There are no knives in the kitchens of the city

There are no knives in the kitchens of the city

Publication Date: 2013

Publisher: Dar el ain

Country of Publication: Egypt,

Pages: 260

La sakakin fi matabekh hathihi al madina

Reading through Khaled Khalifa’s latest novel, one can only wonder how was life possible under the Asad regime.

Set between 1963, as the Baath party takes power, and 2005, “There are no knives” minutely describes how life was crushed by the brutal dictatorship.

One family is at the heart of this novel. The mother, originally from a rich clan of Aleppo, has payed the high price for marrying a man from a different religious community. Rejected by her family, she is also soon abandoned by her husband. A poor home and a bitter mother clinging to her aristocratic origins is the backdrop of this novel, where unfold the lives of Sawsan, Rachid and the nameless male narrator. All three are the children of this broken home, struggling for survival.

Sawsan, a colorful and bold main character, uncovers the contradictions of the Syrian society. Tired of being on the side of the weak, Sawsan adheres to the ruling party in her late teens. An active member of the militia, she is happy with the power her gun grants her. However, like her mother before her, Sawsan is also deserted by her lover, a powerful militian. Devoured by remorse, she turns to religion for salvation. Sawsan hopes to find meaning in Islam, and now faces her old allies as a pitiful enemy, all dressed in black. Starting with a surgery supposed to restore her virginity, Sawsan seeks the path to a forever lost age of innocence. She will soon realize that such a salvation is not to be found in extremism. But her recently acquired wisdom does not make life any easier.

A number of characters populate Sawsan’s world. All of them are slowly drowned in a whirlpool of distress, brutality and decrepitude, as the beautiful city is gradually disfigured and totally transformed by the ruling party and its followers.

The pace of Khalifa’s novel is fast and steady. The carefully controlled rhythm creates and maintains a tangible tension throughout. The reader anxiously follows the destinies of the main characters, as the city seems to close in on them, shutting all the doors, suffocating them, and leaving them no choice but violence or exile. To this extent, this work is a beautiful account of the reasons behind the popular uprising of Syria, started in March 2011.

Although the pre-Baath era is barely evoked, Khalifa’s book is the expression of a hopeless longing for a long gone graceful past. There is no beauty left in this world. Except perhaps in the violin that Rachid plays in his uncle’s band. But even there, desperation lurks. “There are no knives in the kitchens of the city” is a surprising combination of ruthless violence and soft nostalgia.

Translated by Leri Price

On my way home I recalled that my mother was not yet sixty-five when she died so suddenly. I was secretly glad and considered it ten years too late, given her constant complaints of a lack of oxygen.
My Uncle Nizar told me that she rose in the afternoon from her putrid bed and started writing a long
letter to an unknown person, who we thought may have been a lover or an old friend, and with whom she passed long hours talking about days past that no longer meant anything to any-one—days into which my mother had settled during her final years and had no wish to relinquish. She didn’t believe that the President, like any other mortal being, had died, despite the funeral ceremonies and the national state of mourning. The television broadcast his image and past speeches; it hosted hundreds of people who enumerated his qualities and cited his innumerable honorifics with great humility, their eyes filling with tears as they referred to the virtues of the Father-Leader, the Leader of War and Peace, the Wise Man of the Arabs, the strongest of athletes, the wisest of judges, the most gifted of engineers . . . Great were their torments that they could not refer to him as the First among Gods.
“Power and oppression do not die,” my mother would say. “The blood of his victims won’t allow the tyrant to just die. The door has been left ajar, and will keep closing until it chokes their murderer.”
She meandered through her favorite stories about the past, selecting just the right words. Rapturously, she would describe the elegance of her friends, fragranced by perfumes redolent with hope; she would show us photographs of them where they looked like unpicked cotton bolls, snow-white beneath the setting sun. She perpetually extolled the past and conjured it up with delight as a kind of revenge for her humble life; she described how the sun used to be, yearned for how the dust used to smell after the first rain. She made us feel that everything really had changed, and how utterly wretched we were for not having lived during this beautiful era when lettuce was at its most succulent and women their most feminine.

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There are no knives in the kitchens of the city