The Shell

The Shell

Publication Date: 2008

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 383

Al qawqaa

The shell is a narrative and literary non fiction story of a man who was unjustly, and without a trial, jailed for 12 years in Syria.

This man is the author. In the 1982, the narrator heads back to Syria after a few years spent in France studying art and film direction. At the airport, he is flagged by the police, who take him away for interrogation. He was overheard in Paris, criticizing the regime. From this moment on, starts a descent to hell.

Mostafa is jailed with political opponents, all of which are from the Muslim Brotherhood. In disbelief, Mostafa is convinced that there must be a mistake. He cannot be member of the Mulsim Brotherhood, since he is a Christian, and even more, he is an atheist. This claim, that he made on several occasions to try and convince the military police and intelligence officers of their mistake, will cost him years of isolation among his cell mates, who consider atheism like one of the worst sins. Tortured by the guards and shunned by the other prisoners, the narrator eventually retreats further into himself, forming a protective shell around himself for which the book is named.

Among the various detention center, Mostafa will experience the infamous Tadmur Military Prison, a detention center described as a “kingdom of death and madness” by poet Faraj Bayraqdar and the “absolute prison” by dissident Yassin al-Haj Salih. With its stripped-down prose punctuated by introspective, poetic reflection, The Shell offers an extremely minute description of his years in detention. In it, he details the unimaginable brutal torture at the hands of the prison guards and military police, as well as the social fabric of prison life.

The Shell is Khalifa’s first and to date only book, and has been lauded as one of the finest examples of Arabic prison literature.

Translation by Ruth Ahmidzai Kemp

The discussion went on for ten minutes at most. A handsome, middle-aged man with grey hair and small, glistening eyes sat down on Abu Hussein’s bed to share his opinion.

‘Abu Hussein,’ he said. ‘You know I’m a surgeon. I’m the best man here to operate on the patient, to remove the appendix. But I’d need certain things. And the patient would need to acknowledge in front of everyone here that he takes full responsibility for the operation.’

‘We’ve got clean fabric. We’ve got alcohol. We’ve got salt. We’ve got a few antibiotic tablets that Samir managed to get from the police. We’ve got needles and thread, and we’ve got the means to light a fire. But we’ll need some metal objects to turn into scalpels.’
As all these things emerged, I realised that I had been quite inattentive, and no matter how much I had observed my fellow inmates in secret, I had only seen what was on the surface.
The internal walls of the dormitory were covered with rough cement which everyone used to file down their nails. There were no nail clippers in the prison, after all. This was also how various implements were fashioned, such as needles that were filed down from small pieces of bone. Someone would hold the bone and rub it against the wall, day in, day out, for several days, until it was as sharp as a needle. Then, with incredible patience, he would work open a hole for the eye of the needle, using another pin that had also been filed down against the rough wall. A needle here was such a precious resource, but I realised later that there were dozens kicking around in the dormitory. Thread was easy to come by: they just unravelled a piece of fabric, and patiently and quietly spun the fine thread again ready for whatever they needed it for.

‘We don’t have any painkillers… so you will just have to endure the pain. And you absolutely must not move.’
‘You four, come here and hold him firmly. Take a limb each.’
The surgeon took the scalpels from the sardine tin and started to test them, one by one. He chose the scalpel made from the back of my watch, which he tested on his thumbnail.
‘Right then, brother. We are in God’s hands now. Guys, hold him tightly and don’t let him move an inch.’
With the words, ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,’ he inserted the scalpel into the patient’s stomach and made an incision approximately ten centimetres long.
The patient screamed and wailed for his mother. But he didn’t move.

The operation was soon finished; the surgeon worked with astonishing speed. After stitching up the incision, he wiped it and cleaned it. He mixed a few antibiotic pills into a paste and spread it over the wound, then bandaged the patient tightly with a clean strip of fabric.
‘May God be merciful on you, brother. Guys, carry him to his bed.’

Now, a month after the operation, the patient has got better and has started to walk around comfortably. But he would still be hanged about a year later.

Interlink, United States, English, 2016

Ediciones del oriente, Spain, Spanish, 2017

Mana Publications, Turkey, Turkish, 2017

Aschehoug, Norway, Norwegian, 2019

Weidle, Germany, German, 2019

Jurgen Maas, Netherlands, Dutch, 2022

The Shell