In the autumn of 2018, I headed to SOAS’s brand new Brunei Gallery lecture theatre for a reading of Elias Khoury’s new book My Name is Adam. The English translation had just been released and the author was touring the UK to promote his book. As expected when a living legend of Arabic literature appears, the room was packed with students, lecturers, activists and readers. Khoury spoke with great caution, every word seemed deliberate; yet, every now and then he made a joke with the interviewer or with himself. The questions led Khoury into his past. He talked about the work at the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) newspaper Palestinian Affairs with his friend, the famous poet Mahmoud Darwish. When he spoke of the novel’s main protagonist Adam Dannoun, it was in the same manner as he spoke of Darwish. I tried to untangle which protagonists were real, but I instead started getting disoriented in the process.
<div class="well">Elias Khoury, <i>My Name is Adam: Children of the Ghetto</i>, MacLehose, London, 2018.</div>
During the Q&A, a man raised his hand and asked about a character in the book he knew from New York, blind Mahmoud. For some moments, Elias Khoury on stage and the man in the audience had their own private conversation about an old friend. Meanwhile, I lost track of who was a real person and who was a character. Perhaps it was true and Adam Dannoun was the actual author of the book which is what Khoury claimed. Retrospectively, I am sure: for Khoury, the protagonists of the book might as well have been real. Just as the novel is actually not his creation, but the collective story of the people of Lydda. The book hooked me with its philosophical argument that ‘fiction is truth’s first cousin’ and imagination and reality are actually twins. I bought a copy and Khoury signed it for me, I think he was slightly amused by my disorientation.
After that, when I read My Name is Adam, I felt I was reading someone’s secrets. The book is the first part of a trilogy called Children of the Ghetto. It consists of a preface, a manuscript of a novel about the seventh century poet Waddah al-Yaman, and Adam’s memoirs. In the preface, Khoury claims that fictional author-protagonist Adam wrote the manuscript and the memoirs. Themes of narrative unreliability, alienation, and the fragmentation of memory are clear early on and travel through the story.
On the first pages, Khoury describes how he met Adam Dannoun, the author-protagonist of his book. He admits his confusion: was Adam an Israeli Jew, who had acquired a perfect Palestinian dialect, or a Palestinian who had mastered flawless Hebrew? He could not place Adam and thus distrusted him, after all, there was a slight chance Adam could be a spy. A few pages later, Adam reveals how he plays with other people’s perception of his identity.
‘When I was asked who I was, I’d run my fingers through my curly hair and say one word (Ghetto), and the listener would understand that I was assigning myself to his memory, not my mother’s. It was of course a silent lie, but only if we believe that the clouds are lying if they don’t bring rain.’
Adam actually grew up as a child of Lydda. To him and all its inhabitants, Lydda was a city under siege, a result of the Nakba, and a ghetto. But when asked where he was from, he would wrap the name and characteristics of the ghetto he was from in silence. This leaves Adam’s listeners to interpret the word ‘ghetto’ through their own understanding: the traumatic Jewish history in central Europe with the Holocaust at its dark centre. Adam turned himself into a child of Jewish immigrants from the Ghetto of Warsaw. This habit of concealing his identity helped him escape the discrimination Palestinians in Israel face on a daily basis.
His silence concealed the differences between the Lydda and Warsaw ghettos, and this concealment demonstrates how subjective identity is. In the scene above, Adam tricks both his Israeli colleague and Elias Khoury, because they understand the Israeli and Palestinian identity as mutually exclusive. Instead, Adam’s identity is fluid and can change with time and circumstances. He focuses on the emotional experience of the victim and draws parallels between human suffering; this is how Adam turns himself from a Palestinian from Lydda to a Jewish descendant from Warsaw into an Israeli/Palestinian exiled in New York. This switching of identity is more than just convenient for Adam. It is a coping mechanism: if he convinces himself he can be someone else, he does not need to confront his painful memories.
My Name is Adam is a continuous exploration of the internal reactions to trauma, how people deal with horrific experiences and unthinkable violence and continue with their lives. The novel shows how identity is constructed, it is imagined; but it becomes real through the consequences of that imagination. Sometimes, the horrible experiences a person has to live through because of their ascribed identity is how imagination turns into reality. Adam’s silence translates these traumatic, unspeakable experiences that often lie at the core of collective identities. For example, ‘Ghetto’ is everything his Israeli listeners need to hear, to understand his family’s past in Warsaw. The word is loaded with emotions and memories unnecessary and often painful to say out loud. This silent understanding between people of the same community based on their traumatic past or present is audible through Adam’s writing. Adam is a Palestinian in Israel, his suffering during the Nakba, an event denied by many parts of the Israeli society, remains unacknowledged. Adam says ‘My tragedy isn’t in need of recognition, and whether they acknowledge it or not, it is engraved on our souls and places’. The novel scrutinises what we mean by identity and leaves the reader and Adam feeling like it is arbitrary and unreal.
When I started reading Adam’s memoir, I struggled at first. Initially, I disliked Adam’s narration, he was bitter. He was lying to himself and to me, the reader. The lie was not present in what he wrote, but in what he left unsaid. He pretended to be self-reflective. But his memories and reflections seemed tainted and retrospectively corrected by his own world view. As he went deeper into the project of collecting the story of his life, he was forced to reassess his understanding of the past. During his memoir, he interrogates all aspects of his self-perception, even his fake Jewish one. This process demands a lot of energy and strength from Adam, it is self-therapy. He strives to overcome his coping mechanisms of changing his identity and altering his memory.
To understand his past, Adam recollects the stories and memories of the inhabitants of Lydda about the Nakba. After the founding of Israel, the city’s small Palestinian population remained under military rule from 1948 to 1952. This military rule enforced the conditions of a ghetto for the inhabitants: they were not allowed to move outside of its fences without permission from the military, they did not receive supplies from outside, and were left to fend for themselves with limited resources. The result is isolation, a form of exile. In a podcast interview from 2018 with Nora Parr, Khoury explains why Lydda was no exception; ghettoisation was the experience of nearly everyone remaining after the Nakba. He explains that not many people, not even within the Palestinian community themselves, know about the lives and conditions of Palestinians living in these ghettos after 1948. My Name is Adam wants to give a voice to the stories that have been overlooked.
Through this theme, the novel inverts the Palestinian story of exile and refugeehood; instead, it tells infinite stories of the struggles of the remaining Palestinians. It aims to look at exile not through displacement and departure, but from a place of encroachment and confinement: an unexpected, neverending exile because it is done at home. Even after the restriction of movement was lifted, the Palestinians found themselves alienated in an unknown land between new people, longing for the homeland, which now only exists in memory.
The novel approaches the Nakba and political violence through emotions and experiences and not through precise dates and facts. Facts are interpreted in myriad ways, especially when they concern the history of Israel and Palestine. Many memories and struggles of the remaining Palestinian population of this time are orally transmitted and not documented in an official document. The dominant narrative of the founding of Israel did not leave space for the suffering that came with it. This can be read as an imposed silence, or muteness, on Palestinians within Israel based on their identity; their experiences remained unheard. This book is an alternative understanding of dominant history told through the memory of Adam, the first child of the ghetto of Lydda. It is a translation of this muted experience into words, a rendering of emotions and trauma written between the lines of official documents.
Telling the story of Palestinian collective memory is only half of what the book seeks. For me, different ideas of translation inform the core of the book as well. Translating always means there is the doubling of voice. Not only the voice of the author who co-wrote the text, but also the voice of the translator. Furthermore, the translation is only one version of the source text, one of countless interpretations and perspectives.
I first read My Name is Adam in translation by Davies Humphrey. Khoury is not an easy-to-read writer in Arabic, but Davies is accustomed to Khoury’s prose as he was his translator for Gate of the Sun and Yalo. He is perfect for the job also because he translated what is often called the first modern Arabic novel, Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. The book is known for its complicated prose, its many rhythms and rhymes, its lengthy listing of synonyms and mixing of genres. Leg over Leg might have been an influence on Khoury’s style of writing as well: each version of a story is a synonym of the next. In an interview in 2014 with the American University in Cairo Press, Davies says he is guided by the rule of function in his translation: he models the English version of the text along the function of the Arabic one. He continues that a good translation for him is when a text is able to echo the style of the author. In the case of My Name is Adam, the style of writing is a reflection of the particular way of storytelling: the narrator’s constant reflection, investigating every thought, mirrors his repetition of different versions of the same story.
These many stories are based on witness reports. Khoury explains in an interview with the Paris Review, that for some of his book projects he works with oral histories. He would talk to survivors of the Nakba and their descendants and weave their memories and stories together in his novels; a translation of memory into literature. The result is a multiplicity of perspectives and understandings which resemble a narration – not a narrative – of an event. A translation is a version of a source text, it does not contradict it, rather it broadens its meanings. There is no singular voice or author; instead, an infinite amount of stories told by different voices complement, build on, contradict and expand each other. The many memories of different people broaden the identity of the author so that the book is not written by one person, it is written by a myriad, including the translator.
Khoury echoes texts that process the experience of the Palestinians within and outside of the borders of Israel, before and after the 1967 war. He mentions Ghassan Kanafani’s famous Men in the Sun, he draws a parallel between himself and Emile Habibi, author of The Secret Life of Sa’id the Pessoptimist and he mentions Anton Shammas’s Arabesques. But throughout the book, he also makes connections to a Jewish heritage. After all, the trilogy is called Children of the Ghetto, just like Israel Zangwill’s classic. The book talked about the generation caught between the ghetto with its deprived and impoverished Jewish community and the new opportunities in London. He mentions the Israeli writer S. Yizhar often. Adam also talks about Yizhar’s book Khirbet Khizeh in which the author reflects on his experience of being a soldier during the establishment of Israel and the Nakba in Palestine. By connecting Palestinian and Israeli and British-Jewish fiction with each other, Khoury brings the emotional experience of the protagonists closer, without denying the individual horror of the events on which they are based. He breaches the distance between what it means to be Palestinian and what it means to be Israeli and breaks down barriers between these identities.
The strength of this book lies here: it forces us to reconsider what we thought being Palestinian or Israeli means. I don’t believe that books can change set hearts, but literature has the power to make other perspectives understandable and tell different sides. It can make us think and reassess. My Name is Adam is a push to reconsider assumptions of identity, especially important within Germany, the country that inflicted the Shoah on European Jews. Germany has a complicated relationship with the Palestinian call for human rights. I remember some uncomfortable discussions with Antifa supporters, mostly with members of the ‘anti-Deutsche’ group. For them, Israel is the celebrated exception to their strict ideology of no borders and no nationalisms. In 2019, the German government legally outlawed the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement as inherently anti-semite. This decision equates the Palestinian civil society’s movement for human rights, right to return and self-determination with anti-Semitism. But it comes as no surprise. As part of an anti-racist network, Junge Islam Konferenz, I started understanding racism through the experience of the Muslim community in Germany. I recognise how many groups and individuals in German society, not only the far-left ones, encounter Muslims with suspicion of being anti-semitic.
This suspicion is a consequence of a reductive – and frankly, racist – idea that all Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, are believed to be in conflict with Israel and thus must hate all Jews. They suffer under the ‘Generalverdacht’ to be anti-semitic by nature. This adds considerably to the discrimination the Muslim community already faces in Germany. In German politics and public discussions, it is still debated whether Islam is compatible with ‘the German identity’ and Christian values, ultimately labelling the Muslim community in Germany as foreign to German society.
Reading more books like Khoury’s My Name is Adam is important, because they radically question identity, exploring its limits and grey areas. Unravelling one’s identity and scrutinising one’s belief system is a painful process, but, in the end, it cannot be avoided. At the moment, Germany deals with its own identity – and in extension the Israeli and Palestinian identities – on a superficial level. There yet has to be a meaningful confrontation of the underlying reasons and ideologies of the Holocaust and its connection to current anti-Semitism and racism in German society. Instead, anti-Semitism is outsourced to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities, which in the dominant view are considered inherently anti-Semitic and are conveniently outside of German self-understanding. This way, Germany avoids the problem of looking at its own white-Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi history in current attacks. I am aware that there is a real problem of anti-Semitism within Arab communities; but in Germany, white-Christian anti-Semitism and racism enabled all attacks on Jewish and Muslim lives within the last year alone and there were far too many. I am thinking of Hanau, of Halle, I am thinking of the soldier Franco A., of ‘die Gruppe S’, and of ‘Revolution Chemnitz’ amongst many more. Instead of actually reconciling Germany’s own history and relationship to the Jewish people within its state borders, the unconditional support for Israel is slowly buying a clean conscience from historic guilt. Accepting that the victim can also be the oppressor is a lesson taught by the novel as well.
My Name is Adam makes clear, for example, that to show solidarity (at least to some extent) with the German–Palestinian community is more valuable than guilt-guided solidarity with a far-right, ethno-nationalist government. This would also require a re-evaluation of the founding process of the state of Israel and the exclusive ethno-nationalist values at its core.
In a Paris Review interview, Khoury says ‘the conflict is still essentially an ethical issue. When you have a victim in front of you, you must identify yourself with the victim, not just show solidarity.’ For Khoury it is all about identification; he writes in a way the reader sympathises with Adam and feels with him, and consequently with the many voices narrating their intimate anecdotes. Through insights into personal reflections, he unravels the human emotions behind the label ‘Palestinian’. He achieves this by adding another layer of meaning to the silent understanding of the word ghetto. With the memory and stories from the inhabitants of Lydda and Adam himself, he expands the Jewish history by the experience of the Palestinian people who remained after the Nakba. It parallels the human encounter with suffering while still acknowledging the difference in each individual experience.