Why Khaled Khalifa Chose to Stay in Syria
The author of "Death Is Hard Work" on the ongoing Syrian civil war and his life as a writer in Damascus
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Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work is a searingly intelligent novel told from the perspective of the adult children of Abdel Latif as they transport their father’s corpse from Damascus to his ancestral village of Anabiya in the midst of the Syrian war.
Like the best absurd or picaresque novels in the Arab literary tradition, Death is Hard Work is a tragic-comic exploration of the arbitrary logic of tyranny and its effects on memory, landscape and identity across generations.
I got to speak with Khaled Khalifa via email about the aesthetics of absurd literature, the role of the writer during times of geopolitical crisis, the brutality of the ongoing Syrian war, and his day-to-day life as a writer in Damascus. Death is Hard Work is a novel worth paying close attention to, a book we will likely be talking about for years to come.
Khaled Khalifa’s response has been translated from Arabic to English by Bennett Capozzi.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: Though Death Is Hard Work is written in a realist mode, it is also a life-threatening epic quest rendered absurd due to the ongoing civil war, a war that is operating with an arbitrary logic. What can we learn from this method of telling stories about historical and present tragedies?
Khaled Khalifa: In war things take on a new meaning. The meaning of everything changes: life, hope, frustration, despair. Things lose their value, humans become killers and the killed, and time becomes ongoing, tied to a mysterious chord called the hope of survival. Thus the writer’s narrative or way of seeing stories is subject to unintended intensification because of what was happening at that time. Because it might be the last time that you are able to write, you do ordinary and regular things for the last time. You drink your coffee, hold your lover, go to work, and write for the last time.
I wrote Death is Hard Work because I felt that I did not have a lot of time, or a surplus of life, therefore I was tied to the table thinking that I must do what I can do to write something different from my other works as well as other stories about war, and I didn’t know if I would be successful in writing this unique story.
AVdVO: One of the qualities of Death Is Hard Work that I immediately recognized as part of the Arabic narrative tradition is that the story’s plot—its propulsive energy—comes from an examination of the characters’ memories of place. In your novel, there is a total superimposition of the body and the landscape. Abdel Latif ’s corpse is decaying as his adult children transport his dead body from Damascus to his ancestral village of Anabiya; the country itself has been gutted by war and is in the process of collapse. The body and the land are atrophying simultaneously. How did writing the body help you to navigate the process of writing about an ongoing war?
KK: Syria became a corpse not only during the war, but it was also becoming that corpse slowly and day by day during fifty years of dictatorship. The idea came to me through personal experience, and from repetition of the daily contemplation of death and the way Syrians buried their loved ones. Throughout 2012 and afterwards endless stories spread through social media about the need for Syrians to bury their loved ones in the garden, in the house, and in the streets because of the difficulty to get to the cemetery, or because the amount of death does not give you the opportunity to respect rituals or the meaning of death and the body. The body of a loved one becomes a project and certainly an epidemic.
The personal experience that is the most telling for me was in 2013 when I had a stroke and spent three nights in the hospital, and while I was there I thought about how to respond to the question: if I die right now and give up, how will they come to transport my body? These moments were comedic, tragic, touching, and funny. Truly facing death turns you into an absurd being.
AVdVO: Do you think the novel as an art form can serve to reveal structures of tyranny?
KK: I consider the novel to be the most effective art form for dismantling the narrative of tyranny and dictatorship, as the novel informs a wide space. Within it is a large capacity for flexibility and renewal and concealment at the same time, and the novel can become a history that is not the history tyrants always contrive in their books, an often falsified history. We watched in history the success of many attempts of these falsified narratives by tyrants and dictators, but in the modern era these projects by dictators have become more difficult.
AVdVO: Bolbol, one of the novel’s main characters, often imagines “whole communities committing suicide in protest against a life so soiled.” In contradistinction, his father’s mantra is “the children of the revolution are everywhere.” Did writing Death Is Hard Work help you to interrogate what it means to live with death so near at hand?
KK: It is necessary to remind yourself that this was not a civil war, this revolution turned the world into war and then a war of settling scores on Syrian land. The amount of lack of understanding does not indicate its complexity, but a lack of desire to acknowledge that the whole world was contributing in defending this revolution, and stopping the regime.
AVdVO: Like Abdel Latif, Bolbol spends his life yearning for his first love. And yet father and son never discuss their common nostalgia for a life and a love that could-have-been. Instead, the novel foregrounds their differences when it comes to politics. In what ways did this choice serve the novel? What did it allow you to reveal and/or conceal?
KK: While writing I was trying to find any points of similarity between Bolbol and Abdel Latif but I could not. Abdel Latif represents the generation of the ‘50s in Syria, the jumping-off point for national ideas that infiltrated within them the military into the government under the pretext of the liberation of Palestine, and they remained for half a century ruining everything in there. But Abdel Latif was part of a big group that represents this romanticization of revolution in that generation. Of course it could be a coincidence that the remaining members of this generation are everywhere, living in desperation and despondency from the coup of their comrades and they turned from activists to thieves.
Meanwhile Bolbol is considered to represent a model of humanity more broadly: the man that is afraid of everything. Today we can find Bolbol walking on the streets of New York, an urban person, modern. Deep down he is afraid of losing his job and privileged existence, and also he is afraid of marriage and love. Life is complicated in this era as we see in it the savage features of capitalism ruling the world and wanting to turn humans into robots. I certainly failed in the attempt to find points of similarity between the two characters but I was happy with this failure because I wrote Bolbol completely and I thought about him for more than a quarter of a century.
AVdVO: There are hints of the comic in the novel that help to make the darkness darker. Early on, at one of the check-points, Abdel Latif’s dead body is arrested. The officer explains that according to their records “Bolbol’s father was still alive and still wanted. It didn’t matter if he had in the meantime turned into a cadaver.” A few passages later, Bolbol reflects on his fear which “increased every time he thought of the possibility that a person might be nothing more than a collection of papers.” As a writer, what is your relationship to this type of official papers? I ask this as someone who has spent the majority of her life chasing identity papers, deeds, death certificates and who has, along with my family members, been sent on endless errands to have this or that paper stamped only to have to do it all over again. What do you think about the fact that every war elicits an obsession with ink and paper?
KK: My relationship with official papers is funny. I will tell you something, I have two surnames, Khalifa and Abdel Razak, and the official one on the papers is Abdel Razak, and I have kept the name Khaled Khalifa all my life.
When it was necessary to choose a name when signing my book, I chose the unofficial name, the name not registered on paper, as a result of my laziness, and because it is not likely in the records of the bureaucratic Syrian state that is always trying to find people that writes these kinds of works.
For the past eight years, it has not been possible for anybody to go into the street without their personal identification, so my ID is stuck in my pocket, and I feel its weight constantly, naturally afraid of losing it because I will have a big problem at the checkpoints and everywhere else. Today in Syria there are hundreds of thousands of cases in the courts regarding people’s papers, there are people missing and their families want certificates of their deaths to continue on with their lives. And there are dead people and the system has notified their families, but will not hand over the body until they sign a paper that this person has died as a result of illness and not under torture. Yes, papers are heavy and we do not think about them except when we encounter them.
AVdVO: Where do you write in Damascus?
KK: I write in my cafe, and I cannot write in the house or the office, despite having a nice furnished office. In Damascus I had kept my table reserved for thirteen years in the cafe The Journalists Club. It was a wonderful place that I was linked to by a close friendship with the employees there, but I lost this place as the unfortunate result of the strict security constraints during the beginning of the revolution, when the place turned into a crowded gathering point for intelligence officers. And afterwards it was given to a tacky manager close to the regime who turned it into a tacky cabaret that was unfit for its long history.
I continue to remember those years fondly, it was the employees and staff there who brought me the best coffee, and my table was exceptionally meaningful to me. My mail was brought there and they worked for my comfort, and I know a lot about their lives, we talked about everything, they share with me their fears and joys, most of the employees were Kurds without paperwork, surrounding me with every care. I still remember their nobility and generosity with me.
Five years ago I traveled between a lot of cafes until I settled down again in a cafe Connected Coffee that is in the center of the city and is owned by one of my close friends, and often I write in a very small cafe in the area of Al Qasa’.
AVdVO: And what is the process of getting from your home to your preferred writing spots?
KK: After 2012 the journey from my house to the cafe became hard work, ten minutes by car became an hour or two hours. On the route, I passed two or three checkpoints, and usually these checkpoints were crowded, and often I would get there exhausted and I would not have the energy to write, especially in the hot summer.
In the city throughout the past eight years, the terror has not stopped, everything is scary. There’s no electricity, no heat, and the threat of abduction and disappearance at every moment. Everything bad happens to us in the war, and everything unexpected can happen in the war, thus I was stealing time to write. Even if you stayed in the house, it didn’t do you any good. In the winter there was no heat, and most of the time no electricity, the whole process was stressful for the nerves.
I feel the terror strongly, but I did not feel afraid. When I was writing Death is Hard Work I was putting the novel [in a folder] on my laptop [with] a dramatic television series about love, because each computer was being inspected and if they opened the folder and even read one sentence, it would have been a huge problem for me. To an extent I felt like I was writing secretly, and often I was forced to erase it from my laptop and put it on a flash drive that made it easier to hide it. But in every circumstance, despite the difficulty, I felt that I was being defiant.
AVdVO: How do you stay grounded given the day-to-day situation in Syria? How do you hold on to hope?
KK: I learn perseverance and hope every day. I do not think about fear. For five years the shelling did not stop at all, from the window of my house I saw where the missiles left from and where they landed.
I gave up all of the forms of life that were there before. Now there is no electricity, no friends because most of them emigrated, the streets of the city are dark. Every morning I was checking my house and my body, checking on my friends who stayed, and not thinking about going out. Thinking here is my fate and it is necessary to belong to my new tragic world. Basically I became a different person living in a different place, I can live for days on a loaf of bread. And I have a new memory. But in every circumstance I did not lose hope for one moment despite what I have suffered, and I was measuring it against people around me who had much more severe loss, who lost their children, their house, their husband, their limb. I was always thinking that it is necessary to think that departing [Syria] is difficult to the extent that it is not possible to bear it, that departure was equal to death. I can write pages, but always it was hope that was my angel, that I watered each moment so that it did not wither away.
AVdVO: Do you feel optimistic about the Arab Spring’s aspirations of reformation, its desire for an Arab Renaissance?
KK: Yes, I remain optimistic despite the ferocity of the counter-revolution, and the prevalence of new regimes that possess the approval of the Western world, and do nothing to hold them accountable. For example, until now there has not been a conversation about an independent international tribunal for the fiercest dictators that the world has ever seen. This reinforcement of dictatorships and nepotistic forms of governance does not mean that revolutions from the eruption will be renewed. The ancient world in Arab countries has collapsed, but the new world that defends Arabs (and Syrians especially) has not formed, all of these are the costs for it.