Death is hard work
| Al mawt aamalon chaq
Nawfal, Hachette-Antoine, Lebanon, Beirut, 2015, 160 pages
Belbol’s father just passed away in a Damascus hospital. His last request to his son was to be burried in his hometown of Aannabiya, in the province of Aleppo. Belbol accepts his father’s request only to be devasted by the enormity of this last wish after he passes away. Damascus, the Syrian capital, is under the control of the Assad regime while Aleppo is under the controle of the rebels and extremist factions. Driving from one area to another, with a body in the car, is expectedly quite a difficult task.
With his brother Hussein and his sister Fatima, Belbol heads to Aannabiya at dawn. Normally a trip of just a few hours, they hope to reach their destination in the night given the cirucmstances. They won’t make it in less than 3 days.
The three siblings hadn’t come together in years and Fatima sees in this road trip a sacred occasion to mend their broken ties. They have indeed grown quite apart. Fatima’s marriage to a mediocre opportunist businessman, whom had once given her the illusion of social accomplishment, caused her family to despise her. Hussein, once the favourite son, a smart kid with a lot of ambition and potential, quickly gave in to easy dirty money and greatly disapointed his father. Belbol, nickname for Nabil, was always the quiet one. Living a life of fear and trying his best to blend in in his Assad friendly rather rich neighborhood, he was terrified by his father’s recent revolutionary profile.
Rightly so. The father’s identity and his notorious involvement in the revolution is what caused them their first delay on their way to Annabiya. His name being blacklisted, an army checkpoint decided to “arrest” the body, until his name was cleared by some obscure central authority. It is only after a night of anxiety, and important bribery, that the three siblings were allowed to continue their journey with their father’s body. This absurd yet painful episode is certainly not the last one of their trip. As more delays occurr, the body starts decaying. With the smell of rot and death, the tension between the siblings builds up, exacerbating their differences, until it reaches its climax. The siblings and their father eventually reach Aannabiya, but by the time this happens, they are transformed, each of them having reached a point of no return.
In this journey, and through Belbol’s recollection of his father’s last years, we discover the complex character of the latter: An austere teacher turned into a revolutionary hero in a town besieged by Assad’s army, from which he had to be snuck out for health reasons. As the reader discovers the father’s transformation in the years of the Syrian uprising, the reader also follows Belbol’s transformation in the three days of this journey: Belbol finally breaks away from his fear, and in this unlikely context, learns to live.
Through this journey, and with his characteristic visual and sensual writing, Khalifa depicts with accuracy what Syria has become. Violence is common currency and the sight of dead bodies on the side of the road, or the sound of approaching shells, barely moves the protagonists of the story. They have grown accustomed to death and its multiple faces. At the same time, with the father’s rebirth as a revolutionary in his old age, and with that of Belbol, who is freed of fear in the most gruesome circumstances, the book carries an unexpected and very welcome message of hope
RAYA has world rights to this title.