A bold story of home: Khaled Khalifa

By Lara Moamar

“I decided to become a writer by the age of 17”, states Khaled Khalifa, the award-winning novelist, screenwriter and poet living in Damascus, Syria. Khalifa was awarded the Nagib Mahfouz medal for literature in 2017 for his novel No Knives in the Kitchens of this City and was a finalist for the US National Book Award for Translated Literature. He has since taken up the 2022 Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship at St Aidan’s College. The fellowship, established in 2016 by St Aidan’s and the Banipal magazine of Modern Arab Literature, welcomes an established Arab author each year to Durham.

I ask Khalifa about the difficulties he faced making this resolute career decision. “After getting a law degree at the University of Aleppo, I had two choices: I either live half a life by complying to the family’s wishes and work as a lawyer, or I become a writer, even if I were to die of hunger. The choice was never easy as it comes at the cost of displeasing those you love the most, but I worked consistently until I found material success as the screenwriter of the popular TV series Memoirs of AlJalali (Serat Al-Jalali). Those ten difficult formative years brought me my first discovery of writing: you need to dedicate your entire being to writing — your time, your efforts, your dreams, your ambitions, your body.”

We then move on to discuss his latest novel Death is Hard Work, published in 2016 and translated to English by Leri Price in 2019. The novel is set in Syria, following the arduous journey of three siblings — Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima — determined and terrified to fulfil their late father’s dying wish to be buried in his hometown of Anabiya. At the start of the project, Khalifa was confronted by the question of how one writes about a war they’re still experiencing. “With every project, I learn to write from the beginning. Every project begs the question of how — what techniques, what form is best to deliver the story. For Death is Hard Work, the only answer was what I call this locked form. It is a brief, compressed novel told in contained blunt sentences. I wanted to write 150 pages and wrote this exactly, no more or less. At the heart of the story is Bolbol, a character that I’ve thought about writing for 20 years, this man who is afraid of everything. Bolbol is not only a close part of me, but he is the Everyman of today. However, what was most important for me in writing this novel was maintaining distance and evading the evocation of pity.”

You need to dedicate your entire being to writing — your time, your efforts, your dreams, your ambitions, your body

Khalifa’s novel is masterful and poignant, filled with beautiful imagery of missed opportunity — lapsed love like ‘a bouquet floating down a river’ paired with language of flinching honesty on death and chilling fear. But as acutely noted by Khalifa, the literary merit of Arab literature is systematically dismissed. He says: “In the face of war, people often look to writers to be the voice of the population. And I am indeed such a voice. But this should not be. We should stop calling out for the world to sympathise with us, to cry for us and to cry with us. We are already a part of this world.”

Moreover, though translation opens up the possibilities of dialogue and exchange, Khalifa remarks upon the challenges it poses as “Arabic texts translated in the West are often looked at with a voyeuristic gaze. Our stories are seen as social studies, documenting only our culture and traditions without appreciation for creativity and invention. The real battle lies in changing this gaze. And I believe this is what Death is Hard Work has started to achieve.”

We should stop calling out for the world to sympathise with us, to cry for us and to cry with us. We are already a part of this world

But Khalifa notes the progress achieved in the last decade on this front and holds out hope for the future. “The numbers of authors translated has significantly increased, and this is bound to lead to change. There is now a greater recognition that we have multiple narratives and diverse heroes, that our world is not comprised of a single story.”

What Khalifa so eloquently states is a call not only related to the disfiguring gaze with which Arab literature is looked upon, but casts light on the judgements the people of the region are subjected to. “We are not responsible for convincing the West of the beauty and richness of our culture and civilization. For me, Arabic is one of the most beautiful languages and I feel deeply lucky to write in this mother tongue. I have great faith in our local culture which circulates in everything: our food, our clothes, our dancing. Such human wealth exists and thrives with or without external appreciation.” Ultimately, Khalifa closes with the importance of reciprocity between the Arab world and the West. “One cannot exist without the other. There must be a willingness to listen and tolerate”.

Image credit: St Aidan’s

Image credit: Khaled Khalifa via St Aidan’s College

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