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Elias Khoury at Chicago Palestine Film Festival

Elias Khoury at Chicago Palestine Film Festival

By Sonia Nettnin

Professor Elias Khoury (Photo courtesy of CPFF)

He fell in love with her.

His imagination created her, Nahila, and he found it hard to finish his novel.

“I wrote this novel because of my personal love for this woman,” his voice trailed off.

Professor Elias Khoury spoke about his magnum opus, saga novel, Bab El-Shams or Door to the Sun, after a film screening of “Door to the Sun,” at the 2005 Chicago Palestine Film Festival.

He spoke as if he wore his words like a tattoo.

“I wrote this novel as a Palestinian,” he said. “To be a real, humanist intellectual you have to identify with the Palestinians.”

Khoury is Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He is the author of ten novels and three plays. Born in Beirut in 1948 and of Lebanese descent, Khoury was a member of the Palestinian Liberation Movement in the 1960s. He was co-editor of the monthly publication, The Palestinian Affairs with internationally-renowned, Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Since 1992, Khoury is Editor-in-Chief of the culture and literary supplement of An-Nahar, a daily newspaper in Beirut.

Several years of research into Al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, which is the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine, spawned Khoury’s work on Door to the Sun. He examined Palestinian oral accounts of Palestinian history, as well as Israeli chronicles of the Palestinian tragedy and the creation of Israel. It included peoples’ memoirs, such as Ben Gurion. Also, Khoury spent five years in Palestinian refugee camps.

“I try to identify with refugees as much as I can,” he said. “And give them a voice to speak.”

Khoury wrote the screenplay with a team of three people. He adapted the narrative structure of the novel, which is similar to the classical, Arabic way of storytelling, found in The Thousand and One Nights, for film presentation. In this respect, the novel and the film are different.

Although Khoury wrote about the Palestinian tragedy through the characters of Younes and Nahila, he believes the novel begins to be written through the readers. From his point of view, a book lives through the readers.

He explained that the predominant, imperialist ideology of the world surrounds the story’s context. The people who create policies and systems based on imperialist, colonialist beliefs became afraid when the Palestinians did not disappear. Their ideology demonstrates that the victims of fascism and segregation victimized the victims. Moreover, the Western ideological circles that support them prefer to wash their hands of Jewish blood by allowing the bloodshed of the Palestinians.

The logic is non sequitur: the genocide of one people does not compensate for the genocide of another people because both are ethnocide.

“If the Israelis would accept reconciliation with the history,” he said, “then they would ask for forgiveness and give Palestinians a minimum of justice.”

However, Khoury does not believe Israelis are ready to initiate reconciliation and justice.

Khoury described the making of the film as a good experience. Most of it was shot in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon and in Syria.

“For Palestinians in Lebanon, it’s like hell,” he said. “It’s part of the catastrophe of Palestine.”

On September 16, 2004, a special screening of the film showed in Sabra and Shatila, on the anniversary of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Khoury describes the relationship of Younes and Nahila as the Palestinian struggle to defend life against death. Although Khalil appropriates Nahila’s life story through his storytelling, the novel is the novel of a woman. The stories revolve around the women. Through oral storytelling, letters and a phantom woman who embodies the spirits of two characters in the film (one character in the novel), the women’s experiences weave together.

In the end, the women have the last words.

According to Husain Huddawy, who translated the text of The Arabian Nights edited by Mushsin Mahdi, “In the Nights themselves, tales divert, cure, redeem, and save lives” (The Arabian Nights, page x).

Khoury wrote his novel from the same approach: he hoped it would help the Palestinians talk about their tragedy. The novel and the film are public acknowledgements of the Palestinian tragedy, as well as the Palestinian narrative.

When asked what it meant to write this novel, Khoury responded: “If this novel can open up people, then we can begin telling the real experience of the Palestinians.”

With respect to ethnicity, race, religion, or gender, artists have no boundaries. This story is about the Palestinian narrative, but it traverses cultural boundaries. The characters represent a people who endure lifelong struggles. People who are not Palestinian can empathize with the characters and their life situations because people understand the emotions associated with hardship, racism, fear, humiliation, and despair.

Years ago, Khoury fell in love with the Palestinian people and their struggle. They are a part of him, so he cannot let them go.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.


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