March 21, 2023
Khaled Khalifa on the act of reading under a dictatorship, for La Croix

Khaled Khalifa on the act of reading under a dictatorship, for La Croix

Khaled Khalifa, in an interview with Marianne Meunier for La Croix, March 10, 2023

Originally from Aleppo, Khaled Khalifa lives in Damascus, which he never wanted to leave despite the conflict. He reads there alone, saddened to no longer be able to discuss his reading with his relatives, most of whom have left.

Since the war broke out in Syria in March 2011, have you read differently?

Khaled Khalifa: Despite the war, I never stopped reading. Reading is so important to me, it’s been a part of my life forever. The war is also part of my life now, it has been going on for twelve years… Therefore, I adapt. At certain times, I spend hours reading in the café because there is no heating at home, my apartment is inaccessible or I am too alone.

What dimension, in these circumstances, does reading take on? Is it a pleasure, an emergency?

It has sad overtones for me, because I can no longer share my impressions with my friends. Nearly 90% of them have left Damascus, or even Syria. Before, if I read a good book, I would tell one of them, then I would lend it to him, he would read it and we would talk about it, we would have debates. That was my life, and it was wonderful. Today, I lost those conversations. It’s very sad.

Why, nevertheless, do you continue to read?

Stopping to read would be like stopping to eat! And then I want to learn. Even today, I’m not sure I’m a good writer. So, I try to progress by reading, I analyze other people’s techniques, their words… It’s very important to me.

Does the fact that books are difficult to access today in Syria, make of reading another form of combat?

Most of the bookstores in Damascus have closed, as well as across all of Syria, I would say there are only three or four left. Also, new books are very expensive and we hardly have access to them. The ones we find are “wild” [pirated] editions. But I can bring back books when I go to Beirut, although the journey remains very complicated. It also happens that my publishing house, over there, sends me some. Some friends send me some.

You learned to read as the dictatorship of Hafez Al Assad took hold in Syria. How has this shaped your relationship to reading?

I didn’t feel free to read because many books were banned, especially political ones, about prisons, the secret police, the condition of the Palestinians… You had to go to Beirut, the capital of Arabic publishing at the time, to get them. There was freedom there. We could find everything! In Syria, it happened that friends brought you books in secret. Otherwise, you could buy them under the cloak. We knew the tricks to supply ourselves. Living in a dictatorship, which is my
case since birth, that’s how you do it: finding strings, all the time.

In a dictatorship, is reading accompanied by fear?

Yes. Having banned books in your library was risky. The cover had to be changed to conceal them. At my parents’ house, we couldn’t even leave them on our shelves. My brother had political activities and the secret police often came… To read these books was therefore to break a prohibition… It’s like defying the regime. When, with my friends, we exchanged these books, we had the very strong impression of carrying out an act of resistance.