In Praise of Hatred – book review

In Praise of Hatred by Kahled Khalifa is a novel about a young woman growing up in Syria during the time of the ruler Hafez al-Assad, who was the father of the current ruler Bashar al-Assad.


The story is told in the first person by the young woman who never gives her name. It covers a period in her life from high school through her twenties. The government is a dictatorship which uses death squad soldiers to crush any dissent. Outwardly the country seems peaceful, but there are dark forces beneath the surface.

In high school the girls divide themselves into three groups. One group is what we would consider normal high school girls. They are interested in boys, school and popular music and have no interest in politics.

The second group are the girls who have boyfriends in the death squads of the government.  Some of these girls are the  mistresses of much older men who are high ranking members of the government.  These girls walk around like they own the school. The teachers are afraid of criticizing them or even giving them bad grades. One word from these girls to their boyfriends and a group of soldiers might suddenly pick that teacher up for “questioning”.

The narrator belongs to the third group of girls who consider themselves superior to the others. They come from traditional religious families who follow all the Islamic practices, wear headscarves and keep to traditions. The story goes into great detail about how her extended family has a very regular routine of meals, mosque attendance, a stately procession to the woman’s baths. Rather than being oppressive, these routines are very comforting and give meaning and structure to her life. She does very well in school and it appears she will go to college and possibly even medical school.

Unfortunately, there is no way for the high school girls to escape what is going on around them in the country. The underlying religious and sectarian hatred in the country eventually turns to real violence and all of the young woman get caught up in it depending on what group they happen to belong to.

Due to her religious devotion the narrator in the book ends up becoming a part of one of the radical Islamist groups. It is interesting that the story never actually says which one. The love of her religion gradually turns instead to  a love of hatred itself. The hatred of other groups becomes the goal, rather than the means to an end.

From time to time in the story she questions the hatred. Many of the older people in the story keep trying to advise her that she should be trying to achieve a good life rather than a perfect form of hatred.

The book is somewhat difficult to read as it was translated from the original Arabic, and has what we consider strange and complicated names. It is also rather sad when you realize the story takes place over 35 years ago, but that hatred and violence still seem to be the driving forces in Syria.

The novel has many side stories. One of them is about the aunt of the narrator. She is from the same religious sect as the narrator, but falls in love with a death squad officer.  She refuses to stop seeing him, and he refuses to massacre people from her sect when ordered to do so. The two of them eventually run away together to a farm and live out their lives away from the hatred and violence engulfing their country.

Unfortunately the girl telling the story cannot understand her aunt or the officer.  She has gotten to a point where she cannot comprehend love. Only hatred seems pure.

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