The empty streets of Aleppo

by Ronald Düker

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

The longer this war grinds on, and it's been almost ten years now, the more stereotypical get the images of Syria that the world sees. Rows of houses that bombs have turned into skeletons, the fireballs of nightly explosions, the newly homeless people carrying their newborns through the rubble. Plus the game of strategy played by world leaders: Assad, Putin and Erdoğan shaking hands, another security conference, an expert indicating on a map the position of constantly shifting front lines between a confusingly large number of different warring parties.

Meanwhile, people are killing and dying. And Syrians live in the void. But who is talking about them? Perhaps no one does like Khaled Khalifa, the writer born in Aleppo in 1964. In his homeland he is as famous as he is ostracised. He has written scripts for films and five novels. Awarded with one of the most renowned literature prizes the Arab world, his books only circulate in Syria in the form of pirated copies. And, especially for western readers, there is the unusual fact that Khalifa does not live in exile, but remains in Damascus, making him a credible chronicler of his country.

The first person narrator is born in the very week of 1963 of Assad’s military coup

The novel Death is Hard Work which was translated into German two years ago (and English in 2019) earned an enthusiastic reception. It tells of the journey of three siblings—and their recently deceased father’s coffin—to their home village where his funeral is set to take place. The story illuminates both the lay of their country, split by thousands of checkpoints, as well as a family story in which the civil war is just the last and most brutal event to strike them. And soon Khalifa’s new novel »No Knives in the Kitchens of This City« will be published in German. Once again, it is a family saga, this time following the death of the mother and spanning three generations. It ends shortly before the civil war and takes its time to inform readers, even in times of war, about recent decades. The first person narrator is born in the very week of 1963 of Assad’s military coup. He speaks of the nurses’ sympathy as they watched the movements of his tiny hands while Aleppo’s streets were swept empty as officers from the Ba’ath Party took control. The narrator’s mother is an educated city dweller who is passionate about Vivaldi, Paris and the tango. His father, on the other hand, is a melancholic alcoholic from the countryside who ran off with an American archeologist. His Uncle is gay.

It’s hard to what leaves the bigger impression in this novel: the shame felt within a family or the paranoia at work within a society. This country in which the mother warns her children about the secret agents “who also sat on the leaves of trees”. We are told that even a commentary about the rising price of parsley could be interpreted as political criticism by a spy, while speaking about death would suggest that you weren’t living happily under the regime. From death as a taboo topic to death as an everyday reality, this highly readable novel illustrates why this society wanted just this revolution, without suspecting how serious things would get.

Keine Messer in den Küchen dieser Stadt (engl. Version: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City), By Khaled Khalifa, Rowohlt, Hamburg, 2020.
Translated by Jess Smee

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