The soundscape of Aleppo is dominated by the din of fighter jets, dotted with the occasional explosion. The high noon sun arrives at its meridian, and Jumaa—a wartime flaneur and protagonist of Faysal Khartash’s Roundabout of Death—occupies his usual table high up in Joha’s Club café. Down below, on street level, soldiers set up roadblocks with random metal junk, a GMC van strapped with machine guns is parked nearby, and passersby carrying bread are redirected. Jumaa thirstily observes and offers no commentary. The audible nearness of the explosions raises concerns about Jumaa’s mother, but in moments of acute distress, his attention shifts from the dim source of anxiety to a pursuit of trivial detail: an argument with his “crew” at the café about the exact location of an insignificant skirmish. Empirical phenomena afford an exit from an enclosed headspace and ground him in a point of external reference. When his mother picks up the phone, he learns that her house was hit. Once again, he will rush to find footing, under a nondescript tree in a city park. The subtle modulation through states of wartime consciousness—from acute alertness to distractedness, from panic to chatter—are rarely depicted with such psychological discernment.
The understated artistry displayed in Khartash’s novel is not an isolated literary event. Ten years since the 2011 uprising, there has been a veritable literary boom in Syria. Although much of this output is in a generically indistinct gray area between autobiographical and documentary writing, the novel emerges as the major medium of expression for the post-2011 era. The political stakes are apparent: after decades under the yoke of official Baath narratives, the goal is to build back the Syrian story, inscribe the personal into history, and reshape shared conceptions of Syria.
By 2016, there had already appeared some 50 novels by Syrians about postuprising Syria, and the numbers keep growing.1 Omar Kaddour observes that the newfound passion for storytelling stems first from the long-term ban on outward shows of pleasure in Assad’s Syria.2 Since the 1970s, the country had lived in varying circumstances of surveillance, scarcity, and austerity enforced from above and loomed over by grim symbols of collectivist Arab radicalism divorced from actual social developments.
Second, with reference to post-2011 realities, Kaddour ascribes the boom to a foreclosed political horizon and, more pragmatically, a loss of competition: initially the promise of revolution discharged a mass of creative forces, but when the desire for politics was thwarted by armed conflict, energies were redirected to writing practices that reflect on and make sense of what happened.
The three novels selected for review here, though far from speaking in a single voice, are mainly concerned with the desire to attain worlds of relation in a state of human collapse and deep discord. Traditionally, the novel has made itself a vehicle for the worldly by transmuting the mundane, by aesthetically lifting unnoticed trivialities to a recognizing eye. Its role in mediating pleasure between writer and readers belongs in a state of relative normalcy rooted in homelands and nations.
the goal is to build back the Syrian story, inscribe the personal into history, and reshape shared conceptions of Syria.
But with Syria’s breakdown as a home base for reading, the Syrian novel is being forced more brazenly out into the world. More exposed to pressures to conform to a narrow range of themes (war, ISIS, refugee crisis), it is tasked with both answering and upending the expectations of global audiences and publishers. In this frantic search for a world, a “lust for narration,” in Kaddour’s words, what will remain of novelistic pleasure giving?
Khartash’s Roundabout of Death comes closest to a synthesized vision of a sensuous drive to life with a moral shock at the unseemliness of a society at war. Khartash is also the keenest in affirming the preciousness of an Aleppo-specific vernacular worldliness: café gatherings, styles of amusement and intimacy, concrete ways of being in and moving through urban space. Dima Wannous’s The Frightened Ones shows great formal subtlety and achieves a degree of textual polish on par with transregional Arab postmodernity. Yet its withdrawn indecision between empathy and trauma cannot bring its narrators to grapple with the manifold phenomena that erupted onto Syria’s social surface. Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work aims to portray Syria’s ghastly chaos in thick detail but is overladen with figurative furnishings that cover up the actual bareness of existence. Khalifa’s third novel translated into English shows him to be overperforming a signature realist style that has made him an icon of Syrian fiction abroad.
Confined to recognizable coordinates in and between Syrian cities, Death Is Hard Work reveals how a nation and homeland, a womb for the living, hideously folds inward, as if into a ghoulish world of its own. Khalifa’s indictment of Syrian society—discernible in the pitiless irony of his plot design—is so scathing, in fact, that it can be mistaken for conservative fatalism: pervasive doom colors everything, including the hopeful energies that started the mass protests. This is a strong polemical case for the Syrian novel supplanting the revolutionary myths as guidebook to the meaning of historical events.
At the same time, Khalifa’s work exemplifies the ways that the Syrian novel has been transported to an international audience. His books have received prestigious prizes and nominations in the Arabic-speaking sphere and worldwide.3 Death Is Hard Work was converted to English by the extremely proficient Leri Price, her third translation of the same author. Khalifa’s fiction is worldly in the realistic amplitude and poetical qualities for which it is celebrated: “a dense, luxurious realism, pricked with surprising metaphors,” in the words of Robin Yassin-Kassab.4 Yet taken as representative on a global stage, Khalifa’s expressive excess occludes the fact that many Syrian writers constantly battle obscure metaphoric overwriting.
Death Is Hard Work is propelled by a desire to essentialize and embody Syria in a single metaphor stinking up to heaven: a progressively decomposing, maggot-infested corpse. The premise is that moments before his death, Abdel Latif, a wizened revolutionary, expresses a wish to be buried in his native village behind enemy lines. His son Bolbol summons his estranged siblings, Fatima and Hussein, to get on board a van and transport the body from a rebel stronghold near Damascus to Aleppo’s rural countryside. The siblings are left bemused and resentful by their father’s final act of resistance: to exercise the “right of soil” defies the basic laws of life and death governing the civil war.
With a reeking deposit of a revolution corporealized, and as if by preordained destiny, they embark on a macabre road trip drawn out into a rancid three-day affair. As they pass through erratically cut-up statelets, armed men inspect their IDs at every turn. Many reject the very idea of letting a secular dissident cross, dead or alive.
This exceedingly bodily plot—spinning through numerous improbable and melodramatic twists—has drawn analogies with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying,5 yet the disparities are starker than the similarities. Faulkner’s story of Addie Bundren’s burial is told through multiple fragmentary perspectives that share and compete for narrative authority. The fraught contradictions of the American South are to be deciphered from between the gaps in narration.
In contrast, Khalifa’s “dense, luxurious realism” is controlled by a hypercentralized consciousness, rarely giving room for dialogue, much less dramatic monologues. His narrator remains unperturbed by the loathsome materials he shapes; he cavalierly puppeteers the characters through a grotesque spectacle of villainy and wretchedness. A large chunk of the narrative consists of family history, yet providing characters with a past is insufficiently humanizing if they are not given a voice.
The most compelling facet of the novel is the nebbish Bolbol, a kind of Dostoyevskian idiot whose paleness mirrors the rottenness of his surroundings. Personified in Bolbol, agency boils down to ineffectually wishing away the revolution while showing an instinctual forbearance unmoored from high ethics. The novel somberly ends with a worn-down Bolbol resuming a life of bottomless defeat: “He walked to his bedroom, slipped into bed, and felt like a large rat returning to its cold burrow: a superfluous being, easily discarded.”
Khalifa’s total authorial control, a residue of emulative admiration for Russian fiction, enables him to steer the story to Syria’s dark corners. And yet, the very airlessness of such control parochializes his wide reach and precludes an inclusive polyphonic representation. With no traceable self-irony, this manner of telling reproduces an authoritarian hierarchy. At the very time that Syria grows rife with new materials to fictionalize and new voices to express, Khalifa appears to have settled into a reified, self-fashioned writing style averse to incorporating change.
The universality that Khalifa is unable to secure—or unwilling to pursue—is aspired to by Dima Wannous’s The Frightened Ones. She structures the novel as a counterpoint between two voices, a male and a female narrator. By arranging a chain of readers, writers, and characters of different genders, Wannous calls up the empathy absent from Khalifa’s cruel nihilism.
Wannous’s first-person narrator is Suleima, who is ghosted by her boyfriend, Naseem, a brooding doctor and fiction writer. By taking off to Europe, Naseem renounces his relationship, his medical duties, and Syria altogether. Suleima peruses the manuscript of Naseem’s novel—in the voice of an unnamed woman—left behind as surrogate presence. Indeed, Suleima’s thoughts, memories, and feelings are alternated with passages from this unfinished book. Suleima recognizes her life story and is infuriated with Naseem for presuming to speak for her. This can be seen as an implicit critique of the manspreading tendencies in narrators like Khalifa’s.
Moments of tenderness in these autonarrations suggest that the capacity for cross-gender identification is facilitated by an intimate father-daughter bond that Wannous herself experienced as the daughter of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous (1941–1997).6 Yet Wannous also studies the precarity involved in boundless empathy. Suleima arguably falls deeper into delusion and trauma by identifying with her fictional double. This woman, Naseem’s narrator, might, after all, be real, a different person. She is on record as visiting the Damascene therapist where Naseem and Suleima first met; she has a name, Salma, of which Suleima is the diminutive. Has Suleima lived a double life unawares? Has she gone mad?
Traditionally, the novel has made itself a vehicle for the worldly by transmuting the mundane. With Syria’s breakdown as a home base for reading, the Syrian novel is being forced more brazenly out into the world.
This is no optimistic argument for literature as a therapeutically healing practice. In important respects, novelistic discourse resists the psychoanalytic paradigm of taming psychic beasts with coherent orders.
Attending to interior mazes of thought ultimately reaffirms fear as an ineradicable metaphysical principle in Syrian subjectivity. Fear, in Syria, is a conduit for fluidity, mystery, and spontaneity, which cannot simply be pathologized: “Maybe fear is the only emotion with which the soul wrestles constantly. It is so difficult to resolve or co-exist with. It nests deep inside, no relation to the outside world. It is dazzlingly innovative and multifarious, reinventing itself at every turn.”
In terms of literary form, fearfulness gives rise to a porous narrative edifice, allowing the personal to show through. Naseem’s writing, says Suleima, “just seems like a diary, written in a somewhat impressionistic and improvisatory style. Maybe he couldn’t manage to write a novel about the revolution, and dealt with this weakness by composing a fictional diary instead.” These polyphonic shifts may well be just another stratagem, born out of a tongue-tied fear of speaking in propria persona. All the narrators and readers in the novel, Wannous included, are possibly implicated in such conduct.
Thus, fear is not only the content of Wannous’s novel. It is also the form. Fear gives the novel an ouroboros structure, which cancels out its bilateral narrative voice. The form collapses into itself and leaves a haunting sense of Suleima’s unreality. The excellent translator Elisabeth Jaquette admits that she found no way to distinguish between the voices of Salma and Suleima except through typeface.7
The false parity between the voices is a foil for Wannous’s conceit about fear as grounds for Syrian commonality. From the viewpoint of a traumatized subject, fear appears as the key to richness, a mise en abyme that pluralizes the single self in isolation. On the societal level, however, the very same fear generates a dreadful uniformity of experience.
The Frightened Ones contains powerful moments showing how Syrian politics was ritualized by vapid, fawning public spectacles that created both horrid sameness and toxic division. Wannous’s answer is to turn inward to the substratum of fear and restore the philosophical dignity manifested in metafictional consciousness. Her writerly refinement draws praise from Elias Khoury (cited on the back cover), the Beiruti icon of metanarrative sophistication. But for all her brilliance in measuring up to standards of excellence, her achievement limits the fictional scope: her soft and disembodied intelligence seems ill equipped to address a subject teeming with dynamic discord.
Khartash’s Roundabout of Death develops a remarkably unpretentious plotline with no apparent twists or formal devices. But despite its minimal construction, it is an artistic testimonial to the novel’s appetite for worldly human affairs, however dull or undignified. The bare-bones structure allows the voice of its narrator to be heard in a concrete and embodied way, as an outgrowth of a pleasure-seeking and war-torn Aleppo.
The action revolves around the daily comings and goings of Jumaa, an unemployed schoolteacher whose unflappable agility appears suited for investigative reporting: he is a gregarious conversationalist curious about people’s gear and clothing, an avid eavesdropper and sensual observer who looks unfazed in the face of danger. And Aleppo at war provides constant changes of scenery and a wealth of sensory data. His modes of perception are elastic enough to include an impure variety of experiences grounded in the everyday life of a world gone haywire.
Khartash is a well-honed veteran in the city’s arts of conversation and oral storytelling. Translator Max Weiss impressively anglicizes the author’s jazzy jumps of register between the Quranic and the vernacular for this debut appearance in English. Khartash’s svelte novel is splendidly handled by the independent New Vessel Press.
Unlike Khalifa and Wannous, Khartash boldly dislodges his protagonist from a grid of family history. Jumaa is a creature shaped by the mixtures of his city. Narration is handled with a sense of offbeat gusto: short episodes packed with dissonant beauty, formal liberty at ease with gaps and digressions. The overall aesthetic effect is of a chummy, unkempt story vividly shaped in motion. And to put the novel’s realism to the test, Khartash throws in one fantastic element: Jumaa believes his head is growing horns as a manifestation of frustrated sexual desire. Storytelling serves as a substitute outlet and is accordingly imbued with carnal passions.
After his son gets arrested and flees to Turkey, and at his wife’s prodding, Jumaa heads to Raqqa, then capital of the Islamic State, to seek a safer place of residence. In arranging this scenario, Khartash astutely suggests that, setting aside the abominable acts committed by ISIS, the organization did very well in projecting an image of law and order in a state of unbearable disorder. The chapters tracing Jumaa’s sojourn in Raqqa are surprisingly upbeat. Whereas Khalifa depicts ISIS fighters as hardly more than cardboard cutouts, Khartash’s fiction dresses them in human fleshliness.
A chance encounter is staged between Jumaa and an old friend by the former name of Bahaa, now renamed Abu Muhammad Bahaa al-Din al-Faransi. Bahaa was raised in Germany by Lebanese parents and speaks in a “mellifluous voice” associated with Beiruti easygoingness. They first met in Paris, where Bahaa lived as a struggling, loquacious filmmaker and dainty divorcé dressed to dazzle French women. Now he is a born-again mujahid, and his melodious Lebanese accent is at odds with the Russian rifle by his side and the two grenades attached to his breast. He is, in short, the embodiment of an Arab cosmopolitanism that flipped, in a split second, to global jihadism.
Despite this unnerving transformation, the old acquaintances share a relaxed day in Raqqa, talking and eating. When Jumaa fondly brings up Paris, Bahaa signals disaffection: “Those days are dead and gone … we live for today.” The next morning, Bahaa is gone. He has been deployed in battle to meet his destination as a shaheed. There is a somber moment of grief redoubled by Jumaa’s ruminations on Raqqa of bygone days, where he recalls a joyous picnic on the Euphrates, arak and love songs included. Unlike Bahaa, Jumaa cannot willfully erase the sadly colored memories of fun and amusements that once brought Syrians together. The human world projected in the novel is capacious enough to include both dreams of worldliness and their repression by the purist vision of a shaheed’s immaculate afterlife.
Empty-handed, Jumaa darts back to Aleppo. The next day, he is reunited with his table companions at the Island Cafe. Aerial bombings flattened Joha’s Club into a pile of rubble. Maʿalesh, it’s all right, “we live for today.” The new spot is even nicer. Willy-nilly, storytelling’s primeval role of staving off death is reinstated: Aleppo’s coffeehouse culture persists; Jumaa is still on the move.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.
- Ali Jazo, “Jamal Shehayyed: Novels of the Syrian Revolution Are Astonishing” (in Arabic), Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, April 19, 2016. ↩
- Omar Kaddour, “On Lust for the Syrian Narrative,” Syria Untold, February 2, 2021. ↩
- In Praise of Hatred (2006) was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (2008). No Knives in the Kitchens of This City won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (2013). Death Is Hard Work was a finalist for the US National Book Award for Translated Literature (2019). ↩
- Robin Yassin-Kassab, “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa review—Rage and Shame in Syria,” The Guardian, September 24, 2016. Also cited on the back cover of Death Is Hard Work. ↩
- David L. Ulin, “Khaled Khalifa’s ‘Death Is Hard Work’ Sheds Light on Life in the Shadows of the Syrian War,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2019. ↩
- For a recent translation see Sentence to Hope: A Saʿdallah Wannous Reader, translated from the Arabic by Robert Myers and Nada Saab (Yale University Press, 2019). ↩
- Reported in Lydia Wilson, “Sudden Monsters,” New York Review of Books, March 25, 2021. ↩