The first International Prize for Arabic Fiction, dubbed the Arabic Booker and launched this year, will be announced in Abu Dhabi on 10 March. Al-Ahram Weekly reviews three of the shortlisted novels and talks to two of their authors
Towards the abyss?
Madeeh al-Karahiya (In Praise of Hatred), Khaled Khalifa, Damascus: Amisa, 2006. pp420
The appearance of Khaled Khalifa's Madeeh al-Karahiya (In Praise of Hatred ) among the six novels shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize is one of the many surprises of this prize, which is being awarded for the first time this year.
The announcement of the prize itself last year immediately gave rise to questions about how works would be selected and by whom. Initially, at least, the new prize gave rise to a certain amount of cynicism. However, such cynicism has been fast disappearing, and the appearance of Khalifa's novel on the shortlist will only add to this, since, aside from novels by well-known figures such as the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher and the Jordanian Elias Farkouh, the shortlist contains only works by lesser-known writers. This has been taken to mean that the jury intends to focus on the literary qualities of the novels shortlisted, rather than on the celebrity of their authors.
Khalifa comes from the 1980s generation of writers in Syria, but he is better known for his work as a television scriptwriter than he is as a novelist, and works for television by Khalifa have made major contributions to the boom in television drama that Syria has seen over the past decade. Among Khalifa's most important television works are Rainbow ( Kaws Kozah ) and Memoirs of Al-Jalali ( Serat Al-Jalali ), directed by Haytham Hacki. He has also written several documentary and short films, as well as one full-length feature, The Shrine Door ( Bab al-Maqam ), which was directed by the well-known film director Muhammad Malass.
These works have brought Khalifa the kind of fame that literature alone has denied him. However, success as a scriptwriter, though it has supported Khalifa financially, has not satisfied his literary ambitions, and in 1993 he published his first novel, Guard of Deceit ( Haress al-Khadeiaa ), following this in 2000 with a second novel, The Al-Qarbatt Notebooks ( Dafater Al-Qarbatt ). Both of these novels were well received by the critics, and today Khalifa is perhaps almost as famous for his literary works as he is for his television scripts.
Khalifa's place in Syrian literature is similar to that of younger writers such as Khalil Swaileh, Rosa Hassan Yassin, Menhal al-Serag and Samar Yazbak. It is no coincidence that most of these authors have been associated with the ideas of change put forward by various Syrian civil-society organisations. While the hopes invested in the "Damascus Spring" movement that took place in the country when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 proved short-lived, to some extent they live on in the literary works of these young authors. Many of them denounce what they see as the short-termism and corruption that hampers attempts at reform in Syria.
According to Khalifa, "it is no coincidence that novels such as Menhal al-Serag's Comme il faut for a River and Samar Yazbak's Clay criticise the grim lives we are obliged to lead. All of us were born and grew up under the Baath Party regime in Syria, and we know no other time about which we can write. However, we have been moved by the crises that our homeland has suffered, and we have not given in to despair."
In the novels of these young authors, Khalifa says, a whole generation "is writing, rejoicing, and expressing its frustration." This generation, he adds, "has managed to pick its way through the contemporary minefield and look at Syria in a detached way. I think the time is now ripe for a reconsideration of the history of the past 40 years, and this can be done in the Syrian novel."
In Praise of Hatred, first published in 2006 and then republished in 2007, has been described by the Arabic Booker Prize jury as distinctive for its author's narrative skills, here put to work to present the "dual repression" of a society that is living under an opressive regime and that has no access to democratic freedoms. Khalifa's language, the jury went on, is rich and multi- dimensional, and his characters are shown caught between the repressions of the present and anxieties about the future.
The novel is set in the city of Halab (Aleppo), presented here as similar to another Syrian city, Hamah, which was where armed confrontation broke out between the Baath regime and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Syrians refer to this confrontation as "the Events", a word that seems to sum up its fury and violence. Khalifa, however, keeps such violence in the background of his novel, preferring to focus instead on the inner lives of his characters and how these are related to the violence around them.
The novel tells the story of a Syrian family largely from the point of view of a young girl who has moved from her father's house to that of her grandfather, the latter's high walls making it look like a castle or fortress. This is a house that is full of the secrets of three generations, many of them known only to Radwan, a servant brought to the house as a young boy by the grandfather.
When not recounting the thoughts and feelings of one of its characters in first-person form, the novel is told by an omniscient narrator, whose distinctive voice allows the reader to gain insight into the pressures and contradictions that shape life inside this house. Life there is dominated by the wishes of fearful aunt Mariam, whose physical illness, never fully explained, is linked to disappointed sexual desires, now made up for by reading romantic novels, or, following the recipe of another aunt, Safaa, by listening to the yearning, emotional songs of Umm Kulthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez.
Outside the house, politics makes its entry at school, where some young people are attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood, while others are members of the official Baath Party. There is an atmosphere of mutual recrimination, and, for the Baath Party members at least, the denunciation of members of the Brotherhood to the authorities.
As a result of its presentation of unsavoury aspects of the ruling Syrian Baath Party, Khalifa's novel has attracted the attention of the authorities. The first edition of In Praise of Hatred was banned, causing the author to reissue it with another publisher. However, for Khalifa the banning of his novel is not necessarily only a bleak indication of the limits on freedom of expression in Syria.
"Many works examine the question of freedom of thought in Syria," he says. "What distinguishes these works is the way they deal with authority and the way they aim to widen the margins of freedom. There is discussion of freedom of thought in Syria. For my part, I consider the banning and un- banning of literary texts to be irrelevant to the question of their value. The mere fact that a novel has been banned does not necessarily add anything to its literary worth."
On the question of the novel's title, In Praise of Hatred, Khalifa says that a discussion towards the end of the novel gave him this idea. "The narrator talks about what she calls 'the pleasure' of hatred, outlining a kind of 'eulogy' of it. At first, I rejected the idea of using this phrase for the title of the book, but after discussing it with friends I got used to the idea and ended up liking it. One friend in particular read the novel in manuscript and described it as a kind of 'elegy' for contemporary Syrian history. That could have been an alternative title."
However, Khalifa's novel does not aim to "represent" history in the documentary sense of the word. Instead, it tries to show how history enters individual lives through the air they breathe, determining their characters and their destinies. History has repercussions on personal lives, and history, for the authorities, is a way of claiming a monopoly over truth. Yet history also has a horrific, public side, graphically described in the novel in the shape of the corpses strewn about the streets of Halab and Hamah, victims of military repression against a background of silence and fear.
Few people, even in the small world of the novel, are entirely innocent when viewed against this background. There is, for example, uncle Omar, who deals in arms, helping to feed the violence unleashed by one side against the other. There is also another uncle, Bakr, who is an organiser for the Muslim Brotherhood and fosters connections abroad in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Aunt Safaa, caught up in this religious trend, marries a Yemeni and takes to wearing a full veil. This is the same aunt Safaa who used to take pleasure in her surroundings and was always laughing and singing.
These things are seen in the perspective of "the Events" outside, and they underline the narrator's confusion. At one point, she is shown dreaming of religious martyrdom and of "being carried away by white birds". At another, she is shown behaving shamelessly with foreigners. "The great bend of events causes the characters to reconsider themselves," Khalifa says, "but events do not determine them."
"The period of 'the Events' was an obvious choice for a novel," he adds. "Above all, I wrote this novel in defense of the Syrian people and in order to protest against the suffering they have endured as a result of the religious and political dogmas that have tried to negate their ten-thousand-year civilisation."
"In my novel, I have written about the conflict between a religious party and a political party and regime, but I have also written about a 'conflict of dogmas', a pair of rigid ideologies that attack each other and promote hatred. In a way, one might say that the dreams of the Arabs are under threat today as a result of such dogmas, which, in one way or another, aim to sweep them into the abyss."
Interview & review by Sayed Mahmoud