Bashar al-Assad and Khaled Khalifa share a commonality. They are both Syrian nationals of the same generation. Similarities stop there.
Assad, aged 58, is known for brutal repression, selling off his country to foreign powers and in neighboring Lebanon, political hegemony and assassinations.
Khalifa, aged 59, is widely recognized as a prominent contemporary Arab author.
Despite being Syrian nationals of the same generation, the two men took drastically different paths.
While one chose mass murder as a vocation, the other transformed the death and destruction into literature that condemned the tyranny and Islamist extremism, which plagued Syria for several decades.
On May 27, Khalifa summed his resistance to oppression in a Facebook post: “We will continue to sow hope and love, despite the relentless praise of hatred.”
On Saturday evening, the novelist died after experiencing cardiac arrest.
His passing was met with profound sadness within cultural and activist circles on social networks.
“Khaled was simply irresistible,” said Yasmina Jreissati, Khalifa’s agent. “He had an enormous appetite for life, and great literary and artistic curiosity.”
“He did a lot of research, maintained an optimistic outlook and cherished people,” she added. “He was a weaver of worlds.”
Jreissati recounted that she first met Khalifa in 2005. “He could already see himself conquering the world with his literature,” she said.
“He had incredible faith, not in himself, but in the idea that opportunities would present themselves and open doors for him,” she added. “This belief gave him great strength.”
Born in 1964 in the village of Maryamin near Aleppo, Khalifa was the fifth out of nine boys and four girls.
His father worked as a policeman, which involved extensive travel, before retiring in 1965 and dedicating the rest of his life to olive cultivation.
When he was a law student, Khalifa would return to his village during harvest seasons to help out.
At university, Khalifa actively participated in the Aleppo University Forum, a literary festival held twice a year for four days, in April and October. This experience helped him showcase his full creative potential.
“By the mid-80s, the forum had gained a solid reputation beyond the city and its university,” said Syrian writer Omar Khaddour, who knew Khalifa during their student years. “The forum’s poetry part, in which Khaled actively participated, had drawn the attention of a few people from outside Syria.”
Khalifa’s inclination for writing started much earlier.
“The first poem he took pride in was published in al-Thawra newspaper when he was just a grade 11 student,” Khaddour said. “The poem was dedicated to an older friend whom he regarded as a symbol of rebellion.”
During his student years, the forum served as a platform for poetic expression. It accomodated a diverse range of literary currents, ranging from experimental forms to more traditional styles.
"Khaled found himself somewhere in between,” Khaddour said. “With left-wing leanings, he was closely associated with the clandestine opposition circles of the Communist Action Party.”
“In his writings during that period, his ideological concerns may have rivaled his literary pursuits,” Khaddour added.
This period of his life, however, was short-lived.
Left-wing opposition to the Baathist regime dwindled after a wave of mass arrests was launched in 1987. The momentum generated by the forum waned.
In the early 90s, Khalifa co-founded the modernist magazine, Alef.
“During the time the magazine was being publish, there was a growing trend for literary works that defied traditional classifications,” Khaddour explained. “The magazine was interested in this kind of production, and I believe Khaled was influenced by this atmosphere, writing texts that were somewhere between poetry and prose.”
This period marked Khalifa’s first novel, “Hares al-khadi’a” (The the Imposter Guardian). Published in Beirut in 1993, the book holds a unique spot in Khalifa’s work.
“In this novel, the focus is primarily on the language itself, rather than on the narrative or characters, as is often the case in traditional novels,” Khaddour explained. “It was an experimental work and I recall that he was enthusiastic about the idea, although he abandoned it in his later works.”
A painful memory
Concurrently, Khalifa embarked on a successful career as a screenwriter in the 1990s, making a name for himself by writing for various TV soap operas, including Kaws qozah and Sirat al-Jalali.
However, it was his novel “Madih al-karahiya” (In Praise of Hatred), published in 2006, that firmly cemented his position within both Arab and international literary landscapes.
This profound work dismantled the facade of the Baathist regime’s pseudo-secularism long before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising.
The book that tells the story of a young Sunni woman from Aleppo who is drawn into a deadly vortex of radical Islam and anti-Alawite hatred in reaction to the ruling clan’s ruthless repression. It took Kahlifa 13 years to complete the story.
“Khaled Khalifa recounts the violence that pitted regime forces against jihadists in the 1980s,” said Rania Samara, who translated Khalifa’s works into French. “The Syrian revolution had not yet taken place.”
“He was one of the first novelists to evoke the real situation in Syria, that of imprisonment and disappearances (…) Before that, writers didn’t speak out so boldly,” she said.
“In his literature work, love and death are very closely linked: we might die from love, but without love, death is perhaps more certain,” she continued.
“Love is to be understood in the broader sense of passion,” she explained “It is this passion that gives meaning to life.”
Samara further explained: “You can love a person or be passionate about a cause, like the character from ‘In Praise of Hatred’ who embraces jihadism.”
“That’s why Khaled’s characters often fluctuate and transform from one extreme to another,” she said.
Translated into six languages and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, the book is, of course, banned in Syria.
In any case, Khalifa continued to forge ahead with his novels. He unearthed painful memories, enduring but unspoken hatred, and political and religious taboos that held sway in a realm of fear and silence.
In 2013, he was honored with the Nagib Mahfouz Prize for “La sakakine fi matabikh hadhihi al-madina” (No Knives in the Kitchen of this City), published in 2016. The story traces the decade-long history of a family residing in Aleppo under the Baathist regime.
“You can sense the influence of his work as a screenwriter in his novels, his familiarity with crafting a multitude of characters from all walks of life,” Samara said.
“There are countless characters in his works; one time, he even introduced a new character just two pages before the end,” she said. “I told him, ‘You can’t do that; it’s not a TV series.”
Death and national memory
In 2016, Khalifa released “al-maout aamal chaq,” translated into French as “La mort est une corvée” (Death is Hard Work) two years later.
Death, as the book title suggests, serves as the central character. The narrative, corrosive and merciless, revolves around the journey of three Damascene siblings forced to embark on a road trip to bury their father in his hometown of Anabiya, in respect of his final wishes.
In times of peace, such a journey might appear routine. However, in a Syria that is war-torn and sectarianism-stricken Syria, it takes on an entirely different dimension. As the body is transported from one location to another, it begins to decay, as if to mirror the state of the nation.
“The dead turn into waste. But they couldn’t wash their hands of their father's mortal remains, despite the fact that they had become waste. They couldn't erase him from their lives like a thing of the past. Acidic memories lingered on, digging into their insides and covering their hearts with brown stains,” Khalifa wrote in the book.
“These ‘brown stains’ that cover the ‘heart’ and dig into the ‘entrails’ are rooted in an old symbolic order and the narrative in the book elucidates the analogy upon which it rests,” remarks Catherine Coquio, a professor of comparative literature at Université Paris-Cité, in her 2022 book “À quoi bon encore le monde? La Syrie et nous” (What good is the world anymore? Syria and us.).
“In this context, the body represents the soul and feces symbolize both family and national memory,” Coquio said. “Such is the ‘essence’ Khalifa conveys through the ‘decayed loves’ among the siblings.”
Staying at all costs
Unlike many Syrian artists and intellectuals, Khalifa made the challenging decision to remain in Syria, choosing to live in Damascus.
“Politically, he knew how to navigate various contexts,” Jreissati said. “He was partly protected by his fame.”
“However, he consistently voiced his convictions against the regime in the international media,” she added.
In an interview with Arablit Quarterly Magazine in April 2016, Khalifa reflected on his ongoing contemplation of how some writers can remain silent “when the remains of their own people are scattered: when they are murdered or drowned, when they become refugees or prisoners, and when a regime destroys a nation and kills civilians with impunity, all for its own survival.”
“Over the past 10 years, many producers refused to work with him because of his stances,” Samara said. “He used to tell me, ‘I don’t know what to do; I can’t do anything but write.’”
“And then, two years ago, when I met him in Damascus, he told me he had started painting,” she added.
Despite the violence, the loss of his loved ones and the banning of his novels, Khalifa never wanted to go into exile. He didn’t want to melt into the mass of refugees, to be reduced to a number, be it in Lebanon or Europe.
“He suffered greatly from losing friends, seeing them leave or die, and witnessing the disintegration of his social world,” Jreissati said. “He was someone who liked to surround himself with people, who greatly believed in friendship.”
“So, finding himself isolated in Syria at a given moment was a source of grief,” she added.
Khalifa, whose work was translated into a dozen languages, and who consistently drew large audiences when he gave talks in Italy and Germany, had the opportunity to leverage his fame to relocate elsewhere.
“He couldn’t bear the idea of being a refugee,” Jreissati said. “At the same time, it was difficult for him to stay [in Syria]; he took part in several writers’ residencies and traveled a lot.”
“I think he found a balance in Latakia, where he bought a small house by the sea,” she said. “It was a refuge for him because he had a great passion for the sea.”
In his most recent novel in 2019, “Lam youssalli aalayhim ahad” (No One Prayed Over Their Graves), Khalifa sets the plot in the late 19th century, in a fading Ottoman Empire beset by ethnic and religious tensions.
The book tells the story of Hanna, a young Christian, who flees a massacre and finds refuge in Aleppo with a wealthy Muslim family. He befriends Zakariya, the son of the family. The two protagonists grow up together, but over the course of seven decades, their relationship is tested by war, religious extremism, intolerance and disasters of all kinds.
In an interview with the Guardian in June 2023, Khalifa was asked what Syrians can learn today from his Aleppine characters. He responded that they should revisit history. “They should ask themselves,” he said. “Who expelled the Syrian Christians and Jews – the children of our homeland — from their city, and who sabotaged their great industrial project and their attempt to become part of the civilized world?”
“Who decided that democracy was off-limits in Syria?” he asked.
In 2012, as the Syrian Civil War raged on, Khalifa expressed his heartbreak in an open letter in Le Monde.
He writes: “My people are a people of peace, of coffee, of music, which I hope you will one day savor; of roses, whose perfume I hope will one day reach you, so that you may understand that the heart of the world is today exposed to genocide and that the entire world is complicit in the bloodshed,” he wrote.
“I can say no more during this difficult time, but I hope you will act in solidarity with my people in whatever way you see fit.”
The international community remained silent.
The rest was history.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient Le-Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.