Musa, a Syrian in Paris, wants to return home and direct films. Suzanne, a beautiful woman, urges him not to go. But his romantic feelings, he tells her and tells himself, are for Damascus. He is arrested at the airport the day he arrives and spends the majority of a fourteen-year detention in the Asad regime’s “Desert Prison” -- Tadmur.
The storytelling that follows this fateful decision in Mustafa Khalifa’s ‘Al Qawqaa’ (2006), finally published in English in 2016 as ‘The Shell’ (translated by Paul Starkey), describes things in simple terms without exaggeration or much emotion. This is admirable restraint. Many writers would be tempted to guide the reader’s feelings about sudden executions, controlled starvations, and brutal hangings. But Khalifa trusts his reader’s gut.
Musa, a Christian, but worse, an atheist, confesses his disbelief during torture and, even worse, tells a fellow inmate afterwards. His reputation as a disbeliever spreads quickly in the prison. No one wants anything to do with him and he lives “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”
The book’s narrator is left alone to watch the prison yard through a hole known only to him. He witnesses many executions, “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 sees. “[T]heir beatings would be light and uncertain.” Hangings “would make them vomit.” But this never lasts -- new guards become as cruel as their elders. Khalifa does not paint Musa’s fellow prisoners as virtuous or even good. This is perhaps the most interesting choice the author makes, adding another dark layer to the book’s mood.
The author faces a challenge similar to Truman Capote’s in his masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood.’ The reader has a good idea of how the story will end, in Capote’s case it was all over the newspapers. In Khalifa’s, Musa can’t live to write a memoir without surviving Tadmur. But in both literary achievements the quality of the writing, the power of the descriptions, keep readers in the moment.
'The Shell' can be held beside other great works of prison literature. ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is mentioned by the publisher, but Elie Weisel’s ‘Night’ also comes to mind. All three describe hells made by men -- “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.”
Just having a copy of ‘The Shell’ was dangerous in Asad’s Syria -- it could in fact transport you to the very places it described. Literature is often a portal to another world, but rarely is it so exactly the case. Students at University of Aleppo, among other young Syrians, shared digital copies nonetheless. Download, read five pages, delete, repeat. Many describe their readings as political awakenings.
The book’s most recent edition, ‘El Caparazón’, came out in 2017 in Spanish with a new introduction written by Khalifa. The author describes the astonishment of many readers. “When I answered that no, that all that you have read here is real, and I absolutely didn’t invent anything, their eyes looked at me suspiciously. They couldn’t believe it.” Before the revolution, he sometimes had regrets about writing it.
But since then, “the revolution has obligated the regime to show off all the barbarism, without restriction, in front of the cameras.” And when “young readers […] told me very clearly that what prompted them to take part in the uprising against the dictatorship had been […] reading ‘The Shell’, my fears and troubled faded into the background. It was a relief.”
Musa, unlike the subjects of Capote’s work, is innocent. He is also not the author himself, ‘The Shell’ is not an autobiography. Musa has no interest in politics, but a joke at a party in Paris, at the regime’s expense, gets a report written up about him. He is not aware of the existence of a file.
Skeptics of Khalifa’s claim that nothing is invented could ask, why not just write a biography? This question will set up assumptions all too familiar to Syrians -- that the strong deserve their strength and the right to decide truth, while the weak are decidedly unreliable and untrustworthy.
Skeptics rarely attempt to prove such works full of false claims or details -- instead they only hope to create doubts, to tarnish the credit of the writer. This is the best they can achieve, yet it is damaging to those hoping for a truthful telling of Asad’s Syria for generations to come. But much corroboration, testimony that these things really did happen, has come out since 2006.
Musa remembers “the sergeants […] spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.” Dr Jolal Nofal, a political activist, reports meeting a Tadmur survivor forced to swallow a small injured bird alive.
The guards punish the prisoners for whispering at night. The book’s description matches that testified to by other survivors: “[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.”
Another survivor, Muhammed, interviewed privately, entered Tadmur in 1980. He was sixteen years old. “My kidnapping” he calls it. He explains the court found him innocent when he got a trial (though it took two years). He then waited nine more years for Hafez al-Asad’s decision.
“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.’”
Musa finds himself free and numb after fourteen years. He has lost his “capacity for astonishment.” He wanders the city, but finds his former love, Damascus, “covered in a layer of fine yellow dust.” No matter what, the dust stays, covering everyone and everything Musa sees. Everything reminds him, in Khalifa’s devastating finale, that his freedom is real and the nightmare still.
[Main photo: The cover of Mustafa Khalifa's 'The Shell' (Henry Jackson Society/Fair use. All rights reserved to the authors)].