Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



Destiny’s Choice


Vénus Khoury-Ghata

in conversation with Corinna Hasofferet

This piece is 3,580 words or about eight printed pages long.

Paris, Thursday, 31 August, 1995

Corinna:

Thin, tall, a pure beauty as if emanating from the soul. Moves like a silk scarf and so does her voice.
She opened some albums. The daughter-in-law, in her twenties, came in with the baby, a ten months old guy full of force. They live in Beirut and are visiting for the summer.
I asked, How is life now in Beirut? And she answered in a gentle voice, ‘Not good. Israel is in the south of Lebanon, invaded it, we are under occupation, you know... It’s a real war.’ She didn’t say,  y o u  occupied. ‘You’ in English is both singular and plural. All these years I’ve been washing my hands — ‘I am not “they”, I am Corinna, don’t put me into any drawers.’ But it’s a fact that I didn’t go to the fence to stop the fighters on both sides with my own two hands.
The baby Alexander gargled sweetly in his international language, with a trusting smile as he stretched out his hands and Vénus said, glowing, ‘Write about him, how wonderful he is! Will you write about him?’
In two weeks he will return to Beirut and he doesn’t know and his parents don’t know what is waiting for them there.
Vénus lives on the ground floor of a building surrounded by a large garden, next to a park. Through the panoramic windows of the enormous living room,  snapdragons and roses were blossoming, dozens of flower varieties that Vénus, my sister in the love of gardening, had sown and planted and nurtures.


Vénus Khoury-Ghata:

I hate my name. When I was born, my mother gave me a very beautiful name. Dianne. Like Diana, the goddess from Greek mythology.
    A week later, one of the neighbors, a doctor, bought a dog. And he called his dog — Dianne.
    My mother was very angry and she picked up the dictionary to look for an  e v e n  m o r e  important goddess than Diana.
    She found Vénus — the goddess of love and beauty.
    I liked the name when I lived in Lebanon and was young and beautiful. But for some years now I hate my name. I see myself in old age, and with this name.
    Today I presented a new book to my editor at Jean Claude Latess. I asked them to print it under the name, V. Khoury-Ghata.
   They told me — You’ve published twenty-two books under the name Vénus Khoury-Ghata, and now you want us to take out Vénus and put just the letter V?

    In my youth in Lebanon I was beautiful. Foolish people gave me the title of ‘Miss Beirut 1959.’
    Then the name Vénus fitted me.
    Now I’m not a Miss. I’m a writer, and I lead a very austere life, and the name doesn’t fit.
   If I had the choice today, I would choose a simple name. I like names that sound good in any language. Mary. I like ancient names. That’s why my son’s baby is called Alexander. I told them — either Alexander or Philip. I was thinking of Philip the Macedonian and of Alexander the Great. I like the ancient name.
    If it had been a daughter, I told them — either Sarah or Miriam. I like Biblical names.
    I am a Christian. I used to be. Now I’m nothing at all. They started so many wars between Christians and Moslems in Lebanon that now I hate all the Christians, and the Moslems, they are fools. Yes, the fanatics. I hate religions, they produce all this fanaticism, religions, all religions.
    I like the Bible.

    I grew up in an ordinary family — father was an official and mother was a hospital nurse. A very strict house — always working, always praying every night. And no radio. Very austere.
    I had a brother, brilliant, a poet. Wrote poetry from the age of ten. Everyone said he was a genius, and when he arrived in Paris, he couldn’t get published here, and he went back to Lebanon, very sick, addicted to drugs, an old man at the age of twenty-two.
    At that time I started to write. As if he passed the legacy on to me.
    The story of my first book is about him. I called the book, ‘The Stuffed Bird’.
    I showed him the book, the newspapers wrote about it, and he didn’t understand that they were talking about him.
    To this day he is still hospitalized. He took drugs in Paris. Cocaine.
    Paris didn’t publish his poetry, but it taught him to become addicted to drugs.
    Paris has been good to me, but not to my brother.


    I got married at the age of twenty. In three years I had three children.
    I married a very important man. I left a simple lifestyle and moved to a more comfortable life.
    After thirteen years we got divorced.
    Because I met a French biologist. A very great scientist. He came to Lebanon for a conference, gave a lecture at the American University in Beirut, and I met him and after six months I divorced my husband and came here to Paris.
    Three months later the civil war started in Lebanon. In 1974. My ex-husband, who had punished me by taking the children from me when we got divorced, was obliged to give me the children.
    The war gave me back my children.
    And with my husband here I had another baby girl. We lived a very happy life here, for nine and a half years.
    My husband’s friends were Jewish. Most of them doctors, not poets. When I lost my husband, only the Jews kept in touch. I was desperate and they took me under their wings.

    You know, my childhood was a very sad childhood.
    In Beirut.
    We had a very modest house, and a dictator of a father.
    But the summer was magnificent. Because my mother’s village is Pshery. In the north of Lebanon. That’s the village of Khalil Gibran — the prophet.
    Khalil Gibran’s house was next to our house in the village. The first books I read were all the books of Khalil Gibran.
    In the summer we used to leave Beirut, where we were in jail, and go out to liberty in the village of my mother and my aunt — her sister.
    My aunt was the principal of the elementary school, and the only teacher in it. She would teach four classes at the same time. Everybody in the village greeted her, ‘Bonjour Madam la maitresse!’ Everybody in the village.
    In all my books I go back to the memory of this village, all the sources of my imagination come from there. Not from Beirut, Beirut was horrible to me, I’ve erased it from my memory. If I had lived only in Beirut I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to write even one line. Pshery is the place that opened the doors of imagination before me, the peasants, life in nature, the earth. In all my stories I describe very pleasant peasants, simple people, not rich people but people of nature.

    I would never have been able to live in the center of the city. Here I’m surrounded by trees, by greenery. And I like to clean the house myself, to eat food that I cooked for myself, vegetarian food like we used to eat in the village, rarely any meat.    I’ve kept this way of life from then — cooking, cleaning. The women among whom I lived were mountain women. They worked all the time, never stopped, never. So I’ve borrowed this rhythm from them, of working all the time. If I’m not cleaning, I’m writing. I’ve just completed two books, and I do radio interviews and I’m a member of twelve award committees. If I stop my work, it’s in order to read the others, or to write articles about their books. From that period I kept the pleasure of working, to never be, how to say it — wazif, idle.
   I am very anxious when I don’t have anything to do.
    I’m growing this garden, yes, and I like the names of the flowers, I like to look and see, what is flowering this month.
    I was married to a very rich man in Lebanon, I was married to a great scientist in Paris — I could have afforded to live differently, but I’ve chosen to go back to the way of life of my childhood in Lebanon.

    My first marriage was good for me because it erased all the frustrations brought on by poverty. He gave me all that a woman wants to have — a house, cars, lots of clothes — I had everything.
    After seven years I saw that indeed I had everything, but I didn’t have any joy.  I realized that happiness, in order to bring it, I had to produce something, and live the way my mother had lived. She used to cook, iron. And now I am happy to be working hard like she did.
    She didn’t write.
    After seven hours of writing I’m glad to do some ironing. I have the need then to work with my ten fingers.
    My mother wasn’t happy. For me it’s good because I am able to enjoy both worlds, but I need her way to do it.
    My mother is dead. I wish she could have seen me working like her, with the same gestures.

    My mother was a nurse at the hospital. My father came to the hospital, to have an operation, and saw her, and left the priesthood. He was a priest, and he left priesthood for my mother.
    My mother was cheated out of her life.
  She married a man who was from somewhere else, from the south. We never visited that village.
    My father was an officer, he was an intermediary between the Lebanese army and the French mandate. In 1945, when the French left, he stayed in the army and was miserable, felt obsolete.
    He was very violent toward me. Even when I was elected Miss Lebanon, he beat me up.
    I lived all those years in Beirut. After high school I studied literature. I completed my degree even though I was married.
    My first husband was successful, in the material world. He always fought for his business, he had no time to love.
    Yes, he has remarried, of course with a younger woman, because he has the money.

    The sons went back to their father, to work with him in Lebanon. They have  respectable jobs over there.
    All my family is in Lebanon — my sisters, the children of my uncles and aunts. Only the youngest daughter is here in Paris.
    I can’t live in Lebanon. From time to time I visit there, I’m invited to conferences, to read poetry, to sign books. After four days I tell myself, What am I doing here. I don’t feel like I belong there anymore. The Christians have no place in Lebanon nowadays. If you go there you’ll see — in the Moslem neighborhoods there’s development, sidewalks, roads. And if you go to the Christian neighborhoods — there’s no development. Neglect. You know, our leaders are in prison, or got killed, and we have no real representation. Before the election the Christians said, We won’t stand for election as long as the Syrians are here. So Syria, Assad, imposed representatives on the Christian community. And these were not elected.
    The Christians have left Lebanon. Five hundred thousand war refugees are in the United States and Canada and one hundred and fifty thousand went to Africa. Half of the Christian population. All the educated ones.

    With my parents I lived in a completely Christian neighborhood. The only Moslem in the neighborhood was our neighbor and people would talk, Why is this Moslem living in our neighborhood?
    Beirut used to be Catholic. In my school we never saw any Moslems. My girlfriends, they were all Christians. I remember that at the age of eighteen I met a guy from a very important family of industrialists, Gandur. They own all the chocolate factories, very very wealthy.
    I met him at a party and he wanted to see me again and walked me home, drove me in his fancy Mercedes.
    And my father said, If you go out with a Moslem again, I will kill you.  Fanatic. Very fanatic.
    This is my childhood: impoverished people. Hard life.

    The first time I saw someone dying, it was an old neighbor of ours. She had cancer.
    All the doors and windows in her house were open wide and us children stood by the windows and looked and the neighbors were very busy, I saw them hanging the icon of Christ above her bed and someone said, Take it down, you’ll only prolong her suffering.
   A painful, cruel memory. I was five and I never forget and I tell it in my last book. I cannot forget.
    She had a son. The minute they put her in the ground, they married him, on that very day. Because he needed a woman to take care of him. No, he wasn’t a child, he was thirty-five, but he didn’t have any sisters or brothers.
    I’ve known poverty and I’ve known affluence, and after the wealth I know that I’m in need only when I am not writing. When I don’t write I’m miserable. At the end of the day I ask myself, What have you written today.
    At first I wrote poetry.
    One day I met a great Lebanese poet, he was my neighbor and I was married, and I told him, ‘I know who you are, I know your poems by heart.’ And he asked me, ‘Do you like poetry?’
    I said, ‘Yes, from the age of fifteen I’ve been writing poems.’
    And he said, ‘Let me see.’ Of course, because I was young and pretty, he said, ‘Let me see the poems.’
    I invited him over to our house. He took the poems and a week later said, ‘I gave your poems to an editor at the Catholic publishing house, I gave it to them, and they will publish it.’
    I said, ‘No! I don’t like these poems, I was fifteen when I wrote them.’ And he said, ‘No, the poems are very good.’
    They printed the poems in Lebanon and all the newspapers wrote about this woman, she’s twenty-one and has written poems. My photographs were in all the newspapers.
    And then came to Beirut a French woman writer, to lecture about Andre Gide, and I gave her a book. Yes, my poems were all in French. We spoke French in Lebanon. Very little Arabic. My father didn’t like Arabic. He would punish us if we spoke Arabic.
    After three months she informed me — I’ve shown your poems to an editor at Shegah — it was a very respectable publishing house at the time, of poetry books — and they will print your next book.
    I went to my mother’s village and for three months I resolved to write. My aunt took care of my children.
    I handed in my first real poetry book, and won an important award.
    Since then I’ve written ten books of poetry and won three times the Appolinaire Award and the Mallarmé Award and I’ve been translated into Arabic, English, and my poetry and prose are taught in many academic institutions —
    When I lived with my parents in a modest apartment in Beirut, I never imagined that I would one day live in Paris, and that I would get divorced. That I would live far away from my children.
    You don’t know where life will take you.
    I never chose anything, they chose for me.
    If the publishing house hadn’t printed the first book, you can be sure that I myself would never have gone to publishers, no, these were poems I wrote for myself and then this man came and said, ‘Who are you, are you a neighbor?’ And I told him, ‘I know who you are, you are Saidak, the great poet.’ He was walking in the street and I was strolling with the baby, and that’s how my destiny was made.
    True, I chose when I found a man, but before that my husband had taken another woman, and asked me for the divorce. He’s the one who pushed me to get the divorce and to the arms of another man.
    I felt that a woman took my first husband and God took the second, that men didn’t stay for long — and writing is forever, eternal.
    Beauty, men, they come and go.

    Now I have another family, of artists and writers.
    I love them very much. These are great poets and I sit with them in many jury committees for awards. We eat lunch here at my house and I have to remember that this one doesn’t eat salt and the other is not allowed pepper, because they are very old.
   My husband had, and I still have laboratories and clinics, so when they have a problem I take them in my car and take care of them.
    I am the first woman in these award committees.
    I am what is called, a francophone. They are French.

    Please write about him. Alexander the Great.
    He resembles his father, my son. When he was a baby, my son was beautiful.

    My village is in the north, in the mountains, the highest mountains in Lebanon. It’s very cold up there in the winter. In the summer months they make provisions. In the winter they stay at home, clear the snow from the pathways between the houses.
    My aunt, she was a saint.
    In the village they didn’t speak French. They spoke the Arabic of peasants, very difficult to understand, but after two weeks there, we picked it up.
    In their eyes we were city people. But when we came to the village I would take off my shoes and walk around barefoot.
    They write to me, that they have read my books. The teacher in the village has all my books and she lends them to her students.
    In the city we never played, because father was against it. No games, no friends — from school straight home, staying in, reading books. School books, not stories or novels.
    In the village we were free! We went there with mother. Father stayed in Beirut.
    We would climb trees, play... My mother’s brother built coffins and we played hide and seek inside these coffins, yes, we knew — that’s why I’m not afraid of dying — if somebody died you would find four priests around him, many priests. You don’t know, very Catholic, very devout Christians. Every family has a priest or two. The cult of death. Many churches. A very poor village, but rich in churches. All the books of Khalil Gibran that would sell around the world — the money would come to my village, and the village never built a hospital or a school. They built churches.
    The books of Khalil Gibran are best sellers, after the Bible they are the best selling ones. He had no family and he left all the income from his books to his village. And they used it for churches. You have thirteen families and every family hates the other families, so every family has a very large cathedral. You enter a huge church and see five people at prayer. A very very fantastic village.
    They grow hashish. It’s high up in the mountains and in August they harvest the hashish and dry it on the roofs. With the sun the vapors of the hashish fill the air and everybody walks around like drugged, even the birds, they can’t move their wings, and the snakes — we would give them a stick and they would curl themselves around it.
    I remember the priest of our church. Every day at noon he would call the kids — Come see saint Antoine in the rain pool. And all you could see was the shadow of the sun.
    No, it wasn’t legal to grow hashish. When the gendarmes came they destroyed it.
    A fantastic place. I owe all my memories to the village.
    If I had lived in my childhood only in Beirut I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to write all the books I’ve written. Beirut vaporized the imagination.
    My aunt loved my kids, she used to take them to the village. When they grew up, they preferred their father’s yacht.
    They are not peasants like me.
    I am a peasant.


Corinna when young
Corinna Hasofferet (photo, left, and below right) is an Israeli award-winning writer of Hebrew literary fiction and nonfiction, and is a recent recipient of the Yaddo and Ledig writer-in-residency fellowships and many other grants and awards. Her work has been published in such literary magazines and e-zines as Partisan Review, International Quarterly, Pen Israel Anthology, Archipelago, Patchword, Masthead, etc. Two of her recent books, ‘Once She Was a Child’ and ‘A Minyan of Lovers’ have been translated into English and are available for publication. She can be contacted by email at mydream@barak-online.net

Corinna, a little later
‘Once She Was a Child’ (including the Vénus Khoury-Ghata chapter) tells the universal story of childhood in times of upheaval and personal traumas, as conveyed by some of the most extraordinary international woman writers, mainly from Europe and the Middle East. These intimate encounters mirror a rainbow of human existence shaped by injustice, turmoil and struggle. Corinna visited with Vénus Khoury-Ghata in the years prior to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.


Vénus Khoury-Ghata (photo, below) is a Lebanese poet and novelist, resident in France since 1973, author of a dozen collections of poems and as many novels.

Venus Khoury-Ghata
Her Anthologie personelle, a selection of her previously published and new poems, was published in Paris by Actes Sud in 1997. Her most recent collection, Elle dit, was published by Editions Baland in 1999. Her work has been translated into Italian, Russian, Dutch, German and Arabic, and she was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2000. She received the Prix Mallarmé in 1987 for Monologue du mort, the Prix Apollinaire in 1980 for Les Ombres et leurs cris, and the Grand Prix de la Société des gens de lettres for Fables pour un peuple d’argile in 1992. Her poems, in Marilyn Hacker’s translations, have appeared in the English-speaking world in Ambit, Banipal: a Journal of Modern Arab Literature, Field, Jacket, The Manhattan Review, Metre, Poetry, Shenandoah and Verse.
      A collection of Marilyn Hacker’s translations of her poetry into English, Here There Was Once a Country, was published in 2001 by Oberlin College Press — here’s their website: http://www.oberlin.edu/~ocpress
Alicia Ostriker has said of this book: ‘From the embers of loss and death, from childhood and the moon, from villages and cemeteries and forests, geography and God, Vénus Khoury-Ghata has created a dazzling, soaring, thrilling imagination. Brilliantly translated by Marilyn Hacker, Here There Was Once a Country is to poetry what One Hundred Years of Solitude is to fiction. Here is another world, another language, another dimension to reality, which will never again be the same.’
      You can read Marilyn Hacker’s translation of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poem ‘She Says’ in Jacket 14.


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