Death is hard work

Death is Hard Work (2016) by Khaled Khalifa

Literature


Brigitte Herremans, PhD research fellow at Justice Visions, Human Rights Centre, Ghent University

The novel recounts the hazardous journey of three estranged siblings who travel across war-torn Syria to bury their father in his ancestral town. At the deathbed of his father, the main protagonist Bolbol is unable to decline his last wish that “his bones would rest in his hometown beside his sister Layla” (5). Abdel Latif had spent three years in the besieged town S. with his new spouse, away from his children, until rebel fighters smuggled the starving man to Damascus. There, his son Bolbol tended to his ailing father for the last three months of his life.

Soon after his promise, Bolbol regrets not having stood up against his father. It requires he abandon his cautious lifestyle and travel to rebel held territory, doing away with his attempts to extract himself from his family ties; he must behave like a loyal, unsuspicious citizen. Furthermore, he esteems that the current circumstances do not allow for a dignified death. “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” (8). There were mass graves everywhere, yet his father´s insistence confronted Bolbol with the heavy obligation that death imposes on the living, who “have a harder task ahead of them than the dead; no one wants to see their loved ones rot” (14).

Bolbol determines that his siblings Hussein and Fatima are also responsible for carrying out Abdel Latif’s last wish and implores them to join. Spending time together after years apart, they set out on the journey in Hussein’s minibus. In normal times the journey to Anabiya, less than 400km north of Damascus, would be a pleasant trip taking about 5 hours. However, three years after the start of the 2011 uprising, Syria is a ravaged and fragmented country, riddled with checkpoints controlled by the Assad regime on the one hand and rebel groups on the other. The siblings are exposed to arbitrary violence and detention, grewsome scenes of abandoned corpses and harrowing corruption. The voyage turns out to be an absurd and existential ordeal, as the word ‘onerous/laborious’ (shaqq) in the Arabic title suggests.

The Sisyphean undertaking is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, recounting the Bundren’s family painful odyssey to carry out the father’s promise to his dying wife to bury her with her family in a nearby town. Like in As I Lay Dying, this journey is severely delayed by mishaps and brings to light strong tensions between the siblings, originating in their complex relations with their father. Just as the Syrian uprising did not lead to the hoped for transition and freedom, the siblings could not undo the web of convoluted family links. Even in death, their father continues to divide them. Their growing resentment and the decomposing corpse reflect the country’s demise. Syria is falling apart, the former kingdom of silence has turned into nightmarish place where humanity seems to have vanished.

Death is Hard Work is an exploration of the arbitrariness of the conflict and the multiplicity of perpetrators. What binds the regime and rebel groups is their contempt for civilian life. Moving the narrative between present and past, Khaled Khalifa has a strong sensitivity for the fate of citizens who live under the constant threat of extreme violence and lack agency. Tens of thousands of people are missing, detained, tortured, bombarded, with little to no possibility to escape their fate. Chance, or the lack of it, is what determines people’s life. Khalifa masterfully examines the impact of Syria’s state violence and the suppression of the memory of violence. His previous novels In Praise of Hatred and No Knives in the Kitchens of this City also address the political and psychological consequences of a regime that wages war against and oppresses its citizens. Despite the ongoing violence and his isolation, Khalifa refuses to leave Syria as he wants to tell people’s stories and bear witness to their plight. He considers the novel as one of the most effective ways for dismantling the narrative of tyranny and dictatorship.

History


Death Is Hard Work Historical Context: Syrian Civil War

Khaled Khalifa’s novel Death Is Hard Work (2016) is set three years into the Syrian Civil War, a conflict which began in 2011 and which has yet to be resolved a decade after its inception. The Syrian Civil War is one of the most complex violent conflicts in recent history, and involves multiple actors with conflicting interests. These include the Syrian Assad government, the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish forces, powerful states such as the United States and Russia as well as neighbouring states like Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Terrorist organisations like the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) have also played a large part in the conflict. Moreover, the war caused the largest individual refugee crisis in recent decades. By March 2021, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 6.6 million people are internally displaced within Syria, “while another 5.6 million Syrians remain as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.”

Here is a map by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre from April 2018 depicting the refugee situation in Syria and neighbouring countries.

(https://reliefweb.int/map/syrian-arab-republic/syria-crisis-refugees-and-idps-dg-echo-daily-map-19042018)

The conflict began during the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw protestors take to the streets all over the Arab world to fight for radical change. As The New York Times reported, the Syrian peaceful pro-democracy protestors initially demanded “the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protestors; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.” Instead of the demands being met, however, the Assad government helped to escalate the conflict by shooting protestors and releasing “hundreds of Islamist militants from prisons to discredit the rebellion,” people who later formed extremist groups. According to the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), “[b]oth Assad’s forces and rebel groups have regularly targeted civilians in areas outside of their control,” including several incidents of the regime using chemical weapons against civilians. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Assad government has been heavily criticised for severe violations of human rights. In this context, Amnesty International’s Syria page is an invaluable resource for further reading.

The conflict began during the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw protestors take to the streets all over the Arab world to fight for radical change. As The New York Times reported, the Syrian peaceful pro-democracy protestors initially demanded “the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protestors; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.” Instead of the demands being met, however, the Assad government helped to escalate the conflict by shooting protestors and releasing “hundreds of Islamist militants from prisons to discredit the rebellion,” people who later formed extremist groups. According to the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), “[b]oth Assad’s forces and rebel groups have regularly targeted civilians in areas outside of their control,” including several incidents of the regime using chemical weapons against civilians. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Assad government has been heavily criticised for severe violations of human rights. In this context, Amnesty International’s Syria page is an invaluable resource for further reading.

The conflict began during the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw protestors take to the streets all over the Arab world to fight for radical change. As The New York Times reported, the Syrian peaceful pro-democracy protestors initially demanded “the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protestors; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.” Instead of the demands being met, however, the Assad government helped to escalate the conflict by shooting protestors and releasing “hundreds of Islamist militants from prisons to discredit the rebellion,” people who later formed extremist groups. According to the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), “[b]oth Assad’s forces and rebel groups have regularly targeted civilians in areas outside of their control,” including several incidents of the regime using chemical weapons against civilians. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Assad government has been heavily criticised for severe violations of human rights. In this context, Amnesty International’s Syria page is an invaluable resource for further reading.

(Map by Thomas Van Linge detailing the situation in Syria as of 13 February 2014 [https://twitter.com/ThomasVLinge/status/434048269316935681/photo/1])
The Syrian Civil War did not remain an exclusively national conflict for long. The war quickly gained international attention and subsequently became a proxy war, where other states helped and supported certain actors in the conflict to further their own interests in the region. The international web of alliances in the conflict is complex and has changed over the past decade, which makes it difficult to succinctly summarise. This entanglement is reflected in Khalifa’s novel as the three siblings are forced to cross multiple checkpoints which are controlled by different factions, including supporters of the regime, the Free Syrian Army, or terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, the war was originally between the Assad government and anti-regime protestors. Russia, Iran, and Iraq supported the Syrian regime, whereas the anti-regime Free Syrian Army gained the support of several Western countries, primarily the United States who “covertly trained and armed rebel fighters,” according to CFR.

However, the conflict became even more complex with the rise of IS, especially after their proclamation of a caliphate in June 2014. This led to the other actors in the war, both pro- and anti-regime, to focus on defeating IS. This took several years, but by the end of March 2019, all of the Syrian territory which IS were in control over had been liberated, as BBC reported. Despite their territorial defeat, IS still have scattered groups across the region, but now mainly focus on carrying out individual attacks rather than trying to re-gain territorial control.

Although the official defeat of IS marks an important milestone in the Syrian Civil War, it does not imply that the conflict has been resolved. Millions of Syrians are still internally or externally displaced. Additionally, The Guardian reported in June 2020 that the Syrian economy had almost collapsed, and this was before the US economic sanctions against the Assad government for committing war crimes had come into effect. Hence, although the main line of conflict has changed, there seems to be no immediate end in sight for the civil war which has now lasted for more than a decade.

(The situation in Syria as of February 2021 [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35806229])

Human Rights


In March 2011 Syrian citizens took to the street to oppose the rule of the Assad regime. The peaceful protests were met with extreme violence by the regime, entailing the transformation of the conflict to a civil war. Since 2011 almost every imaginable international crime has been committed by the parties to the armed conflict. Among the most current crimes, affecting a large part of the population are enforced disappearances, torture and indiscriminate attacks against civilian infrastructure.

According to Amnesty International, tens of thousands of people, including children, have had to endure severe torture and the ensuing mental health issues while in custody. Thousands have died since March 2011. Causes of death are often related to the effects of the torture, often taking the form of brutal beatings, and unsanitary conditions in prisons, allowing illnesses and infection to spread. In addition to this, prisoners are often cramped together in small rooms, with reports of over 50 people being put into one 3m by 3m room in some cases, according to the Amnesty report, which you can read in its entirety here.

In Death is Hard Work, the protagonists have lost their family home after a regime bombardment, their dad lived through a crippling siege and almost starved, they are faced with indiscriminate violence against civilians, and they are briefly detained. On multiple occasions, Fatima talks about her sister-in-law, who was imprisoned and raped while incarcerated, then to be rejected by her husband upon release. And as an old woman detained with Fatima makes it clear, sexual assault affects both women and men. This is still happening today, according to a United Nations Human Rights Council report of March 2021 – which you can read in its entirety here. The report also expands on the issue of overcrowded facilities, which has become even more pressing recently due to COVID-19.

Abuse and imprisonment on vague and arbitrary terms continue even in places where active combat has stopped and the regime reacquired control. As of August 2018, the three retaken areas of Daraa, Eastern Ghouta and Southern Damascus alone saw over 500 arrests between August 2018 and May 2019, according to a 2019 article titled Syria: Detention, Harassment in Retaken Areas by Human Rights Watch. Syrian organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirm and document these practices of arbitrary detention. In these areas, several former opposition members, aid workers, and media activists who have signed reconciliation papers with the regime continue to be openly targeted. In many cases, people who have been detained without any official records, disappeared and their captors deny ever having taken them into custody in the first place. Estimates of enforced disappearances in Syria, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, was right below the hundred thousand mark in August 2019, which you can see in the graph below.

Data provided by SNHR

A specific example of this the case of The Douma Four, as they are now known, four prominent human rights defenders who were active in the Syrian revolution of 2011 and disappeared in 2014. According to the Human Rights Watch and reports of Syrian CSOs, citizens are detained and scrutinized independent of their location, with many being detained and harassed in their homes, at their workplace and even in the streets. Finding out about their fate, is a key demand of Syrian society.

 

Women’s roles and rights

Since the beginning of the revolution, women have had a strong voice among the opposition across the country. They have been widely involved in, participating in protests, developing civil society initiatives and delivering humanitarian assistance. In 2015, the regional non-governmental organization EuroMed Rights published a report titled Confined, Abused and Instrumentalised: Detention of Women in Syria that provides testimonies of women who have been detained. These women are usually held in appalling and dehumanizing conditions, packed into overcrowded dark cells regardless of their age or health. The situation is even worse in secret underground detention centers, such as the infamous Branch 215 of the Military Intelligence where physical and psychological torture, sexual harassment and abuse are common. Such abuses amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, triggering individual responsibility under international law for perpetrators, as the report linked above states:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and the Syrian Center for Statistic and Research (SCSR) estimate that more than 2850 women remain detained by Syrian security forces across the country, including at least 120 girls under the age of 18. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) documented around 1800 cases of women arbitrarily detained, including 69 girls under the age of 18. The three groups corroborated that at least 19 women were killed under torture in detention, including girls under the age of 18. (March 2011 until 31st January 2015).

Given the prevailing climate of violence, persistent repression, threats, social stigma and the failure of the international community to address impunity and protect civilians, most women are reluctant to come forward and report abuses occurring in detention, further complicating documentation efforts. This, in turn, makes accountability and psycho-social redress, essential elements of conflict resolution, extremely challenging.

Death is Hard Work also tells us the story of the character Layla and her escape from a forced marriage through self-immolation. However, her story is brief, and the focus often lies on how her story has been set aside and twisted to fit a less rebellious narrative. Her brother Bolbol knows the true story, but even so he only mentions it in relation to his father’s guilt and last wish, further diminishing Layla’s part in her own story. Stories similar to Layla’s have sometimes been used to inspire resistance by validating these women as a martyrs. Such stories of female resistance and protest are seen as illegitimate, and just like the stories of those who “disappear”, there is a tendency to write these women’s stories out of history and out of people’s memories.