Khaled KhalifaSyrian novelist Khaled Khalifa is one of the few writers who can be said to have truly broken the walls of silence in that nation. His oeuvre breaks down deep-seated taboos in Syrian and Arab societies. Khalifa came to the limelight with the publication of his third novel, In Praise of Hatred (2006), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), and deals with the off-limits subjects of political and religious oppression in Syria. It has since been translated into several languages and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its English translation.  His fourth novel, No Knives in this City’s Kitchens (2013),was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (2013). The novel traces the tragic lives of a Syrian family from Aleppo — Khalifa’s hometown — to Paris via Baghdad and Dubai. The novel covers a critical period of Syrian history from the early 1960s to 2005. Now al-Mustafa Najjar has interviewed Khalifa, talking about why he continues to set his novels in Aleppo, the duty of the writer, and what sort of characters he enjoys writing.

 

Al-Mustafa Najjar: The narrator in No Knives in this City’s Kitchens says: “Aleppo is as transient as oblivion. All that will remain of its main image is a lie we reinvent every day in order not to die.” Why did you choose Aleppo as the setting of your last novel, given that you spent a large part of your life in Damascus?

Khaled Khalifa: I have spent half of my life in Aleppo and the other half in Damascus. But Aleppo has not ceased to be my favourite place to write about. I do not know the secret, or perhaps I cannot explain it, particularly since I can still write about it again and again. I do not know when I will write about Damascus; but perhaps I will never do that and remain the prisoner of Aleppo.

MN: The novel covers the period between 1963 and 2005. Why did you choose to write specifically about this period in the history of Syria? To what extent did those years help shape the Syrian people’s consciousness?

These years have shaped the Syria our generation lives in. During this period, the dreams of Syrians to a large extent changed from being a desire to build a modern, democratic country open to all local and international cultures to [having instead] a closed and oppressed one, governed by the one-party culture and its sycophantic ideology.

KK: These years have shaped the Syria our generation lives in. During this period, the dreams of Syrians to a large extent changed from being a desire to build a modern, democratic country open to all local and international cultures to [having instead] a closed and oppressed one, governed by the one-party culture and its sycophantic ideology.

MN: In her journey of self-discovery, one of the book’s characters, Sawsan, fluctuates between a sexually promiscuous lifestyle and one of religious fundamentalism marked by sexual repression. We notice the same about her brother, Rashid, the musician who “replaced Aleppo’s ancient Qudood with [Islamic] Mawlid recitals.” Tell us about these fluctuations.

KK: In general, I do not interfere very much with the fates of my characters after a certain point in the writing process, nor can I explain them. I believe [my characters] can always justify their actions. However, I think human beings in all their manifestations can still surprise us with their complex changes, and the role of the novel is to pick these always-tragic changes. In other words, these changes — excavating the human self — is the novel genre’s favorite theme.

MN: The character of Comrade Fawaz, who masters the art of cheering and “glorifying the leader,” is an interesting character who represents a considerable segment of society in Syria. Why did you marginalize this character?

KK: I did not marginalize him. The character did his job and then exited the scene. There is no need to revive a character who wants to stop developing and growing. The character of Fawaz is stereotypical, and the fact that there are many who resemble him does not mean he is important or deserves a larger space. In general, I do not like to write about communal characters. Instead, I love working on unique characters who are able to live and develop. Such characters are closer to human beings in their secret and mysterious manifestations.

MN: Four of the novel’s five chapters open with the death of the mother, who used to “complain about the lack of oxygen.” Despite being at the margins of the storyline, the character of the mother forms the background of the novel. Why did you choose this character in particular?

KK: I don’t know, in fact, and I still wonder if I made a good choice or overlooked better options to tell the story of this family, city and country.

Continue reading on Arabic Literature (in English)

 

Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at al-Sharq Al-Awsat. This interview was originally conducted in Arabic and appeared on al-Sharq al-Awsat.