Asmaa Abdallah reviews Khaled Khalifa’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-longlisted No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. The book has already won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, and Abdallah is not surprised that this “powerful, morbid, and paralyzing depiction of a devastated and deteriorating Aleppo” would be so lauded:
By Asmaa Abdallah
“I shiver in sadness missing the life that has been,” Syrian writer Khaled Khalia said in a recent interview, describing the state his country has reached. It is upon this nostalgia and sense of loss that his latest novel No Knives in the Kitchens of this City is based. The novel has deservedly won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and is also longlisted for the IPAF 2014, and with his powerful, morbid and paralyzing depiction of a devastated and deteriorating Aleppo, it is not surprising that the novel has the same shiver-in-sadness effect on readers.
No Knives in the Kitchens of this City follows an ordinary Syrian family as it tries to survive the aftermath Baathist coup of the 1960s that marked the beginning of their descent into despair. The date of the coup also coincides with the birthday of the novel’s nameless narrator, whose only purpose in life, and the novel, is to stand witness to the demise of his city and family, and narrate it, occasionally reminding the reader that he too cannot escape the same fate.
Khalifa’s language is loaded with despair and heavy semantics. Everything in the novel is decaying, withering, ageing, dying; the characters are dark and depressed; they shriek in fear and disgust; helplessness and hopelessness trump all else. Khalifa’s descriptions come to life, or rather paint the picture of death, in a way that makes the reader’s soul cringe. I could almost see the filth on the ground, barely escape the hands of the harassers in the city’s alleys, smell the decay of the sick bodies awaiting their death, and suffocate from the lack of oxygen about which the main characters incessantly complain.
The novel raises questions about what happens when the place you call home loses every semblance of recognition? When its charm, warmth and lovely scents are replaced with ugliness, dreariness, and a nasty stench? When happy aspirations for an aristocratic life are replaced with descent into collective poverty? When dreams of grandeur give way to illusions of martyrdom? When memories stifle dreams before they are even born? When beauty and youth slowly wither in abandonment until they are completely wasted?
The only thing worse than death is a life that is merely a disguise for death, or as one of his characters says, “it is absurd to forge death and make it synonymous with life.”
This dissection and in-depth analysis of the psychological and material ills inflicted upon ordinary Syrians following the coup comes as part of Khalifa’s activism against the Assad regime. The novel never reaches the point where the revolution breaks out, although much of it was penned during the Syrian uprising. And coming out now, it can even be seen as a reminder of why the revolution was so necessary and inevitable, even though it may have left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced. But according to Khalifa’s novels, we learn that the only thing worse than feeling displaced in another city, is to feel displaced in your own. The only thing worse than death is a life that is merely a disguise for death, or as one of his characters says, “it is absurd to forge death and make it synonymous with life.”
And death is at the heart of this novel, metaphorical and literal death, death of people and death of a city. In fact, the city of Aleppo, Khalifa’s hometown, can be seen as the main hero of the novel. Not only is it the center around which all the characters revolve, trying to escape it only to return to it with longing and hate. But also, what happens to the city also happens to the characters. To delineate this parallelism, one of Khalifa’s secondary characters Boulos tells his fiancée that “Cities, like people, die.” And before it dies, the city, like people too, ages, and loses its liveliness. It festers and falls apart, losing all its beauty, like the female characters of the novel whose youth is wasted in waiting. It is only fitting then that the main character Jean chooses to translate is T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” so as to best reflect his everyday surroundings. But this is not the only Aleppo that exists in No Knives in the Kitchens of this City. Side by side is beautiful charming city that once was but exists only in the collective memory of its inhabitants.
It is only fitting then that the main character Jean chooses to translate is T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” so as to best reflect his everyday surroundings.
Nostalgia is one of the ways that Khalifa’s characters escape their dreadful lives. Alternately, some of the characters thrust themselves into the very forces that ruined the city and their lives. The young ardent Sawsan becomes an zealous supporter of the regime and takes pleasure in terrorizing her classmates and neighbors by threatening to inform against them and doing this indeed. Later in the novel, her brother, delicate musician Rashid joins forces with the opposing front, the Islamists, when he gives up his artistic pursuits and embraces radicalism and martyrdom in his fruitless search for a meaning for his life. Neither find solace, nor are they rewarded for their efforts. Both make their way back to their Aleppo, with a strong sense of shame that follows them for a long time. Their defeat leaves the reader feeling agonized at their situation, but almost in sympathy for the supporters of both camps who were left with no other outlet.
The shame that haunts Sawsan and Rashid is also rampant amongst the novel’s other characters, albeit for different reasons. Sawsan’s teacher Jean is ashamed to witness his colleagues’ acquiescence to the regime and their dancing to the tunes of the regime’s music. The mother is ashamed of having given birth to a mentally ill daughter who disrupts the semblance of a perfect, clean home. She is also ashamed of her husband’s family and their provincial lifestyle. The uncle Nezar is ashamed of his mere existence as a homosexual which is a source of embarrassment to his family members.
And since nothing can be done to alleviate the sense of shame or helplessness enough to allow them to live, most of the characters just wait for death, which proves to be more elusive than expected.
And since nothing can be done to alleviate the sense of shame or helplessness enough to allow them to live, most of the characters just wait for death, which proves to be more elusive than expected. The feeble and disabled Soad doesn’t die — against doctors’ expectations and her mother’s wishes. The mother herself doesn’t die although her body and mind have given way years ago, neither does Jean’s mother whose illness make an imminent death more likely.
This is the tragedy of not only one family, but of an entire nation. The sense of defeat and dysfunctionality is rampant among all Syrians, and is a direct result of the political situation and the deterioration of the city. In fact, we hear of at least two families who have suffered fates worse than the main family of Khalifa’s novel. There is the man who burns his wife and children before stabbing himself with the kitchen knife, to whom the credit of the title goes, when he wonders whether there were no knives for people to kill themselves in honor rather than lead such miserable lives. The other family is that of the colleague of the narrator who kills his wife and kids out of disgust at the lives they were leading. Shame and defeat are heavy legacies for Syria’s families.
Nothing breaks the morbidity of Khalifa’s novel. Not even Sawsan, whom Khalifa describes as joyful, energetic and free spirited, but without ever allowing this joy of hers to seep into the mood or the spirit of the text. The images are too haunting and vivid, and the characters’ pain is contagious and enduring.”
What does seep through the tiny cracks of decay and death is the search for love, and the hope it brings. Not a single love story in No Knives in the Kitchens of this City has not failed, miserably. Those who aspire to it do not find it, and suffer many losses in the process, leaving them with much physical and psychological damage. However, it is these characters who dared to search for love under such circumstances who were more likely to keep fighting for their chance at a normal life. They refused to bow down despite the losses, and resisted rather than just wait for death to come.
As Khalifa said in a recent interview “I live every day as the last day and I try to enjoy it with whoever is left in the city and with whatever means of pleasure are left.”
Asmaa Abdallah is a graduate student in English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo and has been writing for English-language publications in Cairo since 2006.