The simple fact that this book is banned in the country which it describes makes it intriguing and well worth investigation and it was this fact alone which attracted me to reading it. I stumbled across Khalifa’s book on a blog which lauded it for having been nominated on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist. Apparently, this book is the only Arabic fiction to have been nominated last year. These tidbits inspired me to buy the book and plunge straight in!
To start this review, I have to state that this is definitely not a book for everyone. Many readers will find its density frustrating and the attention to detail overwhelming. The plot lies far in the background and Khalifa pays most of his attention to drawing out the intensity of the experience of life in Syria – or any place in a state of revolution and rebellion – through descriptions of the minutiae of existence – the taste of the air, the feel of the fountain water and the flittering of butterflies. Even in the chapter titles, Khalifa injects some surreptitious nudge at the status quo – “Women Led by the Blind” is Chapter One and one could easily write a dissertation on the implications of this title for the book as a whole and for its characters who are each so clearly vision impaired that they are lost in the mire of existence.
“Maryam’s efforts to realign our present according to the rhythm of the past would be of no use; it would only increase our delusions of belonging. We didn’t know how we would one day throw of its weight from our shoulders and free ourselves from the tyranny of the framed pictures of our ancestors hanging on Maryam’s wall, … scattered all over a house whose sanctity increased every morning. The ropes wound around our necks and turned us all into slaves. We cleaned it, polished it, reassured it; we didn’t dare smash so much as a vase, even accidentally.”
As the title of the novel indicates, the essence of this novel is a discourse on hatred and it is this that stood out for me as I was reading – bear in mind that I have an already developed knowledge of the position of women in various countries across the Middle East, so other readers might be more intrigued with the gender dynamic in this text: “By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for.” For the nameless protagonist, hatred is the energy that fuels her desire to survive her various prisons and later, when it becomes plain that hatred is not the solution and does not provide a means of escape:
“The hatred which I had defended as the only truth was shattered entirely. The early questions surrounding the truth of belonging and existence came back to me, as I swam in confusion. My life was a collection of allegories that belonged to others. How hard it is to spend all your time believing what others want you to believe; they choose a name for you which you then have to love and defend, just as they choose the God you will worship, killing whoever opposes their version of His beauty, the people you call ‘infidels’. Then a hail of bullets is released, which makes death into fact.”
While this book is filled with various nooks and crannies, both literally and metaphorically, it is also filled with an assortment of emptinesses and as I write this I realise what strange turn of phrase this is – how can I book be filled with emptinesses? I find myself struggling to define what I mean… it’s not so much the silences (although there are moments of silent contemplation in this book), nor is it the general air of frustration which pervades the experiences of these characters who are so often running in circles like hamsters in wheels. Rather, it is surrender which plunges these individuals into a shadowy darkness which swills like a sense of emptiness. Perhaps when tragedy and trauma become an expected part of existence, they eat away at the core of us and leave us with absences which become integral to who we are … “It was difficult suddenly to discover that you are empty; that your shadow weighs heavily on the earth; that all around you, acid submerges your dreams and you appear corroded in the eyes of others.”
Within the vacuums, there are some stellar and austere moments, like when the protagonist’s mother dies – I won’t share the actual death as it will spoil the story for you, but the musing on her death is incredibly poignant and well worth singling out:
“My mother’s death was a banal occurrence, not worthy of much notice in a city where more than three hundred mourning ceremonies were held that day alone for the victims of the desert prison. Death had lost its prestige. They buried her beside my grandmother and left an empty place in the tomb, which I guessed was for Hossam…”
As interesting as the book itself is the real contemporariness of the events which it describes and the current relevance of the characters’ experiences and I think that the translator has done a wonderful job of making this apparent for readers through the introduction. Don’t read this book without the introduction!!
Finally, there is one thing which made me uncomfortable as a reader of this text (separate to the confronting events which are described in the text itself) and that is that the novel ends by telling readers that the English language version of this novel is not the same as the Arabic original which has an additional chapter. I found myself chomping at the bit to know why this was the case and sadly, my Arabic is not quite good enough to make proper sense of an Arabic version … if anyone has any more insight into the change of ending, I would be thrilled to know what I have missed out on!!
Khalifa, a masterpiece, not for all readers, but well worth the journey for those who can endure the absences.