Were Syrians wise to revolt? Aren’t they worse off now? Such questions misapprehend the situation. Syrians didn’t decide out of the blue to destroy a properly functioning state. The state had been destroying them, and itself, for decades. In No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Khaled Khalifa, poet, screenwriter and Syria’s most celebrated contemporary novelist, chronicles this long political, social and cultural collapse, the “incubator of contemporary demons”.
The story stretches back to the first world war and forward to the American occupation of Iraq, but our narrator’s “ill-omened birth” coincides with the 1963 Ba’athist coup. The regime starts off as it means to continue. The maternity hospital is looted and emptied of patients. The schools and universities are purged; only pistol-toting loyalist professors survive. Public and individual horizons shrink as the president’s powers grow through emergency law, exceptional courts and three-hour news broadcasts covering “sacred directives made to governors and ministers”.
The novel follows a large, well-drawn cast – a family, their friends, enemies and lovers – back and forth across three generations. This multiple focus and enormous scope turns the setting, Aleppo, into the novel’s central character. “Cities die just like people,” Khalifa writes. So ancient neighbourhoods are demolished and fields give way to spreading slums.
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City won the Naguib Mahfouz medal for literature. As in many of Mahfouz’s novels, Khalifa’s urban environment develops a power somewhere between metaphor and symbol: “The alley was witness to the destruction of my mother’s dreams, and the idea of this alley grew to encompass the length and breadth of the country.”
During the early 1980s war between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, Aleppo became “a place of retribution”. This conflict was the setting for Khalifa’s earlier prizewinner In Praise of Hatred, but here the focus moves from political violence to the social and psychological violence – harassment, rape and suicide – that comes in its wake.
The narrator’s uncle, Nizar, is one of several gay characters. Scorned by half the family, once imprisoned for “sodomy” and raped in jail by an imam, he finds brief freedom in Beirut, until his money runs out. Khalifa believes “it is the duty of writing to help break down taboos and clash with fixed and backward concepts”. He is by no means the first Arab novelist to write about homosexuality, but he treats the topic with greater sensitivity and sympathy than, for instance, Alaa al-Aswany does in The Yacoubian Building.
Nizar’s niece, Sawsan, who is “irrepressible”, swings between the extremes available. As a student, she joins a regime militia, informs on her friends and forcibly removes hijabs. After sojourns in Dubai and Paris, she returns home, has her hymen repaired and immerses herself in prayer. Her brother, Rashid, an accomplished violinist, experiences a similar trajectory. At first he wears earplugs and disdains “the herd”; later, he throws himself into it, pursuing jihad in occupied Iraq.
Shame is a key theme, and the general rage for orthodoxy: sexual, religious and political. A woman is stripped naked in the street for refusing to wear a badge bearing the president’s face. And Aleppo’s “capitulation to shame [is] made manifest in the posters and slogans and symbols hung on its walls”.
The writing is superb – a dense, luxurious realism pricked with surprising metaphors
It is not surprising, in this context, that the characters are often depicted toiling hard to forget their desires, ugly compromises or snatches of happiness. But their willed forgetfulness contributes to the city’s destruction: “Aleppo itself was as ephemeral as the act of forgetting; anything which remained of its true form would become a lie, reinvented by us day after day.”
So, argues Khalifa, people must commit to a desperate remembering. The past is “the sole reason for living”, narrated “in revenge for a present” too terrible to contemplate. The novel (and Khalifa too, writing from Damascus) recalls Aleppo’s cinemas and haute cuisine, music recitals and bar culture, prostitutes and shrines. It often sounds like an elevated form of gossip, each story generating more stories, every anecdote opening into further digression. It has the sense, too, of a lament: four out of five chapters, with an obsessive circularity, begin with the narrator’s mother’s death.
No Knives in the Kitchens of this City is intricately plotted, chronologically complicated and a pleasure to read. The profusion of characters defuses its narrative urgency, but gives it psychological and social depth. The writing is superb – a dense, luxurious realism pricked with surprising metaphors. It is lyrical, sensuous and so semantically rich that at times it resembles a prose poem, an effect occasionally marred by slightly clumsy translation. A sad but beautiful book, providing important human context to the escalating Syrian tragedy.
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Published on The Guardian here.