By Maya Jaggi for The Guardian , published on Septemebr 14th, 2012
Maya Jaggi is chair of this year’s Man Asian literary prize.
Syria’s second city is besieged in Khaled Khalifa’s momentous third novel, which appears in English with a grim timeliness. “Bodies on both sides fell like ripened berries” in a city where death is “as commonplace as a crate of rotten peaches flung out on to the pavement”. These passages may read like a description of today’s Aleppo, in northern Syria, riven and bombarded. But In Praise of Hatred, first published in 2006 and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008 (by which time it had been banned in Syria and republished in Lebanon), is set three decades ago, when President Bashar al-Assad’s father was battling earlier opponents. That challenge to the regime of Hafez al-Assad in the late 1970s led to its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and culminated in a massacre in Hama in 1982. Though the novel alludes to those killings, its setting is Aleppo’s longer war of attrition between Islamist rebels and the Mukhabarat, or secret police, in a city once famed for cosmopolitanism and tolerance. Its timeliness lies partly in uncovering the roots of sectarian enmity in traumatic events that are still officially taboo.
The unnamed narrator is the youngest in a family of cloistered, well-to-do women in an ancient city of olive groves. The girl’s rebellious younger aunts try to save her from the pious severity of the eldest (smoking “is horrible, but it’s not haram”, they insist). Yet, taught that women are “animated dirt”, and swayed by uncles versed in political Islam, the pubescent narrator curbs her girl crushes (“desire rose in me like sap through a tree”) and succumbs to hatred of the “other sect”. Though unnamed, this Shia sect is the Alawite minority that dominates the ruling party with a self-serving veneer of secularism. The girl’s family is of the Sunni majority. Her sentimental education is taken up by groups of women: tambourine-bashing Islamists; peers at school who mock her “penguin” attire as they pursue doomed affairs with torturers; and later companions in prison – whether desirous of turning the country Islamic green or communist red. The aunts are gloriously vivacious and nuanced creations, from Maryam, at war with her own “filthy and rebellious” body, to Marwa, a Juliet figure, chained to her bed to prevent her marrying an officer of the other sect. As party spies multiply, a geography teacher has her clothes torn off for failing a pupil from a Mukhabarat family. In the siege of Aleppo, a fugitive throws himself into a red-hot bakery furnace rather than risk torture. A secret police chief modelled on the president’s brother is a chilling cameo.
If her hatred is born in part of self-loathing, the novel hints at a tolerance that flows from self-acceptance – and has women’s freedom firmly at its heart. As Robin Yassin-Kassab notes in a perceptive foreword, the author had his left hand broken by “regime thugs” at the fraught funeral of a murdered musician in Damascus earlier this year. Fortunately, as Khalifa has pointed out, he writes with his right.