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Two Novelists, Two Views of the Middle East

Active fighting between Hezbollah and Israel is on hold, but the state of the Middle East remains as tenuous as ever. To gain literary perspective on the conflict, Debbie Elliott speaks with authors A.B. Yehoshua and Elias Khoury. Both know first-hand the effects of war, and through their fiction they have captured stories of their peoples and their lands.

Israeli author Yehoshua lives in Haifa, the Israeli city that took some of the heaviest Hezbollah rocket fire. Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer and editor, is from Beirut and remained there throughout the Israeli siege. Both men know first-hand the effects of war. Both novelists portray the shared voice of their land and people.

Yehoshua's latest novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, deals with what he calls Israel's repression of its civilian deaths. Unlike the death of a soldier, he says, his countrymen don't know how to mourn the deaths of those killed while simply drinking coffee or riding a bus. Yehoshua focuses on this problem by telling the story of a woman who lies unclaimed in a morgue and the personnel manager who takes responsibility for and ultimately falls in love with her.

But Yehoshua says his message doesn't only apply to Israeli deaths.

"This is in a certain way the universal sentiment of this anonymous death in our streets -- and how we can relate ourselves to this and take our identification and responsibility," Yehoshua says.

First published in 1998, Elias Khoury's novel Gate of the Sun was more recently translated into English. Protagonist Dr. Khalil struggles to keep his friend, a Palestinian militant, alive by telling him stories about his own life. The story connects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to tangible names and events through these characters.

"The role of the writer is not to defend his country," Khoury says. "The role of the writer is to defend what is right."

Yet he also says "sometimes the writer must live the stories."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.