Dictatorships corrupt not only institutions, but souls and the inner chore of private lives. The death of Syria and of its charm started way before the current tragic events which seem to never end, it started long ago. What we see now are the last breaths of a country.
In No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Khaled Khalifa a writer that himself had to cope with the censorship and the intrusion of politics into arts, a family is falling apart while together in the ciy of Aleppo. A former corner of beauty in the city, where 'lettuce was at its most succulent and women their most feminine', is becoming a crime-ridden quarter. The house is also deteriorating more and more every day, gone being the times when the matriarch used to buy lined papper which smelled of cinnamon.
'Aleppo itself was as ephemeral as the act of forgetting; anything which remained of its true form will became a lie, reinveted by us every day, as not to die'. However, this parallel city is not strong enough to resist the pressure of the outside world, which means corruption of souls and pokets. The dream is less stronger than the reality. 'My mother, who died in the early evening, used to believe that everything will be all right as long as she could open the window and watch the sun set over the lettuce fields and distant mulberry tree'.
I have my own short by intense experience of life in a dictatorship and now, many years after, I know that the shell of culture is not strong enough to defend your soul. Most of the people you invite to share your passion for forbidden books and music and whispered conversations about dangerous topics may be themselves agents of the power. The reason to do so can be weakness or revenge or short-term advantages. In more than one situation featured in the book, 'classmates who joined the Party seeking revenge for their own ugliness and to teach her old friends a lesson'.
Interestingly, the family sage is going through the entire recent history of Syria, from the WWI, the Ba'athist coup in 1963 who brought to power the Assad family and the situation before the current conflict. Sectarian divisions and confrontation between tradition and modernity, perception of mental illness and homosexuality, the resurgence of religious extremism. It is just a fragment of a bigger feature, in a region which seems to be restless, but in the bad sense of the world, self-consumed with internal conflicts and alienation.
The flow of memory is slow, remining a bit of the style of Naguib Mahfouz, with intervowen layers, each telling a different story on a different voice. It makes you nostalgic and longing for a city you cannot meet any more, for the broken destinies because of the absurd politics and for the people born without hope for a better future.
This book just open up my literary appetite for discovering even more contemporary Middle Eastern writers, a journey I will continue in the next reviews. I was very happy to read a book which lacks ideological bias and tries to make way for telling a story. A sad and heartbreaking story, but deeply authentic.
Rating: 4 stars