Khaled Khalifa, Syrian Novelist ‘Exiled at Home,’ Is Dead at 59

Khaled Khalifa, a Syrian author whose sprawling novels made him an authoritative chronicler of his country’s decades of war and political upheaval and found readers around the world, died on Sept. 30 in his home in Damascus. He was 59.

His American publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, confirmed the death. Friends said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Khalifa was widely regarded as one of the most important writers in contemporary Arabic literature. But his reach extended beyond the Arab world. His novels have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Chinese.

In 2013, the American University in Cairo Press awarded him the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (named after the Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature), one of the Arab world’s highest literary honors. And in 2019 he was a finalist for the National Book Awards for his novel “Death Is Hard Work.”

Mr. Khalifa’s books, soaked in the trauma of war and repression that has long afflicted Syria but laced with humor, were often critical of the government and just as often banned by it. That was the case with “In Praise of Hatred” (2006), a coming-of-age tale about a girl who grows up in a devout Muslim family in the city of Aleppo and there finds herself drawn into the radical Islamist movement in the wake of political and religious turmoil.

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, initially centered in the city of Daraa, Mr. Khalifa was saddened to witness the devastation of war and to see his friends leaving, one after another. Though he was offered sanctuary in Europe, he insisted on staying in Damascus, opposing the idea of “an alternative homeland,” as he put it in an interview in 2015.

Mr. Khalifa was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Awards for his novel “Death Is Hard Work,” the story of a father’s request to be buried beside his sister.

Though officially prohibited from traveling outside Syria, he could do so if he received permission from the government, and it was occasionally granted. In 2015 he traveled to Boston and New York by way of Beirut.

Recalling his 2015 trip, he wrote in an unpublished article, “On my way, I met Turks, Arabs, Syrians, Europeans and Americans, and most of them were telling me that the old Syria had ended, and some of them added that Syria as a country had ended.”

But he said he told them, “Although I am certain that the old Syria has ended since the first martyr fell in Daraa in the first demonstrations on March 18, 2011, it will not end as a country.”

He refused to follow his friends into exile in Lebanon or Europe.

“He was always scared of dying outside Syria,” his friend Lina Sinjab, a journalist who made a short documentary film about him, “Exiled at Home” (2019), said by phone from Beirut.

Hospitalized in Damascus in 2013 with heart problems, Mr. Khalifa grew concerned that if he died suddenly he would not be buried properly in Aleppo, his preferred site, given his country’s constant sectarian strife and state of high security.

He wrote of this concern in “Death Is Hard Work,” the story of a father’s request to be buried beside his sister. Though the burial site is less than two miles away from the man’s house in Damascus, it takes his children three days to transport the coffin as they navigate an obstacle course of military checkpoints and threatening Syrian government officials.

Khaled Khalifa was born on Jan. 1, 1964, in Urum al-Sughra, a village in northwestern Syria. Though he grew up poor, a son of illiterate parents — his father was a farmer — he received an education that took him to law school in nearby Aleppo. He soon decided that the law was not for him, however; he harbored ambitions of being a novelist instead.

When his first novel, “The Guard of Deception,” failed to draw much attention, he moved to Damascus and found work writing screenplays for television dramas. The income supported him financially as he wrote five more novels in Arabic, four of which have been translated into English by Leri Price: “In Praise of Hatred,” “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City” (2013), “Death Is Hard Work” and his most recent, “No One Prayed Over Their Graves,” published in July.

Mr. Khalifa’s latest novel is set in and around Aleppo, in northwestern Syria (the author’s favorite city), at the turn of the 20th century. It was published in English by Macmillan in July.

The latest novel, set at the turn of the 20th century, tells the story of Hanna and Zakariya, “a pair of cocky princelings,” as Dwight Garner wrote in an admiring review in The New York Times, “hipsters in their moment,” whose scheme to open a libidinous nightclub in Aleppo is upended when family members are lost in a flood in the two men’s ancestral village, forcing upon them a moral reckoning.

Even in writing about calamity, however, Mr. Khalifa was never entirely grim. As Mr. Garner wrote: “Despite Khalifa’s absorption in the disputes that have torn Syria and the Middle East apart for centuries — his novels are filled with accounts of massacres, great displacements, mass graves and sharp discord between liberals and fundamentalists — the tone of his work is often antic. There’s a freight of comedy and sensuality. You sense this writer asking, as Philip Roth did in his Kafkaesque novella ‘The Breast’ (1972), ‘What is a catastrophe without its humorous side?’”

His death came as a shock to his exiled friends. “Losing Khaled, for me, is like losing my city, Damascus,” Ms. Sinjab said, “losing the connection, the intimacy and the roots.”

She recalled his “high sense of humor.”

“We used to laugh and laugh for hours over his jokes,” she said.

But as the war between the government and opposition groups dragged on, he fell into a deep depression. Most upsetting to him had been watching Aleppo, his favorite city, being gradually destroyed from 2012 to 2015.

“One of the schools was bombed in my neighborhood in Aleppo, and 14 students and two teachers died,” he said in the 2015 interview. “It is very heartbreaking.”

His friend Fouad Fouad, a Syrian doctor and academic, wrote in a tribute published after Mr. Khalifa’s death: “Khaled hated war because it took the Damascus he knew from him, changed the rhythm of his life and narrowed down his world, in which he had been living comfortably.”

Faced with economic hardships and shortages of power and fuel, Mr. Khalifa, who never married and lived alone, turned to cooking as a consolation, including making pickles.

Asked about his life in Damascus in 2015, he said: “It’s all waiting here. There is nothing really but cooking. Everyone is waiting for the great fall. I am writing, relaxing and making pickles. I am reading and drinking. I’ve got enough diesel for a romantic winter.”

He was preparing another batch of pickles when he suffered cardiac arrest on Sept. 30, his friends said. There was no information on immediate survivors.

Mr. Khalifa could be sardonic about his lot in life as a writer trying to pursue his vocation in a country as stifling as Syria.

“In 2015,” he wrote in his unpublished article, “at the Boston airport, a policeman said to me while examining my Syrian passport with suspicion: ‘I wish I were a writer. I have many stories I want to tell the world.’ I told him, ‘But you definitely don’t want to be Syrian, because then no one will hear you.’”

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