Book Review: The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

There are some books you wait for a long time to procure (was horrendously expensive in India) and when you do manage to get it (discarded copy from a university library in the US), you do the obvious….read it in one sitting.

I had heard/read about this book while doing my research on the Syrian civil war and had them come across this statement by the Lebanese writer, Lina Mounzer who said, “Whenever anyone asked her the question, Why the Syrian revolution?, her answer was always this book”.

While the book is classified as a work of fiction, it is not purely so, for it is based on the actual experiences of the author during his incarceration by the Assad regime from 1982 to 1994 in the dreaded Tadmur prison in the desert land, north west of Damascus. Unlike Khalifa who is a Muslim, the main character who undergoes incarceration is the Christian and atheist Musa. Reading his interview, I came to know that during his internment one of his closest friend was a Christian and in this book he merged his prison experiences with the thoughts of his Christian friend to create the character of Musa.

Like Khalifa, Musa in this novel, went off to a university in France, where he studied art and film direction. When he returned from Paris in 1982, upon his arrival he was arrested at Damascus airport. Musa was initially branded as a member of the Muslim brotherhood and subjected to severe torture. When he professed that he was a Christian and an atheist and so could not be a member of the MB, the situation actually worsened for him as the other inmates boycotted him arguing that he must be a government agent and spy while the prison officials simply ignored him. It is only later that we come to know that the main reason for his arrest was that he had made a silly joke about the President in one of the parties in Paris. (Reminded me of the 2 year incarceration and solitary confinement in the Anda cell of Aurther jail, that poet Majrooh Sultanpuri had to undergo, when he had written a poem deriding Chacha ji for trying to keep India in the commonwealth).

Written in a direct diary like literary style, the novel on the one hand with its portrayal of never ending torture, killings and brutalization filled me with deep despair, on the other hand it also provided me with a glimpse into human resilience and nobleness of character, thereby filling me with hope. In his interview Khalifa says that many of his prison inmates qualify as the finest human beings he had ever met or was likely to meet. There are poignant tales of prisoners volunteering to take the quota of lashings for other prisoners who were weak or ill, higly qualified inmate doctors helping other inmates who were sick and deep rooted friendship that developed amongst inmates which helped them tide over the unending torture and brutalization launched by prison authorities. These days I have been trying to read a bit on the mental resilience training of the Navy Seals, and must say some of the techniques that the inmates used to withstand torture and not breakdown, was no less than those practiced by the Seals. The book provides a deep insight of the psychological impact that long prison sentences and torture can have on people.

Finally, all I can say is that a book like this should be a must read for those ‘maganubhaws’ who have dulled their minds to the impact that long term incarceration, solitary confinement and torture could have on people. But I guess, I am asking them for too much. Given their level of narrow mindedness, lack of understanding and empathy, it actually is too much of an ask!

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