By Dominika Maslikowski
Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s account of his native Aleppo’s descent into violence under Bashar el-Assad’s regime won this year’s prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for its depiction of one family’s dreams crushed by a dictatorship.
Khalifa’s 2013 novel No Knives in the Kitchens of this City (La Sakakin fi Matabikh Hadhihi Al-Madina) was awarded the prize by the AUC Press during a ceremony at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Campus on Wednesday, December 11, the birthday of the late Nobel laureate Mahfouz. Khalifa, who lives in Damascus, was unable to attend as he was only granted an Egyptian visa hours before the ceremony was set to begin, said journalist Sayed Mahmoud, a close friend who also read Khalifa’s acceptance speech at the ceremony.
“I’m happy to be awarded this prize that represents a moral value to every Arab novelist, especially that it’s linked to the name of our mentor, Naguib Mahfouz,” Khalifa told Egypt Today in an email message. “And as far as I know it’s the only Arabic prize that is named after an important author.”
Khalifa, whose previous novel Madih al-Karahiya (In Praise of Hatred) was banned by the Baath regime, questioned in his acceptance speech the role and value of literature in the face of brutal state violence, and praised his “master” Mahfouz for teaching him of the “power and agony of writing.”
“We work in fragility because we produce beauty. We contribute to making human life less solitary and harsh,” Khalifa wrote. “We do not grant the oppressed victory but we help the oppressed regain their strength and struggle for their cause. We cannot convince an abandoned woman that solitude is not so unbearable, but we can make her solitude less unendurable. We expose oppressors, opportunists and murderers, but we are not a court that passes sentences.”
Born in Aleppo in 1964, Khalifa studied law at the University of Aleppo and went on to found the literary magazine Alif in 1990. He is the author of four novels, including In Praise of Hatred (2006), which was translated into English in 2012 and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. That novel, sold secretly in Syria, narrated the tragic story of an Aleppo family against the backdrop of events leading up to the 1982 Hama massacre, in which late President Hafez el-Asaad’s regime killed as many as 20,000 people.
The award-winning No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, like In Praise of Hatred, has been hailed by critics for its timely portrayal of the failures of the Assad regimes through the stories of Aleppo’s middle-class families whose only ambition is survival.
“Though there are no allusions to the current context of revolution in Syria, the novel powerfully chronicles the dark history of the current tragedy,” said Tahia Abdel Nasser, granddaughter of the late Egyptian president, in an address at the ceremony. “In a broad, dense novel in the tradition of Mahfouz, Khalifa explores the tragedy of modern Syria and breaks taboos to cut through the layers of silence [...] The novel evokes an inferno where fear and fundamentalisms have almost conquered a once magnificent city, but where aspirations endure.”
Fatma El-Boudy, owner of the publishing house Dar al-Ain, said the novel reflects the situation in Syria, and that Khalifa has a “very unique style” as one of the greatest Arab novelists.
Khalifa’s novel was selected from more than 50 other Arabic works after debates among a committee of five judges that went “long, long” into the night, said AUC Press Director Nigel Fletcher-Jones.
No Knives in the Kitchens of this City was published in Arabic in Cairo by Dar al-Ain this year and will now be translated into English, as have all the previous medal-winning novels since the award was launched in 1996. Mahfouz had hoped the award would help English-speaking readers discover new talents in Arabic literature.
Despite the tragic stories intertwined in the novel, Khalifa said in his address that he hasn’t lost hope as his native city remains split between government and opposition-held districts in what is the third year of the unrests in Syria.
“The revolutions which are still in the early stages will also contribute to making what is certain subject to doubt,” Khalifa wrote in his address. “And thus the society which lived all these centuries in search of its identity will no doubt arrive at different results that will brush the dust off a great culture.”