September 6, 2022
Destructive turbulence: the Frankfurter Allgemeine reviews Khalifa’s “No one prayed over their graves”

Destructive turbulence: the Frankfurter Allgemeine reviews Khalifa’s “No one prayed over their graves”

Review by Joseph Croitoru for Frankfurter Allgemeine, 2 May 2022

When dreams go away: Khaled Khalifa recounts the recent history of Aleppo in his novel “No One prayed at their graves”.
Some works of fiction, even if not necessarily the author’s intention, can take on astonishing poignancy over time. Such is the case with Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s latest novel, “No One Prayed at their Graves,” originally published in 2019, which evokes a forgotten era in Aleppo’s history and is now available in German in an excellent translation by Larissa Bender.

The once vibrant multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city, which was reduced to rubble in the Syrian civil war, mainly by Russian bombs, has become a symbol of terror of an unbridled destructive rage, which is now being unleashed in Ukraine: If you search for Aleppo on the Internet today, you quickly end up in Mariupol.

The Syrian city, rich in tradition, and its surroundings had already experienced turbulent and destructive times in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, in addition to periods of prosperity. Khalifa revives them by composing his work around several dramatic events – purely invented, as he has emphasized in interviews with Arabic newspapers – each of which serves as the point of departure for the various novel sections, which diverge in time. This book, which unfolds through forward and backward movements in time-mainly between 1881 and 1951-is about the life and love stories of about half a dozen people, their relatives and descendants. The narrative strands interweave as frequently as they unravel; several secondary characters enter the stage only briefly, and then usually disappear altogether…

The author Khalifa succeeds impressively in interweaving the lives of these figures in their various phases against the respective background of the time. However, the sociopolitical circumstances of the Ottoman era and the subsequent French mandate as well as the transition to Syrian independence are hardly illuminated. Accordingly, no clearly contoured figures embodying these systems of rule are encountered…

It may be due to the large number of characters in the novel, the frequent biographical breaks, and the large time span that Khalifa attempts to cover that the psychological development of the main protagonists is not always entirely successful. However, as a colorful panorama of Aleppo’s complex society in decline, this novel, which is well worth reading, is impressive in every respect.