Khaled Khalifa's No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, like his acclaimed novel In Praise of Hatred (2013), is guided by a single powerful emotion. While In Praise tracks hatred as it seethes in and around Aleppo, No Knives, also translated by Leri Price, quickens around shame.
But Khalifa’s fourth novel, shortlisted for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, doesn’t judge its characters. It simply follows its destructive path as it spreads, like a blight, through Aleppo. One character even writes a short book, “On Shame and its By-Products in Syrian Life”.
The shambling, multigenerational narrative resembles the city itself; the plot builds and tears down around one larger-than-life family.
In the 1960s, the central family are proudly middle-class: Ibtihal is buoyed by the family’s Ottoman ancestry; Nizar is an accomplished musician; and the family’s elegant matriarch an accomplished teacher. She falls in love with a villager, and together they have four children: Suad, Sawsan, Rashid and the narrator.
The story begins in earnest when the novel’s shadowy narrator is born. Life before isn’t perfect: the grandfather is a “silly man who cared more about his picture with Monsieur Henri Sourdain than his own life”, and is so horrified by his son’s sexuality that he makes sure Nizar is sent to prison. From the time of the narrator’s birth, however, shame begins to ravage the family in earnest. His father soon runs away with an older American woman, never to see the family again.
The ghost-narrator hardly exists on the page. We learn only that he lives a life of quiet frustration, doing tedious translations and observing his family’s collapse. The narrator is born just before the Party’s coup: “The Party and I were living parallel lives.” Neither the Ba’ath Party nor Hafez or Bashar Al Assad are named. Yet the dates make the identities of the “Party” and its leaders clear.
Slowly, shame eats away at the characters’ lives. The narrator’s mother is ashamed of her disabled and fragile daughter Suad, who she hides away, waiting for the girl to die.
When Suad does die, the narrator records: “My mother returned from the cemetery and burned everything that was left of Suad – her medicines, her few clothes, her sheets, and a quilt that smelled of urine.”
Sawsan, who loved fragile Suad, judges her mother harshly: “[I] spat on my mother, and told her that shame would follow her forever.” In turn, the mother becomes everything that once dishonoured her: dementia leaves her dirty and tattered.
The “irrepressible” Sawsan, too, is crippled by the shame. It begins with her passionate relationship with Munzir, which leads her to join the army and denounce her fellow students. When it ends, Sawsan has surgery to restore her hymen and, for a time, dresses “modestly” but her past will not be so easily contained.
It is only Nizar, the narrator’s uncle, who manages to sidestep the same fate. At times, the book seems to shy from Nizar’s sexuality. Yet he is the story’s moral centre and his family’s refuge: sheltering them in his home, taking care of them in illness and acting with decency and love.
And across Aleppo, people are crippled by shame: ashamed to work for the Party and to march in Party demonstrations but also ashamed to stand against it as well. Sawsan’s shame only lifts when she is part of the Syrian army and denounces the students. Rashid’s ebbs too when he joins an ultra-conservative religious group and when he heads off to Baghdad in 2003 to fight American forces.
At the heart of Khalifa’s book is a serious question: in a world steeped in shame, and in fear of standing out, is it possible for individual freedom to survive? Nizar manages to be true to himself, but in this fictive Aleppo few others do so.
M Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.wordpress.com.