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Shell, The
Memoirs of a Hidden Observer
Mustafa Khalifa; translated by Paul Starkey

published 2017 • 5 1/4" x 8" • 192 pages
ISBN 9781566560221 • paperback • $15.00

* “From 1982 to 1994, Syrian topographer Khalifa was incarcerated in his country’s infamous Tadmur Military Prison, and his decision to present his experiences as fiction results in a document both haunting and bold. Perhaps only fiction could do justice to the suffering he endured, but as the narrator also notes, explaining that he resorted to an Islamist technique called mental writing to store up what he experienced, “I cannot write and say everything.” The selected scenes of beatings, torture, hunger, and executions are scalding enough. Having fatefully decided to return home from France, Khalifa’s young narrator is immediately imprisoned and accused of being a Muslim terrorist. In fact, he is Christian-raised and proclaims himself an atheist, which serves to isolate him from his scornful fellow inmates and makes his imprisonment even worse. The story arcs persuasively from the narrator’s first shocks through his steady endurance in the shell that was his prison to his survival upon release in a second shell that’s “becoming thicker and blacker.” VERDICT Highly ­recommended.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

* “Khalifa’s superb debut novel is structured as the prison diary of Musa, a Syrian who has been studying film in France for six years. He decides, against the wishes of his friends, to return home after his studies. Upon arrival, he is mysteriously thrown into a horrific desert prison (based on the real Tadmor prison) for 14 years, the setting for most of what follows. Musa announces that his family is Christian and that he an atheist, so his fellow prisoners, almost exclusively devout Muslims, ostracize him. Marginalized, Musa adapts the detached perspective of a sociologist, noting the hierarchies and patterns of prison life. In spare, lucid prose, Khalifa, a Syrian novelist- and political-commentator-in-exile, vividly describes the almost otherworldly existence of the prisoners. Told in jump cuts that mirror Musa’s film background, his diary documents not only reflect the relentless monotony and terror of imprisonment, but also the prisoners’ ingenuity: how they survive outbreaks of diseases, how they stay cool in the desert heat, and their sacrifices for each other. With echoes of Solzhenitsyn and Kafka’s The Trial, this demanding novel is an important account of the horrors perpetuated by the Syrian regime.”
—Booklist (starred review)


This compelling first novel is the astonishing story of a Syrian political prisoner of conscience, an atheist mistaken for a radical Islamist—the worst kind of enemy of the state—who was locked up for 14 years without trial. Shunned by his fellow inmates, Musa remains silent and unspoken to for the duration of his incarceration.

The novel takes the form of a diary which Musa keeps in his head and then writes it down upon his release. It’s narrated in a succinct and well-paced way, with each short chapter often recounting a stand-alone episode. In Tadmur, one of the most notorious prisons in the Middle East for human rights abuses, 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 humor and irony in the shocking events and the characters he describes. Yet even the strongest personality cannot hold out under such brutal conditions forever …

Considered by many in the Arab world a symbol of the Syrian opposition in the current bloody civil war, the novel has become the focus of many Facebook groups and online discussions aimed at exposing acts of violence and brutality committed by the state. With its political impact and its universal literary beauty, it is not an exaggeration to call it the work of a modern-day Solzhenitsyn.

With the recent publication of extensive photographic evidence of horrendous killings in Syrian prisons, this novel provides an essential perspective on the tragedy the Syrian people are living through.

Mustafa Khalifa is a Syrian novelist living in exile. Besides writing fiction, he is an eloquent and insightful political commentator on the situation in his native country.

Paul Starkey won the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Youssef Rakha’s novel The Book of the Sultan's Seal.

Praise for The Shell

“Mesmerising …”
—Publishing Perspectives

“A painful novel that calls for life; a violent novel that begs for mercy… Khalifa’s work shows that art may be proof of humanity. In my view, The Shell is a unique novel… a great creative achievement… like a magnificently directed film on paper. It is filled with pain, but the reader will eagerly follow the narrator’s footsteps until the very end.”
— Rafik Schami, bestselling author of The Dark Side of Love and Sophia

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