Monday, 15 April 2013

'In Praise of Hatred' by Khaled Khalifa (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 12a)

Recently, we took a trip to Lebanon in the early 80s to see how life was during the civil war, and today's story takes us back to a similar time, this time just across the border.  Syria is today's port of call, and it's time to see how life is lived behind the veil...

In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price - from Doubleday)
What's it all about?
The story takes place in the historical Syrian city of Aleppo in the early 80s, where we meet a young girl who goes to live with her aunts in her dead grandfather's house.  Her presence is required as the aunts feel lonely in the big old house - and because their strict beliefs prevent them from doing much about it.

Maryam, the eldest of the girl's aunts, is a devout follower of the minority Sunni Muslim sect, and her life is spent in prayer and rejecting outside influences.  In a house of death and gloom, it is little wonder that the young newcomer follows in her aunts' footsteps, and as she grows up, she dreams of helping her religious group win back their rightful place in control of the city.  In doing so, she gives herself up to hatred...

In Praise of Hatred is one long narrative, a monologue in three parts with occasional digressions.  It details a descent into hatred (and a slow path out...), a life spent denying the pleasures of the flesh and the importance of human interaction.  The nameless narrator allows herself to be taken over by her hatred of the governing minority, hoping to help the insurgents attempting to bring down the government.  Unsurprisingly, it's a book which is banned in Syria.

The main character, an intelligent young woman with ambitions of becoming a doctor, is corrupted by twisted logic and false words.  She is driven by fear, emptiness and sexual frustration towards a life of martyrdom (and she is quite willing to become a martyr too).  From a young age, she has been conditioned to fear the approach of men, and in a city where modern values have begun to take hold, she feels disgusted by what she sees:
"When I saw uninhibited girls undoing their bras and showing off their cleavage to the breeze and the sun in the small square, or for the titillation of the young men crowding around the entrances of the girls' schools, I felt rage at their filth."
p.17 (Doubleday, 2012)
However, it is the narrator and her friends, hidden beneath their unflattering, all-covering clothes, who are the real objects of attention - they are the ones who stand out.

Khalifa does a great job of describing life in the city of Aleppo during an era of unrest.  Outside, it is a time of death and destruction, whole communities slaughtered by one side or the other.  The Sunni Mujahideen, the holy warriors, carry on guerilla warfare against the military police, the Mukhabarat, hiding out in safe houses and fleeing the country when things get a little too hot.  Neutral observers (if there are any) must be careful to avoid the war zones - and the atrocities carried out by both sides...

So much for the men - for the women, it's a different story.  The narrator wants nothing more than to help the cause, and she does join a cell which passes out information and propaganda.  However, the reality is that she's a caged bird, forced to do the bidding of any male relative who bothers to show up at her grandfather's house.  Her inability to get out of the house (or her restrictive clothes) makes the reading experience somewhat claustrophobic, deliberately so.  Having struggled with it for 300 pages, I'm not sure how she managed it for so long...

This sense of claustrophobia is partially due to the picture the writer creates of her house.  More a mausoleum than a place of residence, it has remained unaltered since the days of its former owner, the only addition a collection of butterflies in glass cases - a fitting allegory for the narrator's life.  She is well aware of this, at times lamenting the restricted life she leads:
"I felt my predicament when she looked at me as if she were saying, 'How miserable you are,' and relief because I had let her into my stagnant world, like a lake forsaken by breezes, ducks and fishing hooks." (p.77)

A sad portrait of times gone by?  Yes and no.  The book does take a twist in the third section, a kind of redemption through suffering for the poor young woman.  However, the country has not been quite as fortunate.  A quick look at the news will tell you that history has a funny way of repeating itself - plus ça change...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I'd have to say no.  After the first 75 pages, I thought this might be right up there, but the more I read, the slower it got.  The claustrophobic style, and the lack of chapters, made this a hard book to get into.  Eventually, it just appeared to be more of the same, inner turmoil and outer suffering repeated over and over again.  It's an interesting book, and a fascinating glimpse into Syrian history, but I was pretty happy to make it to the end.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I actually thought this might squeak in, but the panel obviously had similar thoughts to mine.  While the topic was interesting, the writing didn't really sparkle or stand out, and the story lacked focus a little.  Good, but not quite there...

It's time to leave the Middle East, as we have a dinner appointment in Albania.  Our host?  Well, all I know is that he's a doctor - and a big one at that...