist because Palestine does not exist.”

The regimes appropriated the story of Palestine, Nasrallah said. Making a film version of “Gate of the Sun” was his chance to take back the story.

Nasrallah’s film is not a mirror of the novel, but a creative interpretation, and it ends quite differently from the book. The last line of the book, in Davies’ translation, is, “I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…”

This could not be translated easily to film. Where is Khaleel walking? What does it mean? The author and the filmmaker discussed the ending for a long time.

In the end, Nasrallah decided to interpret the ending as a return to Palestine. “And I love it,” Khoury said. “My novel that I am beginning now begins with Khaleel in Palestine. So actually, Yousry’s interpretation inspired me.” Go on; read the whole piece.

And some outtake quotes from my notes and audio recorder:

Elias Khoury: “Every one of us, when he speaks about himself, he is translating himself. The mere idea of writing of speaking is, in a sense, an act of translation. So in this sense I share with my two friends here … try to translate my love, not forPalestine, but for the Palestinian people.”

Humphrey Davies: The stories in Bab al-Shams “are a form of history…history with a glass of tea in its hand.”

Elias Khoury: “But also the Arabs hate Palestinians. I don’t care about Palestine, I care about the Palestinians. And I love Palestine because it is the country of the Palestinians.”

Elias Khoury: “My concept of literature is not a presentation of reality. …  My reading of 1,001 Nights is that these stories must be mirrored by stories. So the stories are mirroring stories.”

Humphrey Davies: Bab al-Shams “is more like a universe whose component matter is stories.”

Yousry Nasrallah: “It’s very very easy to adapt pulp; it is actually highly recommended.” (Laughs.)