Acclaimed Syrian author Khaled Khalifa dies aged 59

Acclaimed Syrian author Khaled Khalifa dies aged 59
Khaled Khalifa, considered to be one of the modern greats of Arabic language literature, has passed away at his home in Damascus.
3 min read
01 October, 2023
Khaled Khalifa leaves behind an amazing legacy as a novelist [Getty]

The much-acclaimed Syrian author, poet and screenwriter Khaled Khalifa passed away on Saturday at the age of 59 at his home in Damascus.

According to his friends, the cause of death was a heart attack.

Khalifa’s novels, poems and TV screenplays earned him much critical acclaim over the years, while he won and was nominated for many prestigious literary prizes.

However, much of Khalifa’s work was critical of Syria’s Baathist regime and for that reason was banned from publication or distribution in his homeland.

Born in Aleppo in 1964, Khalifa gained fame as a writer of several popular Syrian TV series in the early 1990s. He transitioned into writing novels in his twenties.

Though his first novel 'The Guard of Deception' was well received by critics, his international breakthrough as a novelist came with 2006’s 'In Praise of Hatred'.

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The book, which took Khalifa 13 years to write, tells the complex story of a young Sunni woman in Aleppo as she is brainwashed but also conditioned into extremist sectarian Islamism against the backdrop of the Alawite-dominated Baath regime unjustly ruling her life and viciously crushing the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the late-1970s, ruthlessly bombarding Aleppo in the process. 

The book is considered a modern Arabic language classic and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. It was translated into six languages. In Syria, the book was deemed subversive by the Assad regime and banned.

In 2013, Khalifa won the ultra-prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel 'No Knives in the Kitchens of this City', which is a story that spans multiple decades and generations of a family living in Aleppo under the Baath regime.

His later works, such as 2016's Death is Hard Work and 2019's 'No One Prayed Over Their Graves', were all met with massive critical acclaim. 

Many Syrian and other Arabic language authors took to social media to mourn his death.

Robin Yassin-Kassab, a Syrian-Scottish author who wrote the foreword to the English language version of 'In Praise of Hatred', wrote: "The great Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa has died […] he leaves books that will be read so long as there are Syrians."

Kuwaiti writer Taleb al-Refai also mourned him: writing "Shocking news my dear friend Khaled Khalifa, there is no consolation in the domain of Arabic novels".

Until the end, Khalifa refused to leave Syria despite the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and being listed as a potential enemy of the Assad regime.

In 2012, when pro-Assad thugs broke his left hand at the funeral of a murdered musician, Khalifa defiantly reacted by pointing out that it didn’t matter as he wrote with his right hand.  

In a 2019 interview, Khalifa was asked why he stayed in Syria despite the threats and the dire situation of the war.

He replied: "I am staying because this is my country. I was born here, I live here and I want to die here!"

Khaled Khalifa will be buried on Sunday in Damascus.