We are deeply saddened by the passing of Khaled Khalifa, an extraordinary novelist, poet, screenwriter, and human being who often wrote about the heartrending realities of living through Syria’s civil war.
The IIE Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) was honored to support Khalifa during his year in residency at Harvard University in 2015-16. During the IIE-SRF fellowship, he focused on writing his fifth novel, Death Is Hard Work, which describes Syria’s civil war through the eyes of three fictional characters whose predicaments ring with the truth of Khalifa’s lived experience. The novel was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Khalifa also began his most recent book, No One Prayed Over Their Graves, while at Harvard. The novel, which was released in July, depicts multiple generations living in 19th and 20th century Syria who experience devastating changes and forge friendships across religious and ethnic lines. Read The New York Times’ review here. Khalifa’s novels have been banned in Syria.
“The Scholars at Risk Program at Harvard University mourns the passing of the remarkable Khaled Khalifa, who was a vibrant member of our academic and artistic communities during his year as a visiting writer in the Department of English. Being able to witness Khaled’s practice as a literary artist (a daily and nightly presence in libraries and cafés throughout Harvard Square) and to experience his indomitable spirit, his sense of humor, and his love of people were gifts to all of us who had the opportunity to know him,” wrote Jane Unrue, Program Director of Harvard Scholars at Risk.
After one year of the IIE-SRF fellowship, Khalifa returned to Syria, where he lived the rest of his life. He passed away on September 30, 2023, at his home in Damascus. BBC News, The Guardian, and Voice of America are among the media outlets paying tribute to the acclaimed writer upon his passing. Lina Sinjab wrote the following for BBC News:
“In an interview for a short film I directed in 2019, [Khalifa] told me that even though he felt like an exile in his own country, he couldn’t start a new life somewhere else. ‘This is my home, my country, where my mother’s grave lies,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be somewhere else. I don’t want to create new memories.’ He was constantly worried that he would die as a stranger somewhere else in the world and always wanted his friends to return to Damascus. On Monday, he was buried in Damascus surrounded by dozens of his friends and loved ones, with a crowd cheering and celebrating his life with tears and clapping. Khaled touched countless people and will always be remembered for his way with words and for his loving heart.”
Khalifa’s legacy lives on through his works and in our hearts. Watch “Exiled at Home” to hear Khalifa describe life in Damascus amidst the Syrian crisis: