"The Snail Shell": From Remembering and Surviving
Mustafa Khalifa's novel "Das Schneckenhaus" bears witness to the cruelty of Syrian prison life. The book is a great literary achievement.
This book is literature, even though Denis Scheck has recently denied it in any of his literary programs. It belongs to the large camp and prison literature as the books of Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And yet it took more than ten years to appear in German, thanks to the dedication of the small Weidle publishing house and the translator Larissa Bender.
Marion Detjen is a historian at Bard College Berlin where she supervises the scholarship program for students from war and crisis regions. Her focus is on European migration history, German-German history and the boundaries between public and private. She is a member of the editorial staff of "10 to 8". © private
In Syria, it has been in Arabic since its publication in 2008 (the first issue appeared in 2007 in French, because initially no Arab publishing trusted) in pirated copies from hand to hand (or from mobile to mobile), is considered the most important work of the Syrian exile literature and was read during the revolution as a metaphor for the state of Assad.
Mustafa Khalifa's The Snail Shell is an artfully constructed, autobiographical-documentary novel, the story of a nameless man and first-person narrator arrested at the Damascus airport in the early 1980s and martyred in the Tadmor Desert Prison: 13 years of systematic and ingenious torture and humiliation by the Assad regime and its henchmen - not just the military police, but also the punitive battalions for particularly dirty jobs and plain military service personnel stationed there for six months training in sadism.
The detainees, the narrator says, are crammed into cells for hundreds of years. On the roof of each cell stands a watchman who watches through a hole everything that is going on inside the cell. For the tortures there are rituals and arbitrary occasions: the "welcome party", the farmyard, the food distribution, the punishments. And it is killed in large numbers, in executions, through torture, illness, hunger and madness. The book bears witness to a system of rule that leaves the people subject to it no choice as a victim or perpetrator, tortured or tortured.
The described crimes are proven from numerous other sources. The Tadmor Prison was destroyed by ISIS in 2015, where for decades the Syrian regime had locked up everything that looked like an opposition and often tormented it to death. Under Hafez al-Assad, the prisoners were mainly Muslim Brothers and Leftists. His son Bashar initially closed it after he came to power, but reopened it in 2011 to detain activists there. Few have left Tadmor alive. Similar conditions in the Syrian security detention centers are evident in reports from survivors and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Little is translated so far
The systematic torture and killing of people is also known from the images of former military photographer Caesar, who photographed thousands of prisoners killed on behalf of the regime, smuggling photos from the country and providing them with international law enforcement officers. More than 80,000 people are currently considered "disappeared", people are still being abducted and held by the secret service. Since little is denied that Assad has won the war, the prisons seem to empty again, but not by releases and amnesties, but by mass executions as part of the Syrian genocide - the planned politically and demographically motivated displacement and extermination of populations.
Especially the documentary character will make the book for many an imposition. Why should one read this, if it really happens, and one does not want to imagine it for that very reason? What should one learn from experience reports and the description of horror? And when it comes to politics - is not Islamist terrorism a much worse threat? Are not the "authoritarian regimes" in the Middle East perhaps even a necessary evil to protect minorities there? Of the works in the tradition and genre of prison memories in 20th-century Arabic literature, which could show us that the state-legitimated crimes in the Middle East are ahead of Islamism, so far almost nothing has been translated into German.