The Shell opens in 1982 with its young protagonist returning to Syria from his film studies in Paris. He rejects his girlfriend’s pleas to stay in France because his home needs him, and he misses its streets, and “in my own country I’ve got rights.”
He is arrested at Damascus airport. Only many years later does he learn the reason for his detention—reportedly he’d made “remarks disparaging to the president” at a Parisian party.
He is sent to the “Desert Prison” at Tadmor, or Palmyra, where the Assad regime consigned the Islamists and leftists who challenged it in the 1980s. Tadmor’s 10,000 inmates “contained the highest proportion of holders of university degrees in the entire country.” Very many died there. In 1980, a thousand were murdered in one day.
This is (with reservations) a true story. Mustafa Khalifa has transformed his own dreadful experience into a bitter classic of Syria’s burgeoning ‘prison literature’ genre. In prison, denied a pen, Khalifa practised “mental writing.” He made his mind a tape recorder, he explains, and then “downloaded” to paper over thirteen years later, when he wasn’t entirely the same person. And he won’t download everything, he warns, for “that requires an act of confession.” So The Shell is a fictionalized memoir. Published in Beirut in 2008, it was widely admired in Arabic, and is now admirably translated to English by Paul Starkey.
It’s a tale of arbitrary victimization. Accused of Muslim Brotherhood membership, the narrator tells a guard he’s not only of Christian family, but an atheist too. “But we’re an Islamic country!” declares his tormenter, and the beating recommences.
Categorized with the Islamists, he must share their dormitory. His atheism means he is ostracized. In response to the hatred of both jailors and jailed he retreats into his metaphorical shell. “I opened a window in the hard wall of the shell and began to spy on the dormitory from the inside.”
Certain fundamentalists want to murder him, but the Sufis and quietists dilute their influence. Also among the prisoners are the “Fedayeen Brigade,” strong young men striving for martyrdom who take on the tasks and punishments allocated to the weak, acting with “great sincerity and an abandon that sprang from deep faith.” The Islamists rejoice on their way to execution. “I don’t believe that such bravery could be found anywhere else or in any other human group,” Khalifa remarks, providing one way of understanding the current prominence of jihadism. The bravest survive longest in the prisons of dictatorship, as in battle.
In the fifteen-by-six-meter dormitory, over 300 men spend twelve hours a day sitting, and twelve lying down. A guard watches through a skylight. Save the paralyzed and blinded, they must walk everywhere with closed eyes. Subject to epidemic, starvation, and casual massacre, they’re slashed while being shaved and whipped on their way to the bathroom. Prayer is a crime punishable by death.
These closely observed and brutally managed men hone their own skills of observation and social management in turn. They communicate in whispers, and by morse code between dormitories. They memorise the Quran as well as the “register” of prisoners. One stores the names and details of 30,000 men, mostly dead. Doctors among the prisoners perform emergency surgery, without anaesthetic, on the others. (The official prison doctor enjoys murdering his charges.)
Khalifa delivers fascinating observations on the fierce enmities and friendships (and sexual sublimations) expressed in this constrained environment. He also makes a bleak statement on human nature, concerning how easily, and how low, authoritarian systems will induce people to stoop. Officers arrive by helicopter to give innocent verdicts on children arrested by mistake—who remain in prison nevertheless. Mass hangings are also ordered. Newly arrived guards vomit at the sight of executions and torture, yet within a few weeks they’re engaging with wild enthusiasm and humor.
Perhaps the book’s most disturbing section concerns the narrator’s eventual release (after some months of being passed between rival security agencies) into “what prisoners called the world of freedom.” For him and his fellows, there is no redemption in the traumatic aftermath of imprisonment.
“Here … there was fear of another kind, as well as revulsion, anger and loathing. Together they fashioned an extra shell, thicker, stronger and darker. Because the hope for something better was only found in the first shell! In the second shell there was nothing except… nothingness.”
This is the nothingness that Syrians tried to escape in 2011, and which they are being returned to today.
If you had to choose one text to understand the violent underpinnings of dictatorship in Syria, and its grievous effects on society even in times of peace, The Shell would be it. The novel’s relentless detail makes it a devastating and gripping read. Plainly told, with an acuity and unsettling lucidity reminiscent of Primo Levi, it lingers in the mind long after the last page.