The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

The Shell is somehow very important and unknown. In a media landscape full of stories on Syria and opinions and panels and angles and infographics — this book, well known in the Arabic world and famous in Syria had trouble finding a publishing house in English and has received basically zero English press. I have been shopping the following review for five months now without success.


Musa, a Syrian in Paris, resolves to return home and direct films. A beautiful woman, Suzanne, urges him not to go. But his “isn’t just empty romanticism, it’s a genuine feeling.”

Arrested at the airport, he spends the majority of a fourteen year detention in the Assad regime’s “Desert Prison” — Tadmur or Palmyra. 

The narration that follows in Mustafa Khalifa’s Al Qawqaa (2006), published as The Shell (Paul Starkey trans.) just this year, is admirably empty of both romance and sentiment. Sentiment tempts writers, but here presumes the reader needs instruction on reacting to cruel and unusual punishments, summary executions, controlled starvations, and eight gallows, repeatedly used.

An inscription, “In retaliation there is life for you, men possessed of minds!” (Qur’an 2:179) meets Musa at Tadmur’s gates. The full passage argues understanding life— its guarantee of death, Allah’s design of existence whole — motivates god-fearing and righteousness.

But Musa finds neither, confessing his Christian atheism during torture. Then to another inmate. This costs him “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”

Ostracised within captivity, the narrator peers into the prison yard — under a blanket, his shell — through a hole known only to him. He witnesses hangings frequent enough to keep pace with Assad’s security apparatus, “at a time when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood detainees were coming in every day.”

“The new [guards] were always reluctant to take hold of the whip or the cane,” Musa reports.

“[T]heir beatings would be light and uncertain.”

Hangings “would make them vomit.” But this never lasts.

As in Capote’s In Cold Blood, Khalifa ostensibly retells a nonfiction quiver empty. We begin knowing the alleged crime, the length of the imprisonment, and, as certainly as we know the Clutters are murdered brutally, that the narrator will live to become a memoirist. But, as in Capote’s feat, the quality of Khalifa’s description whisks foreknowledge from the reading experience.

The publisher’s blurb makes mention of Solzhenitsyn. Wiesel’s Night is another natural comparison, Tadmur being a hell — “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.” — impossible without human collaboration.

Possessing The Shell meant imprisonment in Assad’s Syria; literature seldom is such a portal to the places it describes. Students at University of Aleppo shared digit copies nonetheless. Download, read five pages, delete, repeat. Many describe their readings as political awakenings.

The Capote analogy breaks across both Musa’s innocence and the unmeasured distance between Khalifa the author (detained 1979-80, 1982-94) and Musa the narrator (1980-94). Apolitical Musa is pulled under by a thrashing, paranoid leviathan, while Khalifa himself was politically active, allegedly once a member of the revolutionary Communist Action Party.

An unsympathetic, crass, or merely unconscious reader could cast the device of an artificial backstory onto coals like subterfuge and revelation and agenda. This line of dismissal nearly always furthers a presumption all too familiar to Syrians — that of a virtuous strong and a slippery weak as the ontological order of things. 

The French translation states La Coquille (2007, Stéphanie Dujols trans.) “constitue un témoignage romancé” — constitutes a romantic (or romanticised) testimony. We are not told where the borders of contrivance lie, thus dissemblers can everywhere attend doubt. However thin such soot, power is served at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

But corroboration withers assertions from the armchairs. And, from exile, corroboration — that these things really did happen in Tadmur — springs forth.

Musa remembers “the sergeants…spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.” While interned in Syria’s Adra prison, Dr Jalal Nofal, a political activist, met a Tadmur survivor forced to swallow a small injured live bird. 

Khalifa rarely paints those who shun Musa as virtuous. But in describing the punishing of night whisperers, his account matches others’ exactly. “[I]f a sick or elderly man had been ‘noted’ by the guards,’ then one of the fedayeen (“strong and physically fit young men”) would take the place of the sick man and receive the five hundred lashes.”

Muhammed, another survivor, unconnected and interviewed privately, also entered Tadmur (“my kidnapping I say”) in 1980. He was sixteen at that time and was judged innocent two years later.

“The same court had over many years delivered innocent verdicts on prisoners arrested by mistake who were actually still children,” The Shell explains. But “[the court] did not have the right to release an innocent man… the first and second dormitories were known even to the police as ‘the innocent dormitories.’” Muhammed was finally released in 1991.

Musa, freed after fourteen years, has lost “the capacity for astonishment.” Wandering, he finds his former muse, Damascus, “covered in a layer of fine yellow dust.” The nightmare follows him, reminding him, in a devastating finale, that his waking freedom is both real and the nightmare still.

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