Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa tells the stories of a bleeding, beautiful country: ‘Writing is part of healing’

In Khaled Khalifa’s beloved house in Barzeh, a neighborhood of Damascus currently surrounded and under attack by Syrian regime forces, the Syrian novelist writes, he says, because it is the only thing he knows how to do.

“Writing, in war and in peace, is the same thing,” Khalifa tells Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammed. “The only difference is how you view yourself….Mass death, revolutions and history make you reconsider things.”

Khaled Khalifa is one of Syria’s most celebrated contemporary novelists. Born in Aleppo city in 1964, Khalifa grew up, studied, worked and lived there before moving to Damascus in 1999. In addition to his five novels, two of which have been translated into English, Khalifa has written poetry and worked as a screenwriter for television and film.

In his writing, Khalifa burrows into the memories and pain of his society, reaching into dark, hidden places. Themes of political and religious repression, sectarianism, shame and hatred run throughout his work.  “Writing is a part of healing,” he says, “of digging into society.”

That act of digging into Syrian society has put Khalifa at odds with government authorities, and his work has been banned in the past. Khalifa was also recently barred from leaving Syria for three years and now must request special permission each time he travels outside the country.

In Praise of Hatred, his third novel, focuses on the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian government during the early 1980s from the perspective of a young, Islamist woman in Aleppo city. As a result, the novel was banned in Syria upon its publication in 2006.

Khalifa describes himself as nonpartisan, but a critic, “furious with oppression and tyranny,” no matter who commits it.


 
Khaled Khalifa speaks at a literature conference in Italy in 2016. Photo courtesy of Incroci di Civilta.

His fourth novel, No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, also takes place in Aleppo, and tells the story of several members of an Aleppo family over the course of five decades, from the 1963 Baathist coup to 2005.

Khalifa traces the history of Aleppo city and the “complete destruction of the society, of its values, its life, its future” during Baath rule, through the lived experiences and transformation of the family, their friends and lovers.

No Knives in the Kitchens of this City was published in English translation for the first time in October 2016, just as Aleppo city was entering the final, brutal months of a more than four-year struggle there between rebels and the Syrian regime.

By the time the battle was over and the last rebel holdouts were evacuated in December, hundreds of people were dead and entire neighborhoods destroyed. Now, remaining residents face the monumental task of rebuilding their city and coming to terms with yet another violent episode in its ancient past.

“Aleppo will not die, because it cannot die,” says Khalifa. He believes the city will “rise again and return, better than it was.”

After six years of revolution, war and destruction, Khalifa, speaking from his Damascus neighborhood, tells Syria Direct why he is hopeful for a democratic Syria: “There are millions of people in Syria who are opposed to the regime,” he says. “The regime cannot keep them all under surveillance, or arrest millions.”

Q: In your novel, No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, Aleppo has a physical presence like any other character. It has a body, a life, and, as you write in the novel, “cities die, just like people.” Is Aleppo dying, or will it recover from its wounds?

It is certainly possible. The history of Aleppo in particular—and I am not only saying this because I am from there—is a testament to its strength. Aleppo has been destroyed a number of times, by earthquakes and invasions, and it returned, rose up once more.

I always say: Aleppo will not die, because it cannot die. Aleppo will rise again and return, better than it was. I consider Aleppo one of the great cities of the world.

Like all singular cities in history, Aleppo has its own distinctive character. Since Baath rule [began in 1963], and particularly after the 1980s [conflict between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood], Baathism worked to destroy the social and economic structure of the city.

After the revolution began, a hideous revenge was taken out on the city. Over the past five years, Aleppo has been mistreated and punished because of the regime.

Q: In No Knives, the concept of the body—both living and dead—is repeated throughout the novel. And to connect art with life, could we say that Syria is a single body at this time?

It is not easy to speak about the dismantling of the Syrian body. Syria has no other solution but to be a single country. Everything discussed in the media, about the dreams of Iranian settlers to break up Syria, that isn’t possible. Syria will remain a single body, for the dreams of Syrians to live in a democratic country. This is their right. They deserve a dignified life.

Q: For whom do you write today?

Writing is connected to me as an individual, not to the people. Writing is all I know how to do.

Writing, in war and in peace, is the same thing. The only difference is how you view yourself, living in a society in which these changes are occurring. Mass death, revolutions and history make you reconsider things.

Simply put, writing is my most important and enjoyable choice.

Q: Many of your works discuss political subjects. Your third novel, In Praise of Hatred, which discusses the period of conflict between the Hafez al-Assad government and the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned inside Syria. For you, is writing primarily an artistic act, or political as well? Are the two similar?

It is an artistic work, but that does not mean that my writing does not have goals. Writing is part of healing, of digging into society. As a writer, I am not separated from the problems of my society.

Like any Syrian citizen, I care about the stories of Syria, of Palestine. I am concerned with all of our stories, as human beings all over the world. I aspire for humanity to reach a better condition.

Politics are an excuse for us to write. Art is deeper, and the characters are deeper than the explanation and words in the novel.

Q: What have you seen in Syria, throughout these past six years of revolution and war?

I have witnessed everything. The world is against the Syrian people. Democracy, in the Arab world, is a red line. Red lines are for the people, not for the regime. The West considers us a different kind of people, and imposes these lines. That is why the revolutions were a surprise. They exposed international hypocrisy.

The West believes that they are the only ones who are worthy of life and democracy. But we deserve democracy.

The revolution will remain a revolution in its goals. Syrians want that. The world says: ‘It is a civil war. We have nothing to do with what is happening.’ That is not true. They are the main reason for what is happening. They are the ones who led Syrians into this war.

What is applied in the international courts and in human rights [law] does not apply to Syria. If these laws were applied to us, then they would have held the regime to account decades ago, but they did the opposite. The regime was not held accountable for the Hama massacre.

There is a kind of horrible vengefulness to [the international community]. That is, if something happens in one place, then we intervene, and if somewhere else, then not. It is not just vengeful, but hypocritical and two-faced.

 Residents walk through the formerly rebel-held al-Shaar district of east Aleppo in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images.

Q: In the novel, a sense of shame, aar, both general and personal, touches everything. There is a sense of individual shame for many of the characters, as well as a pervasive social sense of shame that appears related to social and political subjugation. Again, connecting art to reality, how do you view the concept of shame throughout the past few years in Syria, in the war?

Feelings of shame are the result of silence and normalization. Here, the concept of normalization is most important. Regimes have [always] found themselves a peg on which to hang all of their problems, like the Palestinian cause, for example. But for the past 50 years, they have done nothing but violate people’s rights.

[Ed.: For decades, the Syrian regime has promoted itself as the primary Arab state resisting Israel and the occupation of Palestinian land. This stance, close to the beliefs of many citizens, allowed the Assad regime to garner significant political capital.]

What I mean here is that the idea of the external enemy thrives when there is a dictator exporting his problems abroad. This is what we have witnessed during the revolution. Under the pretext of conspiracy and the external enemy, human rights have been violated.

I believe that shame will spread from inside Syria to outside it. People outside will say: How did this happen before our eyes? And Syrians will not remain silent about the crimes against them.

Syrians feel a greater sense of shame now than at any time in the past. How did we let this regime rule us? And when this feeling spreads to outside Syria, [world] governments will say: How did we allow this regime to commit massacres and violations against this people?

The blood of the victims will never truly die.

Q: Throughout the revolution you have stayed in Syria, for the most part. Is that a personal decision? Describe your relationship as a writer to what is happening in Syria.

First of all, for three years I stayed in Syria because I was banned from travelling abroad. Some months ago, the travel ban was lifted.

[Ed.: In 2013, Khalifa received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, but was unable to attend an award ceremony in Cairo because of the travel ban. While the ban was later lifted, Khalifa must request permission from the Syrian government each time he leaves the country. He has been able to do so several times in recent years, spending time in Egypt, the United States and Europe, but has always returned to Damascus.]

There are millions of people in Syria who are opposed to the regime. The regime cannot keep them all under surveillance, or arrest millions.

My decision to remain in Syria is a personal one. Simply put, I love my house, my friends and my family, and I want to be with them. I have been able to live; I have not died yet!

Nobody abandons his country and family unless forced. Whoever has left the country had to do so, certainly.

Q: Reading No Knives, I was struck by the character Nizar, the unnamed narrator’s somewhat openly gay uncle. We don’t often see diverse sexualities represented in Arabic literature. What is the role of that discussion and character in the novel, as you see it? In what way is this related to the concept of shame, both personal and societal, which is repeated throughout the novel?

Arabic literature does not discuss topics like these under the guise of conservatism. Gay people are people just like us. They have their rights. I am against discrimination. We wrong them whenever a gay person is called shaadh [Ed.: an Arabic word meaning abnormal or deviant, frequently used as an anti-gay slur]. We have no right to say that.

There are many gay people in Aleppo, but nobody speaks about them. People are hypocritical. Writing opposes society’s hypocrisy.

Q: In the novel, your characters radically change their lifestyles a number of times. Is this just because it is something people do throughout life?

Each character has individual concerns. They are characters in a particular place at a particular time. All the characters in the novel take their own actions independently. I did not intervene in that. Character development is neutral; you cannot force characters to do anything they do not want to do.

Since characters are a reflection of actual people, they have natural actions and behaviors.

Q: Do you have hope that Syria will return to what it once was, or that things will be better in the future?

Of course I have hope.

I have hope for Syrians, for this country. It is not possible for me to believe in anything else, or to look at things in any other way. 

We are witnessing the great scale of humanity’s strength—their sacrifices, their creativity in finding ways to keep their lives going, the resistance of a people that has lived for years under siege, in great solidarity. If not for their solidarity with each other, Syrians would not have been able to hold on.

Q: Who does Khaled Khalifa represent now?

I stand for the Syrian people, the martyrs, the prisoners who I think about constantly, the people who resist, who create reasons to live. There is no political side, and there won’t be one. Humanity is a mighty force.

I want to remain in the position of a critic, and this is my right. I will not be satisfied. I will remain furious with oppression and tyranny, for all my days.

Q: It has been said that No Knives speaks to the price paid by Syrians generally and the people of Aleppo in particular, throughout Baath party rule. If so, what is this price?

The price is the complete destruction of the society, of its values, its life, its future and even its cities.

Whoever looks at pictures of Syria before and after Baath rule knows the scale of the destruction.

Syria as a country with a civilization and history had an important role in the world. Then its role became to serve the dictatorial regime that plundered the country.

Living is hard, but people have invented ways of living and resisting.

Q: In your novels, femininity and feminine characters are pre-dominant, to the extent that one could forget there are male characters. Is this intentional? What is your relationship to the characters?

Yes, it is intentional. I have been shaped by women, not masculinity. I always thank women. They taught me every beautiful thing. Women are the ones who create the details of life, resistance and other aspects. Men delude themselves.

I am lucky because there were many generous women in my life who gave me love.

Everything good in me comes from women. The bad in me comes from what remains of me as a man.

I have to be comfortable with the text. So this is me, and this is my soul in the text.

Q: In No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, the characters seem to try to realize freedom at a personal level. Nizar could embody that; he seeks freedom at home, then in Beirut. What is the connection between the search for individual freedom and freedom on a broader level?

I do not know if the characters were looking for a space of freedom. For example, the mother was trying to hold onto traditions.

Once I entered into a discussion [about the book] with people from Aleppo, a dialogue just for residents of the city, people who know each other. The discussion was deep and revealing. One woman said that I had wronged Aleppo when I presented a character such as Nizar as an example!

I do not know why people don’t accept reality. I have gay friends, wonderful people, geniuses, who are able to protect themselves. They are a small percentage, but they are there. They have a space of freedom, because they are strong.

 

Sama Mohammed

Sama is from Daraa province. She received her bachelor's degree in literature in 2011 and taught English in Sheikh Miskeen. In 2013, she moved to Jordan and worked as a freelance translator before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.