La Sakakin fi Matabekh Hazehi Al-Madina (No Knives in this City's Kitchens) by Khaled Khalifa, Cairo: Dar El-Ain Publishing, 2013.
Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa continues in his new novel No Knives in this City's Kitchens what he begun in his previous masterpiece, In Praise of Hatred (2006) — excavating contemporary Syrian society's memory.
He starts from what one family has gone through in Aleppo, which he describes as the punished city, while In Praise of Hatred focused on the distortions made by death squads or the "Party Action Squads" in the psyches of its members during the events in Hama in the 1980s. The novel explores the prices paid by Syrians for living parallel to the life of the ruling party for near half a century.
No Knives in this City's Kitchens, which borrowed its title from a speech made by Syrian President Amin Al-Hafez (who ruled from July 1963 to February 1966), freezes the frame on a family that belongs to the middle class and suffers from a plethora of contradictions, as if reproducing in its own story the suffering of the city / homeland. Both are a victims of lost glory, traced through following its members' life paths while they are heading towards death. Death constitutes one of the main threads in the novel that starts with the mother's death — herself a symbol of a multi-faceted society, and openness to diverse identities. The novel ends with the death of the son, Rasheed, whose story proves an example for changes of another era that drives its members towards inner crisis and closed-mindedness.
Between the two deaths, lost lives and existential anxiety beleaguers all. The narrative is not linear; it is launched from the perspective of a neutral narrator, the youngest member in the family, who holds tight to his stand as a witness.
We watch the father who leaves his country with his American mistress, preferring his individual salvation, while the mother opts for being loyal to her first calling as a woman who rises above abandonment, after she paid a dear price earlier when she entered a relationship with a youth rural man whom she married, to the cost of leaving her family. Her family represents the Syrian middle class in the 1940s, which opened up to European fine culture thanks to a friendship between the father and a French railway engineer. This in turn led the family to come to terms with their homosexual son, uncle Nizar, despite pressure by his own brother, Abd-Al-Mon'em, who loses his son during clashes between the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a house inhabited by the mother on the outskirts of lettuce fields before she leaves it once again to return to her city, escaping from chaos and randomness, we follow the paths of her offspring. Her enchanting daughter, Sawsen, who was recruited by the party in the "Paratrooper Battalions" and subsequently wrote reports about her female schoolmates, becomes embroiled in a tempestuous liaison with comrade Munzir, who is close to the leadership. Munzir leaves Syria for Dubai to work for Habeeb Al-Mawsili, one of those implicated in corruption and arms smuggling cases. He then summons Sawsen and treats her as a concubine, refusing to marry her because she belongs to a different sect.
After her shock, she goes back to Syria to lead another life but fails in seducing Jean, a French language teacher returning from Geneva to take care of his blind mother, favouring his seclusion and retranslating works of Balzac to being involved in a city whose inhabitants transformed into security informers. He discovers his country became unknown to him after being summoned to a security branch and decides to mingle in society through entering the world of prostitutes, choosing to live transient relationships without responsibilities or burdens — trying to forget Sawsen's body, whom he did not touch.
In an act of compensation and revenge, Sawsen decides to have hymen restoration surgery and transforms herself into a conservative woman, who wears the hijab (head veil) and begins attending religious lessons. But everyone desires her past which is irrevocable. Seeking deliverance from this past, she leaves to Paris as a wife to Michel, a Frenchman whose fascination with Aleppo began with being a homosexual escort to uncle Nizar. At the same time, Munzir, her ex-lover, is haunted in his latter years, wishing to fight under the banner of Hizbullah.
Beside Sawsen, we watch So'ad, the crippled daughter, who is treated as a disgrace that must be concealed, until her death. There is also the story of the son Rasheed, who endured music lessons given by his uncle Nizar, but suffers from existential anxiety that accompanies him since his childhood and drives him to question everything he lives through and believes in. He is transformed into a fighter among the mujahedeen against the American invasion of Iraq. When he is arrested by the invading forces he does not find a way to salvation except by recalling his old fascination with music, pretending that he is a musician who lost his identification papers and has no connection with the mujahedeen. Later he returns to Aleppo, suffering from a split that leads him to a death similar to suicide, being obsessed with the idea of salvation and staunchly attracted to voluntary death.
The stories of all those mentioned intersect with the presence of uncle Nizar, as a close brother to the mother and the reservoir of her teenage secrets. The novel mentions his search for sensual enjoyment entangled with love. The novel portrays a non-stereotypical homosexual, sympathising with his human dilemma. It is not blind to his humanity and his delicate spirit, which faces ostracism. The novel addresses his dreams in a city that drives him away, and where its citizens extract enjoyment from treating him as an outcast. Through building a house in Kasab, in which he restores the magnificence of his city, he reaches a desire for seclusion.
In tracking all these overlapping lives, the novelist does not only make parallels between the story of the family and the ruling party, "after fear nestled in the ribs and around tender souls in a place where rats roam free," but also makes parallels between political authority and masculine authority inside a society, and its deterioration. Such changes ripped from Aleppo its open cosmopolitan image and transformed it during the Baathist regime into a city seized by incessant fear under the weight of intelligence officers and Baathist party members.
The novel also uses odours as a way to decipher the codes of the city and its inhabitants, focusing on the senses, with the aim of resisting the stagnant smells of the present and also restoring Aleppo as a capital full of magnificence. The novel does not celebrate nostalgia; instead, it ridicules it, because the images of the past strike the nostalgic with disappointment.
Through the dialectic between the past and the present, the novel draws on similarities between the image of a mother who was snobbish with everybody because of her middle class roots, her sense of life and her refusal to believe the death of the president, on the one hand, and the image of her daughter, Sawsen, whose feminine charm overflowed on everybody, who receives news of the death of the president in a deserted railway station, but cries for him with the heartfelt feelings of one crying for their torturer, on the other hand.
Despite the superficial contradiction between the two women, both are similar in their fate, succumbing to the heartbreaking present, singing the praises of an irrevocable past under pressure of outward religiosity, conservatism and chaos. The mother resists this by clinging to her past, while her offspring responds differently. Transformations are diverse and the prices paid vary, whether related to the dream of liberation and emancipation, or waiting for death as a means of deliverance.
Finally, No Knives in this City's Kitchens is not a novel based solely on the ruin that befell Syria, and that continues until today. It is a novel about the effects of a certain political horizon on the souls of citizens, told through a family that got trapped, and a mother gasping for breath since the military took over the country.