INTERVIEW: Khaled Khalifa Syria's memory of pain

Sayed Mahmoud and Mohammed Saad, Monday 17 Feb 2014

Khaled Khalifa, shortlisted for the Arabic Booker, reflects on his his writing experience and his two latest novels in an interview with Ahram Online

Khaled Khalifa
Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa (Photo: Sayed Mahmoud)

Digging deep down beneath Syrians’ memories of pain, Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa does not fear approaching one of the most sensitive and bloodiest events in the modern history of Syria.

He believes a writer should be harsh; his job is not to rest in traditional ideas and hide facts. On the contrary, he has to provide an anatomy of society and orthodox ideas. It is an excavation beyond the visible, an excavation in the self and the place.

In an interview conducted with him in Cairo after he was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or the Arabic Booker, for his novel La Sakakin Fi Matabekh Al-Madina (No Knives in This City’s Kitchens), he expressed an optimistic view of Arabic novels. Yet he sees the road to competing with international literature is still long.

"We should look to ourselves as part of the world, a lot of efforts should be made to make the Arabic novel able to compete with world literature, and this could happen through translation, world prizes and many other things."

Khalifa has a belief that this will not occur through one person's effort or success: "I'm telling you we will not make it as individuals, but as a culture."

The Arabic Booker presented Khalifa to the Arabic reader when he was shortlisted in 2008 for his novel In Praise of Hatred, a novel that addresses a long-buried event, the massacre of Hama, which took place during the 1980’s. The novel gained worldwide success and has been translated into many languages.

Unlike what you might expect when meeting someone who has just came from Damascus, Khalifa’s smile is undeniable. His passion for life can’t be hidden. He describes himself as “loving life," but a sense of bitterness comes when he speaks of his beloved city, Aleppo.

In a speech he wrote for the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature at the American University in Cairo last December for No Knives in This City’s Kitchens -- which he didn't deliver in person since he couldn't travel to Cairo -- Khalifa spoke of the role of writing and how he sees himself as a man who is working in a field of fragility.

"Writing is a very fragile being: it can't do anything, but a writer only has writing," he wrote.

"He can't do anything else amid these blood rivers and the terrifying havoc, nonetheless, writing, isn't completely useless, it can do something, it has a role, even if it was an invisible hidden role. It can't stop a war or turn down a killing machine, but it can be a triumph of the oppressed. Writing is a strategic project not a tactical one; it can't have a direct effect but it can make beauty and change the world on the long term."

No Knives in this City's Kitchenoffers a dissection, but not during the past 40 years that represented the rule of Assad the father and the son but during the past 200 years, where he takes his beloved city of Aleppo as a stage of his deep excavation of the self and of places.

When Khalifa speaks about Aleppo, you can see a glance in his eyes as he recalls the glories of this city. It had a unique legacy of architecture -- once the twin of Vienna. But also you can see his heartbreak in a city that does not exist.

"Through the past 200 years, Aleppo has seen many changes that robbed its soul, and robbed the Syrians, all of their dreams," he says. "Right now in Aleppo, the everyday question is how not to die."

"When a place gets wrecked it does not become ruined alone, it ruins with its people," he says. "It's a sad, soulless city at the moment, and its people have lost all of their dreams. One of the major crimes of the Arab regimes is robbing and destroying this deep memory. You know the city I told about in my novel is another city, a city that does not exist, but it’s defending itself and its memory."

For Khalifa, Aleppo is a classical city, and classical cities are always harsh on its lovers. He may write about Damascus one day, but what he will writes will be “shocking,” including parts of its night life.

When asked if he will write about Aleppo again, he quickly answered, "Yes, sure I will. Every time I try to write about Damascus, I find myself writing about Aleppo. It's a city I know and I keep its architecture, clothes and food in my mind. This city is the most mysterious and the least revealing."

In his novel In Praise of Hatred, he provides an anatomy of Syrian society and the orthodox mentality, and not only religious ones. It seems that he was giving a prophecy of what took place in Syria since March 2011, when the Syrian regime brutally repressed the revolution.

"I wish if my novel did not have this kind of prophecy. When I was writing I thought I was writing about the past, I never imagined this past could be repeated by any means, but when the revolution broke out I discovered that the regime did not change at all and is still behaving and using the same tools used in the 80’s but in a wider range, that all the Syrian cities paid its price this time, not only Hama," he says.

Though the pains and what the Syrian revolution went through, leaving tens of thousands dead and injured and several millions displaced, Khalifa still thinks that these revolutions were a must after all the roads to reformation were completely blocked. Though painful, Khalifa sees the Arab revolutions as necessary for an Arab renaissance.

"The Arab revolutions were a must," he says. "In the past none of us used to think about a revolution. We thought of ways to press the Arab regimes to change its skin, to open the door for a reformation, but the road became blocked and from her came the necessity of the Arab revolutions."

"The Syrian revolution paid the most expensive price, not only because of the blood that has been shed, but also because of the destruction that happened to the society. People in Syria now are asking fatal questions: ‘Are we Arabs? Are we Syrians? Are we tribes and sects? Are we tolerant or extreme?’ These are the questions that are posed now."

The different and versatile interpretations of Khalifa’s works do not bother him, but he is disturbed when his works are reduced to a single genre, such as branding a novel as a work of politics.

"I realize every reader will have his own reading and that doesn’t bother me, but I worry about what we can call a curtailment, a limitation of reading," he says. "My work isn’t a political bulletin."

It took Khalifa 13 years to complete In Praise of Hatred, and six years for No Knives in This City’s Kitchens.

"I'm a slow writer, a reflective one," he says. "The happiest moments of my life are those when I sit to write. The moment when I publish a text is the saddest, and while it means the text got my approval, it makes me pose a harsh question: ‘What I’m going to do with the rest of my life?'"

Because In Praise of Hatred touches Syrians in one of the most painful memories they have, it had to be done very carefully because of the lack of information about it.

"There were no documents, the regime kept it of course, the Muslim Brotherhood remained silent on it,” he says. “No one knows who gave the orders to kill all these people and to be accurate about it I had to rebuild the whole period and put it in a humane work that aims to dissect the structure of tyranny and the orthodox thinking, in general, I had to review it ten times before I published it.”

Khalifa, who is residing in Cairo for a month, sees the role of the author as a narrator of events, but he also realizes that he is not the sole narrator, just as he realizes that there can be no single reading of his narrations.

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