“No One Prayed Over Their Graves” by Khaled Khalifa


“Cities can die just like people,” wrote Aleppo native Khaled Khalifa in his second novel, “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (2013). The line would be prescient: As Khalifa was writing his new novel, “No One Prayed Over Their Graves,” during the height of the Syrian war, Aleppo suffered damage from which it has yet to recover — so it is no surprise that witnessing disasters is central in this latest work.

Khalifa, who has lived in Damascus for almost 25 years, is one of Syria’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, though his work is banned there.No Knives in the Kitchens of This City” won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Arabic literature’s highest honor. Leri Price’s translation of “Death Is Hard Work” (2019) was shortlisted for the National Book Award and praised for its spare, oppressive surrealism. Now, working with Price again, Khalifa plunges into Aleppo’s past with “No One Prayed Over Their Graves,” chronicling 130 years of the city’s history in a lush, elegiac mode.

The novel is anchored around two friends, Zakariya and Hanna, who survive a 1907 flood that wipes out their village. They have “kept each other’s secrets, swapping roles and faces when necessary” throughout their mischievous childhood, which with age translates into a libertine adulthood: Since they came into their fathers’ fortunes, their wealth has transformed them into a pair of infamous minor gods. They’ve built a whole citadel to sexual and drunken pleasure, as well as the eponymous Hosh Hanna village as an escape from gossipy Aleppan society. But while they are carousing elsewhere, the Euphrates rises and sweeps almost all of it away.

The loss of Hanna’s wife and child in that event sets him on a path of asceticism, attracting disciples and a new swarm of rumors: this time, of his destiny as a Christian saint. Hanna’s story acts as a through-line from which the novel can trace many spidering points of view forward and back across Aleppo’s various disasters and the rise of mutual sectarian intolerance. Through the lens of a few central families, the story cycles through motifs that repeat across generations: wandering men, the paradise of the natural world, and varieties of corporeal and mystical love — all nailed in place by this singular trauma of the flood.

So much of Khalifa’s work explores varieties of survivorship, and his characters are frequent victims of irony, sudden loss of power and bad luck. The bleak absurdity that mocked Syria’s dysfunction in “Death Is Hard Work” is distant here, though, exchanged for a fabulist, sometimes maximalist style that bears the stamp of Khalifa’s cited influence, Gabriel García Márquez, and “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The horror of the opening flood is rendered in the lyrical otherworldliness of a tale: “The village priest was smiling as usual, and … Their bodies rose and fell with the waves as if they were dancing.” The Márquezian influence also surfaces in the story’s engagement with Ottoman and French interference, its sprawling timeline punctuated by repeating motifs, and especially its concern with a city that loses its splendor. Yet “No One Prayed Over Their Graves” is also a novel of abundance and generosity, nowhere more than in the bottomless friendship of Zakariya and Hanna, which endures all the phases of a shared life from boyhood to old age.

The novel prioritizes its ideas over its characters. At stake is the act of storytelling itself: gossip, religious narrative, war photography, any narrative in which bigotry can reside. “Storytellers’ imaginations … weave the distant past and erase anything that impeded” them, reshaping the truth as a river sweeps away a village. The novel seems aware of its own power to shape the truth, too. Hanna’s posthumous papers end up with a peripheral yet omnipresent character, Junaid, a printer who archives them with some other accounts of the city’s events. A brief note from the author claims that the novel is assembled from those texts, which he found and adapted to this story.

It is no deconstructionist exercise, however. Khalifa remained in Damascus through the entire Syrian war. The pain of witness surfaces across the story: Zakariya’s wife survived the flood, but “her laughing eyes were hollowed out, transformed into two pits of clotted blood,” and afterward, Hanna feels “infinitely insignificant, as all the dead must feel when they are ensnared into living alongside people.” Every one of Aleppo’s disasters is an annihilation about which Hanna could be speaking when he tells Zakariya after the flood, “I have been shattered.” Contemporary Syria haunts the novel from beyond its last pages, and as the book skewers the inadequacy of ritual and religious belief, it also asks how to witness and memorialize tragedy. If “there was no act greater than venerating victims and restoring their honor,” then “No One Prayed Over Their Graves” is not so much a prayer over Aleppo’s losses as a eulogy.

Sarah Cypher is an Arab American writer and the author of “The Skin and Its Girl.”

No One Prayed Over Their Graves

By Khaled Khalifa. Translated by Leri Price.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $30

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