Khaled Khalifa. Photo Credit Aiham Dib

Scheherazade in a Syrian Cell

Khaled Khalifa is Syria’s biographer, much as Gore Vidal declared himself America’s. While Vidal gave fictional life to Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, William Randolph Hearst, and other American deities, Khalifa avoids real names: no Assad, father or son, only “the President”; no Baath, only “the Party”; Alawis are “the other sect,” Sunnis “our sect.” Yet their presence dominates the lives of his imagined characters, as in the real Syria.

Known in the Arab world primarily as the author of scripts for television and film, the fifty-five-year-old Khalifa has published five novels in Arabic, three of which have been sensitively translated by Leri Price. The first to appear in English was In Praise of Hatred, a complicated García Márquez–like chronicle of an unnamed, decaying family with aristocratic pretensions enduring the clandestine war between security forces and Islamist militants that erupted in Aleppo in the late 1970s. With its labyrinthine souks, decrepit stone palaces, medieval monuments, and heterogeneous populace, Aleppo serves as an apt setting for In Praise of Hatred’s unraveling mystery.

The pride of the old city, largely demolished during the warfare of 2016, is the ancient stone bazaar that Arab and European travelers over centuries praised for its beauty and variety. Philip Mansel, one of many foreign writers to succumb to Aleppo’s Levantine allure, wrote of the souks in Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City (2016), “They stretched for twelve kilometres; through the souks of the rope-makers, the saddlers, the tanners or the spice-merchants, it was said that a blind man could make his way by following the smell of the merchandise.” Khalifa’s Blind Radwan does just that, navigating Aleppo’s physical and political pathways during a turbulent era. A parfumier and necromancer, the Tiresias-like Radwan is “tall and gaunt, clean-clothed, and his hands always smelled of the perfumes he traded in.” As the only male dwelling in the family house who is not a blood relative, Radwan is a sometime servant, occasional confidant, and part-time surrogate father. Among his tasks is guiding the women—three grown sisters and their niece—through the vaulted warren of souks to a weekly rendezvous in the Red Door hammam, the Turkish bath where they strip off the black hijabs that conceal their forms and faces, if not their scents, from the crowds of men they pass and occasionally lust after along the way.

Fragrance permeates Aleppo, the scent of apricot, almond, pistachio, cherry, and olive from the surrounding countryside occupying the city in parallel with peasants loyal to the Party who are colonizing the suburbs. Smell takes precedence among the senses from the opening sentence of the book, when madeleine-like it conjures memories and prompts a search for a lost past: “The smell of the ancient cupboard made me a woman obsessed with bolting doors and exploring drawers, looking for…

In Praise of Hatred

by Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price
London: Black Swan, 299 pp., £8.99 (paper)

No Knives in the Kitchens of This City

by Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price
Hoopoe, 219 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Death Is Hard Work

by Khaled Khalifa, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pp., $25.00

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Main photograph: Khaled Khalifa, photograph by Aiham Dib courtesy Hoopoe.