Review by: Lindsey Hilsum
Channel 4 News’ International Editor
Most western TV viewers know Aleppo as a violent, divided, destroyed city where children covered in bomb dust cry amongst jagged ruins, or are rushed to makeshift hospitals along debris-strewn streets. Khaled Khalifa’s Aleppo, by contrast, is a place of alleyways and elegant perfume stores, of bars where men and women drink Johnny Walker and the Cinema Opera where children spend their pennies on “Egyptian and Bollywood melodramas about good-looking, impoverished lovers who triumphed at the end.” Violence, though, creeps through the cracks in the crumbling Ottoman era mansions. At times bewildering as its chronology shifts, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City loops through time, from the 1940s to the mid 2000s, the family at the centre shaped by the rise of the Assad dictatorship, the city they love sinking into ruin and corruption around them.
“Aleppo,” the unnamed narrator tells us, “became a city given over to ceaseless fear, a city of retribution, whimpering under the appetites of the mukhabarat and the corrupt officials who were proficient only in loyalty, or dancing dabka in circles during presidential referendums.”
Like Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ who were born as Indian achieved independence, so the narrator is born on the eve of the Baathist coup that brought the Assad dynasty to power in Syria in 1963. It is “an ill-omened birth that launched me into a life that ran parallel to the Party,” he writes. The family seems cursed from the outset. The father runs off to America with an NGO worker, leaving the mother to bring up four children alone. The eldest, Suad, is born disabled and dies young. Sawsan, the other daughter, always described as “irrepressible”, hurtles through life, joining the Party, rebelling, taking lovers, and then rejecting her previous adventures. The youngest, Rashid, is a shy musical boy, nearly as enigmatic as the narrator. The moral centre of their universe is Uncle Nizar, a musician and composer, who spends six months in jail for sodomy. Refusing to be shamed by his homosexuality, not to mention a penchant for cross-dressing, he is the only incorruptible character, a truly kind man who supports his sister, loves his nieces and nephews and takes refuge in the music of Schubert. The shame he nobly resists is pervasive: one character even writes a book entitled “On Shame and its By-products in Syrian life.”
This a Syria few western readers will know. The bedrooms of Aleppo are redolentwith scentand decorated with antiques and velvet. Lace and silk underwear is torn off in mutual passion. Some of this has an uncomfortable orientalist feel, like a nineteenth century western painting of the harem, but, unusually, the passion is primarily female. Khalifa writes about women’s desire in sensual detail. Sawsan, in particular, holds nothing back – until shame overcomes her and she attempts to remake her life by getting a doctor to sew up her hymen, and exchanges her mini-skirts for an abaya. The limits imposed by Syrian society contrast with the possibilities beyond: Paris, Beirut and Dubai beckon, but everyone comes back to Aleppo in the end, drawn by its romance and cruelty. At times it’s hard to keep track of the characters or the narrative, but the book conjures an atmosphere that seduces the reader with its irresistible sense of time and place.
Assad’s henchmen and women display a casual aggression, the most shocking example being a pack of girls – including Sawsan – who attack a fellow pupil, Hiba, whom they resent for her piety and envy for her beauty. When she refuses to wear a Party badge, they rip off her headscarf, beat her with gun barrels, leaving her naked and bloodied in the street. Such is her family’s shame – both sexual, because she has been stripped, and political, because she has resisted the Party – that she is forced into marriage. Years later, she keeps a gold-plated gun in her drawer, hoping that one day one of the girls will walk into the women’s clothing boutique she owns so she can take revenge.
She is not the only character who longs for revenge, surviving in a society poisoned bythe twin toxins of sexual hypocrisy and dictatorship. “I thought a lot about the pain of my life, connected as it was to the Party’s Coup d’etat and assumption of power,” writes the narrator.Casting round for whom to blame, Rashid, the youngest brother, who plays the violin like an angel, turns to jihadism. Others pine for a time when Aleppo was full of music and beauty.For the narrator, any attempt at escaping through religion or nostalgia is impossible – after all, it was his birth that heralded the rise of the Assads. “I convinced myself that living in the present saved people like me, who were without hope.”
“Cities die just like people,” writes Khalifa, a sentence that reads especially painfully nine years into Syria’s civil war, when Aleppo’s ancient souk has been destroyed by fighting and the Citadel, from where Sawsan watched the sunset, turned into a garrison. ‘No Knives in the Kitchens of the City’ sets the stage for the conflict to come, but presages more violence and cruelty than the author can have possibly imagined.
Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News’ International Editor and the author of Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution. She has recently reported from the USA, Zimbabwe and Syria. She covered the refugee crisis and terror attacks in Europe, conflict in Ukraine and the Arab Spring uprisings. Previously she reported wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the genocide in Rwanda. From 2006-8 she was based in China. She has won several awards, and contributed to newspapers, academic journals and literary magazines. She is currently writing a biography of the late war correspondent Marie Colvin.