“Death is a solitary experience, of course but nevertheless it lays heavy obligations on the living.”
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa is both an astonishingly simple and deeply complex story set in the devastated, war-wracked contemporary landscape of Syria.
Recently translated into English from Arabic, this is among the more intellectually and emotionally satisfying books I have read in some time. The novel demonstrates the truism that reality—in this case, the Syrian war—can often be best understood through the lens of fiction.
As elder Abdel Latif is dying, he extracts a promise from his adult son Bolbol to transport his body back to his ancestral village to be buried next to his sister. Bolbol enlists the help of his estranged brother Hussein and sister Fatima. The trip to the father’s birth-village would, under normal circumstances, take two hours. But in the ravaged and bitterly territorial countryside, the journey stretches into a harrowing five days.
Throughout their journey, Khalifa presents the reader with a wrenching description of a country shattered by nearly a decade of violence. The siblings pass through a maze of armed checkpoints; they are interrogated, threatened, imprisoned, attacked by feral dogs. Their father’s body slowly decomposes, becoming infested with maggots in the back of their van. They quickly realize the folly of their promise to their father but will not turn back, even as their journey becomes increasingly absurd.
As the journey progresses, through the narrator Bobol, the history of the individual family members is presented—their loves, losses, hopes and disappointments. We see in these stories the spectrum of human frailty, strength and cruelty, the sometimes-stultifying confines of family and cultural expectations, and the redemptive power of love, even love among the ruins.
Through this unspooling of interwoven family stories, we begin to understand how a once-fervent optimism that the fight in Syria would become a revolution for all humanity has been reduced to the same rubble as their homes. The people are starving, terrorized and, by necessity for survival, increasingly immune to the savagery of their new reality.
“The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much ‘alive’ as ‘pre-dead.’ It gave them a little relief their frustration and anger.”
Death is Hard Work is acutely disturbing in its depiction of the Syrian war and its traumatizing psychological effects on Syrian survivors, seen through the microcosm of one family’s past, present and future. This is not an easy book, but it is an important book. In today’s world, looking away from evil and violence and human suffering can be all too easy. Don’t look away. Read this masterful book. Khalifa has done a great service for his people, for those outside of Syria who seek to understand, and for history itself.