In 1980s Syria, a young Muslim girl lives a secluded life behind the veil in the vast and perfumed house of her grandparents. Her three aunts-the pious Maryam, the liberal Safaa, and the free-spirited Marwa-raise her with the aid of their ever-devoted blind servant.
Soon the high walls of the family home are no longer able to protect the girl from the social and political chaos outside. Witnessing the ruling dictatorship's bloody campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, she is filled with hatred for the regime and becomes increasingly radical. In the footsteps of her beloved uncle, Bakr, she launches herself into a battle for her religion, her country, and ultimately, for her own future.
With this layered novel, Khaled Khalifa has crafted a thrilling yet heartful coming-of-age tale of a girl who must examine her loyalties and fight to prove them both to others and to herself. In Praise of Hatred is a stirring story narrated against the backdrop of real-life events that feel less like history and more like the present, echoing the violence plaguing the Middle East today.
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About the Author
Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964 near Aleppo, Syria. He is the fifth child of a family of thirteen siblings. He studied law at Aleppo University and actively participated in the foundation of Aleph magazine with a group of writers and poets. A few months later, the magazine was closed down by Syrian censorship. Active on the arts scene in Damascus where he lives, Khalifa has written four novels and also writes screenplays for television and cinema. His most recent novel, No Knives in this City's Kitchens, won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
KHALED KHALIFA was born in 1964 near Aleppo, Syria. He is the fifth child of a family of thirteen siblings. He studied law at Aleppo University and actively participated in the foundation of Aleph magazine with a group of writers and poets. A few months later, the magazine was closed down by Syrian censorship. Active on the arts scene in Damascus where he lives, Khalifa is a writer of screenplays for television and cinema. In Praise of Hatred is his third novel.
Read an Excerpt
In Praise of Hatred
By Khaled Khalifa, Leri Price
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Khaled Khalifa
All rights reserved.
Women Led by the Blind
The smell of the ancient cupboard made me a woman obsessed with bolting doors and exploring drawers, looking for the old photographs I had carefully placed there myself one day. A picture of my mother shaking the single lemon tree in the courtyard, with me standing beside her with shining eyes; of my father in military dress, smooth-chinned and sharp-eyed; of my brother Hossam wearing his school uniform and laughing, holding our younger brother Humam who was swathed in a blue blanket; of me in my long black clothes, my face circular in the middle of the black sheet and my body completely concealed, in front of a faded picture of hunters and their dogs in pursuit of a fleeing gazelle.
The picture had been placed there by the photographer to whose studio my father had accompanied me. The photographer took me by the hand and sat me down on a cold wooden chair, cajoling me kindly, and directed me to look towards his thumb near the camera shutter. 'Laugh,' he said to me. I didn't know how. I looked at my father, seeking permission, then back to the thumb of the photographer; I grimaced as if I really was laughing. I can still remember the click of the camera and the solemnity of that moment with total clarity, as if I had only just left the studio that smelled heavily of mothballs and on whose clothes hooks were hung faded outfits of army officers and peasants, Mexican hats and cowboy costumes, like the one Terence Hill wore in Trinity is Still My Name. My small hand was weak in my father's palm which clutched mine in fear of losing me amongst the crowds on Telal Street.
I am still searching for the smell of that ancient cupboard, placed in the room that the eldest of my aunts, Maryam, had designated for me after she sat facing my father and convinced him to let her take me to live with her and Safaa, my middle aunt. She told him that they were lonely after the death of my grandparents and the marriage of my youngest aunt, Marwa. My father nodded his head in agreement and then laid down some conditions which I didn't hear. After Maryam agreed to them, she and my mother began to gather up my clothes, my books and my other personal belongings. They were strewn all over the small room my father had built for me in the open space close to the kitchen after two small, firm mounds rose on my chest, their increasing weight causing me to speak less and less.
In my grandfather's house I was very pleased with my high-ceilinged room, the strictly observed mealtimes, and the regular visits to the hammam every Thursday, and to Hajja Radia's house every Friday evening, like rituals whose necessity I didn't understand. The first thing that worried me was the cacophonous chanting of the women behind Hajja Radia. They made me nervous – I almost suffocated in the crowded room, but I didn't dare flee. But on later visits the smell of sweat mixed with women's perfume began to relax me, like a woman whose desires are inflamed by chanting.
During the first year I lived in the large house I found the enormous spaces bewildering. I was half lost among stairs of stone and banisters of iron, the wide rooms, the high, decorated ceilings delicately coloured by a Samarkandi artist. My grandfather had brought him back from Samarkand after one of his journeys there to look for Persian carpets, and my grandmother assigned him the best quarters during his six-month stay in their house. Every morning, he would wake up at five o'clock, perform the ritual ablutions with my grandfather, and then both of them would go to Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque, after eating the breakfast my grandmother had already prepared and laid out for them on the low table close to the large pool.
The Samarkandi wasn't known to have a name. He used to return from the mosque and enter his small room to mix his colours and clean his brushes, and then he would close his eyes and withdraw into an ecstasy of painting like a devout worshipper. He transformed the ceilings of the three large rooms into everlasting masterpieces. His fame spread among the rich families who vied with each other in the decoration of their homes, but the Samarkandi continued to live in the house in silence, with the exception of a few words to my grandfather, until he left for Paris with his Aleppan wife and child. He left with a French officer who had been bewitched by the hands of this Samarkandi who 'created masterpieces out of thin air'. His ceilings bore perpetual witness that he had, at one time, lived in the city of Aleppo. His leaving was like a death for my grandfather, who had discovered the Samarkandi's talents and interceded on his behalf in his marriage to Bint Aboud Samadi.
Before his departure, the Samarkandi had come to the house in clean clothes, his small eyes laughing. My grandfather embraced him warmly and kissed him goodbye; the artist said, 'You are my father.' Afterwards, he sent a letter with his address in Paris and a photograph, an unheard-of miracle, showing himself, his wife and his child standing in a park. His wife was wearing brightly coloured clothes; her large white breasts were on display and she wore a stylish beret instead of a proper head covering. My grandfather laughed and gave the picture to my grandmother, who sneered at the unveiled face and threw it into the fireplace. She never again mentioned the bare face of Bint Aboud Samadi, even when she came to visit twenty years later together with her son. He wore a suit which was overpowering in its elegance, and there wafted from him a strong fragrance which disconcerted Maryam.
The Samarkandi's son was astonished by our spacious house, by its stone arches and its vaulted doorway, and by the two pillars decorated in Corinthian style and added by my grandfather, thereby turning what was supposed to be an entrance hall into his own room. The son scrutinized the house, then took out his camera to meticulously record every detail of the house's angles and his father's ceilings, while his mother (a true Parisienne) sipped coffee quietly and composedly with my grandfather. He was expansive, beaming with joy at hearing news of his Samarkandi son, who still recalled him as the saviour who had lifted him from a corner of the ancient souk into the welcoming space of the world, and he repeated as much to his visitors, students and teachers of decorative art. My grandfather was delighted with this Aleppan woman who had removed her black clothes and consistently demonstrated astonishing adaptability, having swiftly learned French to be of assistance to her husband, who declared her to be his world. Husband and wife worked as determined as tortoises climbing rugged mountains.
Maryam remained alone, struck with confusion by the perfume which embedded itself deep within her pores, and then within her heart. She stole glances at the Samarkandi's son and examined him furtively, frightened that someone would notice her ever-longer, stupefied stares as he leaned over to focus the camera on a corner and record in minute detail the care taken in the harmonious composition of stone, walnut and coloured lines; much of it remained a riddle whose meaning no one could understand. After they left, my grandmother, without looking into my grandfather's eyes, said that he had been too indulgent towards Bint Aboud Samadi. Maryam was distraught that the son had gone, and she reflected on her sin. She was unaware, even then, of how it had happened.
* * *
Like all the women of my grandfather's family, of whom my mother was one, Maryam had a round face with a high forehead and clear green eyes; her fingers were long and soft like those of all women in old aristocratic Syrian families; her figure was tall and sensual, but her unexceptional chest was formed by two unappetizing breasts, above which was a neck of average length. This all created an impression of ugliness which green eyes could not hide.
Meanwhile, in the large house, I would lose myself in the galleries and the three generously proportioned rooms. I was captivated by a large mirror hanging at the back of Maryam's room that had a wide walnut frame carved with creepers and damask roses. I took advantage of any of her absences to enter her room and stand in front of the mirror, engrossed in the details of my face and body whose weight I would palpate. I remained sleepless without knowing that I had begun to change and enter through the gates of young womanhood. Safaa noticed my transformation, treated me kindly and alluded to certain matters, in contrast to Maryam, who I knew was worried that I stood so often in front of a mirror, inspecting my figure and my chest and indifferent to other exciting things in her room. She wrote down a charm for me, observed me cruelly and closely, hung a hijab on me, and ordered me never to take it off because Satan was lurking in my body. My sternness increased and my silences lengthened.
* * *
The only man who was not related to us and who was still allowed to enter the courtyard and wander throughout was Blind Radwan, who lived in a small room in one of its corners. Blind Radwan was tall and gaunt, clean-clothed, and his hands always smelled of the perfumes he traded in. He mixed them in large glasses whose capacity he was familiar with, then decanted them into small medicine bottles, sealed them tightly, and sold them to private customers who were drawn chiefly from the women of the district of Jalloum and visitors to the Umayyad Mosque. He promoted his small trade using pleasant songs, overlaid with dhikr and verses from the Quran. He claimed that his brand, under the name of 'Blind Radwan', was known in every corner of the Arab world, and boasted that foreign traders had tried various means of obtaining the secret of a certain mixture which made women compliant, amorous and delicious in bed. Another blend made men overflow with charm and virility that no woman could resist. In front of Maryam, he claimed that this particular scent was the one with which the Prophet had perfumed his Companions and forged them into rare flowers which he planted in the Levant, never to be uprooted.
Radwan had been used to sleep, eat and drink with his blind companions from the mosque, who would disperse around the area of Sayyidna Zakaria to read mawalid and infiltrate various houses of Aleppo in the evenings. No one had known about Radwan other than those in the mosque, as if he had been born, lived, and would die there, silently; his eyes, with their lost sight, would trace circles in their sockets, sniffing the colours and richness of the clothes of the worshippers.
My grandfather brought Radwan to the house and gave him the room which had at one time belonged to my great-grandfather's groom and carriage driver. Maryam cleaned it out and my oldest uncle, Selim, moved in a squeaky iron bedstead which had long been overlooked in the cellar, along with a woollen mattress. My grandfather refused to listen to protests from my grandmother who considered this to be a violation of the sanctity of the house, although she worked to make up the deficiencies of an unmarried man's room.
Blind Radwan lived happily like a servant with special privileges, entering into the fabric of the family to become one of its permanent features. I couldn't imagine the house without Radwan; when I was much younger he used to sit me on his knee and take out sweets and cloth toys from his small closet. He would sing to me in his sweet voice and I would paw his chest sleepily. When I moved into the house permanently, I avoided him and treated him the way a lady would a servant. He neither protested nor overstepped the boundaries – he would eat at the kitchen table and move on. Maryam never forgot his meal times, and he was never far away from her. He accompanied us to the hammam every Thursday carrying a large bag, waited for us by the door until we had finished, and accompanied us back the same way, his crudely made cane never misleading him. He would walk in front of us, head raised, with stable and evenly spaced steps. For Jalloum, this scene became a symbol of the little that remained to my aunts of the bygone glory of their forefathers, which they had created out of their permanence, and their refusal to submit to the transformations which the city and its families had not escaped.
* * *
Every Thursday I went to my parents' house after school to eat with them and my two younger brothers, Hossam and Humam. They were like strangers, and greeted me politely like an unexpected guest. My mother would kiss me without warmth, and as I helped her to prepare the food she would ask coldly about my news and about my aunts without waiting for a reply – she was confident that nothing would change in her old family home. She had left it as a young girl twenty-five years earlier after my father's return from Alexandria, where he had gone to work as a fish vendor directly after the 1958 union with Egypt. Many people doubted the truth of this tale, and declared that my father was an agent of Abdel Hamid Sarraj. Two years after Syria's secession from the United Arab Republic, my father returned to Aleppo and, without any preamble, asked my grandfather for my mother's hand. My mother had vague memories of him back then as a young man with a big head, who walked haughtily and unhurriedly buckled down to work, never deviating from his chosen course.
My mother stayed in her father's house after the wedding, while my father embarked on his compulsory military service, which lasted three and a half years, and it was during this time that I was born. They didn't rejoice at my arrival; a leaden atmosphere was hanging over the large house as my grandmother was gravely ill, as if she were insisting on catching up with my grandfather who had died a couple of years earlier, in the tragic manner of men who choose their lives and the manner of their death. These men would not brook anyone's mockery, despite the infirmity of their old age, which my grandfather described as the other face of God's love.
My grandfather resigned from his three businesses and gathered my three uncles in the house's reception room. Maryam and my grandmother sat beside them as my grandfather briefly explained that he was no longer capable of overseeing his business affairs, and turned their management over to his sons. To mitigate against any unforeseen difficulties, he bequeathed his wealth according to Islamic law and the house was to become the property of his daughters, who would retain the right to make use of it until the end of their lives. Uncle Selim protested against this defeatist tone, trying to dissuade his father from his resolution. My grandfather laughed and leaned on his cane; he ordered my grandmother and Maryam to prepare the table in the dining room reserved for guests, and to take out the best silver dinner service.
My uncles didn't understand their father's intentions until a week had passed, during which my grandfather exerted all his efforts to retain the ability to stand and walk like a military leader inspecting his troops. He accepted only Blind Radwan's help, leaning on him like a crutch when going to the mosque on Friday or when relieving himself. He wouldn't allow my grandmother to treat him like an old man; he used to say to Maryam, as he leaned on Radwan, 'A woman must not see how low her man sinks in old age, so she can remember him with love.' For four years, Radwan left him only at night. Sometimes he would even sleep nearby on a mattress prepared especially for him in the corner. One evening, my grandfather asked my uncles to come the following morning, as he wanted to visit the Citadel. They debated the matter between themselves, but not one of them dared to venture an opinion.
At nine the next morning the three men were confounded. My grandfather had asked them to help him up but when they rushed over to carry him, he stopped them with a gesture. Confusion reigned over everyone as he directed them outside, and asked for Radwan to accompany him. The folk of Jalloum couldn't believe the scene: my grandfather in the lead with Radwan beside him, smiling as if he were the only one to have understood what had happened. Leaning on his companion's arm, my grandfather stood in front of the gate to the Citadel, contemplating the high walls and sniffing the stones as if he were settling his debt with time. He descended to the gate of the covered market and plunged into its crowds, savouring the smell of clothing, textiles and sackcloth; of gold; of the crowding of women's bodies; of the souk, blazing with lights; of abayas embroidered with silver and gold and spread out over shop fronts; of strips of rugs and dappled carpets. He entered the customs house and stood in the entrance to his shop where Khalil got to his feet smiling, and kissed him before returning to his place. My grandfather looked for a long while at the pile of carpets in the shop. He said, in a voice barely audible to my uncles and looking at Radwan, 'This blind man has an equal share in all your wealth. If he comes to be in need one day, you will all be held responsible before God ...'
Excerpted from In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa, Leri Price. Copyright © 2008 Khaled Khalifa. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Women Led by the Blind,
Part Two: Embalmed Butterflies,
Part Three: The Scent of Spices,
Afterword by Robin Yassin-Kassab,
About the Author,
About the Translator,