Review: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Khaled Khalifa, Translated by Leri Price
By Onur Kara
When the siege of Aleppo was lifted in December 2016, newspapers started publishing maps and satellite images showing the radically altered landscape there. The city, which provided much of the background for this book, has endured devastation, with many of its inhabitants killed, injured or displaced. As literature and politics often shadow each other, the war in Syria has joined the trend that encouraged contemporary novels from the Middle East to reflect the thoughts and feelings of people who lived through these events.
Khaled Khalifa, the Syrian author who received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2013, writes against such a background. He is no stranger to controversy, as his previous In Praise of Hatred was centered around a earlier wave of destruction: the Hama massacre of 1982. The story in No Knives in the Kitchens of this City ends a few years prior to the current conflict in Syria. Yet the book hints at what is happening today, embedding it into a narrative of three generations.
Khalifa depicts a small family moving to Aleppo from Midan Akbas, a village just south of the Turkish border. A cultivated schoolteacher, the mother attempts to make a fresh start after the departure of his husband and the death of her youngest child by building a new house, only to discover the discrepancies and complexities of life in Aleppo under authoritarian rule. The plot is a bold statement of the near-impossibility of escaping one’s predicament, and the frustration emerging from it.
However, Khalifa’s strength is in his narrative style rather than his story-telling. From its beginning, the novel stands out for its preference of descriptions over conversation. There is little of the latter in the book, and all is based on the main character’s observations or second-hand accounts. Despite being the sole narrating voice, this main character is fleeting – Khalifa does not even mention his name. He is also often absent: we hear about him in a number of passages, yet the lens quickly skims over to others. It is almost as if the environment Khalifa pictures has suppressed even the narrator, which allows him to open a window into the lives of others at the cost of removing himself.
The rest of the figures are developed through actions and memories rather than dialogue, following the author’s style. This is not to say that the characters remain weak – on the contrary, Khalifa offers elaborate portraits of almost a dozen personalities, whose layers are revealed over time. In fact, it is the women who put their weight to the text. Sister Sawsan occupies the most central space amongst all the siblings, as her story takes the reader not just to Aleppo, but around Dubai and Paris as well. Similarly, the mother of the siblings, whose passing away is depicted at the very beginning of the book, maintains a strong presence until the final pages.
Khalifa’s narrative sometimes moves in circles, where the reader is suddenly taken back into the past for a self-contained vignette. Khalifa does not abstain from twisting his timeline, and when he does so he seamlessly links these detours back to the main story. These make a strong impression as the author tends to return to the same issues several times. In one instance, we learn about the early death of Suad, the youngest of siblings. Khalifa then returns to the same matter, explaining how Suad’s ashes were still preserved, or attempts to visit her graveyard years later. The resulting text is rich and contains succinct observations because it clearly shows how certain events have ramifications far beyond their time. These are also sections where the family history is further revealed, giving meaning to seemingly inconsistent actions. Sawsan swings from joining the armed forces to giving herself to religion, while Rashid, one of her brothers, finds himself entangled with militia fighting in Iraq after a career in music.
The political dimension is a constant. Khalifa makes a high number of references to the Syrian government – as the narrator’s own birth has ‘launched [him] into a life that run parallel to the Party and all its doings.’ The family’s misfortunes are partly caused by politics, but the real influence comes from the long-term effects of authoritarianism. A feeling of decay and repression is distinguishable, and the characters ask questions of obedience and rebellion where very simple acts of defiance require courage. Still, as Sawsan explains, most people continue to live their ‘parallel lives’ without directly clashing with politics and power. Nevertheless, Khalifa creates main characters that do not fit into their environment. This puts them into a collision course with the regime at numerous times and places, creating a sense of shame for not conforming to the larger society.
The book’s relationship with Aleppo, however, goes beyond the political. The city witnesses numerous changes as it grows and mutates, with new inhabitants from the countryside flocking into the city centre, transforming neighbourhoods over the decades. The old family house loses its initial appeal as its view is increasingly blocked, and its street less maintained. Aleppo’s story follows its own course, yet it draws parallels to the rapid urbanisation that occurred throughout the Middle East in the last thirty years or so – it could have belonged to Istanbul or Cairo. Hence, a reader may find many familiarities, of which, recognition is becoming increasingly important as Syria’s experience is now internationalised.
Khaled Khalifa kept publishing his work after 2013, but No Knives in the Kitchens of this City is currently his most recent novel that has been translated to English. It is a splendid book about a situation, which is difficult to convey to others. It makes for very interesting reading.
If you want to read No Knives in the Kitchens of this City here.
Onur is a PhD student and researcher based in London