[Last month, the Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa visited London to promote ‘Syria Speaks’, an anthology of short stories, poems, articles and visual art collected as a response to the Syrian regime’s crackdown on dissident voices since the 2011 Syrian uprising. As one of the most powerful and prominent writers in Syria, Khalifa continues to live in Damascus – despite being attacked and beaten by regime thugs at a funeral in 2012, despite his hugely popular books being banned, and despite the very real risk that dissident voices face when they criticise Assad’s regime.
At the event, he brushed off inquiries about his wellbeing, explaining that his troubles were no different to those of millions of Syrians struggling with the everyday danger of living inside a war-torn country. Khalifa is as enthralling as a live speaker as he was in his 2006 novel, In Praise of Hatred, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arab Fiction – and his 2013 title, No Knives. THe following is an interview by Soraya Morayef. ]
Soraya Morayef (SM): Writing about your hometown, Aleppo, you have said: ‘When a place is destroyed, its people are destroyed as well.’ Are you writing as a way to preserve your memory of the city, fighting its reality with your novels?
Khalid Khalifa (KK): I do not think of my novels as a form of revenge, I do not use my writing to retaliate. You write about these cities because they can never leave you. And when you write about them, they take on different forms. You build a place through your writing. With the destruction of the cities you hold dear in your memory, you feel that a piece of your memory has also been destroyed; it has been lost forever and difficult to restore in any other way than through writing. It’s not a photograph; you use your memory and mind to create a new place out of it.
SM: Some of the greatest Arab writers have dedicated their novels to the past and nostalgia. Why do you think we are so fixated with what has been lost?
KK: Because the present is too painful. You are talking about the essence of being Arab, and today we are still learning to talk about ourselves without restrictions.
The second reason is that history is very seductive, especially the past forty or fifty years in the Arab World. Today, when you look at the past, the picture becomes clearer; you see it better. The past seduces the reader, and writers always discuss it; especially the secrets of our past.
SM: As a writer working and living in Syria, can you separate the personal from the political?
KK: We live in a very difficult country, where it is difficult to avoid politics. You cannot escape, you cannot say ‘I have nothing to do with politics.’ Your personal life is based in and made by repressive politics—you cannot avoid it. This is our fate; this is our situation. We are not in a position to write about flowers and nature. Our lives are filled with bloodshed.
SM: You said once that if you stop writing, you will die.
KK: Yes, it is a feeling I have. And I prefer to live and write in Syria. If I were forced to leave, it would be a very painful decision.
SM: How do you find inspiration in the daily violence of Syria?
KK: This is my work. My bad habits often help me. I was a friend to my bad habits and they have helped me through the worst of times. I can write anywhere. I wrote once – this is the first time I tell this story - for six months in a bus stop coffee shop in Aleppo. And I mention this in No Knives in the City’s Kitchens, in the scene when Rasheed goes to a bus stop to write. That was me writing about me.
SM: Artists and intellectuals are among the hundreds of thousands of victims of the regime’s crackdown, but your influence as a prominent writer has granted you some immunity. Do you ever suffer from survivor’s guilt?
KK: I do not because I can die at any moment. When you live in a dangerous city, you are just like everyone else. You hover between life and death. It is the price you pay to live there.
To me it is not a big deal, I am very happy to continue living in my own country and in my own home where I am surrounded by my friends and family. As an intellectual, I will not be a traitor to my country and run away as soon as the first shots are fired. I really hate that type, throughout history and especially during the revolutions. Some of my Egyptian acquaintances talk about Egypt today with such condescension.
I would like to tell them, you do not understand how much the Egyptian people have suffered and have been wronged for them to be the way they are today. Just because you left this class does not make you superior to them. I visited Cairo recently and I was sad to see the state of this city; how fascism has spread so widely. We tried to warn you. In Syria, we know all about fascism. But I suppose it is too late now. One thing is certain: revolutions cannot be reversed. Whatever happens next, we will never go back to what we once were.
SM: Have you ever censored yourself out of concern for the well-being of your friends and family?
KK: There are actions I did not take, but not words I did not say. Yes I wrote on Facebook and I stood up against the regime but there are a lot more things I would have loved to do. I know the regime, I know there are limitations. I have never been scared, but there have been moments where I realized there are many red lines.
My writing is a powerful weapon, and I was never scared because my writing leans more towards art than to politics directly. Your bias towards art enables you to make cold decisions about your characters and story instead of hot ones. I envy people who write directly and at the same time I pity them, I see people who see a revolution and follow it. But that is not enough for writing a novel. Writing is a cunning and treacherous art form, and that is how I work.
SM: Your novels are filled with powerful female characters. Is this a conscious decision?
KK: I have lived my whole life surrounded by women, in my family and otherwise. The only true relationships I have had have been with women. All the female characters that I have written about, I feel they are close to me, that I know them personally; sometimes they are part of my dreams.