What happens when the end is removed from Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred?
By Ina Kosova
Khaled Khalifa, speaking at Duke University in February 2016, suggested he had not been notified of his publisher’s decision to remove the fourth chapter from the English translation of In Praise of Hatred. The translator, Leri Price, said in a previous interview with ArabLit that, “Although I was aware that the editor wanted to make changes to the ending, I didn’t actually understand the proposed extent of the final revision until just before the book went into production.”
Khalifa’s novel, deprived of its original concluding chapter, is transformed by the publisher and reviewers into Orientalist ethnographicism, inviting audiences to a “peek inside” the harem. In reducing this novel to a memoir of the veiled, secluded Muslim female, in anachronizing it so that it becomes truth-effect of Syria’s present war, the text is stripped of its literary merit and the author of his creative product. Finally, by depriving the novel’s female narrator of a conclusion, she is left imprisoned in a stifling, claustrophobic internal and external praise of hatred, rendering this translation a particularly violent one.
According to Marilyn Booth, Orientalism, along with the material experience of the United States and UK in the Middle East, has produced what publishers assume to be a demand for texts that “reveal,” that “expose” some aspect of what audiences perceive to be a veiled and cloistered society. This results in what Booth has labeled Orientalist Ethnographicism, as a “way of seeing and writing the Other that grounds authority in a written narrative of personal experience” and that follows “a long Orientalist practice of privileging ‘Islam’ as explanatory framework for all social and political phenomena.” Fiction is rendered memoir; an author’s creative product is rendered ethnography. To present this “truth effect” of what that society “over there,” in the non-West, in the Orient, is really like is, according to Booth, “the veiled female face” which “has become a familiar visual trope advertising books in English (whether translated or not) on and from the Middle East.” This, of course, is nothing new. It was the hegemony of Western ideas about the Orient that, according to Edward Said, allowed Flaubert to represent the model of an Oriental woman despite the fact that she “never spoke of herself…He spoke for and represented her.”
And so, if we go back to the English translation of Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, focusing first on the book jacket, it becomes immediately apparent that fiction is made to function as truth effect. According to American and British book reviews, there is a tendency to homogenize the text, to treat it as “Third World” or “war-torn” literature that demonstrates for a Western audience what it is like to live in “one of those” places. For example, according to the Daily Nation, “It is a book worth reading right now, if you are among those who see the uselessness of the war in Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.” This type of a reading makes no mention of the aesthetic quality of the text and focuses entirely on its ability to “reveal.” But there is also a need to familiarize, to domesticate the text for the audience. Robert Worth, in The International Herald Tribune, writes “The book, a Balzacian tale full of romance and murder that ranges from Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria, was promptly banned.” Khalifa’s literary work is familiarized through comparison to Balzac, the literary canon; this comparison familiarizes by exclusion, by rendering In Praise of Hatred as the Other to the canon. But Worth also exoticizes, emphasizing the banning of the book in Syria; “THE FAMOUS NOVEL THAT WAS BANNED IN SYRIA” is, in fact, featured prominently on the back cover of the U.S. hardcover edition. Khalifa’s novel, located in Aleppo at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising against the regime in the 1980s, is, according to Swiss News, “powerfully reminiscent of the tragedy that is taking place in the Middle East.” Despite the fact that Khalifa, in an interview with Robert Worth, insisted, “he has no interest in social realism or didactic fiction” and that “his own aims are purely aesthetic,” not a single review on the novel’s back cover or those mentioned here consider Khalifa’s work as literature as such.
Furthermore, in these reviews, as well as in the U.S. edition’s cover art, the female narrator is made to engage the Orientalist generated binary of Islam and female emancipation. Peering out from the book cover is a pair of dark eyes, framed on all sides by a black abaya. The solitary female figure looks out, but she also invites a look in, enticing her audience’s gaze. The Swiss News describes the narrator as living “a secluded life behind a veil” while The Guardian’s Maya Jaggi claims, “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.” Here, we have the familiar association of the “secluded” and veiled Muslim female with women’s freedom/emancipation/liberation. Translator and professor Adam Talib, in his “Translating for Bigots” lecture, notes: “If you are a reader of modern Arabic literature…people date each other, have sex, people drink, take drugs.” If you “translate the character, an urban educated professional woman…the reviewer says, ‘well what an unrealistic depiction of Arab women.’” Khalifa’s text is rendered familiar and therefore realistic for U.S./U.K reviewers and publishers: the veiled, fundamentalist female character trapped in a world of violence and sectarianism, hinting at a desire for liberation. It is by excising the novel’s original fourth chapter that this entrapment occurs.
There is a sense of claustrophobia, of immurement, that permeates this novel. The once glorious, now fading, Aleppo house is stifling with its heavy furniture, its locked doors, and its memories of regret, longing, and weeping. As the siege of Aleppo begins, this sense of entrapment is heightened due to ever-present thoughts of death. Marwa, fascinated by embalmed butterflies, at “the sight of their wings affixed and outstretched in surrender” decorates the walls with “specially prepared wooden boxes resembling coffins.” The atmosphere outside the walls of the home is “oppressive, saturated with the fear of nameless chaos” while inside, there is “decay,” mouths full of “rot,” women resembling a “mummy.” The house is a coffin, a jar of embalming fluid, a tomb, a literal prison where Marwa is chained by her ankles to her bed. In the Mukhabarat prison, surrounded on all sides by filth, by the moans of women being tortured, by the lechery of the prison guards, the narrator notes, “We all looked for something which could save us from feeling that time lay heavily on us, that our lives were stuck in an inescapable rut.” After seven years of imprisonment, after being stuck in a perpetual, endless cycle of the praise of hatred, the English translation concludes inside of the Mukhabarat prison with the following lines:
I didn’t open my mouth. When he got up and handed me the piece of paper which authorized my release, he reached out to shake my hand, so I reached out to transfer the poison of my hatred. I shook the hand of my enemy and looked into his eyes, and I knew that he was dead.
The novel concludes with the same repressive repetition found throughout the narrative: death, imprisonment, hatred. This conclusion leaves unanswered, according to Professor Anne Marie McManus, a crucial question addressed in the fourth chapter: “Why, in 2006, did Khalifa as an artist find it necessary to depict this lack of cohesion between his narrator, free after years of torture at the hands of the state, and her society?”
In the Arabic original’s fourth chapter, the narrator’s interactions are tinged with a certain discomfort, a certain out-of-placeness; in fact, the narrator now performs a role that feels foreign to her. According to the narrator, the old house in Aleppo is macabre, Maryam and Radwan haunting its halls, obsessed with death and dying. “Maryam explained to the carpenter with difficulty her strange and pathetic request. ‘I want a casket she told him. A casket I can sleep in.” Nor can the narrator escape this immurement at the University. In describing her friend Safia and Safia’s lover, Dr. Hani, the narrator notes: “He locks the door, lies her on a blanket on the floor of the morgue after he had opened the cold metal boxes so that the dead bodies might see them making love on the floor.” This is a perversion of love, performed for an audience of cadavers in a morgue. There is even a horrific, foreign quality to the narrator’s meeting with Safaa, her previous confidant. When Safaa returns from Afghanistan, clothed in a burka, lauding the Sharia law of the Taliban, describing the clay house she now lives in, the narrator’s descriptions are prefaced by a repetition of the word “strange,” reflecting a deep chasm between Safaa, now the ardent believer and the narrator, still known to her family as the mujahida.
But there is a certain sense of light being allowed into the embalmed, petrified pages of this story as the narrator makes her way to London, where she works as a doctor. She describes herself walking through the streets of London, “free of my black clothes that had weighed so heavily for long years,” drinking, moving from bar to bar; “her carelessness gave [her] a sense of power.” But Khalifa is not providing us the Orientalist obsession of the unveiled, sexually liberated Muslim woman; if that were the case, why excise the fourth chapter? The original novel concludes with the following lines: “Alone, I went back to central London. Darkness settled and I still felt the numbness of my feet and in my body. Alone, I look for the pictures of the dead so I may exchange them with others like an ugly virgin lizard.” Here, once again, despite the distance between the narrator and her society, is the repetition of repression and death, themes that have haunted this novel.
But if the publisher found the fourth chapter redundant, it was by entirely ignoring what Khalifa manages to accomplish here. This is not a memoir of what it is like to be a woman in Syria, a woman in Islam, or a woman in a Third World country somewhere “over there.” This is not a struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and female emancipation; it is not a desire to unveil. The “unveiling,” if we want to call it that, is significant only insofar as it changes nothing. The recurring imagery of death and decay, from Syria to London, is what McManus calls Khalifa’s push to “Syrian readers to grapple with the reality that their society had been divided.” There is a vision of emancipation expressed in this novel, but it is not the one the cover art would like you to believe. This vision of emancipation demands a community comes to terms with its trauma, that it undertakes the process of its mourning. But despite this, despite the fact that Khalifa’s work portrays in excruciating detail the massacres and sectarianism of Syria in the 1980s, exploring the emergence and productive nature of a logic of hatred, this book still, in a violent translation, is reduced to just another veiled female face.
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Ina Kosova graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor’s degree in Arab Cultures and a Minor in Arabic in 2016. She will pursue an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford.