Children of the Ghetto
- By Elias Khoury; translated by Humphrey Davies
- Archipelago Books
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- August 15, 2020
A haunting, sometimes muddled tale of Palestinian defeat.
Children of the Ghetto is a novel for the adventurous who welcome a journey into a culture substantively different from our own. The book, translated from Arabic, routinely cites writers and poets well known in Arabic literature but unheard of by most Americans. The author, Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, writes in a style so different from anything we are used to that reading the book will be a new experience for most Americans.
The book begins with an unlabeled preface, all in italics, signed by Khoury. He describes how he met the author of the notebooks that make up the rest of the book in New York in February 2005. Khoury took one of his graduate students, a Korean girl named Sarang Lee, to a restaurant called the Palm Tree, for falafel.
The young woman, we learn later, spent her childhood in Tel Aviv. She already knows the restaurant’s owner, Adam Dannoun, who speaks to her in Hebrew. After introductions, Adam speaks to Khoury in Arabic with a Palestinian accent. Later, it becomes apparent to Khoury that Sarang Lee is in love with Adam, but she can’t tell if he’s a Palestinian pretending to be an Israeli or the reverse.
The stage, rife with ambiguity, is set.
Later, Sarang Lee brings Khoury notebooks written by Adam. He had died in a fire apparently caused when he dozed off while smoking bed. Both Khoury and Sarang Lee suspect that Adam deliberately killed himself, staging his death to make it look like an accident. In the ashes were the notebooks Sarang Lee gives to Khoury for safekeeping.
Khoury ruminates about what to do with the notebooks and finally decides to publish them as written. The rest of the book is the text of the notebooks.
That text, the next 400 pages of the novel, is a sort of diary, partly a running stream of consciousness, partly a narrative of events, partly a contemplation on which parts of the story are true. The text begins in Adam’s New York apartment. He muses that he will die here and that the notebooks he is writing will be burned along with his body and dumped into the Hudson River.
In what feels like a shift backward in time, he talks about the novel he will write about Waddah al-Yaman, whom he describes as “a poet, a lover, and a martyr to love.” The book will be called The Coffer of Love. It will relate “the tale of his love of two women.” Only later does the reader come to understand that Adam may (or may not) have loved two women, the Palestinian Dalia and the woman he knows in New York, Sarang Lee.
As the notebooks continue, the focus of Adam’s writing is the city of Lydda (called Lod by the Israelis), where he was born in 1948. Who his parents were is unclear. Either the young blind man, Ma’moun, found him on the breast of his dead mother on the street, or he was borne by the Palestinian woman, Manal (the father’s identity open to question), who cares for him.
Adam spends many pages recounting the ghetto status of Lydda following the forced exodus of Palestinians from the city (also known as the Lydda Death March), when those who remained were confined to an area surrounded by barbed wire guarded by Israeli soldiers. He lives there until the age of 14, when he moves away, eventually emigrating to New York.
As Adam’s mind roams over his past, the reader learns of the Nakba, the 1948 Palestinian exodus from the area when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced off their land; the “days of corpses,” when Israeli soldiers forced Lydda residents to clean the city ghetto of civilians who died during the Israeli conquest; the shortage of food and water that ghetto residents suffered; and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982.
Throughout the story, Adam suggests alternative versions of the various incidents he narrates. The reader is left to wonder which, if any, is true. Adam moves back and forth in time, stopping to ponder meaning and the lack of it.
Scattered throughout the text are paradoxes. One example: “Today I am at a loss: it seems the price of ridding oneself of the delusion of belonging is to belong.” Another: “I decided not to look back and to build myself over again with this woman whose photograph, which my aunt had sent me from al-Ramla, I married before I married the woman herself.”
“Scheherazade discovered that the world of stories is the real world, that the story is not s substitute for life but life itself, and that victory and defeat are the same, both meaning the end of the story and the death of the storyteller.”
The end result for this reader was to see Children of the Ghetto as a surreal dream told in bits and pieces and riddled with contradictions. My sense is that such was Khoury’s intent. The book is less a story than a series of creative illusions that may or may not point to anything factual. Only death, like the death of the narrator, Adam, seems concretely real.
A major benefit of the book, for me, was discovering the history of the Israelis’ defeat of Palestinians. I learned for the first time about massacres of the Palestinians during and after the war. History, it is said, is written by the victors. Here, the conquered Palestinians have their side of the story told.
The clarity of the narrative wasn’t helped by small flaws. I found many typos in the text. And the translation from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies sometimes felt awkward, with long, complex, and hard-to-follow sentences and strange mixtures of slang and formal English. The result was a style that felt inconsistent and, at times, hard to read.
Hence, I’m hesitant to recommend Children of the Ghetto to the casual reader. I suspect that those more familiar with Arabic culture than I am would have less trouble working through the novel than I did. But for those up to the challenge, it’s worth the effort.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Every year between 1962 and 1975, Tom Glenn, who speaks seven languages (but not Arabic), spent at least four months in Vietnam as a clandestine signals intelligence operative before escaping under fire when Saigon fell. He has 17 short stories and four novels in print, with another novel and a new book of short stories due out next year. Most of his fiction is about Vietnam.