Khoury, Elias (1948–)

views updated

Khoury, Elias

Elias Khoury is a Lebanese novelist whose work is known worldwide. For more than three decades, he has been active in cultural, political, and academic circles in Lebanon and the Arab world, defending the Palestinian cause, secular and democratic values, and the idea of a new Arab renaissance.


Born in Beirut on 12 July 1948, Khoury studied at the Good Shepherd School in Ashrafiyya. He then moved to the Lebanese University where he majored in history and graduated in 1970. He moved to Paris in 1971 and completed his DEA (master's) in social history at the École Pratique des Hautes Études with a thesis on the 1860 civil war in Lebanon, which opposed Druze and Maronite Catholics in Mount Lebanon at a time of national and regional turmoil under a weakening Ottoman rule.

Beginning in 1972, Khoury has been involved in the Arab literary and cultural scene. He was an editorial board member of the "progressive" journal Mawaqif. In 1975 Khoury became an editor of Shu'un Filastiniyya (Palestinian affairs review) and an editorial director of al-Karmil (Palestinian literary review) in 1981. Between 1983 and 1990, he was editorial director of the cultural section of Lebanese daily al-Safir, and since 1992, he has been the editor of al-Mulhaq, the cultural supplement of the leading Lebanese daily An Nahar.

While pursuing his editorial career, Khoury also began a career in academia in the early 1980s, teaching literature and comparative literature at the Lebanese University, the American University of Beirut, and the Lebanese American University. At the end of the 1990s, he began teaching at Columbia University and New York University, where he is a global distinguished professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

He is married to playwright and artist Najla Jraysati, and is the father of Abla and Talal, both in the arts scene in Lebanon.


Khoury published his first novel, 'An alaqat ad-da'ira, in 1975. Two years later, Al Jabal Assaghir (The little mountain) was published to much success. It was set during the Lebanese Civil War in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyya (known as being a little mountain inside the capital Beirut).

In 1979 Khoury published Dirasat fi naqd al-shi'r, a literary criticism work dedicated to poetry, and in 1981 he published two novels Abwab al-madina (The gates of the city) and Al-woujouh al-bayda'. In 1982 he wrote a new literary criticism essay titled Al-dhakira al-mafquda, followed in 1984 by a collection of short stories Al-mubtada, wa'l-khabar, and a new essay in literary criticism Tajroubat al-bah'th 'an ufoq. In 1985, Khoury published his last work in criticism titled Zaman al-ihtilal. He returned to writing novels in 1989 starting with the well-known Rihlat Ghandi 'ssaghir (The journey of little Gandhi) about a rural immigrant to Beirut who lives through the events of the civil war. He followed this work in 1993 with Mamlakat al-ghourabaa (The kingdom of strangers) and in 1994 with Majma' al-Asrar.


Name: Elias Khoury

Birth: 1948, Beirut, Lebanon

Family: Wife, Najla Jraysati; one daughter, Abla, one son, Talal

Nationality: Lebanese

Education: Good Shepherd School (Ashrafiyya, Beirut, Lebanon); the Lebanese University (Beirut), 1970, B.A. history; École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris), DEA social history


  • 1969: Travels to Jordan to visit Palestinian refugee camps; joins Fatah
  • 1970–1981: Works at PLO research center in Beirut
  • Early 1970s: Editorial board member, Mawaqif
  • 1975: Becomes an editor, Shu'un Filastiniyya; publishes first novel, 'An 'alaqat ad-da'ira
  • Early 1980s: Begins teaching literature at the Lebanese University, the American University of Beirut, and the Lebanese American University
  • 1981: Becomes editorial director, al-Karmil
  • 1983–1990: Editorial director, cultural section, al-Safir
  • 1992: Becomes editor, al-Mulhaq, cultural supplement of An Nahar
  • 1993–1999: Leads Théâtre de Beyrouth
  • Late 1990s: Begins teaching at Columbia University and New York University
  • 2004: Involved in founding of the Democratic Left Movement
  • 2005: Helps launch the Samir Kassir Foundation (September)
  • 2007: Named president of the jury for the Carthage Film Festival


Many intellectuals fell into the trap of denying the Nazi Holocaust, the last manifestation of which was Mr. Roger Garaudy. The victim cannot ally itself with the executioner; and we, in that sense, cannot justify the Nazi crime or belittle it, in the pretext that we are fighting Israel. The real struggle against Zionism starts with the struggle against the concept of racism, and with holding the criminal responsible for his crime and not allowing him to commit another crime in the name of repentance for the first one.

                        FROM LE MONDE, MARCH 2001.

The story of the Palestinian catastrophe, of the Nakba of 1948, hadn't really been told. The emergence of these memories is a way of creating a new vision of Palestine. Since the image of the Palestinian portrayed in literature and the dominant ideology was of heroism and martyrdom, I think the novel helped liberate people by telling the stories of humiliation and interior defeat that they never told.


In 1998, Khoury published his greatest success, Bab achams (Gate of the Sun). The novel tells the story of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who were deported from their homes or killed in the exodus during the 1948 War, called the Nakba (disaster or cataclysm) by Palestinians. Bab achams won the Palestine Prize and was honored by the Palestinian ministry of culture and by many progressive intellectuals in the region and the world. It was later made into a film by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah and played on the Franco-German television network Arte. In 2000, Ra'ihat as-Sabun was published and in 2002 Yalo made its appearance. The latter is a story of a former militiaman who belonged to a Christian minority community that was displaced.

In 2007, Khoury published Ka'annaha na'ima, a novel that travels through the dreams of a young Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian man in the 1940s. It is the story of two Christian Lebanese and Palestinian middle-class families living through political developments in Beirut and in Palestine before its Nakba. Religious, psychological, social, and literary atmospheres make the novel one of his richest works.

Khoury's novels often focus on both social and political topics. Style-wise, he uses flashback techniques, memories, and monologues to illustrate his subjects' lives. Generally, he uses classical Arabic in his novels, but more recently, he has used some colloquial Arabic. Khoury's novels have been translated into English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Swedish. Many of them were chosen "novels of the year" by various specialized institutions or reviews, and Khoury is considered one of the most prominent Arab novelists of his time. Presenting one of his works, the Palestinian-American intellectual edward said that the post-naguib mahfouz era was inaugurated with it.


Khoury's political engagement started in the late 1960s and developed along with his cultural and literary productivity in the 1970s. Early on, he was influenced by leftist thoughts and by the Palestinian cause, and in 1969, he found himself traveling to Jordan to visit Palestinian refugee camps and joining yasir arafat's Fatah, the largest resistance movement in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Leaving Jordan in 1970 after Black September—a conflict between Palestinian guerrilla organizations and hussein bin talal, the king of Jordan—Khoury returned to Lebanon. After returning to Lebanon, and until 1981, he worked at the PLO's research center in Beirut with a large group of Palestinian and Arab researchers who settled in the prosperous Lebanese capital that attracted at the time dissident intellectuals from different Arab countries. Khoury participated in the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. He was seriously injured, even temporarily losing his eyesight, but eventually recovered. Many of his friends and comrades died in the first years of this war.

In the 1980s, Khoury wrote for different Palestinian and Lebanese reviews and daily newspapers, especially Al-Safir, until 1992, when he became the editor of the weekly cultural supplement, Al-Mulhaq, of the daily An Nahar. Under his editorship, Al-Mulhaq became the "tribune of opposition" to controversial aspects of the post-civil war reconstruction of Beirut and the "space" for leftist political and cultural resistance against the Syrian political hegemony over the country that was getting more and more brutal after the mid-1990s. In 2000 and 2001, Al-Mulhaq was at the heart of the "Damascus Spring" and published tens of articles and papers written by Syrian opposition intellectuals calling for the end of the oneparty rule in their country and for a democratization process. In 2005, Al-Molhaq covered the Beirut spring, or the "Independence Intifada," without losing its cultural critical role and distance.

Between 1993 and 1999, Khoury led the Théatre de Beyrouth, where different cultural activities took place attracting plays, film festivals, and performances from around the Arab world and producing Lebanese ones from a variety of artistic schools. The theater transformed into a center of political activities and held conferences calling for democracy and reforms in the country. Khoury and the theater committee organized in 1997 and 1998 two international events in tribute to Edward Said and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. Debates, music, book reviews, plays, movies, and lectures were presented in both events, gathering prominent figures in literature and social studies from the United States, Europe, India, and Arab countries. During this period, Khoury contributed to the writing of three plays and two movies that were produced and presented in art festivals in Beirut and different European cities (Paris, Berlin, and Brussels among them).

In March 2001, Khoury and thirteen other Arab intellectuals signed a statement opposing the planned conference in Beirut on Holocaust denial. Their position was a strong collective message refusing to justify any Holocaust denial message and stressing the "important ethical dimension of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and racism" that cannot tolerate any compromise on universal values of freedom and justice. In 2004, Khoury was involved with other intellectuals and political activists (such as samir kassir) in the foundation of the Democratic Left Movement. His election to its executive committee offered the movement additional credibility in cultural circles and a prominent voice defending its causes and those of independence, secularism, and social justice in Lebanon.

In September 2005, Khoury participated in the launching of the Samir Kassir Foundation to commemorate the memory of his friend who was assassinated on 2 June 2005. Khoury continues to work with the foundation to organize yearly cultural and political events in tribute to Kassir. Khoury was named president of the jury for the 2007 Cartage Film Festival in Tunisia and was saluted by different cultural and academic institutions. In his speech in front of the festival participants and guests, he condemned censorship and despotism in the Arab world and called for the respect of public freedoms and cultural liberty.


Khoury is one of the most innovative, consistent, and "organic" intellectuals whose literary production, cultural creativity, and political engagement live in harmony one beside the other and try to construct a new scene in the Arab world.


Adams, Lorraine. "Palestinian Lives." New York Times (15 January 2006).

Alcalay, Ammiel. "1001 Palestinian Nights: Gate to the Sun by Elias Khoury," Village Voice (New York), 18 March 2002. Available from

"Elias Khoury, Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies." New York University. Available from

Khoury, Elias. Interview by Anton Shammas. Yediot Aharonot, 3 March 2002. Available in English: "An Interview with Elias Khoury," translated by Ilan Safit. Archipelago Books. Available from


'An 'alaqat ad-da'ira, novel, 1975

Al Jabal Assaghir (The little mountain), novel, 1977

Dirasat fi naqd al-shi'r, literary criticism, 1979

Abwab al-madina (The gates of the city), novel, 1981

Al-woujouh al-bayda', novel, 1981

Al-dhakira al-mafquda, literary criticism, 1982

Al-mubtada' wa'l-khabar, short stories, 1984

Tajroubat al-bah'th 'an ufoq, literary criticism, 1984

Zaman al-ihtilal, literary criticism, 1985

Rihlat Ghandi 'ssaghir (The journey of little Gandhi), novel, 1989

Mamlakat al-ghourabaa (The kingdom of strangers), novel, 1993

Majma' al-Asrar, novel, 1994

Bab achams (Gate of the Sun), novel, 1998

Ra'ihat as-Sabun, novel, 2000

Yalo, novel, 2002

Ka'annaha na'ima, novel, 2007

                                            Ziad Majed