IPAF 2014 Shortlisted author Khaled Khalifa interview
27 March 2014
Where were you when you heard about No Knives in this City's Kitchens making it to the IPAF shortlist? How did you react?
I had been up the night before with my friends and I woke up late to find many messages on my phone. I opened facebook and saw the news and was happy of course. Awards make me happy because they are a necessary recognition for writers but at the same time, they must be forgotten after a week because they should exist outside of the writing process. If the writer cannot forget them, it becomes a real problem. In writing, success like failure, are anti-writing. The writer is not an employee looking to get promoted, but rather, the goal is always good writing.
What are your writing rituals?
I have been writing daily for six hours for the past 20 years. I have a one day weekend and give myself short breaks away from writing sometimes. I write in cafés and my terms are very simple: loving people in the café, a good table, a good chair and good coffee.
How does the novel begin?
It could start with an image or an idea, but it has to be tested and to impose itself. I could think about a novel for five or ten years. Inside me are many novels and I always choose the ones that want to live. And when writing, everything changes. For example, some characters start out being secondary and having little importance but then they impose themselves and you discover that they have something to say, so they take more room and turn into main characters.
And why do you write?
Writing simply makes me happy. The day a novel is finished is a sad day for me, and after it is published I lose my relationship to the book entirely. The novel will have emotionally drained me after many years. I cannot hide anything in a novel. I give it everything like one would a great love which will only accept that you give it your whole being.
You experimented with different types of writing, did you then discover that you only want to write novels?
At first I gave all my time to novels. I finished my novels The Guard of Deception and The Gypsy Notebooks and started to write In Praise of Hatred. After that I wrote for television for the money. Now I allocate 80% of my time to writing novels and 20% to writing for television because it is a critical space and should not be left for fundamentalists and naïve thoughts.
You are an optimistic person, but No Knives in this City's Kitchens is painfully sad. In the novel, family, friends and love do not give any hope? Where is the hope then? Or is there no hope?
On the personal level I am extremely optimistic. I encourage people to live and my friends consider me to be very positive. But in the novel, it is not up to me to decide. While I was writing I discovered the amount of real destruction that we live through. It was a chance to dig into myself, my childhood, city and society. I was like one climbing a mountain, the higher you climb the more you can see and once you’ve reached the peak you discover the massive scale of destruction. In the novel things should be real even if they are painful.
My writing generally is not influenced at all by my mood. The minute I sit at the table that’s it. Writing is a constant, strategic, long-term, excruciating exercise in imagination and solitude.
On the personal level, I see that hope lies in these revolutions which are a great opportunity to address all our problems and find solutions.
You describe the character Sawsan as being joyful, but without ever letting this joyful spirit seep into the text. Why?
The joyful spirit does seep through but it is like smiling at a funeral. Sawsan was joyful before her life clashed with the regime, the authorities, society and even herself. This is part of the wider destruction, and no one can save themselves individually. This is a kind of illusion. In a country that has laws that are against women and repression of all liberties, no one can claim to stay home and be free.
Some readers have criticized you because of the homosexual character Nezar whom they believe to be morally corrupt. What do you think of this? And was it necessary to have this character in your novel?
A moral reading of the novel is the worst possible reading. And writing to preach morality is the worst possible writing. Morality is left to religion and preachers.
As for Nezar, he is the only character who is at peace with himself. It is also necessary to acknowledge that homosexuals do exist historically. And now Arab societies are increasingly accepting them.
Why did you keep your narrator in No Knives in the Kitchens of this City nameless?
I kept trying to give him a name, but he wouldn’t let me. He wanted to stay nameless.
Always at the beginning of a novel, I have a set of basic questions that will determine the course of the novel later on. These questions take a long time, and at the same time I try to choose the most suitable narrative voice and which language I will use. It has to be different from the previous novels.
In the novel, the characters always resort to the past and remember it romantically. Is the past really as beautiful as they make it to be or is this the human tendency to endow the past with idealistic qualities that were not really there?
The characters remember the past on a daily basis because the present and future have failed them. Thus, the past becomes part of their happiness as they live in a state of social, political and psychological destruction which the regime is directly responsible for.
But it’s true that everything was better: education, healthcare, and the daily live of Syrians. Everything we have has been ruined. The Egyptians and Syrians in particular, but all of the Arab world, are a ruined nation. This destruction we must talk about, reject and resist. What are the reasons behind it? And it is not possible to separate the personal story from the general state of destruction. We have to talk and write about everything we have been silent about, because we have lived indescribable pains.
Did you start writing a new novel?
I am working on a short novel and another long one that is a love story set in Aleppo in the beginning of the 20th century which was a very critical period since Aleppo was the gateway into the Ottoman empire. And there are many ideas in my head waiting to be written.