Interview with Syrian author Mustafa Khalifa

"The Syrian revolution is bigger than a thousand novels"

Mustafa Khalifaʹs "The Shell – Memoirs of a Hidden Observer", which has been translated into ten languages, is one of the most famous prison novels in Arabic literature. Khaled Salameh spoke to Khalifa about the world of the novel, his identity, his country and his exile

Some young readers have described the novel as the "bible of the Syrian revolution". To what extent do you think that your book has helped to break the ʹshellʹ and set people free?

Mustafa Khalifa: I donʹt generally buy into such descriptions; neither do I agree with the notion that this novel is the "bible" of the revolution. The revolution of the Syrian people is bigger than a thousand novels. Its roots, resulting from a history of oppression, tyranny and corruption over decades, run deep. That said, the novel may have helped raise the awareness of younger readers.

Why didnʹt you give the protagonist, who also happens to be the narrator, a name?

Khalifa: The novel has many levels, most notably the local Syrian human story. Thatʹs why I chose to leave out the names of people and places, except where it was really necessary. The aim here is to give the novel infinite temporal and spatial dimensions.

Is this related to publicity and marketing?

Khalifa: That did not cross my mind in the slightest.

Many conflate you with the protagonist. How much of Mustafa Khalifa is there in him?

Khalifa: There is a lot of me in the protagonist, as well as part of a friend whose story has similarities: a filmmaker and a Christian who was arrested on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The protagonistʹs character is a combination of my experiences and those of my friend.

You has spoken about the topical nature of the novel. Is this something else that attracts young people to it?

Mustafa Khalifa's "The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer", translated in English by Paul Starkey (published by Interlink Pub Group)
Semi-autobiographical content: born in Jarablus, northern Syria, in 1948, writer and novelist Mustafa Khalifa became a political activist during his youth, joining the clandestine Communist Labour Party. Such allegiance exacted a heavy price. Khalifa spent 15 years in hiding and two extended spells in prison. Following his release, Khalifa was prohibited from leaving Syria until 2006, after which he settled in the UAE. A few years ago, he relocated to Paris

Khalifa: The history of Syria from the mid-1960s onwards is one of prisons and detention. There is not a single family in Syria that has not been scorched by the ravages of incarceration, even of women and children. As a result the novel continues to attract young readers, eleven years after its publication.

There are many other reasons, of course, including the fact that some young people who suffered imprisonment are unable to talk about it. By reading this novel, they are able to understand more about their own experience.  

Personally, I, like many others, read the novel in one go. Like them, I was unable to put it down. Whatʹs your secret?

Khalifa: This may be because of the way it is written, the way in which the story is expressed, or the level of suspense. It may also be because of the nature of the subject matter – and perhaps also because of the element of shock and realisation.

To put it in a nutshell, readers realise that prisons are all around them, some only metres away. In Syria they used to go about their daily lives as though nothing was the matter.

You began your journey into voluntary exile in the United Arab Emirates in 2006. Two years after that, "The Shell" was published. Did exile influence the novel in any way?

Khalifa: The novel was ready for publication before I left Syria. 

But, generally speaking, doesnʹt exile add new dimensions to prison literature?

Khalifa: When one is right in the middle of an experience, itʹs hard to write about it, and the perspective is incomplete.

In other words, exile offers distance, and this enriches and deepens the experience. It also presents unwitting comparisons between the motherland and the diaspora.

After almost 13 years outside Syria, how do you feel about prison, a place which left such deep scars on your soul?

Khalifa: At times, I find myself missing certain social and human aspects of prison life. To be honest with you, my prison mates were some of the finest people I have ever met.

Some people might say that you developed Stockholm syndrome (when a victim develops sympathy for the very person or persons causing him/her pain and suffering. In some cases, this can lead to positive feelings towards captors, including intimacy and solidarity).

Khalifa: (laughing) No, I havenʹt reached that pathological condition. But Syria is still the motherland, and for me it holds many memories, both bitter and sweet.

Will Mustafa Khalifa remain captive to prison literature, or will he venture into other forms of creative writing?

Khalifa: That description is not wholly accurate. Itʹs my duty to document my experience in a novel. Two years ago, I published "The Grave Dance", in which there were only a few references to prisons. However, as an author you canʹt avoid the subject when writing about life in Syria. To a greater or lesser extent, detention is part of everyday life.

It is as if the hero were placed between the devil and the deep blue sea. Not only was he a prisoner, but worse, he was isolated within the prison because he was suspected by Islamist inmates as being an informant planted by the authorities. Why did you put him in this position?

Khalifa: This is not uncommon in Syrian prisons. The slightest suspicion that there might be a relationship between a prisoner and the prison authorities, is enough to lead to him being isolated. Prison officers are always trying to sow doubt and distrust among inmates.

In "The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer" the clash is vertical, between jailers and jailed. But there is another conflict taking place, among the prisoners themselves. This can be caused by ideological, religious, factional, regional and even personal differences. I have a future novel in mind in which I plan to explore this. 

As a leftist, you portrayed in this novel the horrendous torture to which the Muslim Brotherhood was subjected. This led some to claim that leftist prisoners were ʹpamperedʹ by comparison with Islamist inmates. What do you say to this?

Khalifa: To describe leftist prisoners as ʹpamperedʹ is not really fair or accurate. Nevertheless, the difference in treatment could be described as that between the bad and the very bad. When the armed struggle broke out between the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime, the level of torture and violence meted out to Islamists became quite different to that reserved for the rest. In general, members of the armed opposition were always treated more harshly, regardless of their ideological inclinations. In Assadʹs prisons, thereʹs no such thing as a pampered prisoner.

What do you think drove IS to blow up Palmyra (Tadmor) prison, where the novel is set?

Khalifa: I honestly have not been able to establish whether the image distributed by IS was that of the political prisonersʹ complex, where the events of the novel took place. I think the image in question was that of a military prison for Syrian Army volunteers and recruits. Much has been said about the regime being complicit with IS, that the regime encouraged elements within IS to blow up the prison in order to cover up its crimes. I can neither confirm nor refute this.

Does Mustafa Khalifa – and here I am asking the politician in you, not the novelist - think that it is possible to reach a reconciliation now and to turn the page of war and to find an opportunity for the wounds to heal in Syria?

Khalifa: Knowing how the Syrian regime works and what makes it tick leads me to rule out the prospect of any reconciliation between the people and the authorities. The regime does not accept a middle way, nor does it believe in negotiation with the people. Conversely, the regime might make a full capitulation vis a vis the outside world.  

After eight years of war, destruction and displacement, the regime has not offered any meaningful concessions to the Syrian people. And for the past four years or more, the struggle in Syria has turned into an international and regional one. It pains me to say it but, as Syrians, we have no influence, save either as instruments or victims of war.

Khaled Salameh

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

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Comments for this article: "The Syrian revolution is bigger than a thousand novels"

"The history of Syria from the mid-1960s onwards is one of prisons and detention." What Khalifa says aboit prisons and repression is true, but one shouldn't make such a sweeping statement, reducing the history of a country, culture, economy, social movements (though limited), etc. to a history of prisons and detention. After all, the majority of the people from mid-1960s onwards were not in prisons most of the time, unless one considers Syria as a whole as a prison, which is not accurate, either. One should also examine the subject of repression in its continuity and discontinuity, and in class terms as well.
In answer to the last question, Khalifa talked only about the regime. The question was about him as a politician. He should have talked about what one means by 'reconciliation', especially when we see signs of normalisation with the regime. After everything that has happened, does Khalifa suggest a 'reconcialiation'?

Nèdeem05.07.2019 | 16:52 Uhr