Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2019

Death is Hard Work, by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price

This slim novella of only 180 pages seems like a kind of miracle to me.  It’s not the first book from Syria that I’ve read: that was Shatila Stories sent to me by Kim from Reading Matters and it was special because it was a collaborative writing project set up to give voice to Syrian refugees in the sprawling Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.  But Death is Hard Work is by an author living in Damascus, a city which has been a war zone since 2012.  It is Khalifa’s fifth novel, and the second to be written since the civil war.  And somehow, despite having his books banned by the Syrian government, he has been able to keep writing them, even though No Knives in the Kitchen of this City (2013, translated into English 2016) was openly critical of the Syrian regime.  And if you didn’t know already how the regime deals with dissidents, you will by the end of this short book.

The plot is deceptively simple.  It’s about an event which is an everyday occurrence in the everyday cities of the west.  An eldest son undertakes to fulfil the last wish of his dying father, that is, to be buried beside his sister in the family plot in his hometown near Aleppo.  It’s only a couple of hours away from Damascus. But it is not a simple wish because his hometown is one where protests erupted against the regime, and anyone and everyone who comes from there is regarded as a troublemaker whether they are activists or not.  It has taken Bolbol years to overcome this stigma and he has been living in a kind of paralysis to stay under the radar.  To travel across a landscape dotted with checkpoints where he must produce his identity card which names his origin is fraught with peril.  Because, as we see, there are no rules.  Combatants on both sides can detain, imprison, torture or execute anyone at any time. And his father Abdel Latif is a troublemaker even in death.  In Syria, even helping the rebel wounded can get you summarily executed by the regime.  And father has been doing just that in another rebel town…

Bolbol makes the journey with his siblings, Hussein and Fatima.  Khalifa has constructed his plot around an event which usually brings a family together, but the death of their parent does nothing to bring these three together.  They are metaphors for the intractable hatreds in Syria, and vivid incarnations of how civil wars tear families apart.

It was Wikipedia which alerted me to the significance of Hussein mindlessly quoting dogma.  Khalifa uses this character to exemplify the theme of his 2006 novel In Praise of Hatred (Madih al-karahiya, translated into English 2013), which was a protest against the suffering [the Syrian people] have endured as a result of the religious and political dogmas that have tried to negate their ten-thousand-year civilisation. (Wikipedia, viewed 25/3/19).

Since childhood, Hussein had been in the habit of memorising entire pages of cheap almanacs published by Islamic philanthropic organisations, containing famous sayings, aphorisms, verses from the Qu’ran, and prophetic Hadith, and he used them in everyday speech to give his audience the impression of his being well read. (p.11)

Because he can’t think for himself, Hussein flounders in situations where this dogma doesn’t apply.  Bolbol, who doesn’t believe in anything anymore, is stuck in his fatalistic stasis, deferring to his younger brother’s misdirected energy.  And Fatima, who spends most of her time crying and being ordered about, represents the way women have been unable to achieve any autonomy.  While the rest of the world is moving on and women have become independent contributors to the societies they live in, the Syrian women of Khalifa’s novel still have nothing to do but cook for their menfolk and lay them out when they die.  And Fatima fails even at that.  The journey with the putrefying corpse takes days and there is nothing she can do to mask the smell, so nobody wants to eat the sandwiches she has made.

It probably sounds like depressing reading, but there is an absurdist flair in the plot and characterisation which mitigates it.  Like many a road movie, Death is Hard Work becomes an epic quest which is simultaneously heartbreaking and funny, and each checkpoint brings tension to the narrative.  As they leave Damascus the checkpoints are manned by regime soldiers who are agents for a vast bureaucracy of surveillance.  They are well-armed, officious, and confident about the extent of their power.  In the no-man’s land between Damascus and Aleppo the checkpoints are an alarmingly unknown quantity, but as they come closer to their ancestral town, they are met by people who regard them as brothers in adversity.  But their welcome is deceptive, because if Bolbol wants to return to his stagnant life in Damascus, then his contact with these rebels is perilous – even though it has been for the ultimate innocent purpose, burying a parent in his family plot.

And even Bolbol’s children will bear the burden:

In this country, people like to say, “The page doesn’t turn after death”; the dead pass on their actions and attributes to their children and through them to their grandchildren.  Everything you do is closely observed, and your official records may as well be locked behind an iron wall: impossible for any civilian to read or alter. (p. 130)

Highly recommended.

Author: Khaled Khalifa
Title: Death is Hard Work (Al-mawt ‘amal shaq, first published 2016) 
Translated from the Arabic by Leri Price
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2019, 180 pages
ISBN: 9780571346042
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from all good bookshops (RRP $27.99AUD) and from Fishpond where it is much less than that: Death Is Hard Work.


Responses

  1. Excellent commentary on this book. The book sounds like it is both engrossing and important, War is horror and madness. An absurdist streak often and understandably is part of such war narratives. In addition to all that, I think that we need to hear more voices from the war in Syria. Overall, Khalifa sounds like writer who is worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brian, thanks for dropping by:)
      I find it amazing that in the midst of it all, he can gather his thoughts to write something like this. I’m sure I couldn’t do it.

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  2. This sounds like a fascinating read, I’ll have to get my hands on the book.

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    • I saw it yesterday when I was in The Grumpy Swimmer in Elwood, so I expect it will be in any of the indie bookshops that stock a good range of translated fiction.
      *mutter* It’s just as well I don’t live in Elwood these days, I would have to have a mortgage just to pay for the books I want in that shop. It’s strange: you walk in, and they have all that stuff at the front that middle-class mothers buy for their children and also stuff for gifts, and you think, oh no where are the books? And then they are. And then the two minutes to get Home Fire which you want to read before hearing Kamila Shamsie at the Auckland Writers Festival turns into twenty minutes of blissful browsing and one book turns into four…

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  3. There are lots of things which are a great shame but America and Russia, and Turkey and Israel and Iran, fighting proxy wars in Syria is one of them. The ‘Middle East’ might have been so different. It’s hard to think of Syria as more than rubble these days though this book at least demonstrates that life goes on. I’m not sure though about ‘innocent purpose’. The journey from Damascus to Aleppo must be seen by the regime, and perhaps by the reader, as symbolic, an act of defiance even.

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    • Well, the character who makes the promise, and then the decision to fulfil it, is characterised as a stubborn sort of fellow, and determinedly anti-political. It’s not just that he has survived by staying under the radar, it’s that he has a mulish determination to live what passes for normal life even if that means turning a blind eye to things. His problem is that burying a father is an aspect of a ‘normal life’ and even though he resents his father for it, he still persists with it.
      There are references to other deaths and how the sheer weight of numbers means that they are not buried the proper way, and I think the author is asserting that there is something fundamentally human about honouring the dead. Scientists have dated civilisations by identifying burial rituals, after all.

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  4. […] torn apart by political conflict.  Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa (transl. by Leri Price, see my review) uses three siblings tasked with burying their father in his home town to symbolise the way civil […]

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