Jeremy Harding goes to Beirut to meet the novelist Elias Khoury

Shatila is a short car journey out of Beirut and a few minutes on foot down a street full of market stalls. You pass a refuse heap where goats browse and small children smash up polystyrene packaging, duck into any of the narrow alleys to your right and enter one of the oldest refugee camps in the world. It was established by the Red Cross in 1949 on behalf of Palestinians herded from their villages the previous year. About 700,000 people were evicted in 1948 and of these perhaps 100,000, many of them peasants and smallholders from the hinterland of Haifa, fetched up in Lebanon.

Like the other camps for Palestinians, most of them administered by UNRWA, Shatila rapidly became a breezeblock and cement affair. The busy thoroughfare with the refuse tip was once part of the camp, and it also included a patch of ground, now walled and tended, where the dead of Shatila and neighbouring Sabra, massacred in 1982, are buried. The extent of Shatila was hugely reduced when the Palestinian camps in Lebanon came under siege. Less well known than the Israeli-sponsored massacres, the ‘war of the camps’, which lasted from 1985 to 1987, pitted the Shia militia Amal against the Palestinians in a long campaign masterminded by Damascus, and intended to curtail Arafat’s lingering influence in Lebanon. So much of Shatila was destroyed by Amal that it now gives the impression of recoiling from the burial ground. After one edge of the camp had been blasted away, Amal fighters moved in and created a hill of garbage and excrement on the graves of 1982. A cemetery inside the camp contains the bodies of those who died between 1985 and 1987.

As for the living, there are now about 16,000, only half of them Palestinians. The rest are mostly destitute Lebanese and Syrians. Many people have turned the fronts of their cramped houses into little shops, from which they hope to scrape a few dollars on modest mark-ups. During the Israeli assault this summer, Shatila received about eighty of the thousands of families who fled towards the capital, while the burial ground of 1982 now plays host to the victims of the recent war, with a large hoarding mourning civilians who died in Israeli air-raids at Qana and on the road out of Marwahin.

Shatila is the setting for Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun.[*] In a single room in a clinic known as ‘the Galilee Hospital’, Khaleel Ayyoub, a Palestinian paramedic, sits with an inert patient, also a Palestinian, who is failing to recover from a cerebral embolism. The failure unfolds over seven months, during which Khaleel ministers to the patient, Yunis, once a legendary fighter for the Palestinian cause, with drips, catheters, swabs and bedsore remedies. Khaleel has been advised by Umm Hassan, an elderly Palestinian midwife who grasps a death as she would the legs of a breech-birth baby, that he should talk to his unconscious patient even if it seems pointless. Khaleel obliges and in the course of the one-way conversation – which rapidly becomes an interior dialogue and then a set of interlocking stories told by a multitude of characters – we are given an account of the lives of the Palestinian villagers who moved north from Galilee in 1948 in their tens of thousands to preside over later generations in exile, their stories in turn bringing us to the 1990s, about the time we’re to imagine Khaleel seated at the bedside of Yunis in the remains of Shatila.

Even though Palestine has been his main preoccupation as a journalist and political activist, Gate of the Sun is the first of Khoury’s 11 novels to tackle the subject head on. None of his earlier fiction, of which four books (all short) are translated into English, signals a magnum opus up ahead. Yet in retrospect, they seem to have had a vested interest in Gate of the Sun, preparing for a grand synthesis of Khoury’s habits and techniques: the narrative that begins at the end of a story and arcs back to the beginning, the darting perspectives that coalesce at crucial moments into a recognisable view of the world, and the intellectual restlessness that keeps reader, writer and characters on their toes.

Khoury is a Lebanese citizen. He was born in 1948, the year of the Palestinian catastrophe. He grew up in the predominantly Christian east of Beirut, in the prosperous hilltop neighbourhood of Ashrafiyyeh, also known as Little Mountain – Little Mountain is the title of his second novel, published in 1977, and his first book to be translated into English, in 1989. His grandfather mended shoes; his father became a middle manager at Mobil in Beirut. He attended a Protestant school, and after graduating in history and sociology in Beirut, enrolled in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. It was 1971, but he had missed nothing by arriving in Paris late in the day. In Lebanon, unlike France, the rhetoric and imagery of the radical 1960s were visible alongside the very conditions to which they referred. Beirut was a place of enormous wealth. A banking boom driven by regional oil revenues was rapidly evolving into a top of the range property and building bonanza, while the ‘belt of misery’ looping through the city filled with rural poor. Lebanon was also attracting large numbers of dissident exiles from other parts of the Middle East, including Cairo. Above all, it contained many thousands of stateless Palestinians, whose predicament was at once a powerful symbol and a pressing material fact.

When we met in Beirut last month, Khoury remembered without a trace of Parisian enthusiasm having come under fire from police in 1966, during a protest against the death of a Palestinian in Lebanese custody. He also recalled that three years later 40 protesters were shot dead in Beirut as they demonstrated in support of the Palestinians. In his spare time, Khoury was teaching literacy in the ‘belt’ and spending time as a volunteer worker in Palestinian camps. He might have joined the Lebanese Communist Party when it was still underground. Instead, like hundreds of intellectuals in the Middle East, stunned by the Six Day War, he enlisted in Fatah. By the time he got to Paris, he had savoured the kind of defeat that few French activists of his age could have conceived, having watched his PLO comrades being driven out of Jordan after the events of Black September, to regroup for the most part in Lebanon.

At the Sorbonne Khoury wrote his dissertation on the Lebanese civil strife of 1840-60, a period of Druze/Maronite rivalry inflamed by Ottoman rule. It struck him how little had been published by Lebanese about the conflicts they’d experienced. Lebanon, he said much later, was ‘an oral society’ which had failed to commit its history to paper. Little Mountain, set during the mid-1970s in the thick of civil war, was his signal that the time had come to keep a written record.

Khoury returned to Beirut in 1973 and worked at the Palestine Research Centre in the west of the city, in due course becoming managing editor of the monthly journal Shuun Filastiniya – ‘Palestine Affairs’ – published under the auspices of the PLO and edited by Mahmud Darwish. He was a Fatah hack, bright and diligent, whose independent views didn’t ring too many alarm bells.

Once the civil war in Lebanon was under way, Khoury entrenched himself in West Beirut as an active member of the left-wing PLO/Lebanese National Movement coalition, which was pitted against an assortment of Maronite Christian militias, which came to be known as the Lebanese Forces. The war quickly became characterised by its complex of shifting alliances, sealed and sundered by massacres. A predatory Syria hovered over proceedings, descending wherever it saw an occasion to consolidate its interests. This meant waging a war within a war against the left, or Joint Forces, as the LNM/Palestinian alliance was known in the early days. Beirut was now divided by a front. On either side people started queuing for standardised identity. The east was Christian: right-wing tending to European-style fascism. The west was Muslim: left-wing tending to robbery with violence. Israel, when it got involved, stood four square behind European-style fascism. Syria dabbled cleverly and horribly in both.

What Khoury did during the war and how this informed Little Mountain is not clear. He would already have attended the short military course for all Fatah members, although promising material, unlike staff members of monthly journals, went on to a more rigorous training in arms. Then again, the chaotic nature of the war and the pressure of the cause, as understood by the Palestinians and the LNM, meant that people were called on to do any number of things. Khoury insists he was never a fighter in the strict sense. (His toughest test came in the mid-1980s, during the war of the camps. Here again, it wasn’t a case of bearing arms: the point was to cross and recross dangerous territory, at considerable risk, delivering vital supplies to besieged friends and comrades.)

Little Mountain was written much earlier, in the first phase of the war. But the war had become complicated and murderous early on: one of the reasons Khoury’s narrators think of it as an inexorable force, more like a god or an airborne toxin than a clash of adversaries. More interesting than what Khoury was or wasn’t doing at the time is that the book pays tattered homage, despite its pessimism, to the political spirit of the Joint Forces in the first years of the fighting: not the doctrinaire spirit preferred by brigade commissars but a vivid tiers-mondisme whose points of reference are the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Moneda Palace. And Palestine of course: ‘We’ll drape him in the Palestinian flag,’ someone says over the body of a dead comrade. ‘Palestine isn’t a country to have a flag,’ someone else replies. ‘Palestine is a condition.’

Little Mountain is told from three perspectives: that of a Joint Forces fighter in Beirut, a distressed civil servant (the classic bourgeois at whom other writers of Khoury’s generation would simply have sneered) and an indeterminate figure, part fighter, part intellectual, who argues the truths and untruths of the war with an exiled friend in Paris. Actions, events and places in Little Mountain are available only on each of the character’s terms. These are clouded by the fog of war from which a luminous scene will now and then emerge, only to disappear in another patch of poor visibility – a wash of memories, digressions and analogies, spreading across one or another narrative consciousness. Lurching from street battles to confrontations in the high passes of Sanneen (a dead fighter slumped over a blood-drenched donkey), to a dazzling seaside where a man and woman mime the business of love, Little Mountain has the hand-held, impulsive style, and the jarring montages, of the great Godard. (Pierrot le fou comes to mind.) But this is not at all what Khoury or his reviewers in the Arab world thought. For most admirers, the scuffed surfaces and – as Edward Said wrote later – the ‘formlessness’ of the novel were authentic reflections of the civil war. And so this landmark on the road of ‘post-Mahfouzian’ fiction, welcome in literary circles where Mahfouz’s stature seemed vaguely unsettling, was after all a sort of naturalism.

Khoury was not yet 30. The acclaim was tremendous. Yet to read the later novels translated into English is to wonder how far the war really determined the manner of Little Mountain. There is a family resemblance in all of them, in terms of technique and tone, and in any case the sudden change of perspective, taking the reader from a landscape to an interior, from recollection to a vivid present, had already found a master in Ghassan Kanafani, whose beautiful novella Men in the Sun made a great impression on younger Arab writers. (Khoury, who was 17 when he read it for the first time, refers often in his own novels to Kanafani’s fiction. They met once or twice before Kanafani died in a car-bomb explosion in 1972.)

The Journey of Little Gandhi, published in 1989 and translated into English in 1994, is a bleakly comic novel set in a later phase of the civil war. The narrator is trying to ascertain the story of an ageing prostitute called Alice, while Alice’s story is really about a shoeshine worker in Beirut called Little Gandhi, whom the narrator also knew. Little Gandhi was killed when the Israelis entered the city in 1982. The novel follows the life of this downtrodden, ingenious man, who fed his family with scraps from the American University canteen intended for an academic’s dog. As the different narratives engage, the novel recovers a younger, livelier Alice from the impoverished knowingness into which she’s sunk.

Flurries of digression, deceptive footholds and dizzying mise en abyme effects put the reader in a state of high alert and then light-headedness. Typical is the story of a shipwrecked Italian nun who walked across the sea to reach safety in Beirut: the narrator elicits the legend from Alice, who heard it from her lover, who used to tell it to tourists as though he had seen it himself, though in fact he had read about it in a book he inherited from his father. As so often, The Arabian Nights supplies the model here: ‘I heard, O happy King, that the tailor told the king of China that the barber told the guests that he said to the caliph … ’ Only morning never quite overtakes Elias Khoury as it does Shahrazad and no lapse into silence seems possible. Whatever the meaning or non-meaning of stories, however brazen or obscure their purpose, they must go on being told.

In the late 1970s Arafat’s eagle eye fell on an article by an Iraqi contributor in Shuun Filastiniya. Khoury no longer remembers, or cares to remember, what it was that caused such a row. Still managing editor, he was lucky that an understanding was reached after the initial threat of a spell in PLO custody. (A passage in Gate of the Sun describes the brutality of Palestinian prison conditions.) By the early 1980s he had moved to the left-wing daily as-Safir and was now prolific, both as an essayist and a writer of fiction, with four published novels and two books of criticism – a work rate marginally impaired by the fall of Beirut and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Haunting desolation and anger were the proper reactions – they are still echoing in Shatila – but telling stories or thinking aloud about the work of others may have helped to keep them at bay: in 1984 a book of short fiction and another volume of criticism appeared. Khoury meanwhile was also overseeing a world literature series in Arabic. Writers in translation included Soyinka, Achebe, Mishima, Breyten Breytenbach and Carlos Fuentes. The less obvious choices were Ken Kesey and Julio Cortázar. In some of Khoury’s own novels there is a faint echo of Cortázar’s melancholic playfulness – the two men were friends in Paris – but Khoury’s wit is more vivacious.

In person, Khoury has the curiosity of a child, an asset in a journalist. He is a lively conversationalist who speaks his mind without imagining an auditorium filled to capacity. He is erudite: Christian tradition in the Middle East is more than a passing interest. To his students at NYU, where he spends the spring semester, no doubt he feels like a natural teacher. He is always amusing. On one occasion at a restaurant in London, when the puddings were served, an Israeli friend expressed a keen interest in Khoury’s dessert. ‘It’s a sorbet,’ Khoury told him. ‘I’d like to let you try it, but I’m worried you’d occupy it.’ The humour of Khoury’s books has some of his off-the-cuff charm but it rarely extends to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

Khoury’s involvement with Fatah tailed off a while ago and he now lives the life of an internationally famous novelist rather than a militant, but he is exasperated by Israeli policies and unusually guarded about the Israelis – ‘our cousins’, as he tends to call them. At the same time, his novels refuse to fasten down positions – self and other, Arab and Jew, victim and transgressor – or assign virtues and vices according to which side a character is on. If enmity were that straightforward then nothing would need to be asked about it.

Khoury has always asked questions about stories. In Kingdom of Strangers, a hundred-page novella translated in 1996, the inquiry extends to the writing itself. ‘What am I writing? I don’t know. I feel the words coming loose, falling apart.’ This disconcerted voice can be heard throughout the book. The main story, which begins in the 1950s, is about the family of a Lebanese businessman who falls in love with an Azerbaijani girl he has bought for five gold pounds to give to his wife as a live-in maid. ‘White Widad’ – ‘white’ because of her unblemished skin and, later, her long white hair – recalls nothing of her former home and is silent for much of the time, though given to fits of weeping. This is the case even after her master has divorced his wife and married her. (Man evolved from dogs not apes, the spurned wife says, and ‘Khawaja Muhammad Iskander is the missing link.’)

At the heart of this comedy is the problem of what can and cannot be known, a problem embodied by Widad, around whom similar puzzles, contained in other unfinished stories, proliferate. Beirut – or the war – makes coherence impossible. ‘We find stories tossed in the streets of our memory and the alleys of our imagination,’ the narrator says. ‘How can we bring them together to impose order on a land in which all order has been smashed to pieces?’

Themes and characters tested briefly in Kingdom of Strangers will reappear in Gate of the Sun, but the first is not a laboratory for the second so much as a sorting house where some of Khoury’s habits are thrown out, others reassessed. The fidgety questions of the earlier books are more narrowly focused. What is heroism? What is a country? Why is it that to lose something is to have it for ever? Several minor petitioners – half-thoughts, diversions and incomplete memories – that have jostled their way into the novels until now, on the grounds that it would have been bad faith to exclude them, will see their suits denied. Finally the habit of veering abruptly away from Palestine and the Palestinians, after a lapidary remark or a vivid story from a refugee camp, has to change. Gate of the Sun is the colossal result of these decisions.

As Khaleel Ayyoub, the forty-something Palestinian paramedic in Shatila, addresses the invalid Yunis, day after day, week after week, the story of the older man’s life begins to take shape. He was a primitive Palestinian nationalist in the late 1930s, and then a resistance fighter with a British service rifle, eventually driven up into Lebanon in 1948. Unlike others, Yunis kept going back across the Lebanon/Israel border. His secret was a cave ‘suspended above the village of Deir El Asad’ where he hid for long periods while carrying out missions against the new settler state. A stronger incentive, it emerges, was his wife, Naheeleh, who never left Palestine. For thirty years – until the Israelis occupied a strip of southern Lebanon in 1978, which put an end to his trips – he and Naheeleh could be reunited in the cave every time he crossed the border. They called the cave Bab El Shams, or Gate of the Sun, and so, as Khaleel says often, the legend of Yunis is really just a love story.

Khaleel, inquisitor and narrator, was still an infant when his family fled Palestine. His father was killed in 1959 by Lebanese security and his mother has disappeared in Jordan. When Yunis ran across this young boy in the camps, the two developed a father-and-son-like bond. Khaleel went on to join the fedayeen and train as a medic in China, where an old injury disqualified him for the military course he’d been sent to attend. Now he is ‘only half a doctor’, not fully trained, who only ever feels half a person, being a Palestinian. The motif of things not quite fitting the description, in a world of misnomers created by displacement and, increasingly, by ruin, is very well handled. Khaleel to Yunis: ‘We say Beirut but we aren’t really in Beirut, we’re in a semblance of Beirut … we say we’re in the Shatila camp but after the war of the camps … it’s no longer a camp, it’s just a semblance of a camp.’

In the telling of Yunis’s story, we learn more about Khaleel. It soon transpires that tending Yunis is only partly a question of dedication. Khaleel has had an affair with a Palestinian woman, since murdered by the clansmen of her other, steady lover, and thinks he will be next on their list. His round-the-clock attendance at Yunis’s bedside allows him to keep his head down.

Naheeleh is accessed gradually, as Khaleel – who has never met her – goes slowly over everything Yunis has told him. We follow her beyond 1948, living with Yunis’s parents, a blind Sufi sheikh and his wife, who keeps a picture of the Holy Mother in a drawer. Naheeleh and Yunis’s first son is hit by a lump of rock while playing near the perimeter of an Israeli settlement. She is the wife of a wanted insurgent and the military governor refuses her a pass to the hospital. The child dies but there will be others – and a constant round of assignations in the cave with Yunis, a wolf-like intruder in his former territory who walks for days, holes up in the fields and abandoned villages, living on bitter olives. Occasionally there are shake-downs and interrogations about his whereabouts, which Naheeleh takes more or less in her stride (abuse in PLO jails and torture in Israeli detention centres are inevitably part of the novel).

Towards the end of her life, we encounter Naheeleh in despair about the meaning of her cross-border marriage with a largely absentee husband, a glamorous member of the fedayeen who failed to liberate their people. The truth, it seems to her, is that Yunis loved her without ever inquiring into who she was or what it meant to be in her position. She is venerated but unknown, like all idealised objects, including homelands. In the last of their encounters, she asks Yunis for $3000 so that one of their sons can open a garage in Haifa. Though he’s risen through the ranks of Fatah, Yunis hasn’t that kind of money.

As her death approaches, Naheeleh instructs her children to close up the cave: ‘we mustn’t let the Israelis get in ever; it’s the only bit of Palestinian territory that’s been liberated.’ She calls it ‘your father’s village’. And so, in the preamble to its extinction, the Gate of the Sun becomes a larger thing. After it’s sealed with stones one of Yunis’s sons, whom he’s only ever glimpsed, phones him in Lebanon to let him know that they’ve ‘closed the country’.

With its emblematic family firmly established – Khaleel being a kind of child to Yunis and Naheeleh – the novel ranges broadly across two periods. The first begins with the expulsions of 1948, the second with life in the aftermath, up through the massacres in Sabra and Shatila and the war of the camps to Yunis’s death. Sometimes a story from one period migrates to the other, but it’s in the earlier part of the book that we find most of the 1948 material, drawn from carefully solicited interviews Khoury obtained with older refugees. (‘I’m writing a story, not a history,’ he told the refugees who agreed to talk to him. No tape recorder, no notebooks.)

A notable exception is a set piece encounter in Israel, in which the midwife Umm Hassan goes back to look at her house in El Kweikat years after the cleansing of Galilee, and is asked inside by Ella Dweik, the new Israeli owner, a woman raised in Lebanon who speaks good Arabic. The Israeli brings coffee to the table and before Umm Hassan can explain herself, announces: ‘It’s your house isn’t it?’ Umm Hassan says: ‘How did you know?’ Her host-become-guest replies: ‘I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome.’ Umm Hassan takes a sip of coffee and bursts into tears. There follows a courteous exchange, akin to a dance, around Umm Hassan’s earthenware water jug, set where it was when she’d fled the house. The Israeli offers it to the Palestinian who declines politely and offers it to the Israeli, who accepts – and now both women are laughing. In the end Umm Hassan takes the jug and leaves it with relatives in a nearby village before travelling back to the camps in Lebanon. Ella is miserable in Galilee and longs to return to Beirut. Umm Hassan longs to leave Beirut and return to her forbidden paradise.

How villages like El Kweikat were lost is told in the voices of the residents or their descendants, recycled through Khaleel’s telling to Yunis. Four or five key villages are singled out for close description as they fall. In all these episodes, verbatim accounting – as it seems to be – has to sit with the requirements of the novel, as defined by the main protagonists. Dazzling and terrible incidents are related, but Khoury is also fascinated by the wild allegations that went the rounds. He interpolates a rumour that the Jews have crucified a village fighter on an oak tree in Yunis’s village, Ein El Zeitoun, and shot his father, the blind sheikh. Yunis creeps back into the village to ascertain the facts. There is no sign of a body by the tree. Meanwhile the sheikh is safe in another village drinking coffee and lamenting the horrors of the First World War. The truth, however, is not reassuring. The old man who surrendered Ein El Zeitoun was slapped in the face and shot through the head in two fluent, consecutive gestures. (‘None of us moved. Even his wife remained kneeling.’) Forty young men were led out of the village and killed. All the while, the supine nature of the so-called Rescue Army – Arab volunteers from neighbouring states – adds to the general humiliation, as they sit in hillside bivouacs cooking chickens requisitioned from the villagers whose misfortunes they are now at leisure to observe on a full stomach. To each village its particular woes, all told in effortless, looping narratives that start at the end and go back to the beginning – the trademark of Khoury’s marvellous vernacular.

Much too about the condition of surviving villagers, whether they were on the run for months before leaving or remained in the new state. As Naheeleh recalls, years later, trying to confront Yunis with his warrior’s indifference to the life she was left to lead in the remains of Palestine: ‘We stole from our land and lived like thieves’ – or as Umm Hassan put it, ‘there was nothing we could do but rob our own houses.’

Khaleel remembers something Yunis once said about 1948: ‘The villages fell and we ran from one to another as though we were on the sea jumping from one boat to another, the boats sinking and us with them.’ And later: ‘Those who occupied Palestine made us discover the country as we were losing it.’ A point reiterated by Khaleel much further on: ‘the disaster had manufactured a single people.’ It is a general rule, rather than a parti pris, that this is the way most forms of national consciousness developed under settler colonialism, from Indochina to southern Africa.

Until now, Khaleel’s stories have served an obvious purpose; like Shahrazad he talks and tells, day after day, to defer the threat of death. And of course Khaleel’s stories keep the memory of the catastrophe and the cause of the Palestinians alive a little longer. The second part of the novel will come close to an admission that a certain kind of Palestine is dead – and that it died in Shatila.

The recurring device, in this half of the novel, is that of the long encounter between two characters, as in Ella Dweik’s meeting with Umm Hassan. Three of these encounters stand out. One is the demystifying confrontation in the cave, or Bab El Shams, between husband and wife, brought on by the request for $3000. Naheeleh, too long cast as a Marian essence of Galilee, inveighs against the life Yunis left her to lead, and proves that she can’t be landscaped as a mother-of-the-nation – nurturer and lover of the Christ-figure Yunis tried to be. (Not only is Yunis – Jonah – still Yunis; he has never escaped the belly of the whale, whether it’s the problem of Palestine or his own motionless body, lying in the Galilee Hospital.) When the idealisation of Naheeleh becomes impossible, Palestine ceases to be a dream. This is a radical moment in the book and coincides roughly with Khaleel’s discovery that his own mother is alive, miserably remarried, working as a nurse in the Occupied Territories. He is unable to get in touch with her, but the information confirms our sense that the entanglements of the real are displacing the mythical Palestine.

Khaleel’s encounters are no less sobering. In the first he is cajoled from Yunis’s bedside to show a group of French actors round the camp. They have come to Lebanon to research a stage interpretation of ‘Four Hours in Shatila’, Genet’s commemorative text about the massacre. By acting as a reluctant tour-guide, he establishes a relationship with Catherine, the only woman in the group, and relives his own memories of the mass graves in Shatila, where he was obliged to check that no one was still alive. These difficult passages are carefully negotiated with the reader to minimise the horror and maximise the meaning. One of Khoury’s significant devices is Dunya, a mutilated girl retrieved from the quicklime pits who survives to serve the Palestinian cause, in Lebanon and elsewhere, as a ‘fund-raising tool’, hobbling forward in meetings and TV shows to speak in uninflected tones about how she sustained her injuries. Khaleel rails against the victim culture in which the Palestinians have had to acquiesce and thinks of Dunya as a ‘story telling its own story’, dragging Palestine into deeper humiliation with every telling. Catherine, meanwhile, pulls out of the Genet production, overwhelmed by her visit to Shatila, unable to square it with her loyalty to the older story of the European death camps.

Khaleel’s other extended meeting is with Georges, a Lebanese journalist writing a book about Sabra and Shatila. Georges gets drunk and tells Khaleel what he’s heard about the killers hoovering up cocaine before the massacres. Atrocity stories are recycled and Khaleel’s darkness deepens. ‘The issue isn’t what happened,’ he reflects afterwards, ‘but how we report and remember it.’ Perhaps – but terrible things did happen. And from the fall of Tel al-Zaater in 1976 – ‘the tomb of Palestine’, as one of Khoury’s characters calls it – through Sabra and Shatila and the war of the camps, the cumulative defeats and killings have dealt a devastating series of blows to the hopes of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Gate of the Sun contains no hymns to steadfastness. Yet the book leaves us with the overpowering sense that to tell a story in its awfulness and complexity – a story very largely of defeat – is to live to fight another day.

The Palestinians should have grasped more thoroughly what happened to European Jewry, Khaleel intones over the body of Yunis: not to exonerate Israel from its crimes in Palestine, but to understand how quickly they, the Palestinians, were sliding into narrative entrapment. Israelis, Khaleel says, are ‘prisoners of one story’ and it has made prisoners of the Palestinians as well: they too have begun to tell a single, fatal story and must look to themselves and the world for other stories or they are finished. The narrative of the victim must end; it is a disgusting, opportunistic fable that feeds on everyone who feels a need to tell it, whether from overwhelming strength or profound disadvantage. For a moment, Khaleel thinks of the trains that rattled through Syria and Lebanon depositing Palestinians round the suburbs of the cities, where they would settle in camps for half a century – and counting. The echo of other trains in other places is not a call to rehearse futile arguments about who suffered more – that would be succumbing to the single story again. It is simply an acknowledgment, across the battle lines, that the enemy, too, has a history: ‘The whistle rings in my ears. I see the people being led towards the final train. I see the trains, and I shudder.’

Khoury’s worry was that his Palestinian friends might jib at the book. His sins of frankness were redeemed, in their reading, by his insider’s sense of loss and illusion: the intelligent gaze that enables recovery. ‘Recovery’ is not the same as ‘coming to terms with’. Khoury means the Palestinians to have Palestine back in some shape or form acceptable to both parties: this is his passion. What’s ‘acceptable’ changes as the balance of power shifts, and it seems, as we travel together in southern Lebanon, to have undergone a momentary shift in favour of Israel’s enemies.

Recent history has taught Khoury and the Palestinians that their enemy’s enemy is not always their friend, but almost all Palestinians and millions of Lebanese, including Christians, were impressed by Hizbullah’s showing during this summer’s invasion. Advertising space along the highways into Beirut is filled by Hizbullah’s proclamations of ‘divine victory’. In the south the agitprop is coarser: a life-size sculpture of Nasrallah on an old Israeli tank, main streets lined with photographs of Hizbullah martyrs and, posted near the border, an unflattering cartoon of Condoleezza Rice by local schoolchildren. Elsewhere Hizbullah appeals for ‘Coexistence between Muslims and Christians’: it was not simply intimidation that led the Christian villages in the south to welcome Shia refugees last summer.

‘As a fighting force they’re low-key,’ Khoury says. ‘The day after the ceasefire, I was down here and I came across big funerals, but no guns, no shooting in the air.’ Khoury, who remembers the ostentation of the civil war militias, argues that this has nothing to do with Hizbullah concealing its heftier materiel – neither Unifil nor Israel will get at that for the time being. Instead this is symptomatic of a different approach to a conflict in which it’s rash to strut around after your latest victory. Hizbullah rank and file are inconspicuous as they go about their lives as smallholders, planters, mechanics and shopkeepers who also engage in this other activity called resistance.

We moved east along the Israeli border through the devastated villages in what was once Israel’s occupied zone, run by its proxy the South Lebanon Army, under which the Shia suffered terribly. We drove past little storefronts (‘Salon Elégance’), pits of rubble next to sagging balconies and collapsed apartments hanging sheer, like enormous blinds, from twisted reinforcing rods. Parts of Bint Jbeil, where the IDF were ambushed in July, are now like worked-out quarries. The whole area is littered with unexploded cluster-bomb components. In several villages, men with shovels and diggers were clearing debris. Wherever we went Khoury provided a rough inventory of damage, a figure for the dead and a population estimate, with a breakdown by confession. Occasionally he supplied a bit of history. In Houla he told the driver that the Israelis had crossed the border and raided here in October 1948, killing about 80 civilians, after the Arab volunteer army had pulled out.

We broke our journey in Khiam, at the old South Lebanon Army detention centre above the town. After the collapse of the Israeli occupation in 2000, the Lebanese turned it into a torture museum. Last summer, Hizbullah units operated from the exhibition site, sheltering in underground cells where their imprisoned colleagues had been buried alive for years. The torture museum has been pulverised by Israeli ordnance. It is now the relic of a relic. A visitor-friendly information panel showing a hand-operated generator, wires and electrodes, stands its ground over piles of smashed concrete that would have been a torture chamber. The panel takes you straight back to colonial Algeria; add the rubble frame and it puts you in mind of an installation in a Dutch art gallery. Khoury, it turned out, was thinking of an old acquaintance, Souha Bechara. In 1988 she nearly managed to assassinate Israel’s governor-in-effect for southern Lebanon, the SLA general Antoine Lahad, and spent ten years in Khiam. ‘I believe she’s in Switzerland now,’ Khoury said as we walked back to the car.

And Lahad?

‘The last thing I heard, he was running a Lebanese restaurant in Tel Aviv.’

The following day, in his office at the centrist daily an-Nahar, Khoury said how much he regretted that the resistance in the south hadn’t been led by a secular movement and felt the Syrians had much to answer for by wearing down the Lebanese left. Khoury isn’t anti-Hizbullah but he is a secular democrat, like so many Lebanese, surrounded by obstacles to secular democracy: invasion, occupation, ‘faith’ politics, the gun and the complicated attitude of Damascus, which tends too often to regard Lebanon as a long stretch of Syrian seafront.

Khoury was lured to an-Nahar in the early 1990s, to devise the weekly cultural supplement al-Mulhaq, now one of the most respected newspaper sections in the Arab world. The supplement is a campaigning institution. It has run features on Aids in Lebanon, demanded public information on the thousands of people who disappeared during the civil war, published a long piece of reportage (by Khoury) on Lebanon’s mental hospitals and fought hard to preserve an old neighbourhood, across from the paper’s offices, which was threatened – and eventually destroyed – by Rafik Hariri’s ambitious urban renewal programme. ‘It’s a cultural paper,’ Khoury says, ‘in the sense that I understand culture.’

But the success of al-Mulhaq points up the failure of a bigger project which Khoury hoped the paper would foreshadow. The growth of a social democratic consensus has not taken place in Lebanon. In 2004 Khoury was involved in the launch of the Democratic Left Movement, largely the non-Stalinist remains of the Communist Party, the student groups it had expelled in the 1990s and a growing number of loosely affiliated intellectuals, but it is already stalled in disagreements and distractions, among them whether Hizbullah should earn its critical support or merely its criticism. Though the DLM and its sympathisers played an active role in the anti-Syrian uprising last year, a single seat in parliament and an ascendant Islamic resistance in the south are all the movement has to show for opposing many of Hariri’s policies, on the one hand, and campaigning against Syrian hegemony on the other.

Memorials to death by violence surround Khoury. Hariri’s shrine is a short walk from the main entrance of the an-Nahar offices, up through Martyrs’ Square, where a statue commemorates the Syrian and Lebanese anti-Ottoman radicals betrayed by the French and hanged by Jemal Pasha in 1916. On the front of the an-Nahar building itself is a banner-size portrait of Gebran Tueni, editor and grandson of the founder, who was killed by a car-bomb last December. Earlier in the year, after the huge ‘independence’ demonstrations aimed at Damascus, the same thing had happened to Samir Kassir, a colleague and great friend of Khoury’s. Kassir, part Palestinian, part Syrian, wholly Lebanese, was a founding member of the DLM. Like Tueni, though well to his left, Kassir was a vociferous critic of Syria. Khoury remembers trying to get through the police cordon around Kassir’s car in Ashrafiyyeh: he could see the slumped head and shoulders and thought his friend was still alive. ‘But the bomb had been placed directly under the driver’s seat,’ Khoury said, ‘and the head and shoulders were all that was left.’ Kassir’s glass-partitioned office, separated by a few yards of open plan from Khoury’s, is more or less as it was on 2 June 2005. ‘We just closed it and left it,’ he explained. ‘So Samir is still with us.’ On Kassir’s desk a few old copies of Le Monde are turning yellow. A mousepad gathers dust.

‘You will describe me as a political person,’ Khoury told me. ‘You’ll make too much of that. I am a journalist, sure, and I write what I think. I’m interested in the Democratic Left Movement because it’s a duty for people like me to try to make this place into a secular democratic culture. It is irresponsible not to do this. Especially now. But the truth is I’m a writer. This is really what I do and I’m too old to stop doing it.’ Khoury is not yet sixty, I remember, as he picks up his packet of Marlboro and puts it down again without removing a cigarette.

I’ve heard Khoury say twice what he thinks impels his own fiction and the writing he admires. The first time was in conversation: he argued briefly that good literature is always a tribute to human fragility and therefore to death; and it tends to imitate what it acknowledges. ‘Writing is itself weakness and death,’ he said. A day or so later, speaking at the American University in Beirut, he said he felt that the point of being a writer was ‘to defend life’. These are not as different as they seem; all the same, you could mount a spirited case that they didn’t add up. That is a good reason to take him at his word: he is, before everything else, a writer of stories. He loves them because there’s no end to them. And because their meanings, very much like the reasons he thinks they’re worth telling, get richer and more contradictory as he gets older.

[*] Translated by Humphrey Davies (Vintage, 501 pp., £7.99, October, 0 09 946159 5).