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Book Review: Death is Hard Work (Khaled Khalifa)


Khaled Khalifa is a renowned Syrian author known for his compelling and thought-provoking literary works. He has gained international recognition for his novels, which often delve into the intricacies of Syrian society and politics. “Death Is Hard Work” is one of his notable works, where he skillfully weaves a narrative that explores the human condition and the challenges faced by ordinary people in a time of conflict and war.
The novel was originally written in Arabic. The English translation of “Death Is Hard Work” by Khaled Khalifa was expertly rendered by Leri Price. Leri Price is a highly regarded translator known for her skill in bringing literary works from various languages into English.

Moreover, Khaled Khalifa‘s novel is set against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, unfolding over four tumultuous years. The author, a native of Syria who resides in Damascus, remains steadfast in his commitment to his homeland, refusing to abandon his country despite the dangers created by its Civil War.

Besides, The story commences with the peaceful passing of Abdel Latif, an elderly man hailing from the Aleppo region, in a Damascus hospital—a rare occurrence in the midst of the war’s chaos. His dying wish, communicated to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be laid to rest in their ancestral village of Anabiya, near his sister Layla’s grave. While Abdel may not have been an ideal father and despite the estrangement between Bolbol and his siblings, this devoted son manages to persuade his older brother, Hussein, and his sister, Fatima, to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, a mere two-hour drive from Damascus. However, there’s one formidable obstacle: Their country is engulfed in a war zone.

With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. Syria, however, is no longer a place for heroes, and the decisions the family must make along the way–as they find themselves captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed–will prove to have enormous consequences for all of them.

The storyline depicts the grim side of the war. People mourned the loss of the once-beautiful days. Mass graves dotted the landscape, filled with unidentified casualties, as hundreds of corpses were lost and forgotten amidst the chaos. The disappearance of countless individuals over the previous four years had become tragically common, with tens of thousands still unaccounted for. Mere suspicion of opposition ties could result in bodies lining the streets, and people vanished without a trace. There were nothing but graves, and many succumbed to starvation. Desperation led to the slaughter of dogs and the pursuit of new recipes, while cats were driven from every corner.

Additionally, The sounds of battle, never stopped , and there was no longer any time for mourning. Whole families fled the town as the specter of death hovered over every house; university students left their studies, tradesmen and day laborers their work, and young men of every age and profession left their former lives, all to join the Free Army.

As the siblings journeyed, the signs of relentless conflict were evident: damaged tanks, charred cars, and dried bloodstains marked the path. Houses along the way lay in ruins and abandoned, while others in the distance appeared to have been ravaged by fire. Explosions, air raids, corpses, blood, and devastated villages permeated every page of the novel. There was hardly anyone left for the bombs to claim; they had already taken so many lives. People were weary from burying the dead over the past four years. There was no news to report, no network coverage, as the towers along the road had all been destroyed. In a country consumed by such terror and chaos, many who couldn’t flee had surrendered hope of survival. When a mother lost her second son in the rebellion, her initial response was, “I’m not surprised.”

Through the perspective of both the author and the main character, we gain insight into how the brutality of the regime created its own revolution. Many rebels deserted the army with their weapons when they were disgusted by orders to shoot to kill demonstrators with no restrictions: women, children and elderly were fair game. They opened fire on funeral processions. There is no accountability for soldiers of the regime: they can shoot or torture anyone for any reason – no questions asked. So giving a soldier at a checkpoint a flippant answer can get you killed.

The author uses the chaotic trip to illustrate conditions in Syria and to tell us the stories of the man, his father and his siblings. their father’s body becomes a huge trouble for siblings at every roadblock by checkpoints.  As the siblings journey to the village, the half day journey takes on days. Meanwhile the corpse is rotting, the stench is horrid, and it makes for sibling angst. they cross numerous military checkpoints; first those of the regime; then, as they pass into rebel territory, those of the rebel resistance. There is the absurdity of the military wanting the body placed under arrest because he was a man wanted for joining the rebels. It takes hours and sometimes days to get through a checkpoint. One checkpoint is manned entirely by Chechen soldiers who hardly speak Arabic. One rebel-held checkpoint requires men to pass a test of religious knowledge to continue through. One night of the trip the family tries to sleep in the van in a field but dogs throw themselves at the van trying to get at the decaying body. Because these dogs have already tested human flesh.

However, the reader does not only perceive the family dynamics between the siblings in the car; but, dive deep into their pasts and how they’ve shaped these people into who they are at the time the novel takes place. Moreover, Throughout this diabolical road trip, glimpses of the past lives of Bolbol and his family, with all their imperfect and natural dramas, rise to the dark and unnatural surface of the present, becoming deformed and unattainable. Like the father’s body – which, regardless of the cologne Fatima lavishes on it, continues to bloat, growing darker and more pungent with every passing day – the memory of peacetime Syria appears to be decomposing as it gives way to the present inferno, where the “exceptional had become habitual, and tragedies were simply mundane”

The memory of the father’s sister is powerfully woven into the narrative. As Abdel Latif had left his village for good, after he had failed to support his sister Layla in her refusal to marry a man she didn’t love. Not even when she said, “I’ll set myself on fire before I marry a man who stinks of rotten onions.” And, sure enough, on the day of the wedding she had been forced into, she stood on the roof of her family’s tall house in her white dress, poured out a jug of kerosene, and set herself alight, carrying out the threat no one had taken seriously. She whirled around like a Sufi to best let the flames take her body, which had become a charred corpse before anyone could reach her. Abdel Latif had watched her from a distance, weeping for her silently, as his three children were doing now for him: But nothing changed after Layla’s suicide. Girls were still made to abandon their education after primary school, their families decided whom they would marry, and any girl who left the herd was slaughtered
and as for Layla herself, no one said anything about her, save that she had set herself on fire to hide her disgrace.

This theme of a life lived with unrequited love is echoed by the father’s backstory, and seems relevant too to the situation that Syria finds itself in, caught between a tyrannical reality and dreams that remain beyond reach. The father’s decaying body, transforming into worms, serves as a poignant symbol of Syria itself, ravaged by the brutality of war. Fatima’s muteness at the end symbolizes the voiceless masses who have lost everything and now endure a grueling wait for death, which has truly become a hard work, As articulated in the novel:

“Everything she had built was destroyed—the family, the house— the only thing she could do now was wait to die, but death remained such a distant prospect, in her mind. Victory in the revolution meant nothing to her anymore, other than the chance of seeing her son’s murderers dragged through the streets. She was gripped by fantasies of revenge for losses for which there was no possible restitution. After losing their compassion, a person becomes little more than another corpse abandoned by the roadside, one that should really be buried. She knew that she was already just such a body, but she still needed to die before she could find peace under the earth. And for her, dying was the hardest work of all”.

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