The civil war in Syria has been characterised in the Western media through the involvement of the major powers – America and Russia – and the rise of Islamic State. Khaled Khalifa’s new novel Death is Hard Work gives a view from the ground, from the people impacted by an ongoing and seemingly unending cycle of sectarian violence. It is stark and confronting but also holds out sprigs of hope and stories of love lost and regained.
Bolbol’s father’s dying wish is that he be buried next to his sister in the family’s ancestral village of Anabiya, about seventy kilometres outside of Aleppo. Bolbol and his two siblings, Hussein and Fatima live in Damascus and the drive should take them a day. But these are not normal times. Syria is riven by civil war. There are numerous checkpoints to negotiate, military operations going on around them and just the general chaos of navigating through a war zone. What starts as a one day trip spins out to days as they are held up at checkpoints, shown hospitality in small villages, rerouted due to fighting and bombing, and just generally caught up in the nightmare of civil war.
Khalifa takes an almost Kafaka-eque approach to their plight. At the first roadblock they are arrested because their father, who fought against the government, is still a wanted man. The fact that he is clearly a corpse doesn’t seem to change that. Later, on the other side, the brothers are questioned to determine how devoutly Muslim they are. But it is never totally surreal, and all the while, the body in the back of Hussein’s van slowly putrefies.
The lives of the three siblings are fraught as is their ongoing relationship, not helped by the need to share close quarters in a van with a rotting corpse on what starts to feel like a fools’ errand. Their back stories and their father’s story, stories of love and loss, spin out of the narrative. The metaphor of love as a bouquet of flowers floating down a river that must be grasped at the right time or lost, recurs poignantly in these stories.
Death is Hard Work is a short novel but no means an easy one to read. From the beginning where Bolbol is extracting his father’s body from a morgue overflowing with dead soldiers, Khalifa, who still lives in Damascus, does not shy away from the violence and madness that is the Syrian civil war. This is a tough novel, a challenging novel, but as Syria falls out of the news cycle, and its refugees are demonised, an important one.