Why You Should Read: The Shell, Mustafa Khalifa


A young man finishes his beer in the airport, with bittersweet goodbyes to his partner. Ambitious and homesick, he’s decided to return home and build a life in the city he grew up in and loves so dearly. It is 1982, and he is returning to Damascus. He barely makes it off the plane before being picked up by intelligence services. In a flourish worthy of Kafka, they decide this atheist son of a Christian family is a Muslim Brotherhood member; his detainment proof enough of guilt. The next thirteen years are spent in some of the most brutal prisons in Syria.

The Shell is a short work referenced in its few English-language reviews as either a memoir or an autobiographical novella. Regardless, the author is an atheist of Christian background who spent over a decade imprisoned, including a stay in the infamous Tadmur prison. Debate over authenticity is well-trodden in anything involving the Syrian conflict. However, I can say that, due to all the conversations I’ve had with Syrian friends and colleagues, many with their own experiences with the Assad security state including someone who knew the author, its veracity is not in doubt.

In a region with growing body of prison literature, The Shell stands out. This is partly due to the author’s unusual situation. Guards see him as a traitor to both his religion and his state (because of course, innocence is not an option), and fellow inmates view him with suspicion and disgust. A few more of the more extreme voices call for his death as a kafir. As a reaction, he withdraws inwards, not speaking for years but incisively observing his surroundings, thus, the name of the book. Informed by his years of isolation and observation, it is this retelling of the brutal torture and degradation the prisoners endure, of the conditions in which they subsist, and of the social structure that the prisoners form, that Mustafa excels at.

Through sparse and stoic prose, he describes not only moments of extreme brutality and torture at the whims of the guards, including instances where prisoners were forced to rape each other, but also the insufferable existence brought about by neglect and disease that constitute the majority of one’s day in the cell. Mustafa also details how they coped and organized, interacting with prison leadership and settling internal disputes. The events described swing from the macabre to the resourceful and even the comic. From a class of prisoners who, among other things, substituted themselves for the punishment of others in hope of reaching paradise sooner to the resourcefulness of imprisoned doctors improvising an emergency appendectomy, to an incident where, after years with no knowledge of the outside world, a newspaper flew in the window and the prisoners had to scramble together to catch it before it escaped.

However, when describing the emotional and psychological toll these conditions bring through the years, Mustafa Khalifa is at his most incisive. He weaves together the effects of the torture, illness, tedium, and terror on the psyche- with much much of these not only on himself but on cellmates that he eventually grew to know better, and the scars it left them long after release.

It's been lamented in many an op-ed and book review that a truly comprehensive book on the Syrian conflict has yet to be written. Though there are some great memoirs of the beginning of the conflict and recently over early days of civil society development (and far too many sub-par works on ISIS), it could be a decade before that work is released. However, in conversations with Syrian friends on the most important works on the Syrian conflict, The Shell was by far the most common response. It's a work chronicling the repression and terror of the Syrian state in the decade after the last major uprising before the Syrian conflict. The not-so-subtext: This is what we experience. This is what the regime is. And if anything, it has only gotten worse.

The Shell was first published in 2008 in Arabic and as of December 2016, is now available in English and French translation.

The author is an aid worker involved with the Syrian humanitarian crisis response who wishes to remain anonymous.