La Croix: Since the war broke out in Syria in March 2011, have you read differently?
Khaled Khalifa: Despite the war, I never stopped reading. Reading is so important to me, it’s been a part of my life forever. The war is also part of my life now, it’s been going on for twelve years… Consequently, I’m adapting.
At certain times, I sometimes spend hours reading in the café because there is no heating in my house, my apartment is inaccessible or I am too alone.
What dimension, in these circumstances, does reading take on? Is it a pleasure, an emergency, a fight?
K. K. : It has sad accents for me, because I can no longer share my impressions with my friends. Nearly 90% of them have left Damascus, or even Syria. Before, if I read a good book, I would tell one of them, then I would lend it to him, he would read it and we would talk about it, we would have debates. That was my life, and it was wonderful. Today, I lost those exchanges. It’s very sad.
Why, nevertheless, do you continue to read?
K. K. : Stopping reading would be like stopping eating! And then I want to learn. Even today, I’m not sure I’m a good writer. So I try to progress by reading, I analyze other people’s techniques, their words… It’s very important to me.
Since books are difficult to access today in Syria, isn’t reading also a form of combat?
K. K. : Most of the bookstores in Damascus have closed and, across all of Syria, I would say there are only three or four left. Also, new books are very expensive and we hardly have access to them. The ones we find are bad “wild” editions.
But I can bring back books when I go to Beirut, although the journey remains very complicated. It also happens that my publishing house over there sends me some. Some friends send him some for me.
You learned to read as the dictatorship of Hafez Al Assad took hold in Syria. How has this shaped your relationship to reading?
K. K. : I did not feel free to read because many books were banned, especially political works, on prisons, the secret police, the condition of the Palestinians… We had to go to Beirut, the capital of Arabic publishing in time, to get them. There was freedom there. We could find everything!
In Syria, it happened that friends brought you books in secret. Otherwise, you could buy them on the sly. We knew the tricks to supply ourselves. Living in a dictatorship, which has been my case since I was born, is that: finding strings, all the time.
In a dictatorship, is reading accompanied by fear?
K. K. : Yes. Having banned books in his library was risky. The cover had to be changed to conceal them. At my parents’ house, we couldn’t even leave them on our shelves. My brother had political activities and the secret police often came… To read these books was therefore to break a prohibition. It feels inside… It’s like defying the regime. When, with my friends, we exchanged these books, we had the very strong impression of carrying out an act of resistance.
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