Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, now out in English translation by Paul Starkey, is among the twenty-first century’s most emotionally devastating reads.
The novel made powerful waves among Syrian readers when released in Arabic in 2006. But Syria’s story is no longer just a local or regional one. The anti-government protests, violence, and mass exodus of Syrians since 2011 means much of the world has come within the orbit of news from that country. Khalifa’s novel takes us deep inside the anti-humanizing cruelty that fed the Assad regime and the current civil war.
In the words of Lebanese writer Lina Mounzer, “[I]f anyone asks: “why the Syrian revolution & is it real?” the answer for me is always this book.”
But this novel, Khalifa’s first, has another level of anguish. At the heart of The Shell, when there seems to be nothing decent left in the world, a love story blossoms. The love story between the protagonist, Musa, and his beloved, Dr. Nasim, is almost entirely desexualized, but no less powerful for that. Two middle-aged male soulmates find each other in this place of excruciating pain, and their fate is as moving as any Romeo and Juliet.
The book’s narrator, Musa, is an atheist from a Christian family. When he’s picked up at the Damascus airport and accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he can’t quite take it seriously. He’s still filled with the sounds and smells of his life in Paris, and he had never purposefully engaged in politics. The accusation seems like a bad joke. He even tells his jailers he’s an atheist, to which they respond with more vigorous torture.
It isn’t until he’s at Tadmur—surrounded by jailers on one side and Islamists on the other—that the new reality sinks into Musa’s skin. This is not an error that might be corrected. No, errors and chaos are part of how the system works. Musa isn’t the only innocent: There’s a whole dormitory full of children who have been found not guilty, but who won’t be released. Other prisoners were arrested as hostages, but remain in Tadmur even after their sons or brothers have been captured. The whole system of imprisonment seems to be an elaborate hostage scheme, with prisoners kept alive to force other Syrians to behave.
In the early years of his imprisonment, Musa’s life is in constant danger. Some of the Islamist prisoners think he’s a spy, and the most extreme suggest he should be killed simply because he’s an unbeliever. He is protected by the more spiritual and educated, but for years his situation is tenuous. He shrinks into his titular shell, hardly speaking.
During the “year of starvation,” when Tadmur’s prisoners have barely enough food to stay alive, Musa shrinks even further. He discovers a hole that allows him to peer out of the shared dormitory. Here he sits, with a blanket over himself, speechless. He remembers the guilt he felt when he first masturbated. The guilt clung to him “until I experienced the starvation year, when I felt this sense of guilt and pollution had gradually begun to leave me and I was returning to the simplicity and innocence of childhood.”
But Tadmur Prison isn’t just empty of adult purpose, warmth, companionship, and food. It’s also an information desert. When a single sheet of newsprint is blown against the top bars of the dormitory during a dust storm, the men form a pyramid to pull it down. Disappointingly, it’s only advertisements on one side and sports coverage on the other. Still, the men take turns studying and sharing this single page.
After a decade of this, a violent jihadist, Abu al-Qa’qa’, comes and changes everything for Musa. The unlikeable Abu al-Qa’qa’ demands Musa be murdered. The dormitory leader, Abu Hussein, argues strongly against it, but Abu al-Qa’qa’ won’t let go of the idea. Finally, Musa stands up and tells his story. With this, he achieves a sort of acceptance. He also comes to know Dr. Nasim, a fellow artist who speaks French with him, and who he loves as he never imagined loving another human.
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