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Elias Khoury's The Journey of Little Gandhi: Fiction and Ideology

Author(s): Samira Aghacy

Source: International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 163-
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Int. J. Middle East Stud. 28 (1996), 163-176. Printed in the United States of America

Samira Aghacy



Commenting on his novel Rihlat Gandhi al-Saghir (The Jour

Elias Khoury has made two conflicting assertions. At a gath
book shortly after it was published, Khoury reaffirmed his
stance in relation to the war in Lebanon. While acknowledgi
tagonist, is a victim of violence and poverty, Khoury said t
necessity, a passage to a higher and nobler aim:

I am not one of those who preach against violence, nor do I claim

I have participated in the war, and I remain true to my origin
comrades who died the death of martyrs. I refuse to go along w
fad. At the same time, I remain faithful to the truth and the go
war: the creation of another more just and democratic society ..
not succeeded, but at least, it is our duty to tell the truth and . .

Earlier, in an interview with the newspaper al-Nida3, K

writer who has no mission. ... I tell people what I see and as
they see."3 Here are two contradictory views: an open a
ideological stance and a marginalized, noncommittal, plu
first sees society in terms of class struggle and economi
dominant and privileged ideology. The other perceives socie
with a variety of voices and registers, and does not give one
ilege over others.
In this study, I will be borrowing from Mikhail Bakhtin,
novel have special relevance to contemporary fiction and pa
tive technique of The Journey of Little Gandhi. Bakhti
"monologic" and "dialogic" discourses.4 In a monologic dis
author or narrator dominates; in the dialogic, or polyphoni
the narrator is only one among many other voices. Monolog
unified and coherent sense of character, by which the auth
access to the mind and thoughts of all the characters. Auth
ing, the narrator judges and controls the discourse of all th
goes as far as making them speak his own language and
Polyphonic discourse reveals a diversity of voices and rec

Samira Aghacy is Professor at the Lebanese American University, Beirut,

? 1996 Cambridge University Press 0020-7438/96 $7.50 + .10

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164 Samira Aghacy

incomplete entity in continuous formation-and, therefore, only marginally expli-

cable. This type of fiction lacks a fixed center and lays no claim to a final irrevo-
cable truth. It incorporates a diversity of voices and writing styles to produce a
heterogeneous and heteroglossic text. Commenting on the dialogic, Bakhtin writes
in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics:

The possibility of employing on the plane of a single work discourses of various types, with
all their expressive capacities intact, without reducing them to a common denominator-
this is one of the most fundamental characteristic features of prose.... For the prose artist
the world is full of other people's words, among which he must orient himself and whose
speech characteristics he must be able to perceive with a very keen ear.5

This study pivots around the problematic relationship among author, narrator,
and characters in Khoury's novel as seen in the light of Bakhtin's typology, and pre-
sents the theory that within the novel there exists a dominant ideology-the narra-
tor's opposition to the imperialists, the Americans, the church, the bourgeoisie, the
Lebanese Christian Phalangist Party, and all other forces inimical to the cause of
the people. It also posits that, even though a diversity of voices and languages are
presented, it is the narrator who controls and manipulates them by pulling them
into his own frame of reference.
The Ras Beirut of the novel, as Khoury described it in an interview with al-Ittihad,
is "the area considered most cosmopolitan ... a place where universities, intellec-
tuals, political struggle, bars, conspiracies, churches, and mosques are concentrated.
It is like a miniature model of a city which is, in turn, a mirror of the country."6
People who are marginalized and dehumanized and who have little or nothing in
common with one another are thrown together by war, poverty, loss, insecurity, and
alienation. Khoury borrows from the tradition of the hakawati (storyteller) that
persisted in Lebanon-particularly in Sidon, Tyre, and South Lebanon-until the
1940s and 1950s.7 The hakawati stories rotate around such general themes as hero-
ism, bravery, love, suffering, and oppression. The most famous of these stories are
those of 'Antara, Sayf Bin Dhi Yazan, and Abu Zayd al-Hilali. The hakawdti was
supposed to entertain the people gathered in a cafe by reading from a book or tell-
ing stories he had heard and memorized or, preferably, telling stories he had ex-
perienced himself. The hakawdti was supposed to take into account the rank and
social position of his listeners, and his stories were supposed to point to a general
truth and teach a moral lesson.8 Relying on this popular tradition of the storyteller,
Khoury chooses a prostitute to tell her story in the novel, and the narrator claims he
has learned his lesson. In the novel, the extraheterodiegetic narrator9 (a young
writer) retells stories related to him by Alice (the intrahomodiegetic narrator'? and
a former prostitute), especially one about Gandhi, a shoe shine, who died on the
day the Israelis occupied West Beirut in 1982. In this narration, and in the manner
of the traditional hakawdti, Alice digresses to incorporate other stories of her own
life and tales told by other narrators, such as Gandhi's son Husn, the Protestant
minister Amin, Father John al-Mazraani, a Russian princess named Vitsky, and
many others.
When the narrator meets Alice, she is in her sixties, "but there was nothing
womanly about her-flat chest, an emaciated body that disappeared under her long

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 165

black dress, eyes half-closed, a long nose, thin lips, and hands that constantly
shook.""l Now an old woman and a servant, she looks back at a gratifying past and
sees herself as a desirable woman who has had her days of happiness and pleasure.
Unlike prostitutes who hate the job, Alice was and is content:

If it hadn't been for the impresario Abu Jamil, I'd still be with that old man [her husband],
in that dark room. I'd be a maid, working for nothing. With Abu Jamil things were different.
He took me and made a lady out of me, and the world opened up for me. With him I discov-
ered real pleasure, the pleasure to dance and drink and live. With him I learned about love.12

For Alice, the act of telling tales is one way of resurrecting the past and trying
to make sense of her present life. In an atmosphere of desolation, meaningless-
ness, absurdity, and death, Alice recreates her past and undertakes a reappraisal of
it. She tells the narrator, "When you live, you don't notice things."13 Her stories
are parabolic, in the sense that they point to moral truths that she deduces about
man and life in general. In her attempt to establish a relationship between living
and meaning, she tells stories and makes her own deductions: "'The best part
about love is forgetting it. Being able to forget is what makes us human.' That's
what she'd say while she told the story of 'The Leader.' "14 Her method is to tell
plausible stories about herself and others. These stories are metaphors that involve
her as well as the narrator and make it possible for him, as he puts it, to abandon
his detachment and take the plunge. The text makes a clear distinction between
experience as lived and the presentation of experiences in the stories, what Brian
McHale refers to as the "otherness of the fictional world, its separation from the
real world of experience."15 The medium is sensual (Alice's love and sexual af-
fairs), giving the sense of a solid and tangible reality. But when Alice relates her
experiences, the abstract seems to absorb the concrete. Her stories are reportorial
("telling") rather than photographic ("showing").16 For instance, her relationship
with Lieutenant Tannous (the only man she ever loved) is reduced to two brief
scenes: one in which Alice sees the lieutenant with his wife and children at a fair;
the other in which the wife comes to Alice's apartment to take her husband home.
Other references to the lieutenant are general and approbatory: "What a catch he
was.... Handsome, tall, and elegant; spiffy and 'a la mode,"'7 or when she says:
"But my true love was Tannous, God love him."18
Her stories are fragmentary and recall only brief incidents; they are generally
impressionistic and are at times contradictory. In her description of Lieutenant
Tannous, she makes conflicting statements. At one point, she sees him as effemi-
nate: "He was a macho man around men, but with women, he was a wimp";19 at
another he is masculine and exciting: "He was a man, and it was I who told him to
go."20 Alice's parabolic inclination is seen in her reference to her father: "He died
and I didn't see him, he lived and he didn't see me, you never know. ... Things
end where they should begin. It's all a big lie, this whole life is like one big lie"21
and when she declares that in "the presence of women men become women."22
Alice's stories are attempts to appropriate life in a world where people are con-
demned to death. Her gossip is a cathartic defense against chaos and meaninglessness,
against the violation of death. She clings to stories that hold her together and help
to regain her integrity. She tells the narrator: "Memories are a disgrace, my son.

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166 Samira Aghacy

Once you get to the point where there's nothing left but your memories, it's over.
The mule has stopped pulling for you, and the lantern's on its last drop of oil."23
In her storytelling, she attempts to transcend the bleakness, dullness, ugliness, and
loneliness of her existence. In her opinion, men such as Lieutenant Tannous, Abu
Jamil (her second lover), the White King (as she refers to one of her lovers), and
the solider who was killed in a nightclub have become a rare species. Today, it is
the little man who dominates the scene (Gandhi, Al-Zaylaa, Husn, the minister, and
the priest). These are men who murder and are murdered, men who take up vio-
lence or flee from it, men who are alienated from themselves and the world around
them and who lack any sense of personal or national identity. The fact that Gandhi
and his son Husn each uses more than one name shows that the name as an index
to personality has been undermined, and the individual as a wholesome, privileged
center has been diminished and nullified. In addition to Abd al-Karim, the shoe
shine is given the name Gandhi (by Mr. Davis, the American professor), while his
wife calls him "man." His son Husn changes his name to Ralph when he works at
a beauty salon, and when the war begins, he changes it again to Ghassan: "Rima
called him Ralph, and his father called him Husn, and Madame Nuha called him
Ghassan, and he responded to all three."24 "Alice" too, is probably an assumed
name. All of these names are supposed to reveal unstable identity, creating further
problems in understanding what these individuals assume to be the truth. Khoury
understands his characters' names-particularly Gandhi's-in the context of power
relations and imperialistic and oppressive measures taken against the people: "The
American professor is the one who gave him the name Gandhi, and this shows that
the Americans were and still are giving us names, which means that they possess
the knowledge and the power."25 This confusion and the "inability to control the
world outside,"26 as Sabri Hafez puts it, turns the city into a "Tower of Babel"27
where communication is achieved only through conflict and violence as seen in the
relationships between Husn and Nuha, Rima and the man she meets on the stair-
way, and Gandhi and the doctor.
The author, like the narrator, tries to limit the characters and the text to make
them coincide with and illustrate his own personal views and ideology. Khoury goes
as far as identifying himself with Gandhi in the same manner that the narrator does.
In an interview with al-Nidda, Khoury asserts: "The journey is Gandhi's, on the one
hand, and mine is his on the other. He discovers the world and I discover the world
through what Alice says about him."28
In the same interview, Khoury declares his intention to break with the tradition
of the single narrator and embrace a variety of discourses. He rejects the oppressive
and dictatorial stance of the single narrator who dominates the scene and insists on
writing novels with a variety of discourses-in this case, Gandhi's, Alice's, Rima's,
the narrator's, and others'.29
Despite such declarations, from the very beginning the narrator makes the death
of Gandhi an important event. He dies in the first chapter, and the remaining five
chapters begin with a sort of lament for that death. It is obvious that the narrator
intends to magnify the role of the little man and to make a hero or martyr out of
him (the name "Gandhi" obviously aligns him with the Indian leader). Gandhi,
who comes to Beirut from Mashta Hasan in Akkar (North Lebanon) and takes up

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 167

shoe polishing as a career, is an ordinary man. He had an unhappy childhood, with

a cruel father and stepmother; he married a "silent woman" he does not under-
stand. His two children are a girl who develops schizophrenia and a son, Husn,
who loves an older woman and eventually murders her out of jealousy. How-
ever, the shadow of Abd al-Karim (Gandhi) haunts the narrator: "I walk, and Abd
al-Karim's shadow walks beside me. I see his small frame and broken teeth and
thick, tawny neck. I see everything, and when I ask him about Alice, I disco
he's merely a shadow. Abd al-Karim has become a shadow that fills my eyes.
For the narrator, Gandhi is a marginalized figure suffering in silence and dy
without any stir or fuss: "When he died no one knew about it. He died when deat
ceased to have any value."31 At the same time, the narrator refers to a number o
people who describe the manner of his death: "They said he fled from his hou
so they killed him. They said he was walking along the road and so they shot him
in the back."32 The passage subverts the earlier assertion of Gandhi's anonym
and reveals him as a sort of romantic figure whose mysterious death has caused a
stir. Just as the text subverts the claims made by the narrator, it also undermine
the claims made by Khoury himself in his interview with al-Nida', in which
rejected the concept of the hero out of hand: "There is no hero.... Who is t
hero? The hero is dead.... [T]he hero is a deception."33 Khoury's assertion is
line with the general view expounded by Yumna al-CId that the "war has destroye
the dream of commitment and realism, the dream of the hero . .. and the dream of
the prophetic vision."34
The narrator presents Gandhi as a decent, harmless little man, but the text un-
covers other, less favorable aspects of his character. Gandhi's fear that his son may
have murdered his mistress, a Christian woman living in West Beirut, is quickly
alleviated: "Comrade 'Abu Karim' put his mind at ease. He said don't worry about
it, 'She has no relatives, and no one's going to ask about her.' 35 The narrator sees
Gandhi as a loving father, whose wife's refusal to feed and look after her daugh-
ter reveals her lack of maternal feelings. The text, however, provides evidence
enough for a counter-interpretation of his character. When his daughter disappears
and reappears, the first thing Gandhi does is take her to a doctor to make sure she
has not been raped by gunmen in East Beirut and lost her virginity. He takes her to
see a sheikh, who prescribes an amulet and recommends an immediate marriage
"for a man to sleep with her and make her bleed."36 Accordingly, Gandhi tries to
marry his daughter off to a cousin who is already married, but the cousin rejects her
because he is afraid of her madness: "But the son of a bitch refused, I told him, you
can send her back, no questions asked, I'll pay. But he was afraid. He, too, was
afraid. And what's wrong with the girl, she's beautiful. He's a son of a bitch, he
smells, and he refused.... Does anyone refuse to marry a second wife?"37 Failing
in this endeavor, Gandhi regrets that the "sons of bitches," the armed men in East
Beirut, did not touch or rape his daughter. Thus, the narrator's declared statements
of Gandhi's "humanity" are subverted, dramatizing the disjunction between signi-
fier and signified.38
The narrator laments the death or disappearance of Alice, Gandhi, Husn, the
minister, and Rima after the Israeli invasion of Beirut, and attributes their misfor-
tunes to the occupation, although the text reveals that a great deal of their misery

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168 Samira Aghacy

and squalor is self-inflicted or directly related to the long-raging civil war. This
society had lost its emotional and moral bearings long before the occupation. The
doctors are devoid of any professional ethics and spend their time fornicating and
taking drugs. They are inattentive to their patients and display slackness and
indifference. Gandhi tells the doctor of his daughter's plight and expects medical
advice; the doctor ignores his question and says:
"Tomorrow you'll go back to your work, don't worry. Do you think the situation is going to
stay like this, with all these stupid committees and crap and tasteless war? We'll have a new
government and you'll go back to your profession."
"And what about my daughter, Doctor?" Gandhi asked as he watched the doctor continue
on his way.
"I told you go back to shoe shining. Take care of your shoe shining."39

The narrator's ignorance of how a Greek Orthodox mass is conducted is shown

when he confuses it with a Protestant service. Referring to the Protestant minister,
he writes:

Little Gandhi didn't like the Reverend Amin, for, in spite of his kindness and that of his pa-
rishioners, he was haughty. He spoke with a low voice and used a dialect that was a cross
between Beiruti colloquial Arabic and classical Arabic, and he was always shaking his head
to give the impression he was trying to understand others. But then he'd turn around and do
whatever made him feel good. The smell of whiskey was always on his breath, and the sto-
ries of his adventures with Lillian Sabbagha were well-known.... His wife left him and
joined their children in the United States, and he suffered a total breakdown. The Reverend
started wetting his pants and speaking nonsense.40

The language used here uncovers the narrator's commitment to a different ideol-
ogy, which he shares with the author himself.41 At a gathering held to discuss the
book shortly after it was published, Khoury referred to the narrator and himself
interchangeably: "With regard to the name Gandhi, it was the American professor
who gave him this name, not I."42 Khoury's view that the Protestant sects are alien
in the area is apparent in an interview with al-Ittihdd: "As far as I know, it is the
first time in the history of modern Arabic literature that the issue of missionaries
and the formulation of new Christian sects . . . alien to the Eastern Christian sects
are introduced."43
The language in the novel betrays the narrator's prejudice and intolerance, par-
ticularly when the subject is a religious man or a saint. He tells us of Spiro, who
bribes his grandson "to get him to listen to the stories of Saint Spirodonius the
Miraculous, whose saintliness was heralded by donkeys."44 As for the Greek Or-
thodox priest, the narrator tells the story of how the priest tried to rape a Russian
princess/servant (a romantic figure without any tangible presence). However, de-
spite the off-hand and almost carnivalistic presentation45 of the ministers and the
church and his open antagonism, the text reveals that it is the church that gives
asylum and refuge to many of these poor and marginalized figures (the minister
and perhaps Alice in their old age) rather than the narrator, whose sole contribu-
tion is lip service and exaggeration.
Whereas Alice has adventures in Baghdad, Aleppo, and other places, enriching
her experience, Gandhi's experiences remain limited to Akkar, Tripoli, and Beirut.

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 169

Commenting on this information, the narrator deduces that, although Gandhi did
not travel, the city did: "You stay where you are and it travels. Instead of you
traveling, the city travels,"46 and he comes to the conclusion that, far from being the
Switzerland of the East-as Beirut used to be called-Beirut today is like any
other Third World city. In this way, the stories of Alice and Gandhi become point-
ers to general ideas maintained by the narrator himself, revealing a strong ideologi-
cal orientation. The narrator sees Alice's tales as "full of holes" that he must fill,
meaning that Alice's and Gandhi's experiences of reality have a mental existence
but not a physical existence for the narrator. His is a subjective mirroring of reality,
turning language into a means of domination rather than liberation as he would
have liked to see language.
The narrator recalls Alice's stories and tries to imagine what actually happened.
The prostitute provides the outline, the raw material, but it is the narrator who builds
and elaborates. The stories told by Alice turn out to be the narrator's own tales. In the
following passage, it is obviously an omniscient narrator who is telling the story:

He hesitated a long time before going in to find Alice in her usual place, standing beneath
the dim red light, holding three red flowers. He didn't ask her where she disappeared to dur-
ing the blockade. He himself didn't know anymore where he'd been, and he didn't remember
anything from the days of the siege, except that he forgot everything.47

The narrator comments: "Did he really tell her, or did she make them up and tell
them as if they were true?"48 He tells us what happened, what may have happened,
and what could not have happened. Using free indirect speech, he reconstructs the
incidents, visualizes, and assumes what could or could not have occurred. At times,
he goes so far as to clarify and edit Alice's stories: "'He [the Protestant minister]
stopped in front of the pulpit, opened his book, and started reading things about
Jerusalem and the prophets.'"49 Here, the narrator adds his knowledge of the Bible,
quoting the relevant passage, which Alice only alludes to: "O Jerusalem, Jerusa-
lem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how
often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathereth her
chickens under her wings, and ye would not!"50 Alice's voice, a sign of immediacy
and presence, is stifled by the narrator's figurative language, taking the life and
leaving the shadow behind. Seen through the narrator's eyes, her masculine vulgar-
ity and aggressiveness rather than her beauty and femininity are highlighted. Her
discourse does not remain intact. It is reduced into "a single common denomina-
tor,"51 that of the narrator. This is seen in the scanty and general references to Lieu-
tenant Tannous and the more vulgar and coarse descriptions of her sexual affairs
with other men.
The narrator manipulates the characters, puts words in their mouths, giving them
no freedom to be themselves. His discourse acts as metalanguage that interprets
and controls the other discourses, imposing his own ordering strategies. In the
interview with al-Safir, Khoury minimizes the role of Alice and reduces her to a
function: "Alice used to tell stories . . . first, for the pleasure one derives from
them; second, for us to discover that this nation did not write its history. For ex-
ample, there is a passage ... on the Hawrani, the Assyrian and the Kurd raising the
big question: Where did we all come from?"52

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170 Samira Aghacy

The language used by Alice is shaped to reflect male values and male narrative
hegemony. Her discourse is male-centered, and all of the stories she relates are about
the "real men" before the war, as opposed to the general effeminacy that prevails
in the present. She tells the narrator, "My heart bleeds for them, they killed them,
they killed the men and left the thugs." As a result, "'Women were treated like old
shoes, and old shoes got to be more important than men, all the bullies left, and
along came Zaylaa, and after him the midget, and after the midget, the Egyptian,
none of them are men.'"53 Even though it is a prostitute who tells the story, one can-
not say that she is liberated. She recognizes the masculine realities of her world but
does not seem to object to them in principle. She puts the female in a position of
independence and strength, but she never objects to the privileges of men as supe-
riors. Her discourse remains submissive to the male patriarchal order that the nar-
rator represents and acknowledges. Referring to Kamal al-Askary, a man she has
great admiration for, she says: "He was above everyone, and when he went down
into the grave, the stories started. Women, if you'd seen the women. Women came
and started crying. Veiled, unveiled, all sorts of women. He had an entire tribe.
That's a real man. They killed him, that's what I think. Impossible, al-Askary is the
one who shoots; no one shoots him. But he was shot. I saw how he fell, he fell like
a mountain, like a heavy door."54 Her ideal man is the aggressive male who con-
trols, kills, and wins the hearts of women with the money he spends. Even though
Abu Jamil warns her of George, "King of the Night," and tells her that he kills
women, Alice is unable to resist him: "But he was extraordinarily handsome, inde-
scribably beautiful; thick blond hair, tall, fair, and rich .... He'd wave his hand and
the champagne bottles would be popped open. Money just poured from his pock-
ets, and it was nothing to him."55 The apparently subversive subculture represented
by Gandhi and the prostitute-whose discourses are supposed to constitute a form
of resistance to the predominant bourgeois discourse-are stifled and neutralized
by the narrator, who deprives them of freedom and turns them into mere represen-
tatives. The voices of Gandhi, Alice, Husn, and Nuha remain indistinguishable,
giving only an illusion of diversity. Like a "ventriloquist's dummy,"56 to use Hillis
Miller's simile, Alice echoes the narrator's own views, and she ends up as a mere
metaphor in his search for the signified.
The American professor, Mr. Davis, is seen as a stereotype of the American
who worries only about his dog. He asks Gandhi to feed the dog: "It wasn't the
first time he'd [Gandhi] left his profession; he'd done that before when he opened
a small restaurant at the expense of the American dog."57 Although it is deliber-
ately not clear whether the narrator is referring to the man or the dog, the passage
reveals the narrator's prejudice and the hatred that he tries to attribute to Gandhi,
although after the death of the dog and the departure of the professor, Gandhi
asserts nostalgically: "'It's all over,' he told his son.58 Before you know it, the tall
American will be back . . . and we'll go back to the way we were.' "59
Because a large portion of the story is diegetic,60 the narrator can project himself
and his views and marginalize the other characters.61 The fact that he sees story-
telling both as an escape from reality and as a means of accepting and grasping such
a reality62 reveals the slide into allegory and the fictionality of all things, for accord-
ing to the narrator, it is only when they are presented as fiction that things can be

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 171

accepted: "[S]ince we all pretend to be runaways, for fear of being gobbled up by

death, the stories of those who couldn't run away strike us as very odd, totally un-
believable. The stories seem distant, and we don't want anything to do with them,
except merely as stories."63
Even though the only direct information we have of the narrator is that he is a
young writer (the author's persona), the text uncovers his selfishness and snobbish-
ness and his ignorance of many subjects. He does not take Alice seriously, despite
the fact that he aligns himself with the socially marginal and the outcast. When
Alice asks him who he is, his answer is sarcastic and full of arrogance: "I am a
relative of Mrs. Sabbagha. Her mother happens to be the sister of my grandmother
on my father's side."64 When he tells her he is a writer, she relates a story of one
writer she knew who used to come to the bar where she worked; he had fallen in
love with a blonde German bar girl. Not much later the narrator's conceit and self-
centeredness are uncovered. In his attempt to show us that he is noncommittal, his
answers to her queries are insolent and perfunctory. Referring to the writer she
knew, Alice tells the narrator:

"At the end of the night it'd turn out he didn't have any money. He'd take a beating and sit
out on the sidewalk and throw up. They said he was a writer. Writer, my foot. I hope you're
not like him."65
"I am like him," I answered her.
"No, my son. You come from a good family. But what do you want with me?"
"I want to write about you."66

In the process, he questions his ability to write fiction and the extent of his involve-
ment. The novel slides into metafiction: "Now, when I try to tell the story, I find
that words are no longer signs that point the way but instead make me get lost, as
if every word were tantamount to an assassination."67 At another point, he says:
"Alice vanished, and they [the others] began dying right before my eyes. Was it I
who was killing them, or am I simply a narrator telling their stories?"68 The novel,
or antinovel, "begins to reflect upon [its] own genesis and growth,"69 and the nar-
rative begins to expose "its own condition of artifice,"70 referring to its own "de-
vices and strategies."71
Like the war, the narrator destroys, marginalizes, and simplifies people. He af-
firms the symbolic conception of the sign, substituting the "container for the thing
contained."72 In the reference to the right-wing Christian Phalangist Party, it is clear
that Alice is just a mouthpiece for the narrator, who not only describes what hap-
pens but goes as far as giving a general evaluation of the repercussions of what has

The emigration began on "Black Saturday." On that day in December 1975, everything got
mixed up. Armed men attacked the people, and there was a lot of death. The Phalangists,
with their masks, were in the city, murdering people and tossing the corpses all over the
place. From that day on, the masks became commonplace. Everyone wore masks and
Beirut died that day, couldn't walk anymore, armed men came out like madmen, and bul-
lets whizzed over the heads of the innocent. That day the war turned against the people, and
the bodies strewn in the streets swelled before anyone had a chance to take them to the

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172 Samira Aghacy

Another example is seen when the narrator, quoting Gandhi, draws from the little
man's experience a general truth about childhood: "Only the smell itself remained
from his childhood, for childhood is a world of smells, and the world we leave behind
we never go back to, because we don't know it."74
Despite claims to the contrary, the narrator's ideology is everywhere. From the
very beginning, he calls his own authority into question by assuming no control
over his characters, discrediting Alice (the second narrator) and expressing doubts
as to the authenticity of her stories: "She told me she was a maid, but I don't
know, and I don't know why she told me all these stories.... That's how she was,
told lies like everyone else."75
He assumes an "I don't know" attitude to give readers the freedom to draw their
own conclusions. However, despite such claims, the narrator dominates the narra-
tive and dictates it. His imprint is everywhere: his vulgarity, his moral limitations,
and his lack of imagination. When he tells us how Gandhi cares for his daughter,
the text uncovers not so much Gandhi's indifference as the narrator's impatience
with such a daughter: "And Gandhi alone carries the heavy burden of such a daugh-
ter."76 The characters he presents are means to an end rather than ends in them-
selves. The narrator's lack of imagination is seen in his description of Gandhi's first
move from the village to Tripoli: "There, in the port, where the truck stopped,
Gandhi saw the sea and was frightened. It was the first time in his life he saw
something so huge, surging as it did, blue and colorful. He stood in front of the
sea like an idiot, barely moving."77 Gandhi's experience with the sea, a supposed
paralepsis,78 ends here without further elaboration, showing the limitations of the
narrative. If the narrator insists on the literal, the text affirms the metaphorical con-
ception of the sign. This is projected in the language the narrator uses, which bor-
ders on slang, revealing his attempt at authenticity, an attempt to present a mirror
image of the real world. The use of colloquial Arabic aims at challenging the
predominant discourse to generate a counter discourse that is closely aligned with
his political and ideological stance. In his analysis of Khoury's novel Al-Wujih
al-Baydda, Sami Suwaydan describes the writer's spoken language as consisting of
"short sentences, ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary" and notes "the use of
ready-made and popular expressions, reliance on digression and repetition . .. and
the movement from one subject to another without preparation for it."79
In The Journey of Little Gandhi, this vernacular language, rich in idioms, meta-
phors, and vivid imagery, stands out only on the rare occasions when Alice speaks
in direct speech. She describes her first lover as "Gorgeous, and so slim he could
slide his body through a wedding ring."80 Behaving like a "sissy" in the presence
of his wife, Lieutenant Tannous is, in Alice's eyes, like "a white puppy dog with
his tail between his legs."81 Her second lover, Abu Abbas al-Yateem, is described
as having "small eyes like two lentil beans, a wide forehead, hands like two big
slabs of concrete."82 Despite his attempt to present a mirror image of reality, the
language he employs is not the same language used by the people. It is a distorted
form of the vernacular filled with classical structures and syntax to demonstrate
the impossibility of a photographic representation in words, and to show the narra-
tor's alienation from such a world. In an attempt to create a counterdiscourse by
erasing boundaries and subverting the language and politics of those in power, the

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 173

narrator ends up polishing the language of his characters, and trying to keep it
within the safe bounds of classical Arabic. If Alice's language is concrete and
animating, the narrator's version of her language is abstract, loquacious, and dull.
Using free indirect speech, the narrator reports what she tells him: "One of those
nights in the Salonica Hotel, she herself said, after telling me the story of Lieuten-
ant Tannous and drinking half a bottle of arak, which made her hands stop shak-
ing, that she couldn't stand how some of her prostitute friends constantly came up
with this nonsense about hating the profession. Alice said she enjoyed her life a
lot, she loved and lived."83 It is clear that the narrator is out of his depth when he
retells what Alice told him. His presentation of Alice's stories is obviously sloppy,
casual, and hasty.
Employing a form of language that is neither colloquial nor classical, the narra-
tor ends up with an odd mixture of both without being either. When he recounts
the stories of Alice and Gandhi, he does not see the need to concern himself too
much with the balance and structure of sentences or the neatness and dexterity of
style. He writes: "Now I know; all women are memories except the one that's po-
tentially yours. For you're a man because you're some woman's potentiality. The
woman who doesn't remind you of another one is your female potentiality. This
one you don't fantasize about or with, this one kills you. You can't write her story
because she takes you on the final journey to death."84 Whatever the narrator in-
tends to say about women is obviously clumsy, vague, and almost incomprehensible.
Even though the story appears to progress in a sort of nonlinear ordering, the
narrator interferes to impose linearity and closure. We are given sketchy synopses
of the lives of Gandhi, Alice, Husn, and many other characters, from childhood to
their disappearance and death. The apparent disruption of the story line and the
narrator's self-effacement do not undermine the narrator's authority. On the con-
trary, the text reveals that the chronological order is only scrambled. For example,
the narrator expresses concern about his inability to understand the first part of Al-
ice's story with Lieutenant Tannous: "Alice's story with Lieutenant Tannous was a
long one. We don't know where it begins, but we do know where it ends, because
Alice tells the end clearly. It's the beginning we don't understand well."85 As seen
here, the narrator is obviously concerned about setting the chronology straight and
establishing the hidden pattern of cause and effect.
Incorporating the traditional hakawdti style into modernist multiple narrational
technique and metafictional devices, the narrative reveals the tension between the
two. Despite its claims to free and independent discourse, the novel drifts toward
the narrator's point of reference, highlighting the strong alliance between discourse
and power.86 If the narrator strives to reveal the destruction and devastation caused
by bourgeois, right-wing politics, his ultimate goal is power and imposition of an-
other kind, the decentering of the dominant ideology, to set up another ideology
that is equally authoritative and coercive. The narrator manipulates the other voices
and turns them into mere dummies, voices of representation echoing his ideology,
and they end up emptied of their basic cultural, social, religious, and national iden-
tities. In his attempt to recount Gandhi's story, the narrator, who consciously tries
to distance himself from the information, ends up expounding and dictating his own
subjective views.

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174 Samira Aghacy


1Elias Khoury, Rihlat Gandhi al-Saghir (Beirut: Dgr al-Adab, 1989); the English
work by Paula Haydar is published as The Journey of Little Gandhi (Minneapolis:
nesota Press, 1994).
2Quoted in the newspaper al-Safir, 25 July 1989, 10.
3AI-Nida', 23 July 1989, 7.
4See The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Ho
Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
5Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Lon
olis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 200-201.
6Al-Ittihad, 22 October 1989, 4.
7See Talal Majid al-Majdhub, Ta'rikh Sayda' al-ijtimaCi (Beirut and Sidon: al-Mak
1983), 412-13.
8See Hazim Shahata, "Fi al-haki fi al-layali" Fusul, (Spring 1994): 60-76.
9The frame narrator addresses the reader directly, but does not participate in th
Gerard Genette's typology in Narrative Discourse, trans. J. E. Lewin (Ithaca: Corn
1980), 248.
10The second narrator who tells her own story and is present inside the story
ette, Narrative Discourse, 248.
11Haydar, Little Gandhi, 3.
12Ibid., 56-57.
13Ibid., 19.
14Ibid., 62.
15See Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 27.
16See Wayne Boothe, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 3-20.
17Haydar, Little Gandhi, 55.
1Ibid., 57.
!9Ibid., 55.
20Ibid., 57.
21Ibid., 180.
22Ibid., 55.
23Ibid., 112.
24Ibid., 21.
25Al-Safir, 25 July 1989, 10.
26"Al-riwgya wa al-waqic" al-Ndqid, no. 26 (August 1990): 38.
27Haydar, Little Gandhi, 111.
28Al-Nidda, 7.
29Viewing Khoury's novels in the same light, Yumna al-Cld writes that they have "a liberating ten-
dency in that the narrator/author is marginalized. He is not oppressive and does not dictate to his char-
acters. At the same time, he is not a hero who possesses and monopolizes the truth." See Mahmud
Amin al-CAlim, Yumna al-CId, and Nabil Sulayman, ed., "Qatl Mafhfm al-batal: Manzur Fikri Yakhluq
Namat Bunyatihi fi al-qass al-'arabi al-muC'sir," Al-Riwdya al-CArabiyya bayna al wdqic wa al-idi-
olojiya (Lattakia li'-l-nashr wa'l-tawzic: Dar al-Hiwar, 1986), 26.
30Haydar, Little Gandhi, 2.
32Ibid., 3.
33Al-Nidd', 7.
34"Hadathat al-kitaba, kharab al-madina," al-Adab, (April-May 1992): 45.
35Haydar, Little Gandhi, 51.
36Ibid., 36.
38A word is the signifier and the concept or idea it points to is referred to as the signified. See Fer-
dinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Bashin, ed. Charles Bally and Albert

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Elias Khoury's Little Gandhi 175

Secehaye (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). Taking up this point, Derrida asserts that the text should be
seen as an endless stream of signifiers, with words only pointing to other words without any final
meaning or truth. See Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sci-
ences,' in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
39Haydar, Little Gandhi, 81.
40Ibid., 38-39.
41Evelyne Accad writes that Khoury "belonged to the Communist party, [and] fought for the Pales-
tinians at the beginning of the war," in Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East (New
York: New York University Press, 1990), 136.
42Reported in al-Safir, 25 July 1989, 10.
43Ibid., 22 October 1989, 4.
44Haydar, Little Gandhi, 52.
45Bakhtin's term for the way in which popular humor subverts official authority. See Holquist, ed.,
The Dialogic Imagination, 55-83; also, Bakhtin, Dostoevsky's Poetics, 101-6, 366-415.
46Haydar, Little Gandhi, 4-5.
47Ibid., 13.
49Ibid., 127.
5tSee Bakhtin, Dostoevsky's Poetics, 200.
52Al-Safir, 25 July 1989, 10.
53Haydar, Little Gandhi, 142.
54Ibid., 141-42.
55Ibid., 57.
56j. Hillis Miller, "Heart of Darkness Revisited," in Tropes, Parables and Performatives (Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), 191.
57Haydar, Little Gandhi, 10.
58In the English translation, it is the son who tells Gandhi rather than the opposite: "'Its all over'
his son said' (p. 12). See the original Arabic text: Khoury, Rihlat Gandhi, 17.
59Haydar, Little Gandhi, 12.
60Constituting the main speech of the narrator who generally paraphrases the speeches of other
characters rather than quote them verbatim. See Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination, 262-64.
61For an interesting discussion of the presentation of character in the contemporary Arabic novel,
see Hafiz, "Al-riwaya walw-waqi," al-Naqid: 38-39.
62Accad asserts that for many Lebanese writers who lived the war, "writing becomes a necessity, an
outlet and a catharsis. It helps heal the wounds." See Accad, Sexuality and War, 6.
63Haydar, Little Gandhi, 20.
64In this case, I am using my own translation, which is a more literal version of the original
(Khoury, Rihlat Gandhi, 138). The published translated version (Haydar, Little Gandhi, 130) reads as
follows: "'Who are you? ... You haven't told me.' 'I am related to Madame Sabbagha. Her mother is
my father's mother's sister.'"
65The literal translation from Arabic is as follows: "Writer, what a writer, I hope you're not like
him" (Haydar, Little Gandhi, 139).
66Haydar, Little Gandhi, 131.
67Ibid., 133.
68Ibid., 2.
69See Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative (London: Routledge, 1980; reprint, 1991), 28.
70Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978), 205.
71See Peter Currie, "The Eccentric Self: Anti-Characterization and the Problem of the Subject in
American Postmodernist Fiction," in Contemporary American Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and Sig-
mund Ro (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), 56.
72Hillis Miller, Tropes, Parables and Performatives, 183.
73Haydar, Little Gandhi, 179-80.
74Ibid., 91.

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176 Samira Aghacy

75Ibid., 2
76I am using my translation, which is a more literal rendering of the original (see Khoury, Rihlat
Gandhi, 97). The published English translation reads as follows: "And Gandhi alone took on the
difficult burden of their daughter" (see Haydar, Little Gandhi, 92).
77Haydar, Little Gandhi, 94.
78A term coined by Genette that means "taking up... and giving information that should be left
aside." This "excess of information or paralepsis, can consist of an inroad into the consciousness of a
character in the course of a narrative." See Genette, Narrative Discourse, 197.
79Sami Suwaydan, "Al-Harb wa'l-nass: al-Wujuh al-Bayda' li-Ilyas Khuri: as'ilat al-qatil wa'l-
qass," in Abhath f al-nass al-riwd'i al-'arabi (Beirut: Mu'assassat al-Abhath al-CArabiyya, 1986), 241.
80Haydar, Little Gandhi, 55.
81Ibid., 66.
82Ibid., 135.
83Ibid., 56.
84Ibid., 4.
85Ibid., 55.
86See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London:
Routledge, 1988), 185.

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