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A death sentence on the Syrian state

Death is a toil
SYRIA / A multisectoral, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multiethnic state torn to shreds by the Ba'ath party, extremists, militias and rival superpowers, all demanding their share of the country.

This article is machine translated by Google from Norwegian

Khaled Khalifa's novel covers the first half of the war in Syria. Externally, it tells the story of a family that is disintegrating due to the war and the regime's terror, but on a metaphorical level, the book is a death sentence on the Syrian state and nation.

The title is striking and precise: Three siblings carry the body of their dead father from Damascus and back to his hometown outside Aleppo. The approximately twenty miles in the van eventually run like true hell; the journey through the war-torn landscape is life-threatening, from the moment they leave Damascus until they finally arrive at the village where their father is to be buried next to his sister, Layla. She committed suicide many years earlier, and there is a double shame over this suicide: She was to be married off, but refused and chose death.

It was a triple protest, against the family tradition, society and religion.

It was a triple protest, against the family tradition, society and religion. She represented everything defined as an independent human being, was a young, intelligent and proud woman who wanted to decide over her own life and paid the price for it. She was the individual and the woman who stood alone and therefore had no chance against the muscles of the collective. The three siblings are all victims of the collective, the whip that the Baath party and the Assad family swing over the population and which ultimately triggered the civil war in 2011.

The dead father belonged to the opposition and dreamed all his life of a socialist revolution. It never came, and yet he believed in it with fanatical stubbornness – a stubbornness that has affected both his wife and his three children. He holds the banner of the revolution high, even as the war develops into a demonic barbarism in which all parties are involved, including his own. As a final claim to obedience, he demands on his deathbed to be buried at his hometown. The demand is both hair-raising and life-threatening, but the three siblings obey – as one blindly obeys the head of the family, the patriarch, who here is both a revolutionary romantic and a macho man.

The decay is underway

The mission becomes a deadly struggle. They are exposed to the danger of death for almost every kilometer. Syria is divided into zones, sectarian territories that change between the parties day by day, often hour by hour. They are constantly passing new checkpoints, have to identify themselves, explain the cargo, their father's body wrapped in a white screw, smells worse and worse. The decay is underway, and the stench soon permeates the entire van, the three being ravaged by both thoughts and desires, such as loosening the corpse at the nearest roadside or mass grave and fleeing home.

Even young people think of the grave as a relief.

At the same time, they are driven by a hatred for one another, and a hatred for the father that always required blind obedience and loyalty. Underneath this also lies the memory of the unity they had before, which life under the regime's dictatorship and terror has made impossible. It makes them a miniature Syria, a multisectric, multireligious, multilingual and multiethnic state torn to shreds by the Ba'ath party, extremists, militias and rival superpowers, all demanding their share of the country.

The flow of refugees out of the country is plausible, abroad is the only future, Syria is like death. People are also waiting for death. People will die. Even young people think of the grave as a relief. The only thing that keeps people alive is the desire for revenge, the need to avenge their dead. Family, relatives and friends disappear into the regime's secret prisons and come out again as mutilated corpses – and people take revenge on the regime's soldiers and henchmen. It is enough to be related to the wrong person, the name tells where and who you come from, and you will be punished for that – in a raid or at a checkpoint.

The desire for revenge

Coincidence and luck mean that the three siblings still show up. The father is buried, not next to his sister or wife, but in a vacant place far away from all relatives. It does not matter, the siblings have performed their duty and complied code of honorone that the father expected them to respect. The respect for him was gone long before they arrived. His revolutionary arrogance and total lack of understanding for them destroyed all good feelings long before he died. This is possibly a generational phenomenon in today's Syria. The protracted dictatorship and the terror and cruel barbarism of the war may have shattered all forms of ideological credibility. As mentioned, Khalifa writes that people only survive on revenge. Before dying, the enemy must pay. Before one can find the peace of death, one must fulfill the duty to the code of honor.

According to Khalifa, this drives everyone in the country, including women: They too will see blood, they will avenge their slaughtered sons, their murdered, mutilated daughters, their murdered children, their men whom the enemy humiliated and tortured to death.

 William Faulkner

Revenge killing is collective fuel, and we've heard of it before. William Faulkner wrote in 1930 If I lay dying, and the similarities with Khalifa's novel are striking. Here, a dying mother demands that the family transport her body (by horse and cart) to a neighboring town for burial. These are Faulkner's core people, white trash, rednecks, in his fictional universe, Yoknapatawpha County, a microcosm in which gender, classes, and races are kept separate. A code of honor also applies here. The dying matriarch is about to lose his grip, but in death she is still obeyed; her body is transported where she demanded. The journey with the coffin loaded behind a horse-drawn carriage is almost as grotesque as the journey in Khalifa's novel, the like-mindedness grows stronger, the coffin falls off the cargo plane, people react, comment and withdraw from the family and the madness they represent. Yet they are only an extreme version of the solid tradition, the respect for family honor, for the matriarch's last wish.

Perhaps Khalifa is based on Faulkner; purely artistically, the comparison holds up well.

If I lay dying is a quote from Odysseus' eleventh song in which Odysseus meets the murdered king Agamemnon in Hades. He tells Odysseus about Clytaimnestra, his queen and murderer who refuses to close his eyes as he dies. She breaks that codex and triggers the carnage among the royal families in Mycenae.

The Assad clan also unleashes the carnage in its empire, Syria, and Khalifa uses his optics to show how the tragedy unfolds, an optics that consciously or unconsciously relies on the tragedies of both Faulkner and Homer.

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Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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