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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


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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