Joshua Craze reviews My Name is Adam: Children of the Ghetto Volume 1

Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago Books, 2019)

A third of the way into Elias Khoury’s My Name is Adam, the novel’s eponymous narrator meets a Palestinian historian who wants to know more about Adam’s grandfather, a soldier in the Ottoman army who fought on the Russian front during the First World War. The historian hopes to prove that Arab Bolshevism began in the prisoner-of-war camps of Siberia and he needs just one document testifying to the Bolshevist sympathies of Adam’s grandfather. “History,” he insists, “has to rest on written documents, preferably official documents.” Adam is appalled.

“What kind of nonsense is that?” I asked him. “The whole history of our Nakba is unwritten. Does that mean we don’t have a history? That there was no Nakba?”

If it’s a document he needs, well then, Adam suggests, why not simply add a passage to a letter written by his grandfather, proving the historian’s theory: 

            “Is that true?” he asked me.

            “It’s as good as true,” I told him.

            “That’s writers’ business,” he said, “not historians.”

            “What’s the difference?” I asked.

            He shook his head in disgust and walked off.



What is a writer’s business and how does it differ from a historian’s? These questions are at the heart of Elias Khoury’s My Name is Adam, first published in Beirut in 2012. It is the first volume in his projected "Children of the Ghetto" trilogy on the Israeli expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian population of Lydda (now renamed Lod) in 1948, and the corralling of the remaining Palestinians into ghettoes. The author of thirteen novels, Khoury is perhaps the foremost novelist writing in Arabic today, and in his work as an editor and journalist, an important public intellectual in Lebanon and the wider region. For Khoury, who was born in 1948 and whose life has been marked by almost continuous war, My Name is Adam marks the achievement of a long-held wish, dating back to his work as a member of Fatah in the late sixties and early seventies, to write a great epic about the Nakba. It reprises many of the themes and stylistic developments (and even some of the characters) of Khoury’s breakout 1998 novel Gate of the Sun, which was celebrated by Edward Said, amongst others. Humphrey Davies’s adroit translation of Gate of the Sun was published to widespread acclaim in 2006, so it is fitting that Davies has returned to translate Khoury's latest work.

As with Khoury’s other novels, My Name is Adam begins with an ending. In this case, the book opens in New York, with the suicide of the narrator, staged to echo that of the Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein (bed, cigarettes, burning bookshelves). Slowly, the novel reveals its stories, as if the reader were listening to a conversation that spills out during a long night, in fragments and repetitions, in smoke and alcohol. Adam Dannoun was born in Lydda, the first child of the ghetto, and has spent his life fleeing his memories of it, taking up identity after identity, each as empty as the last. As elsewhere in Khoury’s oeuvre, identities are mixed, masks are swapped, and little remains stable. Davies deals capably with the sweeping changes in perspective and dizzying mise en abyme of Khoury’s prose, rendering into English a language that is often as fragmented as life in wartime. These novels don’t occur in a realm of facts, but rather in a world of narrators, and all that the reader can be certain of is that there are stories, and that they are being told. This fragmentation is a way of accounting for the deep trauma of the stories, which emerge, not as the opposite of forgetting, but rather as its lining.

The first part of My Name is Adam is composed of the narrator’s sketch for his own novel, which is adamantly not about Lydda but rather concerns the loves and death of the seventh-century Yemeni poet Waddah al-Yaman. The sketch mixes literary criticism, memoir, and history in a blend of forms reminiscent of Ahmad Faris Shidyaq’s unclassifiable nineteenth-century classic Leg Over Leg (also deftly translated by Davies). Adam Dannoun writes this preparatory sketch because it is only by thinking about a seemingly distant world that he can explore the resonances of his own story. In writing about al-Yaman, Adam shall write about Palestine, without mentioning it once. If his novel, tentatively titled The Coffer of Love, is intended to be a metaphor for Palestine, we see that it soon gets away from him and takes on a life of its own, resisting any simple equation with the present. As Adam buries himself in the details of al-Yaman’s life, the metaphorical vision of the book he began with becomes lost in the density of the prose, a development that he greets with relief. “I don’t feel comfortable with messages in literature,” he writes. “Literature is like love: it loses its meaning when turned into a medium for something else that goes beyond it… I repeat: literature exists without reference to any meaning located outside it.”

Adam’s writing keeps settling on historical subjects, but then, by entering into them, turns away from history into the imaginative singularity of literature. Khoury makes Adam hope, when he is at his most romantic, that literature could be hermetically sealed from the world outside, a perfect love affair that needed nothing beyond itself. Some hope. Adam never completes the novel he plans to write; the world intervenes. On attending a film screening, he becomes infuriated by both the Israeli director and the Lebanese writer—one ‘Elias Khoury’—invited to talk about the film. Both men, he thinks, are falsifying what happened in Palestine. Adam also learns that his father is not his father, and that his life, in other words, has been someone else’s story. In anger and loss, Adam abandons The Coffer of Love and begins a new book, which will try to address what happened in Lydda directly. This "real" event (the film screening) that intrudes into the writing of a novel within a novel is both emblematic of Khoury’s vertiginous use of mise en abyme and indicative of one of his responses to the question of literature’s relationship to history: a writer’s business, Khoury argues, cannot be to create fictional worlds that stand apart from history, because fiction is composed of meanings that come from outside the work. The dream of a fiction unrelated to the world is always interrupted by the very materials that compose it.

If our fictions are cut from historical cloth, then our histories, Khoury suggests, are fantastical in their coherence, and give myths falsely factual foundations. It is myth, Khoury thinks, that gives shape to Zionist historiography, and in My Name is Adam, he doesn’t write about Lydda to excavate a rival myth, but to listen to the way that Palestinians have lived with the history of catastrophe, not by creating alternative narratives, but by cultivating silence and secrecy, shoring up fragments against their ruin. This is the way the history of the catastrophe is lived and experienced in the present. This is the way it’s made meaningful. And that is the writer’s business. In contrast, Khoury’s Palestinian historian thinks that meaningful history is only that which has been written down. Only through the creation of a rival written record, the historian thinks, can we fight the Zionist narrative. For Khoury, this is to accept the terms of the oppressor; it’s the winner’s pen that writes history. In several interviews, Khoury mentions that when doing the research for My Name is Adam he found almost no mention of the ghettoes, save for some stray references in the memoirs of Palestinians from Haifa and Lydda. The absence of a historical record, however, is not the same as an actual absence. This is the border between a writer’s business and that of Khoury’s historian. The latter can only deal with presences, while the writer’s task is to make absences present.

In Khoury’s rendition of the writer’s business, it does not mean "completing" the historical record and rendering it whole—fiction filling in the blanks left by the documents. For while the historian dreams of a world without gaps in which everything has a place, the writer’s business is to make the gaps manifest. My Name is Adam is an investigation into what it means to live in the presence of absence. How does one live with the Nakba? The absences of the historical record, Khoury insists, are also the absences of people’s lives; one of the ways to live with painful absences is to make that pain itself absent, and cast it into silence. Swimming in this silence, there is no overall position from which one can narrate a story, no prefigured whole into which memories can be placed. As he researched the book, Khoury found that it was difficult for people to talk about their memories of the ghettoes, and what he heard were fragments, scenes in search of a film, rather than coherent narratives.

My Name is Adam tries to attend to the nature of these fragments rather than turn them into a cohesive history. The reason this tragedy is fragmented is that, Khoury insists, it isn’t over. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2017, Khoury stated that “the Nakba is still happening. We can’t write its history because it hasn’t ended.” In other words: there is no historical position from which to gain an objective overview of the Nakba because it continues as both present political reality—in the form of the Israeli occupation—and also as experiential horizon. The writer’s business is not to recount stories of the past, but to try to be adequate to a present that is itself disordered, striated with the absences of a history that is still making itself felt.



When Adam abandons The Coffer of Love, he abandons trying to use metaphor to talk about Palestine, and starts to try to write about reality. The precipitating event behind this abandonment is his discovery that he was himself abandoned by his father, found by a blind schoolteacher during the exodus from Lydda, and given to a young nurse who passed him off as her own child. It’s this discovery of the falsity of the story given to him that leads him to try to write his own, and to immediately discover a problem: reality is itself full of metaphors and ciphers, and is made up of other people’s stories about one’s life. One cannot turn toward the real without encountering, once again, the imaginary. Thus, his two book projects collapse into each other. The metaphorical novel about the Yemeni poet loses its way in the details of al-Yaman’s life, while the book about Lydda runs aground in the metaphors that make up the world. In My Name is Adam, the failure of the metaphors of the first part of the novel is not absolute, but rather indicates that our world is inextricably metaphorical and that none of these metaphors, on their own, hold any sort of magical key to explain the world. The abandonment of the first novel, in other words, is preparation for the beginning of the next book. The books repeat each other, though adrift in time and space, both versions of the same story. "Novel" in English, of course, also means “interestingly new,” while in Arabic, riwaya (novel) also means “version,” and the two doubled meanings complement each other in Khoury’s universe, in which it is only through repetition that one arrives at novelty.

Khoury’s complex fabric of interwoven stories has been described as a series of Russian dolls, each story hidden within another in a way that evokes A Thousand and One Nights: and as a web in which pulling on the strand of one story immediately leads to another. Neither image is quite right. Stories don’t hide within each other in Khoury’s novels, since there is no ultimate container that holds them all; if Khoury is Scheherazade, then there is no morning. Nor are the stories of My Name is Adam arranged in a web, as if each story was incomplete and needed the other stories. Rather, Khoury himself supplies the best explanatory image for his method in the title of his 2012 book Broken Mirrors. In Khoury’s novels, perspectives splinter like broken mirrors and cannot be rejoined. Events are looked at from multiple angles, and each perspective isn’t simply an additional way of seeing, but part of a chaotic narrative proliferation in which each perspective is seen from another perspective, each broken piece of mirror is set against another, as if in a fun house hall of mirrors. Commenting on his early novels, Edward Said argued that Khoury’s approach is a reflection of the fragmentation of the world that occurred during the Lebanese civil war. Here is a form of literature, Said claimed, that responds to the way reality slipped away during the conflict, and to the way rumors piled up on top of each other and memories displaced history.

Perhaps. Khoury’s novels, however, seem to entail a more active shaping of the world; his fragmentation of narrative is not simply an internalized effect of the Lebanese civil war, but also a demarcation of the writer’s business. Writing novels does not create wholes. It does not mend. It deepens our darkness. Early on in My Name is Adam, the narrator writes that “[t]his world consists of mirrors that, when we break them, shatter into a thousand little pieces that are transformed in turn into new ones that have to be broken.” Lives are always composed of the fragments of others’ stories and others’ visions of oneself. Later, in one of the final scenes of the book, this speech is given material form. As the Israelis occupy Lydda, they organize the young Palestinian men into teams. Some of the teams are dispatched to pick up corpses and bury them. Others are told to go into Palestinian homes and loot them, packing tables, chairs, and food onto trucks waiting to go to Tel Aviv. The Palestinians becoming their own oppressors. In My Name is Adam, one of the narrator’s interlocutors tells him about a young man who sees a mirror in one of the Palestinian houses and refuses to give it to the Israelis. The young Palestinian men place themselves over it, becoming the mirror, as the Israelis beat them.

While this scene sounds heavy-handed in summary and too weighed down with symbolism, on the page My Name is Adam resists this problem, the density of the narrative short-circuiting any attempt at obvious reductions. While it is self-consciously full of metaphors, symbols, and allegories, the novel also refuses to allow any one of them to dominate: this is life, Khoury suggests, and it is full of symbols and metaphor. For a time, Adam passes himself off as an Israeli, and when asked where he comes from, he says, “the ghetto.” He means Lydda; everyone assumes his ancestors are from Warsaw. After introducing the parallel, Khoury immediately undercuts it as Adam stresses the difference between the ghettoes: “The stories of the first I read innumerable times, till they were engraved on my memory, and those of the second were like a brand stamped on my soul—stories I read and stories I heard, not just with my ears but with my body.” My Name is Adam doesn’t make an easy, reductive comparison. Rather, through Adam’s story, it asks about a world in which the stories of one ghetto circulate, while the others are written only in flesh and silence.

Khoury’s work always threatens to overflow its banks, or more precisely, it is located exactly at the point at which literature flows into life, and life into literature. It is thus bleakly appropriate that the Palestinian tent encampment of Bab al-Shams, whose residents were evicted by the Israeli army in January 2013, named itself after the cave in Khoury’s novel The Gate of the Sun where a Palestinian fighter would meet his wife to make love—the only liberated part of Palestine, as the fighter describes it. Khoury has repeatedly commented on the way that his books have seeped into life, how he keeps meeting people who claim to recognize themselves in his novels. It is only appropriate then, that this very moment of recognition is placed back inside My Name is Adam, when Adam claims to know the narrator of The Gate of the Sun, Khalil Ayoub, personally.

What is a writer’s business amid all of this unceasing transformation, in which stories become life, and life turns out to be made up of stories? In Khoury’s work there is a commitment to an open-endedness, to the endless perspectives of the broken mirror and the way in which writing becomes a part of these perspectives, rather than resolving them. Literature deepens rather than resolves the world. As Adam writes, “No one recounted these stories that I am trying to write down. They are word motes and memory shards. I approach them with my faltering language and instead of picking them up and washing the dust of sorrow off them, I blend into them and become a part of their dust.”

My Name is Adam is a monument to the present absences of the Lydda ghetto, and to their continued existence. This is partly the reason that Adam exists. He enables Khoury to write about the present of the story, and not just give the narrative of a historian who would be removed from the gaps which constitute Adam as a character. In Adam’s narrative, we see the way the story tends to metaphor, to cipher, and yet simultaneously evades it, becoming silence, becoming dust. It’s a mixed business, writing. In Adam’s books, there is the pain of bringing to consciousness something that—for him, as for others—has remained in the shadow, but in doing so, in reconstructing himself, in turning over historical material to the play of the imagination, there is also the possibility of becoming someone new, someone who acknowledges and doesn’t deny the pain of the past. The risk for Adam is that the past destroys him and that there is no natality once one returns to history. It is there that we began—with Adam’s suicide.

This death, like the other deaths that mark My Name is Adam, is not the end. Indeed, his death occurs at the beginning of the novel. The story does not end, because it does not begin. Lacking a stable position from which to start, it begins only with one of those broken fragments of the mirror, and commences a game of infinite reflection. This is how the novel ends:

“And now I find myself at the threshold. The story awaits and I have to set off.”

There is no ending, because the Nakba continues, and Adam, from beyond the grave, will direct Khoury on and linger in our minds, amid the shadows. That’s a writer’s business.