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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Death Is Hard Work

A Novel

Khaled Khalifa; Translated from the Arabic by Leri Price

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Two hours before he died, Abdel Latif al-Salim looked his son Bolbol straight in the eye with as much of his remaining strength as he could muster and repeated his request to be buried in the cemetery of Anabiya. After all this time, he said, his bones would rest in his hometown beside his sister Layla; he almost added, Beside her scent, but he wasn’t sure that the dead would smell the same after four decades. He considered these few words his last wish and added nothing that might render them the least bit ambiguous. Resolved to be silent in his last hours, he closed his eyes, ignoring the people around him, and sank into solitude with a smile. He thought of Nevine: her smile, her scent, her naked body wrapped in a black abaya as she tried to float like the butterflies they were collecting. He remembered how his eyes shone at that moment, how his heart had thudded, how his knees trembled, how he carried her to the bed and kissed her greedily, but before he could recall every moment of that “night of immortal secrets,” as they’d secretly dubbed that particular evening, he died.

Bolbol, in a rare moment of courage, under the influence of his father’s parting words and sad, misted eyes, acted firmly and without fear. He promised his father he would carry out his instructions, which—despite their clarity and simplicity—would hardly be easy work. It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front, as Bolbol was doing, so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice. Peace and deliberation are required for reviewing the past and settling our accounts—and these are practices that those approaching death rarely take the time to do. The dying can’t wait to fling aside their burdens, the better to cross the barzakh—to the other side, where time has no value.

Bolbol, later, regretted not having stood up to his father. He should have reminded his father how difficult it would be to carry out his instructions given the current situation. There were mass graves everywhere filled with casualties who’d never even been identified. No ?aza lasted more than a few hours now, even for the rich: death was no longer a carnival people threw in order to demonstrate their wealth and prestige. A few roses, a few mourners yawning in a half-empty living room for a couple of hours, someone reciting a sura or two from the Qur’an in a low voice … that was all anybody got.

A silent funeral is a funeral stripped of all its awe, Bolbol thought. Rites and rituals meant nothing now. For the first time, everyone was truly equal in death. The poor and the rich, officers and infantry in the regime’s army, armed squadron commanders, regular soldiers, random passersby, and those who would remain forever anonymous: all were buried with the same pitiful processions. Death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living.

But this was a different story. This body would be big trouble. Thanks to a fleeting moment of sentiment, Bolbol had promised to bury his father in the same grave as Bolbol’s aunt—whom he had never even met. He had thought that his father would ask for some sort of precautionary guarantee of Nevine’s rights to the family home, seeing as they had married only recently. The building had been reduced to a shell in an air raid, leaving intact only the bedroom where his father had passed his last days of love with Nevine before leaving the town of S with the help of opposition fighters …

Bolbol would never forget that scene. His father had been immaculate when the fighters brought him to Damascus from the besieged S; it was clear that they had taken good care of their comrade, this man who’d chosen to stay with them through more than three years of siege. They bade him an affectionate farewell, kissed him warmly, and saluted him. After enjoining Bolbol to be good to his father, they vanished down a well-guarded side road leading back to the orchards surrounding the village. Abdel Latif’s eyes were gleaming as he tried and failed to raise his hand to wave to his comrades. He was exhausted and starving, having lost more than half his body weight; like everyone living under the siege, he hadn’t eaten a full meal in months.

Now his body was laid out on a metal stretcher in a public hospital. A doctor told Bolbol, “People are dying in droves every single day. Be happy he managed to reach such an old age.” Bolbol wasn’t quite able to follow the doctor’s instructions to be cheerful at his father’s death, although he could grasp what was meant. He felt as though he were suffocating beneath the weight of his new predicament. The city streets were a wasteland after eight in the evening, and he had to move the body tomorrow morning, after it was released and before midday. A large consignment of soldiers’ corpses would arrive at dawn from the outskirts of Damascus, where the fighting never stopped. There wouldn’t be room for his father at the local morgue for long.

When Bolbol left the hospital, it was almost two o’clock in the morning. He decided that his father’s last request ought to apply to the rest of the family, too, not just Bolbol himself: everyone ought to be equally responsible for carrying out Abdel Latif’s last wish. He looked for a taxi to take him to his brother’s house after successive attempts to phone him had failed. He considered texting Hussein the news, but it would have been beneath contempt to let him know that way. Things like that had to be said face-to-face, and the pain shared equally.

The soldiers guarding the hospital waved him toward the nearby Deraa Station—he would find a taxi there. Bolbol decided not to think too much about the gunfire he could hear. He put his hands in his pockets, quickened his pace, and swallowed his fear. Even a short walk on a winter night like this was extremely hazardous: the patrols never stopped, and the streets were teeming with faceless gunmen. The power had been cut off in most quarters, and concrete blocks were piled high in front of the improvised “offices” set up by the national security branches, occupying most roads. Only residents could possibly have known which routes were permissible and which forbidden. From a distance, Bolbol saw a few men gathered in a circle around an upturned gas can in which some firewood had been set alight. He guessed that they were mostly taxi drivers trapped by the closure of various roads, waiting for dawn so they could go home. The last glimmer of his courage had almost flickered out by the time he found a taxi driver—listening serenely to Um Kulthoum on the car radio—willing to take him. Bolbol quickly reached an understanding with him and didn’t argue with the fare that he was quoted.

They didn’t talk at first, but after a few minutes Bolbol wanted to try and exorcise his fear. He told the driver that his father had died an hour ago in the hospital, of old age. The driver laughed and informed him that three of his brothers as well as all of their children had died a month before in an air strike. Both went quiet after this; the conversation was no longer on an even footing. Bolbol had been expecting a little sympathy from the driver. Nevertheless, the man behaved honorably and didn’t drive away until he was sure that Bolbol was safe. Hussein opened the door, and when he saw Bolbol standing there at that time of the morning, he knew what had happened. He hugged his brother affectionately, led him inside, and made him some tea. He asked if Bolbol wanted to wash his face and promised to take care of everything that still needed to be done: finding a shroud, making the burial arrangements, fetching their sister, Fatima.

Bolbol felt himself become lighter and braver, his worries lifting away. He no longer cared that Hussein had completely ignored their father when Abdel Latif was in the hospital; the important thing was that Hussein wouldn’t follow this up by abandoning him now. Bolbol was confident in his brother’s ability to manage this sort of situation. Hussein had meandered around among several professions before taking a job as a minibus driver, and if nothing else this meant he’d gained considerable experience dealing with the state bureaucracy, and he had contacts all over the place. Without delay, Hussein dismantled the two seats immediately behind the driver’s and rearranged them to form a shelf for the body to lie on. He said, “We’ll lay the body here. That way there’ll be enough room for everyone else to travel comfortably.” He meant Bolbol and their sister, Fatima, but if their in-laws wanted to come along, too, well, they wouldn’t be in the way. This idea was soon rejected, though: they couldn’t imagine that anyone else would still harbor any sense of duty toward this man whose corpse would have to negotiate hundreds of miles to reach its final resting place.

By seven o’clock, Hussein had finished all the arrangements for the journey. He had brought their sister over from her house and blanked out the scrolling signs on his minibus, which he ordinarily used to work the Jaramana line. With the help of an electrician friend, he improvised an ambulance siren out of its horn. He also bought an air freshener, which he supposed would be needed on the long journey, and didn’t forget to call another one of his friends who was able to supply four large blocks of ice. Despite the difficulty of his requests, his friends all had woken before dawn, offered him their condolences, and helped Hussein to arrange everything for the journey. The only thing still left to obtain before they could be on their way was the signature of the hospital director, who wouldn’t be in before nine o’clock. They parked in front of the hospital gate to wait for him, but a morgue official asked them to remove their father’s body immediately, as the freezers already needed to be emptied out to accommodate the fresh shipment of corpses that had just arrived, now simply heaped on the floor.

Bolbol didn’t dare accompany Hussein when he went into the morgue. The corridors were full of the dark, sad faces of men and women waiting to receive the bodies of their loved ones. The orderly indicated that Hussein should search the southern side of the morgue, and Hussein almost threw up as he opened a fridge chock-full of bodies. He’d almost lost hope by the time he found his father’s body; hundreds of corpses had been lost and forgotten in this chaos. It was clear that his father hadn’t been dead for long. Hussein slipped three thousand liras to the official so that the orderly would be allowed to help him wash and shroud the body in the filthy bathroom reserved for the dead, which no one bothered to clean. The scene in the hospital was horrifying. Officers were pacing the corridors and shouting curses against the opposition fighters. Troops in full combat gear were wandering around aimlessly, smelling of battle. They had brought their friends, either wounded or killed, and dawdling there was their only way to escape or postpone returning to battle, where death would no doubt find them as well. Death always seemed near in this chaos.

Back at the van, Hussein arranged his father’s body in such a way that he wouldn’t have to see him and be distracted whenever he looked in the rearview mirror. He told Fatima to be quiet, even though she hadn’t spoken a word, but she only sobbed harder. Hussein had always enjoyed ordering her around, ever since they were children, and Fatima obeyed him without argument; complying with her brother’s demands gave her a sense of equilibrium and security. Hussein was furious at Bolbol when he noticed him leaning against a nearby wall and smoking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He slammed the door of the van and went back to the hospital gate to wait for the director, who had to sign the death certificate before the body could officially be released. It wasn’t exactly the place to make small talk, but he couldn’t help asking a woman, also waiting, if she knew when the director was expected. She shrugged and turned her face away. Hussein didn’t bother trying to speak to anyone else, although he hated waiting in silence; he believed that a little chat would have alleviated their misery. He could feel the tension and anger hidden in the eyes of the petitioners who were packed in all around them.

At nine o’clock, the director arrived and signed the certificate. Immediately, Hussein told Bolbol to get in the bus and instructed Fatima to cover the body with the blankets that he had brought from his house. And also to shut up.

Hussein informed his siblings that removing the body had cost them ten thousand liras, adding that he was recording every expense in a small ledger. Without waiting for their reaction, he began strategizing about the quickest way out of Damascus. The streets would be clogged with traffic at this time of the morning, and the many checkpoints would be jammed; it might take hours to clear the city limits. His calculations proceeded based on his experience spending whole days in traffic as a minibus driver. The road through Abbasiyin Square would be best, although the security checkpoints had a particularly bad reputation in that area. Even trying to cross Sabaa Bahrat Square in downtown would be a disaster, he told himself.

So Hussein decided to chance Abbasiyin Square and tried to follow close behind a proper ambulance. He was stopped at the first checkpoint, which wouldn’t allow him to travel along the main road, but he was still able to make some headway along an alternate route. The faux siren he’d installed in the minibus was no use whatsoever—no one made way for him. Amid the crowds and the chaos, Hussein recalled how funeral processions used to be respected back in peacetime—cars would pull over, passersby would stop and cast you genuinely sympathetic looks …

A row of additional ambulances suddenly descended on him, all heading out of the city. Inside each one were soldiers accompanying coffins; Hussein could see them through the small windows in their back doors. He tried to sneak in between two of the vehicles, but an angry yell and a cocked weapon from one of their furious occupants returned him to the line of civilian vehicles. When the last ambulance in the queue pulled up alongside the minibus, it slowed down, and a soldier leaned out of the window to spit copiously on him and berate him in the foulest possible language. Hussein looked at the spittle moistening his arm and was flooded with rage. Rage and then the desire to weep. Bolbol kept quiet and averted his eyes so as not to increase his brother’s embarrassment. Fatima, for her part, no longer felt like crying; she was surprised at how few tears she had shed, all things considered. She decided to postpone expressing the remainder of her sadness and loss until the burial, which would no doubt be the most emotional part of the farewell to her father.

Since childhood, Hussein had been in the habit of memorizing entire pages of the cheap almanacs published by Islamic philanthropic organizations, containing famous sayings, aphorisms, verses from the Qur’an, and prophetic Hadith, and he used them in everyday speech to give his audience the impression of his being well read. He used to believe that he hadn’t been created to live on the margins of life as a mere observer, but at that moment, looking at the deluge of vehicles inundating Abbasiyin Square, he felt terrifyingly powerless; he couldn’t find an appropriate aphorism to break the strident silence dominating his brother and sister, yet he wanted very much to make them forget that he had just been spat on. He tried to remember something or other about life and death but couldn’t come up with anything better than “Tend to the living—the dead are already gone.” He didn’t like it, however, because of how often the line was quoted by cowards justifying retreat. And in any case, today it might be a different matter—better to tend to the dead; after all, they now outnumbered the living. He went on to muse that they would all surely be dead in the not-too-distant future. This thought had given him exceptional courage over the previous four years. Not only had it served to increase his stoicism day by day, but he was far better able to withstand the many insults he received from checkpoint soldiers and Mukhabarat in the course of his work if he bore this thought in mind, since it allowed him to subscribe to the view that anyone who gave him a hard time would probably be dead today or tomorrow, or by next month at the latest. Not that this was a particularly pleasant notion, but it was an accurate one, and each citizen had to live under the shadow of this understanding. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead.” It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.

The bus crawled painfully toward the hundreds of vehicles flooding Abbasiyin Square. Three Suzuki pickup trucks with hoisted flags gleamed ahead of the siblings, heading in their direction; elderly men were standing in the open backs and trying to clear the road. One of them yelled through a bullhorn, loud and clear, “Martyrs, martyrs, martyrs!” He followed this up with “Make way for the martyrs, make way for the martyrs!” But no one cared. The Suzuki trucks approached Hussein’s minibus and tried to escape the traffic. Hussein noted aloud that they were coming from Tishreen Military Hospital and added that there was no transport to take the poor to their graves. Bolbol couldn’t take his eyes off the man with the bullhorn. He stared at him until he was lost from view.

There was no getting away from death, Bolbol told himself. It was a terrifying flood drowning everyone. He recalled the days when the regime still bothered to put effort into the funerals it staged for its fallen. On television, an ensemble would play some song written especially for the state’s many martyrs, and on every coffin there would be a large bouquet bearing the name of the commander in chief of the army and the armed forces (who was also the president), another in the name of the minister of defense, and a third in the name of the deceased’s comrades in arms in his squadron or department. A female anchor would announce the name, function, and rank of the martyr, and this would be followed with a shot of the family declaring how proud they were, how glorious it was, that their son had been martyred, faithfully laying down his life for the nation and the Leader. Always those two words—“nation” and “Leader.” And yet, after several months, the band, the bouquets, and the flag disappeared; so did the female anchors crowing about the penniless boys martyred for their loyalty to the nation and the Leader; and so did all reverence for the word “martyr.” Bolbol looked at the city as it dwindled around them. He remembered how passionate his coworkers had been when they used to tell their horror stories: searching for bodies that had been lost or buried improperly, through hospitals stuffed with corpses … Tracking down the remains of a loved one had become hard work—even more so when a family, immediately upon being informed of the death of a son, was forced to go over to the battlefield and dig through a mass grave, or else among various devastated buildings and the iron skeletons of tanks and burned-out guns. But the bloom went off even these sorts of stories, eventually, and no one bothered to tell them anymore. The exceptional had become habitual, and tragedies were simply mundane—perhaps that was the worst part of this war. In any case, though, as Bolbol looked at his father’s corpse, he felt a certain degree of distinction; at least this body was being cared for by its three children and not left to the mercy of the elements. He almost told Hussein and Fatima about their father’s last moments—in fact, he was surprised that he hadn’t already done so—but instead lay back, convinced that there would be plenty of time on the long drive to talk over the exploits of the departed, to recall a past that had never been particularly unhappy.

Hussein was still annoyed at himself. The thousands of sayings and aphorisms he’d spent twenty years memorizing had proved useless in the face of a bad traffic jam—but he refused to let his defective memory get the better of him. He repeated a few sayings on different topics, just to keep in practice: aphorisms on unfaithfulness and hope and the betrayal of friends. He considered this a useful exercise; these sayings might be required sometime soon, and they needed to be primed and ready. He called a few lines of Ahmad Shawqi to mind and recited them vehemently, enunciating majestically: “Crimson freedom has a door / Knocked by every blood-stained hand…” The following line only came back to him with difficulty: “… he will ever dwell among the pits.” But no, he had mixed up Shawqi’s poem with one by Shaby, “If One Day the People Wish to Live, Fate Must Respond.” But this combination pleased him; if anything, it struck him as fortuitous that he’d accidentally blended two poems with very different meters and rhyme schemes. He had in fact read these lines dozens of times on the pages of his almanacs and liked them very much; he used them to shame cowards who preferred the regime to any unrest. He repeated both incomplete lines in a murmur as if in lament for his revolutionary father.

Bolbol paid no attention; he was content with the three previous months he and his father had spent talking everything over. Fatima understood the recitation as a belated reconciliation between Hussein and their father. She wanted to thank God out loud for this miraculous resolution, but Bolbol’s heavy silence made her hesitate, and she decided to wait for a more suitable opportunity to voice her opinion on the long rift between father and son. True, their estrangement had gone through many different stages, and occasionally each man had even approached the other, trying to turn over a new leaf, but no matter what, their relationship never regained its original, cloudless perfection from the time when Hussein had been the spoiled favorite.

The soldiers at the last checkpoint within the limits of Damascus made do with a cursory glance over their papers and allowed them to pass. Many corpses were leaving the city today, and just as many were coming in. The sight of them was abhorrent to the mud-spattered soldiers; the bodies heralded their own imminent end, which they naturally wanted to forget. Hussein didn’t look at his watch. He heaved a sigh of relief; he had been delivered from the traffic of Abbasiyin Square, and Damascus was falling away behind them. Now the goal would be to reach Anabiya before midnight. Fatima and Bolbol recovered their optimism and reviewed the necessities for their journey: bottles of mineral water, cigarettes, identity cards, and the little money they had left.

He died at the right time, Bolbol told himself. The body wouldn’t rot as fast in this cold winter. They were fortunate he hadn’t died in August, when flies swarm over and tear at the dead. Death is a solitary experience, of course, but nevertheless it lays heavy obligations on the living. There’s a big difference between an old man who dies in his village, surrounded by family and close to the cemetery, and one who dies hundreds of kilometers away from them all. The living have a harder task ahead of them than the dead; no one wants to see their loved ones rot. They want them to look their best in death for that final memory that can never be erased. The last expression worn by a loved one necessarily comes to epitomize them. When the facial muscles of a suffering man slacken in the midst of his pain, his grief is what remains of him and he looks like nothing so much as a newborn child.

At the checkpoint outside the gate to Damascus, just before the highway, the soldier nodded inside the van and inquired what lay beneath the blanket. Bolbol said calmly, “My father’s body.” The soldier asked the question a second time, with a new edge in his voice, pointing to the heavy pile of blankets, and Bolbol reaffirmed his answer. The soldier motioned to Hussein to proceed into the GOODS TO DECLARE lane, where public-transport vehicles were lined up, and a different soldier, who was about twenty years old, was circling each one with a bomb detector. The soldier then left the checkpoint and went inside a one-room shed, previously a workshop and now used as an office as well as barracks for the checkpoint soldiers. After a few minutes, an officer marched toward the minibus, wrenched open the door, and ordered them to uncover the body. Bolbol lifted the blanket from his father’s face. It was still fresh—his death still raw and tender. With studied callousness, the officer demanded the official documentation for the body, and Fatima presented him with the death certificate signed by the director of the public hospital and the morgue official, together with their identity cards. He scrutinized the cards and then surprised them all by asking for the dead man’s identity card as well. Bolbol almost started explaining to the man that all corpses share a single name—that they slip away from their histories and families in order to affirm their membership in one family alone, the family of the dead, and that no dead person can have any proof of identity beyond their death certificate—but Fatima slipped their father’s identity card from her bag and offered it to the officer, who peered at the face of the body and then at the twenty-year-old picture on the card. In those days he had often laughed, their father; now, in death, his face was that of a stern, tough man. The officer took the identity cards and went back to his office. The three living occupants of the minibus exchanged glances and decided to wait in the bus without moving.

Hussein, in his place behind the wheel, was looking angrily at his watch and muttering inaudibly. One of the waiting truck drivers approached him and said plainly, “No goods can get through without the right documents.” Hussein quickly got out of the minibus and went up to the makeshift office. He paid a bribe known as a goods-transit document, and their identity cards were returned. Feeling strangely victorious, he sped them all away from the checkpoint. Bolbol was thinking over the fact that his father was now a commodity like hookah coals, crates of tomatoes, sacks of onions. His ongoing silence discomfited Hussein, who announced that he had paid a thousand liras, and that they had to reach Anabiya before midnight.

For a moment Bolbol found himself wondering whether it might not be better to return to Damascus and arrange the burial in one of the graveyards there—although he knew this was absurd given how expensive graves were in Damascus. A good grave was so rare that people had begun advertising them in the classified ads, and they only had thirty-five thousand liras left among the three of them … Returning was out of the question; even if they had the money, how would they obtain official permission for a burial? Moreover, how could they convince the next shift of soldiers at the checkpoints they’d already passed that they had changed their minds? Or, indeed, that Abdel Latif had died in Damascus and not in a rebel town nearby?

After all, as a general rule, corpses don’t much care about where they’re buried. Just thinking about it frustrated Bolbol no end. It was a little past noon, he was tired, and he was fed up. Fatima lifted the blanket from her father’s face, telling herself that a little fresh air, though cold, might do him good. She opened her window, even though the dead don’t breathe and aren’t likely to care whether the air is fresh or not. Bolbol told her to cover the body back up so the ice blocks packed tightly around it wouldn’t melt, and Fatima complied without demur. Bolbol was now hoping they could all just ride in silence until they reached Anabiya. Their relatives would take care of the burial itself, and afterward he could escape from his family for the last time. He would go back to his nest and skulk in his room like a rat until his dream of moving to a faraway country was realized. There, in that distant land, he would inter himself in snow, and he would never complain about anything ever again. Right now, though, he couldn’t keep from dwelling on the cramped and uncomfortable interior of the minibus, not to mention whatever surprises were bound to lie in store for them farther down the road, which he anticipated with dread. He couldn’t think of anyone having successfully managed to transport a body all the way to Anabiya in three whole years.

Hussein felt uneasy at the silence, and since his memory didn’t furnish him with a suitable pearl of wisdom, he snapped at Fatima to stop opening the window and then reminded his siblings spitefully that they wouldn’t arrive at Anabiya before midnight, perhaps not even before dawn. Then he glanced at them in the rearview mirror, and the three of them exchanged looks of fear. All of their calculations had gone up in smoke; they’d already been delayed longer than they could have anticipated; there were few cars on the road, and the distant, blank wilderness—everything they could see, in fact—only made them more afraid.

Copyright © 2016 by Hachette-Antoine

Translation copyright © 2019 by Leri Price