Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
Genre: Literary fiction
Content warning: Gore and depictions of violence
Death is Hard Work (2019, 192 pages) is the fifth novel by award winning Syrian novelist, screenwriter and poet, Khaled Khalifa. The novel won widespread critical praise when it was translated into English from its original Arabic and went on to become a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Set three years into Syria’s ongoing civil war, Death is Hard Work tells the story of Bolbol, the divorced, middle-aged protagonist, who promises to bury his dying father in the family’s ancestral village, next to his father’s sister. To assist in carrying out his father’s last wish, Bolbol reaches out his estranged older siblings, Hussein and Fatima, who agree to help him transport their father’s body 350 kilometers from Damascus to Anabiya. Death is Hard Work follows the three siblings’ odyssey from the government-controlled capital city through rebel-controlled territory to their small home village in the north - a journey that should only take a few hours but ends up taking several days, as they struggle to survive snipers, checkpoints set up by opposing factions, hostile wildlife and each other.
Death is Hard Work begins with the dying Abdel Latif requesting that his youngest son Bolbol, who has been caring for him, take his bones to “rest in his hometown beside his sister Layla”. Despite being a cowardly and selfish man, Bolbol “promised his father he would carry out his instructions, which […] would hardly be easy work”. After Abdel dies, Bolbol seeks out Hussein, his stubborn and proud older brother, who Bolbol is confident would be able to “manage this sort of situation”. Hussein was Abdel’s favorite until the two became estranged years before: “He had no desire to repeat his father’s small-torn life of teaching and respectability […] he wanted to live among the powerful”. But Hussein didn’t land “among the powerful” and instead, ended up as a minibus driver and parttime errand boy for a “small obscure gang”. The two brothers then get their sister Fatima, who like her brothers, has had a life filled with disappointment, treated like a servant by the men in her family and trapped in a loveless marriage, “the traces of her lost pride were still visible on her face …[and] she had given up her dreams of wealth, making do with a lot of complaining”.
The three siblings, “who hadn’t been gathered in the same place for more than an hour or two during Eid” then set out on their journey, “[t]aking up their old roles... [which] made them feel less afraid”. At the first checkpoint outside Damascus, the absurdity of life under an authoritarian regime at war comes into focus when the security forces attempt “to arrest the body” because Abdel, who was a rebel supporter, appears as “wanted” on government paperwork. The narrative observes, “the agent […] couldn’t seem to make up his mind from one sentence to the next as to whether the state regarded a person as being merely a collection of documents or rather an entity of flesh, blood, and soul”. Being detained and questioned by the military shakes Bolbol, who realizes that he will either have to pay bribes at each checkpoint or risk being arrested for their dead father’s political views.
After driving for hours along a hellish landscape full of bombed out villages, the trio finally leave government-controlled territory and erroneously believe that their identification papers will help them move through rebel-controlled checkpoints more quickly. Instead, at one checkpoint manned by heavily armed foreign religious extremists, the siblings are told “quietly but angrily” that it was “suitable for a Muslim to be buried anywhere within the nation-spanning land of Islam” and that Abdel Latif’s last wish was “tantamount to heretical innovation”. In another memorable scene, the siblings ward off a pack of wild dogs intent on making a meal of their father’s putrefying body, “the dogs leaped at the bus, attacking it from all sides. They bared their fangs, utterly enraged”. In the remainder of the novel, the siblings struggle to manage the unbearable smell of their father’s rotting body that has begun to ooze with maggots, avoid getting bombed by government forces as they pass through rebel checkpoints and remain civil to each other as they attempt to fulfill their father’s last wish.
Death is Hard Work is a masterful and haunting novel that lays bare the millions of indignities suffered by a society forced to live under the scourge of authoritarianism and civil war. Even more impressive is the fact that Khalifa does this in less than 200 pages and while ignoring the politics of the war. Using his sardonic wit, Khalifa provides readers with a glimpse into the nightmarish quotidian lives of people living in a society where “everyone …[was] not so much ‘alive’ as ‘pre-dead’’ and where basic tasks like burying the dead have become so dangerous that death “wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living”.
Khalifa adds complexity to the novel’s simple premise by switching the narrative between the present and the past and providing some background into the family’s past. One of the most vivid flashbacks relates the story of Abdel Latif’s sister Layla, a “beautiful and strong-willed” woman who “refused to accept the humble, cringing life others had chosen for her”. Unsurprisingly, Layla’s life is short, and Khalifa describes her violent death with all the literary flair reserved for female characters who refuse to follow their community’s patriarchal norms. In another extended flashback, the novel recounts Bolbol’s childhood and university years with Lamia, whose house they briefly stop at during their journey, and who, years later, remains Bolbol’s great love, “if she had stayed with him, he would be a different person entirely, he was sure”.
In Death is Hard Work, Khalifa resists the urge to make Bolbol, a valiant hero who dutifully accepts the risk involved in transporting his father’s body through a warzone. Instead, Bolbol is a selfish cowardly man, “whenever he went outside, he worried that his neighbors would rape him […] On weekends he shut himself away in his house, keeping his windows open so the neighbors could have no grounds for suspecting he was hatching some conspiracy”. But “thanks to a fleeing moment of sentiment” and “a rare moment of courage … [Bolbol] acted firmly and without fear”, and “promised to bury his father in the same grave as Bolbol’s aunt – whom he had never met”. I wouldn’t say that I liked Bolbol, but I think that he was the perfect conduit for Khalifa to demonstrate how a war that makes tragedies “mundane”, can transform someone whose “weakness and anxiety” had never endeared him to anyone, not even his father, into a hero.
In contrast to Bolbol’s crisp characterization, Khalifa’s rendering of Fatima’s character is disappointing considering her role as mediator/peacemaker between the two brothers. Fatima is described as having “middling intelligence” and is severely lacking in agency, “Hussein had always enjoyed ordering her around, ever since they were children, and Fatima obeyed him without argument”. And at many parts in the novel, she is described only as crying, and at one point, even goes mute. I am usually very critical of male authors who write one-dimensional female characters as it is often a reflection of the writer's misogyny or just poor writing. I do not believe either conjecture applies to Khalifa, least of all because the novel’s two other female characters, Layla and Lami, are well-written with copious amounts of agency. Nevertheless, I still don't think Layla and Lamia’ characters completely offset Fatima’s weak characterization, especially since Fatima is the only woman present throughout the entire novel.
Reviewer Nadia Ismail compares Death is Hard Work to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy about a father and son’s journey through a dystopian America. Ismail notes that the real-life apocalyptic setting of Death is Hard Work renders it more haunting than The Road and therefore, provides deeper insight into what life is like in a country that has fallen apart. On the other hand, reviewers Elliot Ackerman and David Ulin compare Khalifa’s novel to As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner about the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside in the Reconstruction-era South to bury Addie, their wife and mother. According to Ulin, Khalifa “employs a shifting array of voices and reflections, moving from perspective to perspective, present to past and back again” that is reminiscent of the “long last ride of Addie Bundren”.
I give Death is Hard Work 5 out of 5 stars, as it is easily one of the best works of fiction to come out of the ongoing Syrian war in the past few years. In Death is Hard Work, Khalifa interweaves familiar themes – dysfunctional families, disappointed hopes, unrequited love – with the harsh realities of living under an authoritarian regime at war against its own people. Khalifa is able to relay a sense of urgency and danger surrounding the siblings’ journey without becoming overly graphic or sentimental, and by the end of the novel, the reader comes to appreciate that death can be really hard work.