Born in Beirut in 1948 (the year of the Palestinian nakba) to a Christian Lebanese family, Elias Khoury grew up in the affluent Ashrafiyyeh neighborhood in Christian East Beirut. Schooled at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, he read history and sociology. Political activity started from an early age when, in 1967, stunned by the complete defeat of the Arabs by Israel in the Six Day War, he travelled to Jordan to enlist in Fatah, the largest Palestinian political block and most effective resistance organization within the PLO. His early professional life included basic military training with Fatah, teaching literacy in impoverished neighborhoods in Beirut, and volunteering in Palestinian refugee camps. The question of Palestine became an obsession in his political and literary life from an early age.
In 1971 he moved to Paris to complete his studies at the Sorbonne. He returned to Lebanon in 1973, where he assumed the editorship of Shuun Filastiniya (Palestine Affairs), published by the PLO-sponsored Palestine Research Centre. He was also a member of the editorial board of the journal Mawaqif, his first major involvement in literary criticism.
Living and working in 'sectarianized', war-torn Beirut, Khoury’s political sympathies lay with the left-wing coalition of PLO and the Lebanese National Movement. He refrains from describing himself as a fighter, despite his close association with Fatah militias from an early age. He was injured during the war, temporarily losing his sight; and on occasion risked his life to deliver supplies to friends living under siege.
In 1981, he assumed the position of editorial director of Al Karmel, a quarterly review of Arab and Palestinian literature, directed by the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In 1983, he became the editor of the cultural section of Al Safir, a left-wing, secularist newspaper. He then became editor of Al Mulhaq, the cultural supplement of the major centrist newspaper Al Nahar – a position that he holds to this day. Politically, Khoury grew progressively more distant from the left-wing revolutionary politics that characterized his early political years; today he is a middle-of-the-road, secular democrat.
Author, teacher, political activist, literary critic and academic, Khoury became a prominent Arab writer with the publication of his second novel, Little Mountain, in 1997. It introduced Khoury’s style to the world – a mixture of disjointed stories, recollections, legends, and digressions, narrated during the Lebanese Civil War through the eyes of different characters. Khoury is primarily a story teller: his obsession is to dissect and dismember stories for a multitude of purposes – to discover truths, uncover lost meanings, draw comparisons, understand motives and verify facts.
Major literary works that have been translated into English include Little Mountain (1977), The Gates of the City (1981), The Journey of Little Ghandi (1989), The Kingdom of Strangers (1993), Gate of the Sun (1998), and Yalo (2002). Additional works exclusively in Arabic include five novels, one collection of short stories, four works of literary criticism, and more than twenty-five years of articles, reviews and editorials for major Arabic newspapers and journals.
He has taught at Columbia University and the American University of Beirut, and is a Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, where he teaches every spring semester.
Khoury was awarded the Palestine Prize in 1998. In 2002, Gate of the Sun was named novel of the year by Le Monde Diplomatique. In 2009, his novel Yalo was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award by Open Letters Books.
In 2004, Gate of the Sun was adapted for film by Yousry Nasrallah, in Arabic. It has screened in New York, and at the Cannes Film Festival.
Jeremy Harding's interview with Elias Khoury in 2006 (London Review of Books)
Interview with Elias Khoury (undated) by the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies
Listen to interview series with Elias Khoury by Open Democracy, entitled 'The Key to Memory'
An interview with Elias Khoury by Iranian Press TV: