“They washed their faces, and dried them, but the dust did not go away.” — The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

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 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 (dictates) that life, granted with guarantee of death, Allah’s design of existence whole, motivates god-fearing in men of understanding. Understanding, not surrendering critical faculties, will become righteousness.

Musa never touches the latter. Instead, confession of his Christian atheism during torture, then to another inmate, more than in vain, costs him “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”

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

“[T]hree years before I returned from Paris,” Musa learns later, “a student who was with us…had written a report…that I’d made some remarks hostile to the current regime and disparaging to the President — an act that was reckoned among the worst of crimes.” 

As Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mustafa Khalifa’s Al Qawqaa (2006) 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 back cover to the English edition (The Shell, 2017, Paul Starkey trans.) suggests Solzhenitsyn. But Wiesel’s Night came first to this mind. It too describes a hell — “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.” — impossible in nature.

Impossible, that is, without designs of man. 

“In front of the precious container of lentil soup, the sergeant grabbed the fedayi who’d carried the dish in… ‘Now dip your hands in the soup and let’s see…’ His hands emerged from the soup with the skin peeling. Then the sergeant forced him to carry the container into the dormitory.”

The Capote analogy breaks across Musa’s innocence, but also in the unmeasured distance between Khalifa the author and Musa the narrator. Both an accused, one senses fictionalisation by omission mostly, “I cannot write and say everything,” rather than distortion.

Although. Apolitical (“my uncle was a communist minister”) Musa is pulled under by a thrashing, paranoid leviathan, while Khalifa himself “was also a part of the Communist Action Party,” one-time member Dr. Jalal Nofal told these ears just days ago. Le biographie de l’auteur in the French edition, La Coquille (2007, Stéphanie Dujols trans.), mentions political involvement and both 1979-1980 and 1982-1994 as periods of imprisonment. Musa’s detention is approximately 1980 to 1994.

An unsympathetic, crass, or simply unconscious reader might immediately cast the device of an artificial backstory onto coals like subterfuge and revelation and agenda. This almost always furthers a presumption all too familiar to Syrians — that of a virtuous strong and a slippery weak as the ontological order of things. Another short bio, also in French, states La Coquille “constitue un témoignage romancé” — constitutes a romantic (or romanticised) testimony. We are not told where the borders of contrivance lie and thus reactionaries can everywhere attend doubt. However thin such soot, power is served at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

Par exemple, the following comment was left below an excerpt of La Coquille: “c’est de la pure propagande de la Merde sionistes.” [sic]

How the slothful can retread familiar ground. See, Tadmur fictionalised is an instrument because cui bono is a vector of proof not a guiding principle of inquiry. Besides, Syrians are incapable both of democratic self-governance and of penning exquisite literature. Corroboration withers much hand-waving claiming insight. And corroboration springs forth.

“On a cold day,” a young Tadmur survivor told the aforementioned Jalal,

they put us out in the yard to stand there as punishment. A small bird fell on the ground, unable to move its wings or fly. I stared at it with the tenderness of a child, but one of the guards saw me and asked me whether I liked it. I remained silent because I was afraid to answer. So he asked me again… I hesitantly answered that it was a nice bird. He ordered me to go and get it. As I held it, the bird was chirping in my little hands. For a short while, I thought the guard didn’t lose all of his humanity or maybe he is here against his will. I hadn’t completed the thought when I heard him asking me to swallow this bird.

Musa remembers “the sergeants…spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.”

Jalal, a psychiatrist, noticed his nonfictional storyteller would not sit still. “Up to this moment, I hear its chirping coming from my throat…especially in moments of silence.”

Meanwhile, a guard “grabbed my testicles and squeezed them hard,” after “he spat all the contents of his mouth into mine.” Musa gulps, in “a terrible wave of pain,” and reports never feeling clean inside thereafter.

“Today my breakfast was three olives,” Musa still, “a small spoonfull of jam for supper. If there were eggs for breakfast, it was a boiled egg between three prisoners.”

“[T]he breakfast of people, three olives for each one. Or if it is egg, for four person one egg, one boiled egg,” now Muhammed, a third Tadmur survivor, untethered to the others here, telling me last year. His liver began failing in his fifth year — he was unable to digest fats. “They brought jam in the breakfast. My friends would give their portion of jam to me.” 

Khalifa rarely paints the inmates who shun Musa as virtuous. But in describing the process of punishing night whisperers, his account matches Muhammed’s 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 entered, “my kidnapping I say,” Tadmur in 1980 also. He was sixteen and 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 details. 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 spent nine more years in, Faraj Bayrakdar words, “a kingdom of death and madness.”

Why conduct Milgram experiments when there was Tadmur? “The new arrivals were always reluctant to take hold of the whip or the cane…. their beatings would be light and uncertain.” Hangings “would make them vomit.”

A peculiar anecdote in Ross’s The Missing Peace, tells of Hafez receiving news of a son’s death. Seeing officials crestfallen, he first asked “if there was a coup.”

“This was not a man who felt secure.”

For what then, all this madness?

Too much Lear could be invoked here. But an entitled authority, raging, “The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there—filial ingratitude” — does capture something of Bashar. Deified for seventeen years, as Hafez was for thirty — in the dawn chants of every drilling conscript, in the “prison radio… blaring out songs praising the Head of state” — he still now talks as a parent to misbehaving children. But Bashar is too often caricatured. Enfant terrible, oblivious Lear, dead-eyed banshee. Beware that which cartoons hideous human reality.

An Eichmann and a Gaddafi, he is simultaneously a real man who sleeps at night and a ridiculous figure. The inheritor of his father’s banality and sprawling network of paranoia and nonsense. To no end.

Musa, freed, has “lost the capacity for astonishment.” But the nightmare follows him. And it reminds him that his waking freedom is both real and the nightmare still.

“Dust. Dust covered everything — lanes, streets, walls, everything was covered in a layer of fine yellow dust. The green tree leaves… were now covered with this fine layer of dust.” A century, a sea, but not a world apart, from snow “falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills… it lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.”

And the “faces of people,” whether “in the squares or on the sidewalks,” as Musa wanders the city he once hoped to stalk through an aesthete’s lens, “covered in this layer of yellow dust.”

The dizzying apogee, a Joyce signature, pulses a sublime resonance, last punctuation read. Khalifa’s climax only devastates. A thunderbolt. Paralysis.