“The Syrian revolution is bigger than a thousand novels”
Mustafa Khalifa’s “The Shell – Memoirs of a Hidden Observer”, which has been translated into ten languages, is one of the most famous prison novels in Arabic literature. Khaled Salameh spoke to Khalifa about the world of the novel, his identity, his country
Some young readers have described the novel as the “bible of the Syrian revolution”. To what extent do you think that your book has helped to break the “shell” and set people free?
Mustafa Khalifa: I don’t generally buy into such descriptions; neither do I agree with the notion that this novel is the “bible” of the revolution. The revolution of the Syrian people is bigger than a thousand novels. Its roots, resulting from a history of oppression, tyranny
Why didn’t you give the protagonist, who also happens to be the narrator, a name?
Khalifa: The novel has many levels, most notably the local Syrian human story. That?s why I chose to leave out the names of people and places, except where it was really necessary. The aim here is to give the novel infinite temporal and spatial dimensions.
Is this related to publicity and marketing?
Khalifa: That did not cross my mind in the slightest.
Many conflate you with the protagonist. How much of Mustafa Khalifa is there in him?
Khalifa: There is a lot of me in the protagonist, as well as part of a friend whose story has similarities: a filmmaker and a Christian who was arrested on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The protagonist’s character is a combination of my experiences and those of my friend.
Khalifa: The history of Syria from the mid-1960s onwards is one of prisons and detention. There is not a
There are many other reasons, of course, including the fact that some young people who suffered imprisonment are unable to talk about it. By reading this novel, they are able to understand more about their own experience.
Personally, I, like many others, read the novel in one go. Like them, I was unable to put it down. What’s your secret?
Khalifa: This may be because of the way it is written, the way in which the story is expressed, or the level of suspense. It may also be because of the nature of the subject matter – and perhaps also because of the element of shock and
To put it in a nutshell, readers
You began your journey into voluntary exile in the United Arab Emirates in 2006. Two years after that, “The Shell” was published. Did exile influence the novel in any way?
Khalifa: The novel was ready for publication before I left Syria.
But, generally speaking,
Khalifa: When one is right in the middle of an experience, it?s hard to write about it, and the perspective is incomplete.
In other words, exile offers distance, and this enriches and deepens the experience. It also presents unwitting comparisons between the motherland and the diaspora.
After almost 13 years outside Syria, how do you feel about prison, a place which left such deep scars on your soul?
Khalifa: At times, I find myself missing certain social and human aspects of prison life. To be honest with you, my prison mates were some of the finest people I have ever met.
Some people might say that you developed Stockholm syndrome (when a victim develops sympathy for the very person or persons causing him/her pain and suffering. In some cases, this can lead to positive feelings towards captors, including intimacy and solidarity).
Khalifa: (laughing) No, I
Will Mustafa Khalifa remain captive to prison literature, or will he venture into other forms of creative writing?
Khalifa: That description is not wholly accurate.
It is as if the hero were placed between the devil and the deep blue sea. Not only was he a prisoner, but worse, he was isolated within the prison because he was suspected by Islamist inmates as being an informant planted by the authorities. Why did you put him in this position?
Khalifa: This is not uncommon in Syrian prisons. The slightest suspicion that there might be a relationship between a prisoner and the prison authorities, is enough to lead to him being isolated. Prison officers are always trying to sow doubt and distrust among inmates.
In “The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer” the clash is vertical, between jailers and jailed. But there is another conflict taking place, among the prisoners themselves. This can be caused by ideological, religious, factional, regional and even personal differences. I have a future novel in mind in which I plan to explore this.
As a leftist, you portrayed in this novel the horrendous torture to which the Muslim Brotherhood was subjected. This led some to claim that leftist prisoners were “pampered
Khalifa: To describe leftist prisoners as “pampered” is not really fair or accurate. Nevertheless, the difference in treatment could be described as that between the bad and the very bad. When the armed struggle broke out between the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime, the level of torture and violence meted out to Islamists became quite different
What do you think drove IS to blow up Palmyra (Tadmor) prison, where the novel is set?
Khalifa: I honestly have not been able to establish whether the image distributed by IS was that of the political prisoners? complex, where the events of the novel took place. I think the image in question was that of
Does Mustafa Khalifa – and here I am asking the politician in you, not the novelist – think that it is possible to reach a reconciliation now and to turn the page of war and to find an opportunity for the wounds to heal in Syria?
Khalifa: Knowing how the Syrian regime works and what makes it tick leads me to rule out the prospect of any reconciliation between the people and the authorities. The regime does not accept a middle way, nor does it believe in negotiation with the people. Conversely, the regime might make a full capitulation vis a
After eight years of war, destruction