The title of this book certainly caught my attention. In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa was originally published in Syria in 2006 by an underground press. It was discovered and banned by the government, after which it was published in Beirut. The book tells the story of a teenage girl who participated in an Islamist uprising against Bashar Al Assad’s father in the early 1980’s. There are a lot of parallels between that uprising and the current conflict in Syria, which I think may be part of why it has now been translated into English. In Praise of Hatred was a finalist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008 and the English version (translated by Leri Price) is now on the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
It was actually a bit difficult to track down a copy of the book. Even though it has been translated into English, as far as I can tell it hasn’t been published in the U.S. So I put in a request for it through my university’s inter-library loan and waited to see what would happened. The loan request just sat there for a long time and I had pretty much given up on it. Then suddenly I got an e-mail that it had arrived. It had come all the way from the Vancouver Public Library. I had no idea that inter-library loan was able to get books from public libraries, let alone from other countries!
In Praise of Hatred turned out to be a challenge to read, as well as to obtain. For one thing, it’s clearly written for a Syrian/Middle Eastern audience and the translation doesn’t attempt to explain the cultural references. I’m glad it doesn’t, but I did find that I needed to look some things up to understand parts of the story. The story is entirely told from the perspective of the teenage girl, who remains unnamed. She’s prone to flashbacks, visions and dreams, making the narrative hard to follow at times. Also, it’s just unremittingly dark. There’s the violence of the uprising and its repression, but even beyond that, the whole atmosphere of the book is one of depression and decline.
The teenage/early twenties narrator lives with her aunts in an old, traditional house in the city of Aleppo. In a way, she fits into a classic pattern of young adulthood: she is attracted to a particular form of idealism and judges the world rigorously through that single lens, to the exasperation of her family. In her case, that idealism is a form of Islam which leads her to hatred of any women who didn’t adhere to strict veiling and of anyone whose religious beliefs differ. from her own. She joins a women’s cell of the Islamist uprising, declaring her desire to be a martyr for the cause. Eventually her beliefs force her into hatred of members of her own family.
I was expecting this book to help me understand what drives someone towards this kind of hatred and for a while I was frustrated that the origin and development of her hatred weren’t really explained. In retrospect though, I don’t think the author’s goal was so much to explore the origin of hatred, but rather to explore what it means to live with hatred. On one hand, the hatred strengthens her and gives her a feeling of power, hence the title of the book. Hatred is a way of managing the bewilderment both of growing up and of living in a society in turmoil. However, the hatred also isolates her, driving her away from the people she loves. That isolation makes her want to to relinquish her hatred, and sometimes she makes steps toward reconciliation but she finds it difficult to back down.
It’s interesting that the author chose to tell the story from a female point of view. A male insurgent narrator would likely have committed more direct acts of violence whereas the actual protagonist didn’t do much more than attend meetings and pass out pamphlets. I wonder if the author made this decision to make the narrator easier to relate to and forgive. Being female also meant that she had to struggle with how to deal with puberty within a belief system which is unaccepting of female sexuality. Unfortunately, this aspect of the book didn’t work well. I mostly ended up feeling creeped out by the author’s obsession with her breasts and his need to mention them every two pages.
I have to say that I feel even more worried about Syria’s future from having read this book. The uprising in the 1980’s that In Praise of Hatred depicts was driven by Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both sides in the conflict seem repellent. The government is corrupt and oppressive. It engages in extensive torture and mass killings. The rebels endorse killing all members of the ‘other’ (Alawite) sect and extend their hatred and violence to anyone who argues that not every single Alawite deserves to be killed. As best I can tell, it seems that the opposition in the current civil war does include a broader coalition. I can only hope that less hateful voices prevail.
After the conclusion of the novel is a translator’s note which states that the ending was changed, with the approval of the author, in the English translation so as to be more accessible to western readers! I find it frustrating not to know how the book was really intended to end. I searched for information about the original ending online, but I haven’t been able to find anything useful. My best guess is that the original ending refers back to the mystical visions that the narrator has at the beginning of the book. That would make some sense of them, since they seem important at the beginning of the book, but unrelated to all of the plot which follows. Plus I can see how the translator would worry about the accessibility of an Islamic mystical vision to Western visitors. I may have to track down someone who speaks Arabic to find out how the book ‘really’ ended.
I really don’t like the idea of a translator changing the ending of a book. I guess I can see the argument that by changing the ending, the translator was attempting to convey the original message in a way that would be comprehensible to its new audience. But the book could also have included a translation of the original ending or at least an explanation of what the changes were.