BEIRUT: Long before the outbreak of Syria’s uprising in March 2011, the country’s writers had begun to search into their recent past, hoping to find clues as to where Bashar Assad’s rule might lead by studying his father’s years in power.
Hafez Assad’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s proved a fertile subject for Syrian writers, who published memoirs, novels and witness testimonies of the period. One author in particular, however, earned the ire of Damascus’ censors.
A scriptwriter for Syrian television dramas, Khaled Khalifa also has a string of well-received novels under his belt.
In 2006 he published “In Praise of Hatred,” his take on events leading up to the Hama massacre in 1982. Six years on, perhaps as a result of increased interest in the region over the past 18 months, the English translation has appeared for the first time.
Khalifa’s frank depiction of the uprising – which culminated in the destruction of Hama, along with over 10,000 of its inhabitants – meant that his novel was immediately banned in Syria. In spite of this, the book received a warm reception from reviewers around the world.
The unrest in the 1980s pitted the armed branch of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood against Hafez Assad’s army. Assassinations, raids, mass arrests and bitter street fighting became commonplace in many towns. The subject was taboo for years, referred to only obliquely as “the events.”
But Syria’s conflict, and its parallels with “the events” of 30 years ago has sparked fresh interest in that period, and more specifically in Khalifa’s brilliant novel, which details an Aleppan family’s experiences of the time.
Narrated by an unnamed girl from an affluent household in Syria’s largest city, “In Praise of Hatred” follows her progress from a timid young student to a hardened militant, who believes hatred is the only way to bring down the regime and create the Islamic state of which she and her friends dream.
The narrator is sequestered in a house with her two aunts and their blind servant, Radwan. The women live quietly in a state of suspended animation as the men of the family make all their key decisions, until the sense of belonging that the Muslim Brotherhood offers the narrator provides a means of release from this stifling environment, and she learns to hate.
She finds herself caught up in “the group,” a cell of the Brotherhood in the city, where she is taught to hate “the other sect,” Syria’s Alawites, “who descended from the mountains with limitless ambition and vitality.” She begins to dream of slaughtering Alawites, even neighbors of hers whom she has known all her life.
She attends prayer groups and secret meetings and hands out pamphlets. She takes pleasure in planning to topple the government, and feels liberated by her newfound anger.
“By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me,” she recounts as Aleppo is engulfed in a wave of attacks against government loyalists. “I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for.”
As the fighting between “the group” and the “death squads” (a thinly veiled reference to Rifaat Assad’s paramilitary Defense Companies that quelled the rebellion) intensifies, her close-knit family falls apart. Her brothers are arrested, killed or driven into exile and her sisters struggle to cope with the bloodshed.
Even this fails to jolt her out of her hatred, and it is only when she herself is snatched by the mukhabarat and imprisoned in harrowing circumstances that she forced to reconsider her life and how hatred has transformed her.
The translation of “In Praise of Hatred” is undoubtedly timely and will surely win plenty of column space in the English-language press. It is a finely crafted novel in its own right, however, and it is easy to see why it was nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008.
Khalifa’s rich narrative meanders from event to event, frequently stopping to recount the life stories of minor characters, taking the reader from 1980s Syria to London in the 1950s – via Afghanistan and Yemen.
The narrator repeatedly references the “Thousand and One Nights” – stories of which she is inordinately fond.
Khalifa’s novel, with its tyrannical rulers, religious ascetics and ancient, arched souks, itself draws heavily on the tales.
These detours do not detract at all from his powerful depiction of the radicalization of the young narrator and the corrosive effects of sectarian prejudice. Instead, they throw her newly acquired sectarianism into sharp contrast with the country’s history of co-existence and tolerance.
As her hatred for “the other sect” grows stronger, the young narrator’s beauty fades, her face grows harder and she even comes to hate her own body, deliberately choosing clothes that hide any sign whatsoever of her figure.
Unfortunately, the descriptions of the narrator’s sexual awakening as she undergoes puberty seem somewhat forced, jarring with the narrative. Khalifa occasionally interrupts the flow of his novel with lingering descriptions of her changing body that seem awkwardly written and out of place, leading nowhere.
But this may be a translation issue, as a cryptic note at the end of the English text announces that “the publishers have decided to make some editorial changes, taken in consultation with the author, and the result is a novel that ends differently from the original.”
Quite why this decision was taken, or whether it was taken at the author’s instigation, is never explained – although the ongoing bloodshed in Syria must undoubtedly have had some impact on the altered ending.
All the same, “In Praise of Hatred” is a deeply absorbing read. It delivers an important message about the dangers of hate, even as the bloodshed in Syria looks set to surpass the worst years of “the events.”
Khaled Khalifa’s “In Praise of Hatred,” translated by Leri Price, is published in English by Transworld Publishers and is available from Librairie Antoine.