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)
- The Shell features as part of our autumn 2013 Arabic reading group.
- For more, read Shareah Taleghani’s review in the Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, or Anne-Marie McManus’ review in Jadaliyya.
- The Shell has been translated into French by Stéphanie Dujols, and is available as La Coquille.
- You can order the book in Arabic from the Arabic Book Shop here.