Reviewed by Tom Little
Long before the outbreak of Syria’s uprising in March 2011, the country’s writers had begun to search into their recent past, looking for answers in Assad senior’s years in power as to where their current leader’s rule might lead.
Hafez Assad’s brutal crackdown on a Muslim Brotherhood uprising across Syria in the 1980s proved fertile ground for Syrian writers, who published memoirs, novels and witness testimonies of the period, although one book in particular earned the ire of Damascus’ censors.
Khaled Khalifa, a drama scriptwriter for Syrian television with a string of well-received novels under his belt, published In Praise of Hatred in Arabic 2006, and his take on Syria’s 1980s rebellion has just been translated into English.
His frank interpretation of the Brotherhood uprising, which culminated in the destruction of Hama along with over 10,000 of its inhabitants in 1982, earned his novel an instant ban in his home country in spite of its warm reception by reviewers around the world.
The unrest pitted the armed Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood against Hafez Assad’s Baath party, and assassinations, raids, mass arrests and bitter street fighting became commonplace in many towns. The subject was taboo for years, and only referred to obliquely as “the events”.
But Syria’s ongoing conflict, and its parallels with “the events” has sparked fresh interest in the period, and specifically in Khalifa’s brilliant novel on an Aleppan family’s experience of the years.
Narrated by an unnamed young girl from an affluent household in the city, In Praise of Hatred follows her progress from a timid student to a hardened militant who sees hate as the only way to bring down the regime and create the Islamic state she and her friends dream of.
The narrator is sequestered in a house with her two aunts and their blind servant, Radwan, where they live quietly in a state of suspended animation as the men of her family make all their key decisions, but the sense of belonging that the Muslim Brotherhood offers allows her a release from this environment, and she learns to hate.
She finds herself caught up in “the group”, a cell of the Brotherhood in the city, where she is taught to hate “the other sect”, Syria’s Alawites, ”who descended from the mountains with limitless ambition and vitality” and dreams of slaughtering them, even neighbors of hers who belong to the sect whom she has known all her life.
She attends prayer groups, secret meetings and hands out pamphlets and plans with pleasure to fight to topple the government, and feels liberated by her newfound anger.
“By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for,” she writes as Aleppo is engulfed in a wave of attacks against government loyalists.
But as the fighting between “the group” and the “death squads” (a thinly-veiled reference to Rifaat Assad’s paramilitary Defense Companies that quelled the rebellion) intensifies, her close-knit family falls apart as her brothers are arrested, killed or driven into exile and her sisters struggle to cope with the bloodshed.
Even this fails to jolt her out of her hatred, and it is only when she herself is snatched by the Mukhabarat and imprisoned in harrowing circumstances is she forced to reconsider her life and what her hatred has made her.
The translation of In Praise of Hatred is undoubtedly timely and will surely win plenty of column space in the English-language press, but it is a finely crafted novel in its own right and it is easy to see why it was nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008.
Khalifa’s rich narrative meanders from event to event, constantly stopping to recount the life stories of minor characters, taking the reader from 1980s Syria to London in the 1950s, via Afghanistan and Yemen.
The book constantly references The Thousand and One Nights, as the narrator constantly says how fond she is of the stories. Khalifa’s novel, with its tyrannical rulers, religious ascetics and ancient, arched souqs draws heavily on them itself.
These detours do not detract at all from his powerful depiction of the radicalization of the young narrator and the corrosive effects of sectarian prejudice. Instead they throw her newly-acquired sectarianism into sharp contrast with the country’s history of co-existence and tolerance.
As her hatred for “the other sect” grows stronger, the young narrator’s beauty fades, her face grows harder and she even comes to hate her own body, deliberately choosing clothes that hide any sign whatsoever of her figure, which Khalifa renders powerfully with a brutal simplicity.
But the depiction of the narrator’s sexual awakening as she undergoes puberty jar a little and seem forced. Khalifa occasionally interrupts the flow of his novel with lingering descriptions of the narrator’s body that seem awkwardly written and out of place with the rest of his novel and do not lead anywhere.
This may be a translation issue, however, as a cryptic note at the end of the English text announces that “the publishers have decided to make some editorial changes, taken in consultation with the author, and the result is a novel that ends differently from the original.”
Quite why this decision was taken, or whether it was taken at the author’s instigation, is never explained, although the ongoing bloodshed in Syria must undoubtedly have had some impact on the changed ending.
All the same, In Praise of Hatred is a deeply absorbing read that delivers an important message about the dangers of hate as the bloodshed in Syria looks set to surpass the worst years of “the events.”
This article first appeared in The Daily Star, Lebanon on October 5th