I bought this book in July 2019, when I was in Dubai. While visiting the impressive shopping malls, I spent 40 minutes in the biggest bookshop in Dubai (it’s Dubai, so everything has to be the biggest). I decided to use this opportunity to expand my horizons and bought several books that originally were published in Arabic. It was an area I rarely ventured into before. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf were the other ones I bought then.
I read it in the last week of April. Granted, the title is not encouraging, neither is the subject. Especially when you’re in lockdown and people are dying from the virus. The subject is not too optimistic either. We have here siblings: Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima. Their father Abdel Latif just died in a hospital in Damascus and his deathbed wish was to be buried next to his sister, in the village of S., close to Aleppo. The thing takes place in 2015, the fourth year of the Syrian war (which if you have forgotten in all the other bad news is still raging in its ninth year now).
The fact that our siblings were born in S. itself is a problem and makes them suspicious to all people linked to the ruling regime. Now the distance does not seem impossible, from Damascus to S. it is 250km. As Khalifa points out at some point it should be a three hours drive. It’s not, it takes grueling three, almost four, days. The three of them in a van, with a body of their father rotting hour by hour. With endless checkpoints, first the regime ones. Then the rebelliant ones, and then the extremist ones. Chased by people and dogs, considering a sniper on the highway as a completely normal reason for a diversion they press on.
At that stage in their lives, they are no longer really a family. Estranged for years, with nothing in common other than the sense of obligation to the dead father. Their conversation is difficult at best. So they spend the majority of the time silent, musing on their lives. We find out their stories. Get to know the tales of love, ambition, delusion, and greed that all ultimately end in disappointment. They all wanted more, they all thought they deserve more, and it all came to nothing. Their lives not hanging in a limbo of war for the past four years. Survival became the main preoccupation.
As we travel with them and Abdel Latif’s body decomposes, so do the stories they tell us. Their lives have decomposed. Not only because of war, each of them is also at fault. Arrogant Hussein, Fatima always wanting more and the coward Bolbol. We also get to know the story of Abdul Latif, not much more cheerful.
What I found interesting in this book is the acerbic sense of humor. Similar to that in Frankenstein in Baghdad and Jokes for the Gunmen, this crazy humor based on the completely absurd and terrifying situation. Tragicomic. Like bursting out laughing at the funeral, because your mind can’t cope with your emotions.
The other aspect really interesting given the lockdown was how people normalized the abnormal situation. How our siblings take the war in their stride, because what else can you do after four years? I wonder how we’ll normalize the covid situation, especially that it is nowhere near the horror of war.
Do you read Arabic fiction? What’s your favorite book?
Quotes from Death is Hard Work