In recent years, Syria has repeatedly made headlines in the West, detailing the horrific events of the civil war. Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of this Citynarrates the long tale of the Syrian city Aleppo. Though the novel’s main historical setting is between the 1960s and 2000s, flashbacks to earlier times mean the novel unravels Aleppo’s tale right from the First World War up until the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What No Knives in the Kitchens of this Cityshows us is Syria’s slow degeneration under the Assad regime. We can see that the war’s outbreak was not a spontaneous event but rather had been a long time in coming.
With Aleppo at its centre, the novel follows the lives of an exceedingly large cast of characters, all told through the voice of a single narrator who, though a real character in the story, remains a barely felt, almost invisible, presence. The author, Khaled Khalifa, has made it a recurring trope in his novels to explore the influence of a single emotion on his characters. In his previous novel, In Praise of Hatred, he explored the way his characters were motivated by their hate. In No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, the focus is now on shame. The narrator’s mother is ashamed of her youngest daughter, Suad, because of her disability, and so she locks her away, waiting for her to die. Sawsan is ashamed of her past sexual encounters, and so undergoes hymen reconstruction surgery and throws herself into a devoutly religious lifestyle. Nizar’s family are ashamed of his homosexuality, and so have him sent to prison. The only character who seems capable of resisting the all-pervading shame in the novel is in fact Nizar himself, who does not attempt to hide or conceal his past. The non-judgmental Nizar’s acceptance and compassion lead him to act as an emotional confidante for many of the other characters in the novel.
On a more societal level, shame cripples both the regime and resistance to the regime. The character Jean’s so-called ‘theory of historical shame’ details the inseparable link between shame and fear, and the debilitating societal effects this entails. Jean ‘sketched out the inhabitants of a city, who shared the air of that city but were afraid of each other.’ The theory is one of universal, mutual fear with ‘minority sects afraid of majorities, and the many afraid of the despotism of the few’, and ‘races and religions and sects afraid of the President and his mukhabarat’ and ‘the President afraid of his aides and his own guard’.
The hopelessness of Aleppo’s stagnation is exemplified in the eponynmous scene where an Aleppian man set his wife and four children on fire, then committed suicide with a kitchen knife as he screamed at his neighbors, who were watching dispassionately, that dying in a fire was more honorable than waiting to starve. He asked them bitterly,
“Are there no knives in the kitchens of this city?”
The novel makes for interesting and evocative reading both as a lesson in Syrian history and also as an insight into the circumstances preceding the civil war.