Khaled Khalifa – Death is Hard Work

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The main character in Khaled Khalifa’s book, Bobol, is tasked with carrying out his dead father’s last wish of being buried in the village he used to call home, Anabiya. Under normal circumstances this amounts to a two hour drive, but this is war torn Syria where a short journey can take days, and where you’ll be lucky to get past the numerous check points, avoid bombs and bullets, find roads that aren’t closed and make it to the village before the body completely decomposes.

The first thing that struck me whilst reading this book is how incredibly normal death is in this country. We do know this from the news, of course, but there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. In Bobol’s Syria you don’t get sympathy when your somewhat elderly relative dies of natural causes. That’s considered lucky, not sad. Everyone has lost someone, usually under horrible circumstances and far too soon. And to be buried properly and have a funeral is a luxury. I’m not sure if mourning the dead becomes a full-time job or something there’s just no time for anymore when this is reality.

A silent funeral is a funeral stripped of all its awe, Bolbol thought. Rites and rituals meant nothing now. For the first time, everyone was truly equal in death. The poor and the rich, officers and infantry in the regime’s army, armed squadron commanders, regular soldiers, random passersby, and those who would remain forever anonymous: all were buried with the same pitiful processions. Death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living.

Bobol’s brother and sister comes with him on his journey to Anabiya. His family hasn’t been together for years, and they are very uncomfortable with being locked in a car together for days. You might think that the death of a parent would bring the family together, but in this case the divide is just too large. They are very different as individuals and they were also treated very differently by their father. We learn a lot about their relationships with him during the course of the book, and we also get glimpses of their fathers life, parts of which his children knew little about.

Khalifa manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere in the car, the worsening state of the body with accompanying smells, the tension at every checkpoint, the fear, the hopelessness and exhaustion of the siblings in such a believable way. The most disturbing aspect of the story is how normal the author makes certain situations seem; bombings, seeing dead bodies in the street, have guns repeatedly pointed at you just because you want to go from A to B. It’s strange and horrific what humans are capable of getting used to. The writing is direct and full of gritty descriptions, but also contemplative and quiet at times. I found this book absolutely stunning. I can’t know how realistic it actually is, but to me it seems completely realistic. I felt like I was there in the car with the characters, experiencing their exasperation and their fears. It gave me a terrifying insight into how it might be to live in the midst of a civil war that’s been going on for far too long.

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