September 4, 2017
Reviews of The Shell, English edition: “Highly recommended”

Reviews of The Shell, English edition: “Highly recommended”

The Shell, by Moustafa Khalifa, is published in English by Interlink, USA (2017):

“From 1982 to 1994, Syrian topographer Khalifa was incarcerated in his country’s infamous Tadmur Military Prison, and his decision to present his experiences as fiction results in a document both haunting and bold. Perhaps only fiction could do justice to the suffering he endured, but as the narrator also notes, explaining that he resorted to an Islamist technique called mental writing to store up what he experienced, “I cannot write and say everything.” The selected scenes of beatings, torture, hunger, and executions are scalding enough. Having fatefully decided to return home from France, Khalifa’s young narrator is immediately imprisoned and accused of being a Muslim terrorist. In fact, he is Christian-raised and proclaims himself an atheist, which serves to isolate him from his scornful fellow inmates and makes his imprisonment even worse. The story arcs persuasively from the narrator’s first shocks through his steady endurance in the shell that was his prison to his survival upon release in a second shell that’s “becoming thicker and blacker.” VERDICT Highly ­recommended.”

—Library Journal


“Khalifa’s superb debut novel is structured as the prison diary of Musa, a Syrian who has been studying film in France for six years. He decides, against the wishes of his friends, to return home after his studies. Upon arrival, he is mysteriously thrown into a horrific desert prison (based on the real Tadmor prison) for 14 years, the setting for most of what follows. Musa announces that his family is Christian and that he an atheist, so his fellow prisoners, almost exclusively devout Muslims, ostracize him. Marginalized, Musa adapts the detached perspective of a sociologist, noting the hierarchies and patterns of prison life. In spare, lucid prose, Khalifa, a Syrian novelist- and political-commentator-in-exile, vividly describes the almost otherworldly existence of the prisoners. Told in jump cuts that mirror Musa’s film background, his diary documents not only reflect the relentless monotony and terror of imprisonment, but also the prisoners’ ingenuity: how they survive outbreaks of diseases, how they stay cool in the desert heat, and their sacrifices for each other. With echoes of Solzhenitsyn and Kafka’s The Trial, this demanding novel is an important account of the horrors perpetuated by the Syrian regime.”