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More About Life Than Death…

Abdel Latif al-Salim breathed his last at a hospital in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The old man’s last wish was to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya in the Aleppo region. That is why his youngest son Bolbol, with his father’s body, left for Anabiya, only a two-hour drive from Damascus under normal circumstances. Bolbol was accompanied by his elder brother Hussein and sister Fatima, although he was estranged from his siblings. It was not easy to reach Aleppo from Damascus, with Syria turning into a battlefield by that time. Their journey was interrupted time and again, and Abdel Latif’s children had to face several questions on their way to Anabiya. As expected, the consequences were terrible in the end, because Fear is the last word in a war-torn Police State! Interestingly, unimaginable panic gradually became normal for them.

In his novel Death Is Hard Work (published originally in 2016 and translated from Arabic into English by Leri Price on February 12, 2019), Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa has, in his characteristic approach, aptly portrayed the picture of horrors in his homeland, and the daily life, as well. His work has also come up with a piece of Hope. The story of a long journey with a corpse is indeed amazing. Descriptions of such journeys through the battlefield are commonly marked as black or absurdist in literature. Yet, the essence of such stories is more important than the plot. The belief in traditional faith even in difficult times emphasises on a man’s desire to survive! Perhaps, the author did not leave Damascus because of his beliefs, in spite of being requested by his well-wishers several times. At a literary festival in Italy, the Syrian author spoke about life in Damascus. “Everyone has left, but a few stubborn souls, like me, remain. We cling to each other,” he stressed. Then his face lit up, which happened every time he was about to tell one of his signature anecdotes that mingle defiance with absurdity. Also, Khalifa still remembers Aleppo, where he was born in 1964.

In his novel, Khalifa has narrated how the landscape of his childhood has turned into a labyrinth of competing Armies, whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal. It is because of this situation, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences in order to honour their father’s final wish has quickly ballooned from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. According to the author, war-ravaged Syria is no longer a place for heroes. Hence, Bolbol’s decision to carry his father’s body from Damascus to Aleppo found him and his siblings captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed. In a nutshell, they had to face enormous consequences for their decision to pay due respect to their father.

One can consider Death Is Hard Work as a mixture of brutal, front-line reportage and surreal humour evocative of Irish novelist Samuel Barclay Beckett (April 13, 1906 – December 22, 1989) and German-speaking Bohemian novelist Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924). Khalifa’s novel is an unforgettable journey into a contemporary heart of darkness that helps readers realise Syria’s ongoing and catastrophic Civil War through the tale of three ordinary persons, facing down the stuff of nightmares, armed with little more than simple determination.

Khaled Khalifa

Khalifa, born in a village close to Aleppo, is the fifth of his parents’ 13 children. He persuaded a Degree in Law from Aleppo University and actively took part in the foundation of Aleph magazine with a group of writers and poets. After the magazine was closed down by Syrian censorship, he started working as a script-writer for cinema and television. Currently, Khalifa lives in Damascus.

Harvard University offered the Syrian author a highly lucrative fellowship. A few days after arriving there, he began to suffer nightmares. He decided to return to Syria. When he informed the university, they misread him and doubled his stipend. “They couldn’t understand why I wanted to return to a warzone,” said Khalifa.

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