Six years ago, Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa suffered a non-fatal heart attack and was rushed to the hospital near his home in Damascus.
By then, Syria was already into the third year of a bloody war that Khalifa says forced morbid questions upon him as he lay recuperating in the ward.
“I asked myself what would happen if I were to die right then,” he tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards. “What would happen to my body?”
“I imagined an entire story, a conflict between my family members over how they would transport my body to my village in rural northern Aleppo.”
So begins the writer’s latest novel, Death Is Hard Work, which was released in English earlier this month. The book follows estranged Syrian siblings Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima as they transport the body of their recently deceased father northwards, from Damascus to the family grave plot in rural Aleppo. It’s a familiar road trip story, albeit one peppered with Syrian government checkpoints, hardline Islamist fighters and roadside killings.
Politics-wise, Death is also one of Khalifa’s most sensitive novels to date—his first set in the present, during Syria’s war. In addition to his previous four novels, two of which have also been translated into English, Khalifa has written poetry and worked as a screenwriter for television and film. Khalifa’s writing has put him at odds with government authorities, and his work has been banned in the past.
Nevertheless, Khalifa has managed to continue writing novels set in Syria, where he lives still. Death is his second written during the course of the Syrian conflict.
Book cover courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
It is a conflict that has seen Khalifa’s adopted district in Damascus, Barzeh, become one of the city’s most embattled areas, and the countryside surrounding his tiny Aleppo village torn between enemy front lines. Intertwined in Death’s road trip story are casual mentions of pro-government siege and starvation, killing of peaceful protesters and hardline Islamist morality courts.
Still, Khalifa insists he is “not a political person,” speaking to Syria Direct last week over video chat in between intermittent power cuts in his Damascus neighborhood.
Instead, his latest novel was “born out of personal experience,” he says, one that communicated how “for Syrians, it isn’t just life that is hard work, [because] nowadays even death is difficult.”
Q: This is your first novel set during the Syrian civil war, and over the course of the story we hear about the siege of an unnamed Damascus suburb, we hear about Islamist extremists and about the peaceful protests that were fired on by Syrian government forces.
As someone who stayed in Syria when others fled, what have you seen yourself over the course of these past eight years?
In general, the war has been present in every place. The danger is everywhere.
Here, too, in Damascus, there was constant shelling and there are [still] explosions. There is always kidnapping. So the war is everywhere. The idea of there being a “safe place” just isn’t true. There is no safe place—just places where the danger is less.
Q: There are details in the novel that mirror your own life, such as the main protagonist Bolbol’s father, who comes from a small village in rural Aleppo. Are you writing from your own life here?
This novel came from something that happened to me personally. In 2013, I suffered a heart attack and had to go to the hospital. It was terrifying. I was just a few minutes from death.
I was receiving very good medical care as a result of my friends who are doctors. But I felt ashamed because 100 or 200 meters away, there were people who were dying because they couldn’t get a pill of medicine, in Jobar for example. The hospital was 300 meters from Jobar.
[Ed.: Jobar, once a working-class residential neighborhood of Damascus, lay along an embattled frontline between rebel and pro-government forces for years. Today, the area is largely in ruins.]
Damascus in April 2017, during the height of a pro-government siege on the capital city's East Ghouta suburbs. AFP/Louai Beshara.
I stayed by myself in intensive care, and I asked myself what would happen if I were to die right then. What would happen to my body? I imagined an entire story, a conflict between my family members over how they would transport my body to my village in rural northern Aleppo, a village called Maryameen.
How would they transport me?
But if the question is about what would happen to my body if I died in Damascus now, or if the family could actually transport it [to my village], with regards to my family this is a matter of honor. Rural families think in this way—it is a story of honor. To transport the body of your [father] to the family grave is important, even if it is difficult.
But I believe it would have been impossible to transport me. I believe that I would have stayed in Damascus in a grave that wasn’t my family’s.
This is where the novel came from.
Of course, it came from other places as well: in Homs in particular, there were hundreds, if not thousands of stories about burial under the bombs and under the rubble. In the public parks, in the streets; thousands of bodies, thousands of victims, were buried in places unknown to their loved ones.
Later on, the suffering will begin after things become stable, or after peace returns to Syria. We will see that one of the problems [that still exists] will be the loss of bodies. Where are people’s sons? Killed under bombs and buried somewhere unknown.
Q: Given all that suffering happening in real-time, what do you see as your role as a novelist during war?
My role in this war is like that of anyone else who is just trying to do their job. The war doesn’t force any new formula on my [work]. It just requires me to be a good writer.
Writing about the war, or narratives about the war or the revolution—it requires time. It needs for the crisis to dissipate so we can see things more completely.
A funeral in 2017 in Jisreen, then a rebel-held, besieged town outside Damascus. AFP/Amer Almohibany.
But these are my opinions, and I could be wrong. There are others who wrote very important pieces about the revolution while it was still happening. But I’m someone who’s more inclined towards writing once things have dissipated. What happened in Syria will stick around for hundreds of years of writing.
This [war] is vast, and it won’t be over when it [officially] ends.
Q: What you’ve written here in this novel can be seen by some as provocative, or political. Do you feel you are a political writer?
I’m not a political person. I believe that kind of talk does a huge injustice to writing. Very simply put, any writing is political. No writing is free of politics, especially with what’s going on in Syria. I mean, we can’t [write] about lakes or romantic love stories that are taking place in very safe settings among happy people.
So this novel was born out of personal experience—that for Syrians it isn’t just that life is hard work, but nowadays even death is difficult. For someone who dies [in Syria] nowadays, their death is a catastrophe: where do [his loved ones] bury him? The bodies of the dead are a catastrophe.
By 2012 and 2013, as a result of the bombing, Syrians were burying their children in their gardens. That’s how cruel this war has become. This is a terrifying thought—not being able to bury your dead.
So there is something deep reflected in the idea of death—that what happens around you has equal possibilities: death with life; death every day, every hour, every minute. We are losing our lovers, friends and relatives. It’s just a part of your daily catastrophe when you wake up in the morning to the first news of who’s been killed and detained.
After a period of time, it becomes something very normal. We look at our bodies and we can’t believe that we are still alive.
Q: Do you think it’s important for non-Syrians to read a book like this, to get a deeper understanding of what’s happening with the war?
In general, I’m not thinking about writing for foreigners. The Syrian reader interests me more than any other reader. I gave up a long time ago on trying to explain to foreigners what’s happening in Syria, because to put it very simply, this requires too much effort.
We aren’t seeing anything human [being said about Syrians]. I want to say that this is the crime of our age. It means that when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about the reader in the end. But if I were to think about them, I’d think about the Syrian reader first.
I do hope that [foreigners] read this novel as literature, not as something political—because it isn’t a political novel. This is a human story that happened in a time and a place. It will happen again, 100 years from now, in another place.
We must read [this novel] as literature, and not simply as writing that is coming from a war zone.
Q: Many Syrian writers and artists have fled the country since 2011, now writing and creating in the diaspora. And yet you stayed on, throughout the war.
In general, those of us who [could] stay in Syria stayed, and those who left Syria did so because they were forced to. For those of us who stayed, I feel that we have preserved this place despite the fact that life here is dangerous and difficult. The decision [to stay] isn’t an easy one—at all.
There were some people who left without being forced, but war is not the time to ask someone why they want to leave a dangerous place. When a place becomes dangerous, it’s within everyone’s rights to seek safety elsewhere.
As for my role, and the role of other [artists], simply put, we have no role but that of witnesses. That’s it. Even so, we aren’t able to see anything—we are paralyzed in what we can actually do.
I’m lucky in that I’m a writer, that I also work in cinema and that I’m neither forced to leave [Syria] nor produce art. I am able to write on my own, which is very fortunate. For example, you can’t just go outside with a camera and take photos in the street nowadays—it’s impossible.
But I feel that if I left Syria, I would lose this place forever. I’m quite a coward. I can’t start my life all over again in a new place. That’s something very difficult for me. But that isn’t courage, as some people think it is.
I don’t regret this decision. There is a price for staying, but there is also a price for leaving. I personally decided to pay the price of staying.
This situation is very difficult—that the country is a mess, and we don’t know when things will become stable. Any stability there was before the revolution was fake to begin with.
This is my decision and it’s difficult to explain. Right now, I’m explaining it to you in this way, but maybe a year from now, I’d explain it differently. Maybe I’d regret that I stayed. But so far I don’t regret it at all, despite everything that has happened, and despite things being very difficult.
I suffer from loneliness, I suffer from the fact that my friends aren’t here with me. And I suffer from all of these crises that you’ve seen: electricity, water, internet. You can’t live a normal life. This isn’t to mention the fear—fear from anything. You’re in a war-torn country, it’s chaos.
So this is my decision, and to be honest I don’t know if it was made in good conscience, or if it was a good or bad decision. But the one thing I do know is that I want to delay exile for as long as possible. I don’t want to be forced into exile like my friends were.
Q: One thing that struck me while reading Death is the main protagonist Bolbol’s immense fear—his fear of joining protests even though he supports them, his fear of carrying out his duty to his father. As a writer who discusses Syrian political topics with such honesty, do you have any sense of fear?
Thank you for mentioning Bolbol. I feel like this novel was basically an excuse for me to write about him. I’ve been thinking about the character of Bolbol for 25 years. How could I write this character, whose traits aren’t just Syrian, but human in general?
What I mean is that today, my American friends for example, when we’re talking about fear, we all sound like Syrians. They fear love, marriage, losing their jobs.
In Syria, fear has political implications, such as living under a dictatorship. Dictatorship wins with fear. When the Syrian revolution happened, it triumphed—in the beginning—in breaking down the walls of fear.
I think we’ve lived our entire lives afraid of everything. And I’ve found that it’s not just us Syrians. Of course, we [are afraid] more than others, but at the same time, our [foreign] friends don’t live under dictatorships. They aren’t detained if they say their opinions out loud or talk about politics. But they still do have fears—they are afraid of facing life.
Bolbol [is] this person who is afraid of everything. He’s afraid of the [Syrian] regime, he’s afraid of the opposition, he’s afraid of himself and of others, from his siblings and from his father and neighbors, from love, from marriage, from the woman he loves, from his wife.
I think the vast majority of people have this fear, too. We all have within ourselves a piece of Bolbol. I, too, have a piece of Bolbol [in my own character]. This book was an opportunity for me to talk about fear, in all of its manifestations.
Q: At one point in the novel, Bolbol asks himself outright: ‘What did his father’s body mean?' Do you feel that this question has an answer? Some people, particularly those in Syria reading this book, might compare his question to their own questions over the deaths of their loved ones during war.
The [father’s] body becomes something unexpected—it causes a split within the family.
We expect a certain degree of solemnity [in dealing with dead bodies], but when we find ourselves in the midst of danger, our priorities change. The [father’s] body was a representation of this. I can’t say exactly what happens in the novel, but we see that there are many differences between [brothers] Hussein and Bolbol—the two main characters—as the body becomes the focus of their disagreements.
To Hussein, the body is like a sack of garbage, one that must be buried—anywhere. Whereas Bolbol, in one of his rare moments of courage, pushes for getting the body to [its destination] safely.
But during war, a [deceased person’s] body loses all meaning. Death loses all meaning.
Years ago, we used to talk [about death] amongst friends during the war—but we no longer ask one another how someone died, or about the details of the death. There is only death and then burial.