Monday , June 24 2024
No One Prayed Over Their Graves by Khaled Khalifa

Book Review: ‘No One Prayed Over Their Graves’ by Khaled Khalifa

‘No One Prayed Over Their Graves’

No One Prayed Over Their Graves by Khaled Khalifa is set in a Syria unrecognizable to modern eyes. At the end of the 19th century, Syria, and the rest of the Arab world, was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire – centered in today’s Turkey. In Syria, especially the city of Aleppo and its environs where this story is set, Muslim, Christian, and Jew lived in a relatively peaceful coexistence.

Khalifa’s story primarily concerns the lives of two friends and their various associates. Hanna, a Christian whose family was killed by Turkish soldiers, was brought up by Muslim friends of his father. As a child he was raised as brother to their son Zakariya, and the two became inseparable. 

Khalifa tells the story of these two men, and their friends, through a series of flashbacks after the calamitous event which changes their lives. While both of them work out of Aleppo, their homes are in a town outside of the city in a rural area. The town is devastated by a flood that killed most of its inhabitants, including Hanna’s wife and child.

Hanna is destroyed. While he had previously been something of a hedonist – investing his money in creating a citadel of pleasure where a man could gamble, find a woman, and drink to his heart’s content – after the death of his family he gives up all his worldly pleasures. In fact he goes to the opposite extreme and becomes a complete ascetic – living on barely nothing.

While the story sounds relatively straightforward, in Khalifa’s hands it becomes something far more. For he slowly pulls us into the lives of the two protagonists by showing us their lives through the eyes of those around them. From the servant who hid Hanna from the Turkish troops looking to kill every member of his family, to the prostitute who has been in love with him for years, we see all sides of his character.

Gradually our picture of Hanna is formed and sometimes it’s not a pretty image. However, Kahlifa also makes it clear why so much of his life has been spent running away from his past. He never actually spells it out in so many words, but in describing Hanna’s pursuit of pleasures, and his desperate pursuit of the indolent lifestyle for himself and his friends, we see a man in constant search of something – anything.

Kahlifa does give us occasional glimpses of Hanna’s better self along the way. When one of Hanna’s poor Christian friends falls in love with a rich Muslim woman, he at first ridicules the friend’s expressions of devotion and love. However, when it becomes obvious the two are truly devoted to each other he does everything in his power to facilitate their relationship. When it ends badly, with the deaths of the couple, he buries them in secret so no one can find and desecrate their graves.

A Wider Perspective

While telling the story of Hanna and his friends, Kahlifa also paints us a picture of early Arab nationalism as Syria struggles under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. His descriptions of the complicated relationship between Muslim, Christian, and Jew in those times is also fascinating. For while we might have a binary impression of how these faiths interact, the truth is far more complex. 

Here we see how while there is still hatred, there can also be incredible bonds. With Hanna and his friends Khalifa shows just how easy it was for people to overcome the difference of faith if they wanted.

In No One Prayed Over Their Graves Khaled Khalifa has not only created a fascinating character study, but a beautiful recreation of a pivotal time in Middle East history. While this Syria may no longer exist, it shows what was possible even in repressive times. Perhaps that is hope enough for the future.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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