The Writer and the Rebellion
By Matthew Davis
November 15, 2013
For Guernica 
“The last chapter is the most difficult to finish in a revolution, as in a novel,” writes Khaled Khalifa from war-torn Syria.
The Qasabji bar in Damascus, on an unremarkable road just outside the Old City, was where Khaled Khalifa and I had our best conversations. Khaled always entered first and greeted the customers sitting at tables near the door. He bent down, kissed the men, flirted with the women, and strutted to where Nabil, Qasabji’s owner, had cleaned a spot for us. He ordered either a glass of arak or the local Damascene beer, Barada, pulled a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and added to the purplish haze of smoke. Qasabji was a singular room shaped like a boxcar, crowded with wood tables, benches and chairs that pushed against one another and three walls. I only saw it at night, crowded and smoke-filled, loud, dim. Khaled always faced out, better to see the men and women, but mostly the women, and when an attractive one entered he banged the table with his fist and hooted like a wolf.
I met Khaled Khalifa in 2007. He was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where I was working. His third novel, In Praise of Hatred had come out in Arabic the year before, and within the year would be short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arab Booker, and Khaled would be profiled by the New York Times.
It was a romantic image, the focused writer, the devoted bartender, but everything about Khaled was romantic.
Qasabji was one of two Damascene locales where Khaled had often written In Praise of Hatred. He had worked until the early hours of the morning, Nabil serving him cup after cup of coffee. It was a romantic image, the focused writer, the devoted bartender, but everything about Khaled was romantic—his outsized personality (he once orchestrated an entire club to dance while standing atop a bar), his love of women (his womanizing is notorious), his capacity to drink (he buys Smirnoff vodka in two gallon jugs, places them around his apartment, and fills them with olive oil when they’re empty). And when he talked about writing, he spoke with a refreshing earnestness:
“If you are going to be a writer, you need to be strong.”
“You cannot write a novel emotionally hot. You must be cold.”
“At one point, I decided that if I did not make it as a writer, I would kill myself.”
* * *
Khaled Khalifa was born on New Year’s Day, 1964, in a small village near Northern Aleppo. His father was an olive farmer and owned an olive oil company; his mother raised children. Khaled was the middle child of a large family that would come to have nine boys and four girls, something he once told me allowed him the chance to get lost. Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city, a commercial hub that has historically been a meeting point of Eurasian cultures. Khaled’s family lived among this diversity. “There are two faces of the city,” he told me. “One face is like a ghetto. We were living there. I remember this neighborhood because all the poor people, like Armenians, Kurdish, Turkoman—these nationalities were living in the past. These were the poor people, the farmers, and they came from the villages.” There was another, newer, Aleppo, though, that was more cosmopolitan, more “Aleppine” as Khaled called it. His family lived between these two cultures.
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