Death Is Hard Work

Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price

February 15, 2019 
The following is from Leri Price's translation of Khaled Khalifa's novel, Death Is Hard Work. Abdel Latif, dying peacefully in a hospital in Damascus, expresses his last wish to be buried in his family's plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. The only problem: the country is a war zone. Khaled Khalifa studied law at Aleppo University and actively participated in the foundation of Aleph magazine, which was soon shut down by Syrian censorship. Active on the arts scene in Damascus, he writes screenplays for television and cinema.

Two hours before he died, Abdel Latif al-Salim looked his son Bolbol straight in the eye with as much of his remaining strength as he could muster and repeated his request to be buried in the cemetery of Anabiya. After all this time, he said, his bones would rest in his hometown beside his sister Layla; he almost added, Beside her scent, but he wasn’t sure that the dead would smell the same after four decades. He considered these few words his last wish and added nothing that might render them the least bit ambiguous.

Resolved to be silent in his last hours, he closed his eyes, ignoring the people around him, and sank  into  solitude with a smile. He thought of Nevine: her smile, her scent, her naked body wrapped in a black abaya as she tried to float like the butterflies they were collecting. He remembered how his eyes shone at chat moment, how his heart had thudded, how his knees trembled, how he carried her to the bed and kissed her greedily, but before he could recall every moment of chat “night of im­mortal secrets,” as they’d secretly dubbed that particular evening, he died.

Bolbol, in a rare moment of courage, under the influence of his father’s parting words and sad, misted eyes, acted firmly and with­ out fear. He promised his father he would carry out his instructions, which—despite their  clarity and simplicity—would hardly be easy work. It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and know­ ing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person  tending to  that  man to put on a cheerful front, as Bolbol was doing, so as not to let the dying man feel chat he has been abandoned.

Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice. Peace and deliberation are required for reviewing the past and settling our accounts—and these are practices chat chose approaching death rarely cake the time to do. The dying can’t wait to fling aside their burdens, the better to cross the barzakh—to the other side, where time has no value.

Bolbol, later, regretted not having stood up to his father. He should have reminded his father how difficult it would be to carry out his instructions given the current situation. There were mass graves everywhere filled with casualties who’d never even been identified. No ‘aza lasted more than a few hours now, even for the rich: death was no longer a carnival people threw in order to dem­ onstrate their wealth and prestige. A few roses, a few mourners yawning in a half-empty living room for a couple of hours, some­ one reciting a sura or two from the Qur’an in a low voice . . . that was all anybody got.

A silent funeral is a funeral stripped of all its awe, Bolbol thought. Rites and rituals meant nothing now. For the first time, everyone was truly equal in death. The poor and the rich, officers and infantry in the regime’s army, armed squadron commanders, regular soldiers, random passersby, and those who would remain forever anonymous: all were buried with the same pitiful pro­ cessions. Death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living.

But this was a different story. This body would be big trouble. Thanks to a fleeting moment of sentiment, Bolbol had promised to bury his father in the same grave as Bolbol’s aunt—whom he had never even met. He had thought that his father would ask for some sort of precautionary guarantee of Nevine’s rights to the family home, seeing as they had married only recently. The build­ ing had been reduced to a shell in an air raid, leaving intact only the bedroom where his father had passed his last days of love with Nevine before leaving the town of S with the help of opposition fighters . . . 

Bolbol would never forget that scene. His father had been im­maculate when the fighters brought him to Damascus from the besieged S; it was clear that they had taken good care of their comrade, this man who’d chosen to stay with them through more than three years of siege. They bade him an affectionate farewell, kissed him warmly, and saluted him. After enjoining Bolbol to be good to his father, they vanished down a well-guarded side road leading back to the orchards surrounding the village. Abdel La­ tif’s eyes were gleaming as he tried and failed to raise his hand to wave to his comrades. He was exhausted and starving, having lost more than half his body weight; like everyone living under the siege, he hadn’t eaten a full meal in months.

Now his body was laid out on a metal stretcher in a public hos­pital. A doctor told Bolbol, “People are dying in droves every sin­gle day. Be happy he managed to reach such an old age.” Bolbol wasn’t quite able to follow the doctor’s instructions to be cheerful at his father’s death, although he could grasp what was meant. He felt as though he were suffocating beneath the weight of his new predicament. The city streets were a wasteland after eight in the evening, and he had to move the body tomorrow morning, after it was released and before midday. A large consignment of soldiers’ corpses would arrive at dawn from the outskirts of Damascus, where the fighting never stopped. There wouldn’t be room for his father at the local morgue for long.

When Bolbol left the hospital, it was almost two o’clock in the morning. He decided that his father’s last request ought to apply to the rest of the family, too, not just Bolbol himself: everyone ought to be equally responsible for carrying out Abdel Latif’s last wish. He looked for a taxi to take him to his brother’s house after successive attempts to phone him had failed. He considered texting Hussein the news, but it would have been beneath contempt to let him know that way. Things like that had to be said face-to-face, and the pain shared equally.

The soldiers guarding the hospital waved him toward the nearby Deraa Station—he would find a taxi there. Bolbol decided not to think too much about the gunfire he could hear. He put his hands in his pockets, quickened his pace, and swallowed his fear.

Even a short walk on a winter night like this was extremely haz­ardous: the patrols never stopped, and the streets were teeming with faceless gunmen. The power had been cut off in most quarters, and concrete blocks were piled high in front of the improvised “offices” set up by the national security branches, occupying most roads. Only residents could possibly have known which routes were per­missible and which forbidden.

From a distance, Bolbol saw a few men gathered in a circle around an upturned gas can in which some firewood had been set alight. He guessed that they were mostly taxi drivers trapped by the closure of various roads, waiting for dawn so they could go home. The last glimmer of his courage had almost flickered out by the time he found a taxi driver—listening serenely to Um Kulthoum on the car radio—willing to take him. Bolbol quickly reached an understanding with him and didn’t argue with the fare that he was quoted.

They didn’t talk at first, but after a few minutes Bolbol wanted to try and exorcise his fear. He told the driver that his father had died an hour ago in the hospital, of old age. The driver laughed and informed him that three of his brothers as well as all of their children had died a month before in an air strike. Both went quiet after this; the conversation was no longer on an even footing. Bol­bol had been expecting a little sympathy from the driver. Never­theless, the man behaved honorably and didn’t drive away until he was sure that Bolbol was safe. Hussein opened the door, and when he saw Bolbol standing there at that time of the morning, he knew what had happened. He hugged his brother affectionately, led him inside, and made him some tea. He asked if Bolbol wanted to wash his face and promised to take care of everything that still needed  to be done: finding a shroud, making the burial arrangements, fetching their sister, Fatima.

Bolbol felt himself become lighter and braver, his worries lift­ ing away. He no longer cared that Hussein had completely ignored their father when Abdel Latif was in the hospital; the important thing was that Hussein wouldn’t follow this up by abandoning him now. Bolbol was confident in his brother’s ability to manage this sort of situation. Hussein had meandered around among several professions before taking a job as a minibus driver, and if nothing else this meant he’d gained considerable experience dealing with the state bureaucracy, and he had contacts all over the place.

With­out delay, Hussein dismantled the two seats immediately behind the driver’s and rearranged them to form a shelf for the body to lie on. He said, “We’ll lay the body here. That way there’ll be enough room for everyone else to travel comfortably.” He meant Bolbol and their sister, Fatima, but if their in-laws wanted to come along, too, well, they wouldn’t be in the way. This idea was soon rejected, though: they couldn’t imagine that anyone else would still har­bor any sense of duty toward this man whose corpse would have to negotiate hundreds of miles to reach its final resting place.


From Death Is Hard Work. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2019 by Leri Price.

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