There is little joy or stability for the central characters in Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, now translated by Leri Price and published by Hoopoe this fall:
The book’s little-joy-ness won’t come to a surprise to fans of the award-winning Syrian novelist, nor really of anyone who has followed world news. This novel, like Khalifa’s previous In Praise of Hatred, takes a powerful emotion and traces it through the bloodstream of a family and a city.
Both In Praise of Hatred (2008) and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (2013) were shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. While In Praise follows hatred, the core state in No Knives is shame. There is no shortage of varieties of shame: of body, of one’s sexuality or lack of sexuality, of modest or immodest dress, of impoverished dress, of ugliness, of age, of illness, of disability, of vanity, of religion, of doubting one’s religion, of being complicit with the regime, of Syrianness, of having no “important” family roots, of people who talk incessantly about their roots.
Shame — as is clear in the novel — is the manifestation of fear when one stands out from the crowd in any way. It’s hard to escape, especially as the crowd is always changing its mind about which behaviors are acceptable and which are shameful. And fear grows larger and larger in Aleppo, the book’s main city, from the time of the Ba’athist coup.
Yet if there is one character who manages a somewhat equanimous life in all this, it’s Nizar, the narrator’s gay (or transgender?) uncle.
Twentieth-century depictions of gay characters in Arabic novels, as Frédéric Lagrange discusses in “Male Homosexuality in the Modern Arabic Novel” differed hugely from classical Arabic literature, where male homosexuality was often described in positive (raunchy, fun, normalized) terms. In twentieth-century novels and short stories — with important exceptions, such as Hoda Barakat’s Stone of Laughter — the male homosexual character was often a symbol for moral corruption or an unequal relationship with the West.
Nizar is certainly in No Knives because homosexuality represents a deviation from the herd, and as such brings fear and shame to his family — particularly to his obnoxious sister Ibtihal. At one point, the family turns Nizar over to the police. He’s imprisoned, where he feels the shame of being raped. But prison does not represent Nizar’s sexuality.
Nizar’s identity is, throughout, a bit fuzzy. He seems at first to be claiming a female and feminine identity. Later, he is male-identified but gay. Still later, he seems to neuter himself — with the exception of a few kisses — in order to live safely and comfortably. Regardless, Nizar is unquestionably the moral center of the novel. He is the only one who knows how to live in a self-positive, caring way. He takes care of his sister in her final illness, and he provides a safe refuge for other family members who stray in sometimes outrageous ways.
Homosexuality, in the novel, seems to be doorway — only partially opened — to discussing the toxic rigidities of masculine identity. Nizar is, for a time, the partner of a brutal man named Madhat, who turns him into a wife named Maha (even though Nizar wanted to be called Nahla). In the end, Madhat takes savage advantage of Nizar. Nizar’s life doesn’t turn around until he rids himself of Madhat. But it’s not just Madhat. Nizar “surprised us with his determination to rid his life of Madhat and all other men, saying, ‘Memories are enough for me.'”
After Madhat is kicked out of Nizar’s house, Madhat himself becomes “Maha” with another man.
However, the shame and limitations here are not portrayed as endemic to male homosexuality. After all, Michel goes to Paris and marries another man, with whom he seems to have a placid, comfortable, and altogether boring relationship. And while the novel’s non-hetero characters feel a bit fuzzy-edged at times, the depictions of gayness are, on the whole, positive.
Gay characters are certainly coming more to the page in Arabic literature. There are “incidentally gay” characters in books like Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise and Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut, and queerness that is inhabited with ease, as in Alexandra Chrieteh’s Ali and His Russian Mother. Also Mohamed Abdelnaby’s 2016 novel, In the Spider’s Room, which inhabits a character who was arrested as part of Egypt’s infamous “Queen Boat” case.
In No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Nizar is a strong character who does sometimes feel like an effort. But a positive effort, still.