Syrian Novelist Khaled Khalifa: ‘I Have Always Wondered About the Ability of Some Writers To Remain Silent’

Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa — twice shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature — has been one of the few prominent Syrian writers who has refused to permanently leave the country. As he told ArabLit’s Rachael Daum in this interview, “I am willing to continue living in danger as I already did for over four years, but I could never bear to lose it.”  

Rachael Daum: I’ll dive right in: You have said that “silence is shameful.” Would you expand on that a bit? Do you think that there is writing, too, that is shameful?

Khalifa, currently in Italy, pictured with Editoriaraba journalist, scholar, and blogger Chiara Comito.

Khalifa, currently wrapping up a series of events in Italy, at center. Pictured with Editoriaraba’s Chiara Comito.

Khaled Khalifa: I have always wondered about the ability of some writers to remain silent while the body parts of their own people are strewn about: murdered or drowned, refugees or prisoners; when a regime destroys a country and kills civilians, with impunity and for its own survival. This silence is disgrace itself, and it will follow those writers as much as those who justify crimes in any name whatsoever. This is what happened in the Syrian case. I have thought a lot about those writers, revisited their personal and professional archives, and was appalled when I realized they have always been silent and have had long-lived partnerships with the regime. I felt ashamed about our own silence against their behavior and their justification of all this bloodshed even before it actually happened.

RD: You’ve said in another interview that your “bad habits” have gotten you through some of the tough times in Syria. What bad habits do you have, and how do you feel they’ve helped you? 

KK: Lethargy, my unhurried reactions, and my skepticism about the reported facts, all helped me go through tough times. When you live in a war, in the middle of the regime’s daily reproduction of hysterical fascism, you ought to acquire new habits in order to stop yourself from reproducing fear. Skepticism in everything being said helped me as well; truth, even when crystal clear, takes some time until it weaves itself into the past. Forgetfulness is one of my worst habits; one that, though it put me in some very awkward situations, helped me survive the weeks following a massacre that took place less than two miles away from my home. Such proximity makes you taste the knife blades on the necks of innocent children as you await your own death. Acceptance and forgetfulness do not necessarily mean letting go of the pursuit of justice and punishment; they only mean passing the time and saving yourself from death as possible. You, however, may not always succeed, but if you do, always be thankful for chance and not for your own good measures.

RD: You don’t just write books, but also television. How do your writing habits or styles differ in each medium? Are there different goals for you for either of them, or are they the same? 

KK: Novel writing differs quite a bit from scriptwriting. Writing for TV, I feel like everything is extended and, as a writer, I need only a portion of my imagination, let alone how others’ interference in one’s script makes it an ever-changing draft. Novel writing, on the other hand, is a whole different world, one that demands nothing less than your whole senses, your entire imagination, history, and future. This is not to demean the craft of scriptwriting, which employs different styles, techniques, and goals from those of novel writing; it is a sphere of which one ought to take advantage and explore, in addition to being a lucrative profession when compared to writing novels.

RD: Your novels and writing abound with powerful female figures — this is fantastic. How do you relate to them? And how do you relate to or feel about your male characters, conversely? Is there a big difference?

KK: An author must be fair in dealing with characters. Certainly, there are no differences in the engagement with male and female characters, but the latter give me a greater opportunity for discovery, where things have different meanings for women and for men. If we talked about concepts such as life and happiness, heroism and war, we will always find that meanings differ despite their superficial agreement in expressions and vocabulary. Beneath the surface, women always tend to produce life and happy details while men tend to produce violence. Besides, in an environment such as Aleppo, of which I wrote most of my novels, secrets for women are bestowed with an almost sacred quality; women would most likely refrain from expressing their opinion, but, on the other hand, would never give up their production of life according to their own perspective.

RD: How do you feel about contemporary Arabic literature, especially that emerging from Syria now? What do you think is being accomplished, and what needs to be accomplished? 

KK: I think that Syrian literature has begun to approach the taboos that prevailed in the past 50 years. For instance, we will be seeing many novels and books about the massacre of Hama, but those books will not necessarily gain significance. I support this sort of writing, since the idea that “quantity produces quality” is not always correct but useful in our case. The screaming phase has to be over before we begin to see good works. In general, instantaneous writing, i.e., writing documentations and testimonies, is the most dominant so far; there is great raw material waiting for skillful craftsmen to reproduce it into novels, films, stories, and poems.

RD: What is your relationship with your translators like? Do you read your works in translation? 

KK: Overall, my relationship with my translators is good. I always try to help them better understand my texts, and I understand their protest on my often long and difficult sentences. I understand the difficulty of my texts for translators, especially since I use overlapping narratives. I always promise them that I will keep them in mind when I write my next book but then I don’t, and they forgive me generously. Unfortunately, I cannot read my texts in their new languages because I can only read proficiently in Arabic, but I ask close friends of mine to do so and give me their feedback.

RD: You’re very tied to Syria, refusing to leave despite the violence and tough times that have fallen on it. Who do you feel you write for?

With the cover of his latest novel, Death is Hard Work. Photo from Hachette Antoine.

With the cover of his latest novel, Death is Hard Work. Photo from Hachette Antoine.

KK: As of now, I have been living outside Syria for 8 months after I received a fellowship from a Harvard University program called Harvard Scholars at Risk, from the Scholar Rescue Fund and the Institute of International Education (IIE). This fellowship has indeed helped me write in a much-needed safe place, but it also allowed me to reexamine my relationship with Syria: this is the first time I stay outside of Syria for an extended period of time “the fellowship is a 10-month program” and then I will return home. Syria is my only option for living, and I wish to never lose it under any circumstances. I am willing to continue living in danger as I already did for over four years, but I could never bear to lose it. What I know is very simple: When I am there, I feel I can do anything to help my people, even with as little as giving them hope if my stay there could give them a small drop of it. I am satisfied as many people express their good feelings about my books in Syria.

So, first and foremost, I write for all Syrians, despite their divided opinions on my books, which is a normal thing as we cannot speak of one type of Syrians, but they remain my first audience who understand the meaning of destruction of place and of the city, a concept on which I wrote my novel There are No Knives in This City’s Kitchens. Now they also understand the hardship of our life with a corpse in my novel Death is Hard Work and many other meanings that they find in all of my novels. I write for them, but I do not appease them.

RD: How did it feel for you to be awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature? What are your hopes for it? 

KK: It really gave me wonderful feelings, still lasting until this moment. What is more important is the circumstance in which I found myself banned from travelling to receive the award on time, and the reactions of many Syrians, many of which were very touching; Syrians considered it as their own award. At that time, I received more flowers than I did in my entire life from young men and women and readers I didn’t know personally. It was a time of compassion and love, and I wholeheartedly wish the award will last and continue to grow.

Translated from the Arabic by Ibtihal Mahmood. 

unnamedRachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.

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