I have a confession: I don’t like great literature. If a book won a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, I probably hated it. My reading tastes are unabashedly plebian. I like books that say exactly what they mean and don’t leave you with a feeling of hopelessness.
In Praise of Hatred by Syrian author Khaled Khalifa didn’t win a Nobel, but it was the sort of book that would: a bleak story with its meaning wrapped up in layers of poetry and symbolism and ambiguity. It doesn’t hurt that the author lives in a war zone and that his book had to be published secretly and was promptly banned in its home country. Critics loved it. Me? Not so much.
It was a struggle to finish the book before it was due back at the library, but I soldiered on because I felt I could learn something about Syria, where so many are suffering and dying for reasons I don’t understand.
I have another confession: when the media covers the war in Syria, I read the headlines and skip the story. If it’s a particularly interesting headline, I might go so far as to read the first paragraph. I just don’t know enough about Syria to understand the significance of a particular battle in Homs, and it’s hard to care when both sides seem to be the villains. I’d be glad for the war to end, but it’s not like I’m rooting for anyone in particular to win.
The headlines tell me all the news I care about: Is it over yet? How many refugees are there? Where are they going? Are we on the same side as the Russians?
In Praise of Hatred helped humanize the war for me. The novel tells the story of a nameless young Syrian woman in Aleppo in the early 1980s when religious extremists mounted a bloody resistance movement and were brutally suppressed by the Assad regime. Sound familiar? Today’s war recycles the exact same plot… on steroids.
The narrator describes her “stagnant world” of “choking isolation” in which women are “animated dirt.” She drifts between the homes of various family members, her monotonous existence rarely broken up by more than the women’s weekly walk to the public baths led by a blind perfumer (probably a symbol of something deep that went over my head.)
Empty of love and meaning, the girl embraces hate to fill the void and joins a jihadi group. Hate makes her feel alive and gives her a sense of purpose. “I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me,” she says. “I realized that hatred was worthy of praise, as it lives within us exactly as love does.”
This young woman’s story was a reminder to me that wars are more than global events; they are millions of individual stories woven together. Historians describe the sweeping social causes of a war, but the individual motivations—what drives one person to take up a cause—may boil down to something as simple as a need for love. It was a reminder of the power of love and kindness to change a person’s life; and that if enough lives are changed, we may change history.