Translating a Syrian tale of a decomposing corpse
Just a decade after she graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in Arabic, Leri Price will on February 12 be presented in London with the 2019 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The judges unanimously chose Price for her rendition of “Death is Hard Work” by Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa.
Price says she was humbled to be on the Banipal shortlist alongside two leaders in literary translation, Marilyn Booth, under whom she studied at Edinburgh, and Humphrey Davies, whom she also met when a student. Booth was listed for Jokha Alharthi’s “Celestial Bodies” and Davies for Elias Khoury’s “My Name is Adam”. “I know all the translators on the shortlist, and I was proud just to be there,” says Price. “I wasn’t expecting to win.”
“Death is Hard Work” (Faber & Faber) is Khalifa’s fifth novel and his third that Price has translated. “The more you work on a writer, the more your ear attunes to their rhythms,” she says. “The words Khaled uses are often visceral; there is a lot of stagnation, of disgust.”
In their discussions, always in Arabic, Price has found Khalifa “patient and trusting, with confidence in the art of translation in general.” The pair tease out meaning. “Often,” says Price, “I want to be sure I understand the characters’ motivations.” If all goes to plan, Price and Khalifa, who lives in Damascus, will meet face-to-face for the first time on February 13 in London.
Khalifa sets his novels squarely in his homeland. “In Praise of Hatred” (2006), the first Price translated, has a female narrator experiencing the 1980s struggles between violent Islamists and the Baathist regime. “Hatred possessed me,” this narrator says. “I was excited by it, I felt it was saving me; it gave me a sense of superiority I had been seeking for a long time.”
“Death is Hard Work” is the first Khalifa novel set in post-2012 Syria and the war he has lived through. While he accepted a short writers’ residency in Brussels, Khalifa ended a Harvard fellowship, despite the university’s offer to double his stipend, because he suffered nightmares and missed home.
Khalifa explains that the idea for the book came to him after he suffered a heart-attack in 2013. “I had to stay in the hospital emergency room for some days,” he says. “The war was everywhere, the sound of bombs didn’t stop. I asked myself: What if I die now? How will my family take my body to my village, Maryameyn, in northern Syria?
Hence in the novel, Abdel Latif al-Salim, on his death bed in Damascus, makes his son Bobol promise to bury him in his home village near Aleppo. Bobol and two siblings, Hussein and Fatima, subsequently set off with Abdel Latif’s shrouded body in Hussein’s minibus on a journey that should take a few hours but involves negotiating checkpoints of the regime, pro-regime militia and assorted rebel groups. There is invariably no network coverage to enquire ahead, and the van’s lights are switched off so as not to attract sniper fire.
Choices over which road to take become matters of life and death. The three characters vent their frustrations on each another, while in quieter moments their thoughts drift to past tragedies and thwarted loves. All the time, their father’s corpse is decomposing as Fatima tries to mask the growing stench with perfume.
Events teeter at times on the edge of comedy. At a government checkpoint, it transpires Abdel Latif is still wanted for anti-regime misdemeanours and his corpse is arrested. Encountering non-Syrian black-flagged Islamist extremists, Fatima covers herself entirely while the brothers converse in formal Arabic to answer questions — on which their lives may rest — over how many rak’at should be performed each prayer time.
There are constant demands for papers, for ID cards. Destruction is everywhere. Tension keeps the characters from collapse and the reader turning the pages.
The loneliness is corrosive. “Fear had become the only true opposition; it was now each individual versus their own fear,” writes Khalifa. “Since he was incapable of close observation of anyone else, Bobol kept an eye on himself, only to discover he was the most craven of all.”
The book has moments of hope, even tranquillity and compassion. But there is a faster pace, says Price, than in Khalifa’s other work.
“There is a different style, different sentence structures,” she says. “This is far more urgent. In the earlier books, you sense the characters are stuck, trapped in buildings or in situations. In this one, the van is claustrophobic but the narrative tears along. Khaled wrote it in around a year, whereas his other books took up to 13 years. It’s heartbreaking to see the effect that being in the middle of the war has had on his writing.”
Where might Khalifa go next? “I try to write in the best way about experiences I have acquired,” he says. “I will continue to look at the decomposition of the dictatorship, and at the times in which we live.”