Elias Khoury: Understanding events through children's eyes

Mary Mourad, Wednesday 19 Sep 2012

Speaking at first public lecture in AUC's summer academy programme, Lebanese writer inimitable Elias Khoury provides fresh insight into art, history and the rough-and-tumble politics of the Middle East

Elias Khoury
Elias Khoury (Photo: Ayman Hafez)

The remarkable Elias Khoury was guest speaker at the opening event of the public lectures series at the American University in Cairo (AUC)'s summer academy, which is taking place between 16 and 27 September. Public lectures and panels take place on various days throughout the two-week programme at AUC's downtown campus or at Cairo University's arts faculty.

Georges Khalil, co-organiser of the summer academy, described the aim of the programme – which targets PhD students and post-doctoral students – as broadening perspectives to issues other than region. For example, this summer's focus is on aesthetics and politics and exploring different countries' approaches to these issues.

Inviting 30 to 40 scholars from all over the world – the US, Europe and the Arab world – specialised in history, media studies, political science and literary studies, will provide scholars with the opportunity to reflect on their research with colleagues from different countries and disciplines for a two-week week period.

"This year, the academy isn't confined to private sessions, but, through the public programme, has the chance to invite larger audiences and interact with intellectuals from Egypt and the Arab world," Khalil concluded, leaving the podium to the keynote speaker.

Elias Khoury, distinguished Lebanese writer and critic, opened the first panel of the public lectures. Professor Samia Mehrez introduced Khoury, who was editor for Shu’un Falastin ('Palestine Affairs') with late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, during the 1970s. He then headed Karmal, and later was editor for the cultural section of Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar.

Khoury's best-known works include 'The Little Mountain: The Journey of Little Gandhi,' and the masterpiece-turned-epic-film, 'Gate of the Sun,' directed by Yosri Nasrallah. His latest book, Sina Al-Koll, won Khoury the UNESCO Sharjah Award for its contribution to Arab culture.

Khoury began his presentation by stating that his speech was an "attempt to understand," considering himself a "student, a learner of the challenge of change happening in the Arab world." He voiced his hope that the discussion might "help me understand more, especially here in Cairo near Tahrir Square, where we learnt a lot."

The perspective of children, Khoury stated, was critical in order to be able to view the revolutions with a fresh eye. He described an Iranian post-revolution movie that provided a powerful view of the ongoing political turmoil. 'Where's the Friend's Home?' by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was a display of the extent of oppression by a dictatorial regime, depicting children's ability to look at everything with brutal honesty.

"The Iranian experience isn't unique, but repeated again, for example in a Syrian movie, where a child is shown on the eve of the Syrian-Egyptian union," Khoury said, before moving on to Egypt and a Yosri Nasrallah movie in which "children were able to summarise the emotions of the entire population."

Children, as Khoury said, were the first to show the world what was happening in Israel, when they were the first to throw rocks at Israelis and show the world the horrors of the Israeli regime during the first Palestinian Intifada.

"Children came from nowhere and threw rocks, at a time when it seemed that the Palestinians had lost their language, and there the children took a language from the stones, revealing the truth, otherwise difficult to tell the world, stating that the Palestinians were the victims," he said. "The children of Palestine made a change to language, and with the bones of children they made a story of the Palestinians as the new Jews being massacred."

Deraa in Syria didn't rebel, but rather followed what its children started on their school walls, Khoury remembered, when they wrote the famous slogan "The people demand." The answer to their small demand was written on the dead body of Hamza, the 13-year-old boy who led the protests and who was returned to his family as a tortured corpse.

"The police officer requested the women be sent to him if they weren't able to give birth to any better!" Khoury described the anger of a small village into broader Syrian society. "The children are back to the streets of history, and bringing out to the streets new generations of fighters that were not blemished by the dictatorship," Khoury argued.

"Hafez Al-Assad, our president until eternity and beyond eternity" was a remarkable board in Tripoli, highlighting the dream of eternal life and authority that described a form of dictatorship that lives past the lives of one person. "Either Al-Asaad, or we burn the country" was therefore the slogan of those who believed in this story, Khoury recalls.

The Tunisian Revolution, Khoury then stated, sparked by the desperation of the death of Bou Azizi, "was the call of the marginalised to come forward, pushing out the dictators in four countries and its flame is still on in Syria and Bahrain."

The small spark moved from a tiny spot into a major explosion able to mobilise, surprising everyone, yet was done too fast to enable any proper formulation of political demands. The explosion was without a plan, the revolution without leadership – it was a rebellion of the marginalised without any political understating.

The Arab dictators who continued in power without ideology or legitimacy had ripped the political and value systems apart. Leftists failed to play a role, and their experiences ended in bloody fights and they resigned either through prisons or by force. Reflections of these resignations factored into the drop in culture, and some intellectuals even took up roles with the regime for fear of their lives.

"Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid is a portrayal of the best and worst of the intellectuals' fates, for one great, open-minded thinker had to live in exile and only came back to die in Egypt," Khoury said.

"Is the result of the fall of a fragile regime that our states fall into the hands of Islamists?" he asked. Khoury here resonated with the much spoken debate following Islamist electoral victories throughout the Arab revolutionary countries. For Khoury, Islamist power is in presenting an alternative value system where dictatorship had killed all human values. And when the state has failed, they are the only contender left standing, he said.

The neoliberal tendencies of Islamist thought, Khoury asserted, isn't due to any American tendency, but rather a structural question that was always present in the foundation of their thought. "Charity has marked their contribution to the society for very long," he said.

"The true danger is going back to dictatorship. Politics aren't about writing in newspapers but about building political institutions. Lacking a political view, and without a political structure or proposition, is reflected in the fragmentation of the votes for the presidential elections, where the only unity existed among those working on identity, and that's a big concern," Khoury stressed.

In response to the question as to when Arabs might have full democracy, Khoury replied: "This requires time, but I have no idea how much. This is dependent on the democratic powers, and if they continued as they are, it could go on for 60 years." Revolutions aren't pretty, he stressed, "only later, when we read about them."

"The real challenge is a challenge of values; the need for a new social contract that is based on nationalism and equality, bringing us back to true values of humanity, and replacing the only current that offers values, and that is Islamism," he added. "A new Arab world constructed on values of freedom and humanity doesn't mean living without religion, but rather focusing on humans and filling in the voids of values."

The civil, ethical code required is an effort by all intellectuals and must be adopted voluntarily – not as a religious discourse, but as a humanitarian reference we can all agree about, he said, with Islamists and believers signing up for it. This, he added, allows us to keep our societies from the collapse into corruption and failure, taking the battle from identity into the political field. The real battle, he stressed, comes from the political sphere and the questions about freedoms.

"We do not cohabit, but we have equal rights as citizens of the country," Khoury noted. "We do not want forgiveness for being different, but rather to celebrate our diversity."

In response to the anti-Islam movie crisis, Khoury expressed shock that, "Some 200,000 Syrians are being killed and nobody protests, yet a silly movie causes that much of a stir."  

Khoury saw the movie as a plan to give Romney an edge to win over Obama, and therefore justify a looming US-led war on Iran, that's why Saudi, he said, which would favour such a scenario, didn't object as they did on past anti-Islam cartoons.

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