Home » Syria » Khaled Khalifa » لسكاكين فيلا سكاكين في مطابخ هذه المدينة (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City)

Khaled Khalifa: لا سكاكين في مطابخ هذه المدينة (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City)

This novel focusses on a Syrian family and their many travails. The narrator is not named. However we know that he has three siblings – two older sisters, Suad and Sawsan and a younger brother, Rashid. We know that the family initially lived with the father’s family in the country but that the father then fled to the United States with Elena, a woman much older than him. There has been no contact with the father since then. The mother came from a well-to-do family which was proud of its history. The mother also has three siblings – one sister, Ibtihal, very proud of her family’s history (she was a jealous custodian of the stately way of life she imagined the family to have enjoyed during the Ottoman Empire) , and two brothers, Abdel-Monem, very old-fashioned and Nizar who is gay in a country where homosexuality is strictly forbidden. The mother had seen her future husband at at the annual dinner of the Railway Institute (her father and her future husband were both railwaymen) and both were immediately attracted to the other. After some slight complications , they got together and married. The marriage did not work well. He was a drunk and insisted they live with his family in a remote rural village where there was little culture. She continued working as a teacher but was not disappointed when he left so she could return to Aleppo.

The background to the story is inevitably the political situation in Syria . The day our narrator is born was the day Hafez al-Assad and the Ba’athists seized power (neither father nor son Assad are ever mentioned by name in this book) and the mother has to leave the hospital promptly as the Ba’athists want it empty to receive any wounded during their takeover. The actions of the government and party members colour the entire book as our family are not keen supporters, though their immediate neighbours are. Both of the mother’s brothers suffer at the hands of the government, Nizar for his homosexuality and Abdel-Monem, whose son joins the opposition and is tortured to death.

We will follow the stories of mother and children as well as as those of her siblings but, annoyingly, not in chronological order as the book continually jumps forward and backwards. Suad is mentally handicapped and her mother is so ashamed of her that she tries to keep her hidden from the neighbours. Fortunately her siblings, particularly Sawsan, are very fond of her and look after her and play with her. Sawsan is very resentful towards her mother because of her treatment of Suad. Suad will die when the narrator is still a child.

Sawsan has a colourful life, studying French at university, dropping out, joining the paratroopers, having an affair with an important Dubai official, being thrown out of Dubai, going to Paris, returning to Aleppo and an affair with a French, teacher, before finding religion. Like most of the characters she never seems to find her place in life.

There are two musicians in the family – Nizal and Rashid. Nizal looks as though he will have a successful career in music in Beirut but, as with the others, things go wrong. He will also face punishment for his homosexuality. As for Rashid he would keep poring over the same questions—what was the meaning of his life in this place which oozed misery.

As for the mother, when we first meet her, she has just died, not yet sixty-five. She did not believe that the president (Hafez al-Assad )had died. Power and oppression do not die,” my mother would say. “The blood of his victims won’t allow the tyrant to just die.. She had not had a happy life and looked back to the good old days, before her marriage. In her old age she remained close to Nizar as had been the case when they were children. For someone who didn’t know them it was a perfectly normal scene: a brother and sister choosing to spend their old age together, chatting and frying seeds, settling their accounts with a family past which had never let them be.

We continue to follow the stories of the mother and her three surviving children, against the background of the situation in Syria. There is more violence, including attacks on women and children. Khalifa is highly critical of the political situation in Syria, which is why he could not publish his books in Syria.

It is not all in Syria. Rashid goes off to Baghdad during the Iraq War (Syria supported Saddam Hussein, a fellow Ba’athist) and, not surprisingly, it does not go well. Nizar was the only one who knew that Rashid would not be able to cope with life. The narrator also comments I watched my weakness grow, turning me into a silent being, fearful and hopeless. and adds What if we had lived in another time?” Such as the time my mother and Jean’s mother spoke of, or the time to come a hundred years from now? What would be different? Would it change this fear which nested in our chests? There is no doubt that every member of this family struggles to cope with life, While, of course, the political situation is to blame for some of it, it it not entirely to blame. All of them seem to make poor judgements. For Nizar there is his homosexuality. Rashid seems only attracted to one woman, his sister. Their mother, of course made a poor choice as regards husband. All of them make poor choices in other areas of life – careers, friends and how they manage their life. No-one comes out happy or even close.

This book certainly gives an interesting account both of Ba’athist Syria and one family caught up in it . Though some of them leave, they all come back which raises the question why didn’t they stay away, to which the answer is that they fit in even less abroad than they do in Syria.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Hāshīt Anṭwān
First published in English in 2016 by Hoopoe
Translated by Leri Price