Five years since the war in Syria escalated, there does not seem to be any signs that the crisis will end soon.
Everyday, the media reports that the situation is deteriorating.
Millions of Syrians are living in squalid conditions and innocent civilians dying as government forces continue to fight the rebels, while thousands others risk their lives as they try to reach other countries, especially in Europe, seeking refuge.
The current chaos in Syria started as a protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial and tyrannical regime but the situation has since become complicated, what with the participation of jihadist militants in the conflict.
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But what, really, is the root of the conflict in Syria?
What has led to the systematic destruction of this country and its people? What would make a nation senselessly fight against itself; gradually lead itself down the path to obliteration?
Khaled Khalifa’s novel, In Praise of Hatred (Black Swan, 2012) is concerned with the question of the crisis in Syria and presents hatred as the root cause of the civil war.
The novel, set in Aleppo in the 1970s and 80s, recalls the reign of President Hafez al-Assad and records the distressing history of Syria while suggesting that the current crisis is a carry-over of the trend set by the senior Assad’s draconian rule.
It tells the story of a young woman, whose family is a portrait of the larger Syrian nation.
It is a family of women, bitter and seemingly lost, whose lives are characterised by a strange wait for something they do not understand.
They have to wait for men — who do not come — to set them free from the prison of cultural and religious restrictions.
To fulfil religious and cultural expectations of single women having a male patron, this group of women is watched over by a blind man.
The young narrator, a college student, joins a prayer cell which is really a group of protesters against the tyranny of the Assad regime and secularism.
She is inspired by her brother and uncle who are also rebels. The novel is a mockery of blind following of systems and rules.
It uses the motif of a veil, which locks people inside a prison of culture, religion, and ideology and weighs them down so much that they cannot question the status quo.
The matriarch of the family watches in horror as her sisters and niece gradually break away from the expected propriety of religion and family.
The novel examines how the young narrator’s hatred of other Islamic sects spurs her to join the underground movement at a tender age.
She confesses that she is so full of hatred that she sees it as a means to power. In school she is among the pious girls who hate those who seem more “worldly” — girls who desecrate their bodies.
She hates military officers who intimidate teachers. She hates the greed of the leaders. She hates the burden of having to protect and uphold the family honour.
The narrator’s involvement with the rebels gives her the desire to be a martyr for the Islamic Caliphate by fighting to eradicate the evils of the ruling regime.
Her experiences show just how hatred can be consuming — her only desire is to kill infidels.
For her and other young girls in the rebel cells, their motive is to kill members of the other sects and glorify the mujahideen.
They believe that they are fighting to reclaim Islam which has been soiled by “unbelievers.”
The novel examines the corrosive nature of hatred and sectarianism, and shows how the narrator is embarrassed by her own father’s opposition to hatred.
One of the narrator’s aunts falls in love and marries a military officer from a different sect, which in this case is the author’s own way of asking: what is the price of hatred as opposed to love?
While the narrator is busy supporting the rebel group, Aleppo is drowning in revenge murders, hatred and cruelty.
The ruling elite are determined to ensure that power remains in their hands while the opposition is determined to oust the corrupt and oppressive leaders.
At the same time, conservative Muslims, like the narrator, are determined to get rid of secular tendencies.
Part of the crisis today is that the Assad government, which belongs to the Alawite sect is being fought by the largely Sunni opposition.
The disintegration of the individual and the family in the novel is representative of the disintegration of the Syrian society.
The degeneration of morals and the collapse of the individual’s sense of honour and respect for the self are the causes of the collapse of the nation.
Khalifa explores subjects that might be considered taboo in his immediate culture — sexual relations between unmarried people, homosexuality, women not covering their bodies, drunkenness, prostitution, and so on. He mocks the illusion of virtue by showing that society exists under a fake veil of propriety and the desire to reach paradise while in actual fact living happily in hell.
The social and moral degeneration painted in the novel is not only symbolic of the corrupt nature of Assad’s government, but also the writer’s conviction that a society that is blinded by hatred is bound to degenerate morally.
The novel shows that the transition from the senior Assad’s regime to that of the son did not bring any positive change to Syria; the current president has maintained the evils of dictatorship, corruption, massacres, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and torture of citizens.
The reasons that led Syrians to rise against the father are, sadly, similar to those that have led to the current uprising against the son.
The writer condemns dictatorship, showing that dictators will do anything to hold on to power at the expense of citizens. In Praise of Hatred is about the absence or loss of love and tolerance and what happens to societies when we do not accept our differences. Hatred, at whatever level leads to violence, which in turn breeds violence.
Violence does not discriminate as seen in this case of a young girl who joins rebels and learns how to hate and attack her perceived enemies.
Conventional wisdom would have it that women are least expected to be violent but the situation in Syria, as described in the novel, is so bad that it creates non-conventional militants.
The future of Syria hangs in the balance because of hatred and conflict between Islamic sects, between the secular and the Islamists, and between ethnic groups.
This novel is a call for tolerance and peace; for a celebration of humanity as opposed to hatred.
The story may be about Syria but the lessons in it are important for humanity today.