Death is hard work

Death is hard work

Publication Date: 2015

Publisher: Naufal, Hachette-Antoin

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 160

Al mawt aamalon chaq

Belbol’s father just passed away in a Damascus hospital. His last request to his son was to be burried in his hometown of Aannabiya, in the province of Aleppo. Belbol accepts his father’s request only to be devasted by the enormity of this last wish after he passes away. Damascus, the Syrian capital, is under the control of the Assad regime while Aleppo is under the controle of the rebels and extremist factions. Driving from one area to another, with a body in the car, is expectedly quite a difficult task.

With his brother Hussein and his sister Fatima, Belbol heads to Aannabiya at dawn. Normally a trip of just a few hours, they hope to reach their destination in the night given the cirucmstances. They won’t make it in less than 3 days.

The three siblings hadn’t come together in years and Fatima sees in this road trip a sacred occasion to mend their broken ties. They have indeed grown quite apart. Fatima’s marriage to a mediocre opportunist businessman, whom had once given her the illusion of social accomplishment, caused her family to despise her. Hussein, once the favourite son, a smart kid with a lot of ambition and potential, quickly gave in to easy dirty money and greatly disapointed his father. Belbol, nickname for Nabil, was always the quiet one. Living a life of fear and trying his best to blend in in his Assad friendly rather rich neighborhood, he was terrified by his father’s recent revolutionary profile.

Rightly so. The father’s identity and his notorious involvement in the revolution is what caused them their first delay on their way to Annabiya. His name being blacklisted, an army checkpoint decided to “arrest” the body, until his name was cleared by some obscure central authority. It is only after a night of anxiety, and important bribery, that the three siblings were allowed to continue their journey with their father’s body. This absurd yet painful episode is certainly not the last one of their trip. As more delays occurr, the body starts decaying. With the smell of rot and death, the tension between the siblings builds up, exacerbating their differences, until it reaches its climax. The siblings and their father eventually reach Aannabiya, but by the time this happens, they are transformed, each of them having reached a point of no return.

In this journey, and through Belbol’s recollection of his father’s last years, we discover the complex character of the latter: An austere teacher turned into a revolutionary hero in a town besieged by Assad’s army, from which he had to be snuck out for health reasons. As the reader discovers the father’s transformation in the years of the Syrian uprising, the reader also follows Belbol’s transformation in the three days of this journey: Belbol finally breaks away from his fear, and in this unlikely context, learns to live.

Through this journey, and with his characteristic visual and sensual writing, Khalifa depicts with accuracy what Syria has become. Violence is common currency and the sight of dead bodies on the side of the road, or the sound of approaching shells, barely moves the protagonists of the story. They have grown accustomed to death and its multiple faces. At the same time, with the father’s rebirth as a revolutionary in his old age, and with that of Belbol, who is freed of fear in the most gruesome circumstances, the book carries an unexpected and very welcome message of hope.

Translated by Leri Price

Bulbul, in a rare moment of courage and under the influence of his father’s parting words and sad, misted eyes, acted firmly and without fear. He promised his father he would carry out his instruction which, despite being clear and simple, would be a hard task. It was natural that a man, with much reason to lament and knowing he would die within hours, should be weak and make requests which would be difficult to carry out; equally, it was natural for a man to put on a cheerful front, as Bulbul was doing, so as not to forsake him. The last moment was always the most sentimental, usually an inappropriate time for reflection; it held no room for rational judgement, because time had solidified within it. Peace and deliberation were required for reviewing the past and settling accounts, neither of which were practiced by those approaching death. They hastily threw off their burdens and embarked on the crossing over the isthmus, to the other side where time had no value.

Bulbul, later, regretted having not been more resolute. He should have told his father how difficult it would be to carry out his instruction in days like these. Battle casualties everywhere were buried in mass graves without having their identities picked out. Mourning ceremonies, even those of rich families, were curtailed to a few hours. Death was no longer a carnival worthy of proclaiming prestige; a few roses, a few mourners yawning in a half-empty living room for a couple of hours, someone reciting a few suras from the Qur’an in a low voice, and that was it.

Bulbul thought that a silent funeral removed the awe of the dead person. For the first time, everyone was equal in death. Rites and rituals meant nothing now: the poor and the rich, the officers and infantry in the regime’s army, armed squadron commanders, fighters, the passers by and the unidentified, all were buried in pitiful processions. Death was no longer an act which commanded distress; it had become an escape which roused the envy of the living.

As for Bulbul, the story was very different. His father’s body was a heavy burden. In a fleeting, sentimental moment Bulbul had promised to bury him in the same tomb as his Aunt Layla, who he didn’t even know. He had thought that his father would ask for a safeguard of the rights of his new wife, Nevine, in the family home. The building had been totally destroyed in an air raid, apart from the bedroom where his father had passed his last days of love with Nevine before leaving the village of S with the help of opposition fighters.

Bulbul would never forget that scene. His father had been immaculate when the fighters brought him, and it was clear that they had looked well after their comrade who had chosen to stay with them, despite the siege which had been imposed on S, for more than three years. They bid him an affectionate goodbye, kissed him warmly, and saluted him. After enjoining Bulbul to care for him properly, they vanished in the blink of an eye through a well-guarded side-road which revealed the orchards leading back to the village. His father’s eyes were gleaming for the last time as he tried to raise his hand to wave to them, but couldn’t. He was exhausted and starving, having lost more than half his bodyweight; like everyone under siege, it had been months since he had eaten a full meal.


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Death is hard work