Why do we read fiction? There are as many answers to that question, I suppose, as there are readers, but for me, one of the primary reasons is empathy. Whatever else it bestows, fiction opens up the inner life, collapsing the distance between us and its narrators, its characters, connecting us at the level of the heart. To read a novel is to know someone else on the most intimate level, to sit with them, to grieve with them, to undergo what they have undergone, their traumas and their joys. It is, in other words, a way to bridge the gap between ourselves and what we like to call the other, a reminder of our essential, shared humanity.
I kept thinking about this as I read Khaled Khalifa’s magnificent No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, which takes place, for the most part, in Aleppo, a city we imagine now, when we imagine it, in apocalyptic terms: street fighting, refugees, the shelling of a commercial and population center into what has been referred to as a “ghost city,” effectively erased from the world. That the story is more complicated goes without saying, but how are we to get inside? No Knives in the Kitchens of This City suggests a mechanism, telling the story of the city, in some sense, through that of a single family, beginning in the early 1960s and concluding a few years before the Syrian insurgency began.
Concluding, however, is the wrong word for a novel as elliptical and open-ended as this one, in which a central motif is the circularity of time. Khalifa encodes such a sensibility into his work by shifting back and forth across the decades, slipping from character to character with a fluid, even dreamlike grace. “On the way home,” his nameless narrator begins the book, “I recalled that my mother was not yet sixty-five when she died so suddenly. I was secretly glad and considered it ten years too late.” It’s an almost perfect opening: reflective, memorial, and yet still active, much like the balance between memory and living that every character here — like all of us — has no choice but to enact.
Khalifa’s narrator carries a historical burden; he was born in 1963, the same year as the Ba’athist coup that put the Syrian military in power. But if this seems like a metaphor, it’s a metaphor of a particularly elusive sort. This narrator, after all, exists mostly in the novel as a cipher, a mechanism to describe those around him rather than to explicate himself. He is, in other words, everywhere in the book without exactly being anywhere, much like the dictatorship itself. If No Knives in the Kitchens of This City has a protagonist, it may be his mother, complaining of “a lack of oxygen,” as if the weight of history were depriving her of breath. Or perhaps it is her oldest daughter, Sawsan, who uses her sexuality in pursuit of power until she is brought to a very personal reckoning. “She used to celebrate her body with long baths fragranced with perfumes and soaps and concoctions of fresh herbs,” the narrator tells us. “She thought that we created fear to make others afraid of us, only to discover that it clung to us as well and made us equally afraid.” Fear as a kind of perfume, or residue, made up in equal parts of nostalgia for the past and dread for the present: This is the novel’s constant overlay. The people here — not only Sawsan or the narrator but also their uncle Nizar, a gay musician who flaunts his sexuality with at times disastrous consequences, or their brother Rashid, who falls prey to extremism — are looking for something, a whisper of belonging, in a society that exists mostly to assert its own brute force. “He spoke eloquently and at length of his personal shame,” the narrator explains of Jean, one of Sawsan’s would-be lovers, “because he was a witness to this moment which everyone would pretend to forget, if they were to be able to meet each other’s eyes in fifty years’ time.”
All of this comes to us by way of a narrative that loops and circles, doubling and tripling back on itself. From that initial reference to the narrator’s mother, we are carried backward, to her life as a young wife and parent, then forward again to her final years. Sawsan is twenty-two, and thirty, and nearing forty, back-and-forthing with old friends and lovers before always, always peeling away. The novel, though, is never uncentered or disconnected, thanks to the relationship between its characters and Aleppo, which Khalifa brings to life in its own right. Some of his most vivid writing traces the slow degradation of the ordinary into a different sort of normality, in which movie theaters and restaurants are replaced by loyalists chanting in the streets. “Those who were still alive in the eighties,” Khalifa notes, “made do with sitting on a park bench and watching the ducks in utter disbelief at what had happened to their beloved city, where they lived out the remnants of a beautiful era.” And this: “Cities die just like people. He couldn’t bear the smell of the ghetto that he was supposed to have no other choice but to live in, without hope of the siege upon it ever being lifted.
That’s a chilling epitaph, not just for Aleppo but also for the rest of us. There are parallels here to America’s current upheaval; let’s not be coy about that, even though No Knives in the Kitchens of This City was originally published in Arabic in 2013. At the same time, what the novel offers is a bigger vision, reminding us that all politics are personal, in the sense that they affect us at the level of our daily lives. Aleppo was once a thriving city, Khalifa insists, not because of its commerce or influence but because it was a human landscape, defined by dreams and work and love and longing: the stuff of, yes, the inner life. In the struggle to survive, such things get put aside or hidden, a set of vulnerabilities too dangerous to reveal. Khalifa calls it the parallel life, “a truth circulated in secret,” in which “everything in our memory had to be erased and its burdens thrown away.” And yet, how do we live without memory? How do we remain who we are? If No Knives in the Kitchens of This City has anything to tell us, it’s that these are the questions to which we must pay attention — both for Aleppo and ourselves.