Mustafa Khalifa

3. Mustafa Khalifa

Mustafa Khalifa (b.1948) is a Syrian author. He went to university in France, where he studied art and film direction, and was arrested at the Damascus airport when he returned from Paris. From 1982-1994, Khalifa was held without trial at various state security prisons, including the infamous Tadmur Military Prison, a detention center described as a “kingdom of death and madness” by poet Faraj Bayraqdar and the “absolute prison” by dissident Yassin al-Haj Salih. The Shell is his first and only book, and has been lauded as one of the finest examples of Arabic prison literature.

The Shell (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2008) is a gripping memoir, written in spare, stripped-down prose punctuated by introspective, poetic reflection. In it, the first-person narrator describes being apprehended by state security and the twelve years in prison that follow. He details the brutal torture at the hands of the prison guards and military police, as well as the social fabric of prison life. Early on, Khalifa tells the guards that he is a Christian, hoping they will understand that their accusation that he is working with the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly false. Yet with true catch-22 logic and a belief in the infallibility of Syria’s state intelligence, the guards tell him that if he has been arrested, it must be for good reason, and as a Christian accused of working for the Brotherhood, he is doubly a traitor. As a professed atheist, Khalifa is ostracized by his fellow inmates, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who suspect he may be a spy planted among them by the state. Tortured by the guards and shunned by the other prisoners, he retreats further into himself, forming a protective shell around himself for which the book is named.

Read Mustafa Khalifa’s 2012 editorial: ‘What if Bashar Assad Wins?

Featured Reading Group Title: القوقعة (Al-Qawqa’a – The Shell)

4. The Shell

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  1. Zvone says:

    A whole translation of the book would be welcome. I was moved by its parts being already translated into English.

  2. nour952013 says:

    Actually I did read the novel in arabic and I wish that you or the person who have the responsibility are going to publish it in English, so the people and rest of the world will know the reality of what’s happening in prisons. Also, this case “prisons” is one of the most important reasons behind the syrian revolution!

  3. I’ve had this novel in my head ever since I finished reading it, in tears! It’s the astonishing story of a Syrian political prisoner, an atheist mistaken for a radical Islamist, the worst kind of enemy of the state. He is then shunned by his fellow inmates and remains silent and unspoken to for over 12 years of incarceration. The novel takes the form of a diary which Musa keeps in his head and then writes down in later years. It’s narrated in a succinct and well-paced way, with each short chapter often recounting a stand-alone episode. In one of the most notorious prisons in the Middle East for human rights abuses, Tadmur, the mood is naturally bleak at times and yet often very beautifully captured. The narrator, a young graduate at the start, is defiant and stoical, and somehow able to pick out humour and irony in the shocking events and the characters he describes. Yet even the strongest personality cannot hold out under such brutal conditions forever… For a detailed synopsis and review, see my blog:

  4. NYC Reading Group says:

    - Readers were intrigued by the concept of an ‘unwritten’ journal and the role of memorization in creating this diary.
    – They found the theme of adaptation compelling – Khalifa was forced to adapt to his environment in prison. But what is the cost of adaptation? Nasim is horrified by how inured Khalifa had become to the executions he watched through the hole in the prison wall, and when they are released from prison, neither one can adjust to life on the outside.
    – Some readers commented that this book fits into a broad tradition of prison memoirs in Arabic and Farsi. One example is ‘That Smell & Notes from Prison,’ by Sonallah Ibrahim, which was published this year to a great reception. Others said it reminded them of Holocaust memoirs they have read. “But even so, it stayed fresh for me,” said one reader.
    – Readers wondered where the line between fiction and reality is – is the narrator a character based on Khalifa’s experience? Or is it the book a straight memoir of Khalifa’s time in prison? If the lines are blurred, could we think of the book in the same vein as ‘The Things They Carried,’ by Tim O’Brian? How do we think about ‘truth’ in reference to atrocities faced in a place like Tadmur?
    – The book is especially pertinent now, given that Tadmur prison was reopened in 2011.
    – Group members who read the book in Arabic commented that the prose was very different in style to typical Arabic writing, with short, staccato sentences.
    – Given that the main character is an atheist, imprisoned with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, readers felt the theme of religious beliefs and tolerance would resonate widely if the book were translated. “When I finished the extract, I thought – this could have been me,” said one reader. Others thought that perhaps the narrator’s positionality as a Christian and an outsider in the prison could give Western readers of the book in translation an ‘in’ to understanding the situation through his eyes.
    – When asked, “Would you read this book in English?” people in the discussion group responded:
    – “Yes – especially now that I’m interested in this specific prison.”
    – “I would read it both to learn more about the political situation in Syria, and for more exposure to Syrian writing. I’ve never read a book by a Syrian author before.”
    – “Yes – the book has a strong literary side, and would also attract the Syria-watchers. The multiple readings are what makes this strong literature.”
    – “Personally, yes. Although this might be a book that many people start and few finish.”
    – “Probably yes.”
    – “I am less at sea with this book than with Hani al-Rahib’s ‘The Epidemic.’ The story is contained to the prison, and not needing a broad knowledge of Syrian history means I’m not missing out, and makes this book more accessible to me as a foreign reader.”
    – “Yes. Since the memoirs are in diary form, they would be easy to pick up and read in smaller doses. The fact that the book is broken up into digestible pieces makes a story that might be undigestible (given the torture) accessible to readers.”

  5. LhB says:

    I read the novel in Arabic and thought it was very accessible linguistically and culturally. As someone else wrote above, the story being mainly contained to the prison means that foreign readers won’t be totally lost without knowing much about Syria.There were certainly graphic sections, but the story thoroughly held my attention. In some ways, I think the book is all the more powerful for having included the descriptions of torture and disease. I only read parts of Hani al-Rahib’s ‘The Epidemic’, but I felt like this was a much more enjoyable story. The religious dynamics were very interesting, and I imagine Western audience would also be intrigued by them. It is certainly not a happy story. I found the ending to be somewhat more depressing than I was expecting. Overall, I liked it and would like to see my friends and family read it in English.

  6. Trevor G says:

    I hope this gets published in English. I’d really like to read it.

  7. Firas says:

    I have read it in Arabic and I can’t wait to see it published in English, as there’s many people who have heard about it and they can’t wait until they can read it in English.

  8. Luke says:


  9. Stefan Tobler says:

    Thank you everyone for so many interesting discussions around this book, online and offline!
    Good news: the book is now out in Paul Starkey’s English translation from Interlink Publishing.


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