I was honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the English translation of Khaled Khalifa‘s third novel, In Praise of Hatred– set in Syria in the 1980s and essential background reading for the current tragedy. Four paragraphs of the introduction are reprinted below, and then Maya Jaggi’s review in the Guardian.
So how brave and necessary it was to write a fiction of the events. In our narrator’s harsh euphemism, Alawis are “the other sect” and the Ba‘ath Party is “the atheist party”, but the historical references are unmistakeable. Khalifa plays one of the noblest roles available to a writer: he breaks a taboo in order to hold a mirror to a traumatised society, to force exploration of the trauma and therefore, perhaps, acceptance and learning. He offers a way to digest the tragedy, or at least to chew on its cud. In this respect he stands in the company of such contemporary chroniclers of political transformation and social breakdown as Gunter Grass and JM Coetzee.
In purely literary terms as well as politically, the novel rises to a daunting challenge: how to represent recent Syrian history, which has often been stranger and more terrible than fiction.
For a start, it’s a perceptive study of radicalisation understood in human rather than academic terms. It accurately portrays violent Islamism as a modernist phenomenon, a response to physical and cultural aggression which draws upon Trotsky, Che and Regis Debray as much as the Qur’an, and contrasts it with the more representative Sufism of Syrian Sunnis.
Next, it examines the dramatic transformations of character undergone by people living under such strain, the bucklings and reformations, the varieties of madness. The characters here are fully realised and entirely flexible, even our bitter narrator, and their stories are told in a powerfully rhythmed prose which is elegant, complex, and rich in image and emotion. There is musicality too in the rhythm of the episodes, the subtle unfolding of the plot.
And here’s Maya Jaggi’s review:
Syria’s second city is besieged in Khaled Khalifa’s momentous third novel, which appears in English with a grim timeliness. “Bodies on both sides fell like ripened berries” in a city where death is “as commonplace as a crate of rotten peaches flung out on to the pavement”. These passages may read like a description of today’s Aleppo, in northern Syria, riven and bombarded. But In Praise of Hatred, first published in 2006 and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fictionin 2008 (by which time it had been banned in Syria and republished in Lebanon), is set three decades ago, when President Bashar al-Assad’s father was battling earlier opponents.
That challenge to the regime of Hafez al-Assad in the late 1970s led to its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and culminated in a massacre in Hama in 1982. Though the novel alludes to those killings, its setting is Aleppo’s longer war of attrition between Islamist rebels and the Mukhabarat, or secret police, in a city once famed for cosmopolitanism and tolerance. Its timeliness lies partly in uncovering the roots of sectarian enmity in traumatic events that are still officially taboo.
The unnamed narrator is the youngest in a family of cloistered, well-to-do women in an ancient city of olive groves. The girl’s rebellious younger aunts try to save her from the pious severity of the eldest (smoking “is horrible, but it’s not haram“, they insist). Yet, taught that women are “animated dirt”, and swayed by uncles versed in political Islam, the pubescent narrator curbs her girl crushes (“desire rose in me like sap through a tree”) and succumbs to hatred of the “other sect”. Though unnamed, this Shia sect is the Alawite minority that dominates the ruling party with a self-serving veneer of secularism. The girl’s family is of the Sunni majority. Her sentimental education is taken up by groups of women: tambourine-bashing Islamists; peers at school who mock her “penguin” attire as they pursue doomed affairs with torturers; and later companions in prison – whether desirous of turning the country Islamic green or communist red.
The aunts are gloriously vivacious and nuanced creations, from Maryam, at war with her own “filthy and rebellious” body, to Marwa, a Juliet figure, chained to her bed to prevent her marrying an officer of the other sect. As party spies multiply, a geography teacher has her clothes torn off for failing a pupil from a Mukhabarat family. In the siege of Aleppo, a fugitive throws himself into a red-hot bakery furnace rather than risk torture. A secret police chief modelled on the president’s brother is a chilling cameo.
The regime and its enemies appear to feed off each other; in quashing the freedom to question, dictatorships stoke the fanaticism of their opponents. There are atrocities on both sides, from the killing of raw Alawite cadets, to the desert-prison massacre in which the girl’s brother is killed, when troops “cold-bloodedly opened fire on the prisoners, whose brains they splattered all over the walls and ceilings … More than 800 prisoners had been killed in less than an hour.”
While sectarian thinking is revealed as brainwashing, the girl’s viewpoint makes for a relentless narrative. At times I wished that Khalifa, a successful screenwriter, had given freer rein to his gift for dialogue, to allow the lesser characters more air. Yet relief comes in the final section, set in women’s prisons, when the narrator’s delusions are stripped away. Marxists and Islamists share dry bread and “lewd talk” with prostitutes, who pity the politicals – their scars from “whips, electrodes and cigarettes would remain as tattoos, which even henna patterns couldn’t hide”. Most moving is the young woman’s dawning understanding of her father, a despairing dissenter against “sectarian fever”, who packed his bags for Beirut. He “spoke of torturers and corrupt statesmen who belonged to our sect and, in contrast, of men from the other sect who had defended our right to speak the truth”.
If her hatred is born in part of self-loathing, the novel hints at a tolerance that flows from self-acceptance – and has women’s freedom firmly at its heart. As Robin Yassin-Kassab notes in a perceptive foreword, the author had his left hand broken by “regime thugs” at the fraught funeral of a murdered musician in Damascus earlier this year. Fortunately, as Khalifa has pointed out, he writes with his right.