Book Review: "In Praise Of Hatred" (Khaled Khalifa)

Dina Sandika reviews the novel In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa. The book was published in 2006, and later translated to English in 2012.



In Praise of Hatred. Intriguing title. Why hatred? Author Khaled Kalifa, as quoted from The Global Dispatches, “(Word) ”hatred” was chosen not by myself but by the female character of the book as a way of telling us about the personal transformations that come about when humans fail to communicate or ignore each other, despite living in the same country and under the same sky.”

The country, Syria, in which the author and the narrator of the story was born, is also the one that banned this book. The book is Khalifa’s third novel, which took 13 years to write before being published in 2006. It was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize and has also been translated into many languages. I read the English version from Thomas Dunne Books, translated from Arabic by Leri Price.

The story is set in Syrian city of Aleppo in the early 80s, but from the synopsis on the dust jacket – and also the news that reach us everyday – it actually feels like present time, where violence still reign over the country.
The Aleppo that the author wants us to see is the one during Hafez al-Assad’s regime, during bloody war between the Sunni majority and the government (secret police). The first part of the book opens with the narrator inhaling the smell of old cupboard in her former room and inspecting some old photographs of her family. She is the one who will tell the story but we never get to know her name. 

All we know at the beginning of the book is that she is a teenage girl, who feels uncomfortable with her pubescent body, and lives a sheltered life with her three aunts and a blind servant. The oldest aunt Maryam convinced her father to let her live with them because they were lonely after their grandparents died and the youngest aunt got married. The grandparents were a wealthy man from a prominent Sunni family in the city. The three uncles continue to handle the family business after their father passed away, while Maryam becomes quite obsessed in reliving the grandeur of the family’s past life. 

Our narrator’s daily life seems primarily consist of school, Hammam (bath) on Thursday, and prayer meeting on Friday. She is strongly influenced by ultra-pious Maryam, while at the same time fascinated by her liberal aunt, Safaa. She comes to believe – as “an irrefutable truth” – that the body was filthy and torn between desire and hating her body. Moreover, in modern and tolerant Aleppo where she is the one who often get mocked because of her black attire and veil, she sees girls at school flaunt their bodies and begins to feel intense rage towards them.

In Praise of Hatred is one long narrative, a monologue in three parts with occasional digressions. For the readers, the story until she reaches her total submission to hatred and life of martyrdom is slow and difficult to follow, as the narrative often jumps from flashbacks – full of interesting stories of the late grandparents, the driver, Maryam’s first love, the blind servant – to present time without any bridge.

Khalifa does a great job of describing life in the city of Aleppo during an era of unrest. However, her poetic narrative makes it difficult for me to feel the character, as the narrator’s voice sounds more like a third person telling us “facts” rather than the voice of a young girl. It feels a bit odd that she can tell us very detailed stories of the other characters, which logically she would not possibly know. In the end, I fail to hate or sympathize with any of the characters. Happiness, hatred, anguish, passion, or humor seems almost have the same tone of color, even though the words are beautifully written.

I like the second and third part better, where we follow her active involvement in the radical organization – with less flashbacks – that seeks to topple the government. She has found fulfillment in hatred, as she expressed, “.....hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for,” although sadly, she actually still lives in confinements like she always has. 

From the physical confinement of her veil and her grandfather’s huge suffocating house, to the “confinement” of not being able to contribute any decisions regarding the future of the organization. Her activities of attending prayer circle and distributing pamphlets that encourage people to hate all the other sects is the picture of the role of women in Syria at that time. Women of the organization are left powerless waiting for instructions while the men make plans, organize murders, and escape ambushes.

Overall, this book does a great job describing the gripping horror of a besieged city, the cruelty of both warring sides; “Bodies on both sides fell like ripened berries”. It is told that death has lost its prestige; “.....not worthy of much notice in a city where more than three hundred mourning ceremonies were held that day alone”, and we can see the grim result of shrinking humanity into just “another sect”, “another party”, or “our enemy”. Possibly the latter is what enables our narrator to unflinchingly crave to throw acid at her flirty schoolmates, to fill her emptiness with total hatred. 

If you enjoy getting a glimpse of history through fiction works, this book is a good read. But aside from the intriguing topic and the unique angle of presenting a human side, moreover, a woman, of what the world call mujahideen, I do not think the book is an easy read.

In Praise of Hatred is available at Perisplus online for Rp 428,000, at Amazon Kindle for US$ 7.99, at Google Play for Rp 77,729. If you want more discount, you can get the book for Rp 60,000 during the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale (BBW) which will be held from April 30 to May 8, 2016, at Indonesia Convention Exhibition (ICE), Jl BSD Grand Boulevard Raya No. 1, BSD City - Tangerang. You can find the map here.

*Notes about Big Bad Wolf:

The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale began in 2009 at Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, as a warehouse sale by remainder bookstore BookXcess, selling various genres from best-sellers and children’s books to specialist titles and deluxe coffee-table tomes. Every book at the Sale has been heavily discounted from 75% to 95% off retail prices. This year is the first Big Bad Wolf Book Sale in Indonesia, where you can find more than 3 million books being discounted to Rp 40,000-Rp 250,000. The Book Sale will be open from 11am to 11pm every day, with the exception on weekends and holidays (open 24 hours). For more information, visit the official website bigbadwolfbooks.com.

Comments

  1. What did you think in regards to the issues raised in the book? I've been mulling over the book for a while now. I found it interesting how it points out subtly that history will repeat itself in Syria and how Syria's current events turned out how it was portrayed at the time of writing despite being published five years before the uprising began.

    In regards to fundamentalism, the novel brings out that both sides are as bad as each other and it doesn't matter whether you're secular or religious, it still brought out the worst in those involved and it bred a cycle of violence and hatred...the narrator mentions, "I used to think: if people die as martyrs for God, how do both the killers and killed enter paradise?" I'm assuming the author is implying (not just in that quote but throughout the novel) that only non-violence initiatives will bring about any change and peace to the country and that hate throughout the novel will only breed hate. Also that hate is never inbuilt into anyone and that it takes a lot of time and effort to breed such a level of hate as seen in the narrator.

    I also wonder about the sexual repression the narrator develops from the start of the novel. The narrator at times does try to explore her sexuality but she often feels that sexuality is dirty and unnatural (aided by other people's opinion and views) which led on to her self hatred and then onto hatred of others. From the start, she's imprisoned in a number of ways, metaphorically speaking but then literally and the hijab became a form of imprisonment and I suppose aided her sexual repression. I think in the original novel (which was published in Arabic) the narrator moves to London and also removes the hijab (please correct me if I'm wrong as I haven't read the original yet and only read some reviews of the original novel in Arabic), so the narrator tries to reach a state of freedom. Sometimes I wonder what the reality is like, and whether many in Syria or anywhere, feel like how the narrator felt. The narrator was conflicted between the strict views imposed on her about her body compared to the sexuality that she was beginning to feel, and that it was repulsive and needed to be repressed. And since in many parts of the world, sexuality is such a taboo and often blames women for men's desire rather than men themselves for their control. In the novel, the narrator doesn't feel like she has control over her body. The hijab was imposed on her by family. She doesn't really value her own body nor does she find it beautiful. And she views sex as something that is an obligation towards husbands. She doesn't have a view or an opinion that women can desire sex or want it. And I wonder whether its a common idea in reality.

    Sorry for such a long rant. I'm trying to put together my thoughts on the novel and try to engage with others who've read the book.

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