How will this affect the country's cultural life? If impoverishment continues at this rate, there soon won't be much left of it.

Khoury: There is the publishing industry, which will survive with great difficulty. Then there are the performing arts, which have reached an impasse – because of the crisis in Lebanon, but also because many of them receive support from abroad, which is likely to dwindle away. The film industry, for example, was big. Every year, four or five noteworthy films came from Lebanon, invited to international festivals, but they were all co-financed by ARTE or others. There will be much less of that now. And that will change everything.

There were also many cultural events that received support from the Lebanese banks without asking where the money actually came from.

Khoury: All the showcase events will cease: the tourist events, music in Beiteddine or in Baalbek – gone. Certain aspects of the scene were a bubble, and it will burst. But does that mean culture is dying? Of course not. So how do you go on? I remember when we founded the theatre in 1992 after the war. We were all volunteers. It was all very modest, and I think that's what we will have to return to. Unless the situation escalates and there is a military conflict, a coup d'etat, which is possible. Then we'll end up like our Arab brothers.

Egyptian singer Sherine a.k.a. Shirin Abed al-Wahab performs on the main stage at Baalbek International Festival 2016 in the Bekaa Valley (photo: dpa)
Elias Khoury on the crisis and culture in his home country: "All the showcase events will cease: the tourist events, music in Beiteddine or in Baalbek – gone. Certain aspects of the scene were a bubble, and it will burst. But does that mean culture is dying? Of course not"

Could Beirut face a similar fate to Baghdad, which lost its middle class in the 1950s and 1960s – and with it its cultural avant-garde? The city has never recovered.

Khoury: I don't think the Iraqi model can be compared to ours, because Baghdad has always been a homogeneous Iraqi city. But Beirut is not Lebanese, it is Arab. Beirut has always been the centre of Arab culture. Everyone came here: artists, directors, writers. It wasn't like that in Baghdad. Only Cairo in the early twentieth century was similar, but that was a different era.

What gives me a spark of hope is that the Islamist movements have never engaged with culture and never produced any either – neither in Lebanon nor in the rest of the Arab world. They have religion, their ideology, but no culture. They cannot kill culture because they have none. But every society needs culture, because it is like a mirror. No one can live without a mirror.

In Lebanese literature, writers have hardly dealt with emigration, which is surprising when you see how many of them have emigrated ...

Khoury: The writers of the first emigration wave left the country, but they wanted to come back. Khalil Gibran, Elia Abu Madi, Ameen Rihani – they all played a major role in Arab modernity, and they were all immigrants in the United States or Egypt. But they shared more about the Levant they had left behind than the circumstances in which they now found themselves. The same applied to the writers of the second wave: Amin Maalouf never spoke about the experience of exile.

Do you yourself possess two passports?

Khoury: No.

Would you emigrate?

Khoury: Never. I worked at the university in New York for a long time, but I never took a full-time job because I wanted to go back. And now at my age, let them kill me! (laughs) Exile is not a choice. We intellectuals only go when we have to.

Interview conducted by Lena Bopp

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2020

Lebanese author Elias Khoury was born in 1948. His most recent, highly praised novel "The children of the ghetto: My name is Adam" has been translated into English and French.

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