July 18, 2011
Literature and politics: A conversation with Khaled Khalifa

Literature and politics: A conversation with Khaled Khalifa

Khaled Khalifa: “In Praise of Hatred”, By Allston Mitchell
This interview was for The Global Dispatches.
Photo Credit: Aiham Dib.

Khaled Khalifa, author of the novel “In Praise of Hatred”, talks about his literary influences and Syria’s ongoing struggle for democracy. Already published in French, Dutch and Italian, the novel is set to be published in English in 2012.
Khaled Khalifa’s Biography. 
Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964, in a village close to Aleppo, Syria. He is the fifth child of a family of thirteen siblings. He obtained a degree in Law and actively participated to the foundation of Aleph, a magazine, with a group of writers and poets. A few months later, the magazine was banned by the Syrian censorship. He currently lives in Damascus where he writes scripts for cinema and television. Khalifa’s ‘In praise of Hatred’ was among the six finalists for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or Arab Man Booker Prize, held in Abu Dhabi in March 2008. “In Praise of Hatred” has been published in French (Sindbad, Actes Sud, May 2011), Italian (Bompiani, May 2011), Dutch (De Geus, June 2011).

Can you tell me a little about your background, about your family, where you were brought up and educated?
I was brought up in a peasant family from a small village. In the 50s my parents decided to move to Aleppo for the sake of the children’s education. They were in pursuit of a better life, though they still maintained their rural ties. I had twelve brothers and sisters, and such a crowded environment made me want to branch out on my own. My older brothers helped me discover the arts, literature and politics which, along with social and cultural diversity, have been the key influences on my life. I studied at schools in Aleppo and in 1988 graduated from the law department of the Aleppo University which has a long and distinguished tradition.

When and how did you become interested in literature and writing?
I discovered literature early in life. My decision to devote myself to writing caused something of an earthquake in my family which only subsided when I assured them that I would not be a financial burden. I wrote poems when I was a child, and had had works published in various newspapers by the time I was 16. At university, after turning 20, I realized that I preferred writing prose. This discovery changed my whole life and was one of the reasons why I have not published poetry, unlike my friends and other members of my generation. I saw poetry as a good preparatory exercise for writing prose.

Can you tell me about your latest book ’In Praise of Hatred”, when it was first published and the various translations and about being short listed for the Arab Booker prize?
The idea of the book occurred to me when Aleppo was living through a difficult time. I was still young and in the process of developing as a poet. I started to write the novel in 1993 and continued writing it for 13 years until the book was published in 2006. This novel was short-listed for the Arabic Booker Prize which helped attract some attention. It has been translated into French (Actes Sud), Italian (Bompiani), Dutch and also is being translated into Norwegian, Spanish, and of course, English.

“In Praise of Hatred” is the story of a family involved in the insurrection of the 1980s when Hafez Al Assad ordered reprisals for a failed assassination attempt. What is the historical background to the book exactly? Why did you chose “hate” as the key to your novel?
It is a story of a family or, if you prefer, a country that had been oppressed and isolated for a long time. It is also a story about a transformation affecting many people at a certain historical moment, and about their search for an identity during a difficult period that has yet to be fully understood. The eighties were just such a time for Syrians, years that many would like to turn the page on, though it hasn’t been turned yet. “Hatred” was chosen not by myself but by the female character of the book as a way of telling us about the personal transformations that come about when humans fail to communicate or ignore each other, despite living in the same country and under the same sky.

The book was banned in Syria but republished in Lebanon. What official reason was given for the book being banned?
As I have said many times, the ban itself is not important, as the book reached Syrian readers through various other channels. In my view, the main reason for the ban was that “In praise of Hatred” is a novel about a time no one is allowed to examine in detail. The book crossed the red line, while everyone was hoping that the pain of the eighties would sink into oblivion, by not bringing to account those who have the blood of innocent people on their hands, and by not opening the files which would make it possible to discuss frankly the actions of the militants on both sides.

I imagine that your giving a “human face” to the Mujahidin was not well received.
It was not well received by leaders of political factions and others, however, the readers accepted it. This is the goal of literature – to awaken tolerance when others are thinking of revenge or trading in the clichés used by warmongers.

What are your literary influences? Would you place yourself in a Syrian tradition of writing, a more general Middle Eastern tradition or are you just an independent writer?
My greatest influence has been the varied environment in which I have lived, the books I have read, and the difficult times through which my generation lived and which moulded us, as we used literature to combat all attempts to bring us to heel on the part of the authorities who were seeking to strengthen their grip on Syrian society. Even now I cannot identify all my influences, but I do know that it was my many years of dedication to work which made me a writer, as well as my faith in my people, in their heritage and culture.

Your influences are cited as being Faulkner and Marquez, is this true?
I often say that these two masters had the greatest influence on my work, in addition to Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller and Dostoyevsky. This list could be extended, but Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner remain at the top. I seek to write just such penetrating and extraordinary literature as they did without, of course, wishing to imitate them.

Is there a contemporary Syrian literary scene? Hanna Mina, Haidar Haidar and yourself and Salim Barakat for example?
In my view, the Syrian contemporary literature scene is very lively. Apart from the writers you mentioned, who have influenced me significantly, I would also mention the following representatives of my generation who, with other Arab authors, are currently at the very centre of the literary scene: Mamdouh Azzam, Samar Yazbek, and Rosa Yasmin Hasan.

’What is your next literary project? I have heard you are working on a book called “Parallel Life” (Hayat Muaziya).
Yes, I have been working on this project for a number of years. However, in recent months in which I planned to complete the book, my friends and I have been occupied by the Syrian revolution, and before that by the revolutions in other Arab countries. However, I feel the book is coming to an end and should be finished within a year at most. It is a sad and tragic story about life in Syria from 1970 until today.

You also work in films and for television, is that correct?
Yes, I worked in TV for many years, writing ten TV serials (around 200 television hours) and one film. I also have a script ready to be produced. However, I’m now going to dedicate most of my time to writing novels. There are many things I want to write so it’s unlikely I will have time to work in TV.

How would you describe the opposition movement in Syria, a mixed group of frustrated people like in Egypt or something more organised?
The movement in Syria is less organised than in Egypt. However, it has to face harsher conditions than any other. From the beginning of the revolution, the revolutionary youth started to self-organize and made a lot of progress in this field. Events in Syria started as a protest, then became an insurgency and are now at the revolutionary stage.

Does the opposition have specific demands? Is the Syrian uprising similar to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt?
The demands of the Syrian people are similar to the demands advanced by all the Arab revolutions: democracy, justice and a free civil society. No doubt, there are parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and what is happening in Syria. However, the regime and the role of the army are different which makes the task of overthrowing the regime more complex.
As you know, information is hard to obtain about recent events in Syria.

There seems to be a terrible parallel with what happened in Hama and Jisr al-Shughour during the eighties. Is the army and the regime out to teach everybody a lesson or is the situation out of control?
From the start of the revolution the regime opted for a security crackdown, thinking it was still in the 1980s. However, the courage shown by the people, first in Der’a and then in Hama and Jisr ash-Shughur, brought the regime into collision with the international community. The authorities found themselves complicit in bloodshed as Syrians courageously sacrificed themselves for the sake of their freedom. I don’t think that the regime will be able to control the situation by using the same means as in the eighties.

With Syria under the spotlight, the social divisions between Sunnis and Alawis in particular – but also the presence of Christians, Kurds and Armenians – lead people to worry about a break up of society if the Ba’ath regime were to crumble. Are these worries exaggerated?
I think the regime tries to play this card. There is an exaggerated fear of democracy, but democracy is in fact the ultimate and ideal solution for protecting all minorities. During the last three months the Syrians have proved that they are not going to embark on the path of sectarian violence despite attempts to incite it. This is a truth that everyone must understand, and Syrian history bears eloquent witness to this fact.

Is this all about the Alawi minority maintaining its hold on power or is the situation more complex?
The problem is more complex. This regime is more a family regime than a sectarian regime and it is using every possible means to delay its own collapse. Linking the regime to the idea of stability, as the big powers do, makes the situation more complicated and serious. This is what happened with Mubarak and other regimes, which were deemed necessary by external powers but not by their people. Arabs are fed up with oppression, with being outside history, with criminal leaders who hold their countries hostage to external political interests.

Many western governments worry about radical Islam but as your book suggests radical Islam and despotism almost depend on each other. Now a third party (the democratic movement) has emerged on the political scene? Has this upset the balance of power in Syria?
Yes. To some extent this can be seen by looking at the examples of Egypt, Tunis, Yemen and Libya. The West has limited itself to supporting dictators with the aim of securing its own interests. I think that the future should be based on the logic of sovereignty, and not on that of hegemony and stable dictatorships. It is a shame to think that human heritage can be measured by dollars and barrels of oil.

I am presuming nobody in Syria wants a Libyan style intervention, is that right?
There have been three months of peaceful demonstrations despite the bloody response from the authorities, and despite all the victims, refugees and prisoners. I think this is sufficient to convince the world that we don’t want the Libyan scenario. Everybody agrees on that. Foreign soldiers should not place a foot on Syrian soil unless the West wants to offer the regime a valuable gift.

How stable is the regime at the moment? How is daily life?
The regime is currently experiencing a structural crisis, having brought the country to a dead end. For three months the regime has been using all the means at its disposal, but the revolutionaries have not been wasting their time. They have organized themselves and presented plans for democratic change in Syria. Today Syria is going through a very difficult time and needs the compassion and prayers of people all over the world.

Syria has the fortune/misfortune to be strategically placed in terms of geography. The desire of NATO and the Western powers to preserve stability at any cost could work against you.
Who convinced NATO and the West that the democracy is contrary to stability?

Sometimes, I think that Western politicians are stupid or treat people as stupid. How is it possible for so many peoples, cultures and religions to co-exist in Europe? Or do Europeans think that we are not civilized, unable to co-exist peacefully? In this case I would advise them to return to their history books.

Syria seems to have been living slightly outside the flow of history. Is this part of the problem?
The problem is that the regime is fully convinced of its own necessity, because the West, America, God, prophets, friends and foes all deem it to be necessary. The regime is like a spoilt child whose parents allow him to do whatever he likes despite his carelessness, who praise his intelligence despite his stupidity, close their eyes to his failures, and insist he has succeeded when he has failed. The regime belongs to the past, while the people want to live in the future. The people have a courage that gives them the right to self-determination, not merely to dreams about the future.

Translation from the Arabic by Vladlen Garazha. 
Many thanks to Piers Amodia for his invaluable help.