“The Bear Shrine” .. Michael Kilo as a novelist

Many of us have known the Syrian fighter and political writer Michel Kilo (1940-2021) as a storyteller as he tells, in an interview with the journalist Zeina Yaziji, one of the most influential stories in the Syrian conscience, because it is a story that sticks to and resembles the fate of the country as a whole. It is the story of a child who was born in a dungeon, who does not know what a bird is or what a tree is, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he does not even know what the sky is. A tale that brings to mind the story of Emir Kusturica’s film, “Underground” (1995), in the scene of the young man who sees the sun for the first time, who was born and lived underground; While his father asks the driver to take him to Yugoslavia, the driver tells him that Yugoslavia, his country, no longer exists. This touching tale, coming from the world of cinema, can take place exactly in Syria.

The late daughter publishes the novel “Mazar al-Deb”, recently published by “Dar Al-Jadeed” in Beirut, with an introduction about the heartbreak of the lost manuscript and the lost homeland for Kilo. Because he wrote this novel between 1988 and 1990, then it seems that it was lost in circumstances that the daughter of the late, who found it months after her father’s death, does not remember. Thus, Kilo wrote his first novel in the years of publishing the first works of prominent Syrian novelists such as Mamdouh Azzam and Fawaz Haddad. In the novel, which he left in manuscript, Michel Kilo approaches the Syrian rural environment with an approach that assures his reader of how far the political struggle has kept him away from his literary path – even though his novel itself revolves in the space of the political story.

A novel about tyranny, specifically that which takes a sacred character

For a writer who is only familiar with a political writer, politics casts its shadow over the readers of his literary work. But Bear Shrine is a novel at the end, not just a lost manuscript. It is an ideal application of the saying of the novelist Hani Al-Raheb (1939 – 2000), one of the most experimenters in the Syrian novel, in his talk about the peculiarity of the Syrian countryside environment, as he saw that magical realism is translated locally by talking about shrines. Michel Kilo’s novel is actually a novel about shrines, an attempt to write magical realism using the vocabulary of the local environment by talking about the springs that move from their places, and the transformation of beings, such as the beautiful girl who turns into a hyena. These are ancient transformations, which we read in the poet Ovid’s book: “Metamorphoses”. The lizard that the girl has become is not an animal without thinking or pain, but is punished by an unseen will for reasons that Kilo does not mention, except for her beauty.

The daba leaves her daughter with a farmer, and asks him, in addition to caring for her daughter, to give alms a bottle of oil in her name at the shrine of Sheikh Yahya, to have mercy on her condition and lift the curse on her. These are details, if they seem marginal, but they come out of the pure environment of the Syrian countryside, and their roots go back to the Greeks. As for the newborn Kulthum, she is also an example of the charming women who, with their beauty, create the history of their peoples.

Kilo’s novel is suitable as a study in his literature. Therefore, it would not be surprising to know that she is talking about tyranny, and tyranny that takes on a religious character in particular. The inspiring leader in the village of Mazar al-Deb is not a politician or a descendant of a ruling family, but rather a sheikh, and in fact he is a charlatan. The text is the story of the kidnapping of the village, which is accomplished by the Antichrist with the help of a number of followers, and they are followers of the extent that he granted them the powers and authorities over others, including humans, stones and trees.

A text confirming how far politics has kept the writer from his literary path

As for the regression of humans themselves and their unreasonable submission, Michel Kilo arranged this with the knowledge of the politician, and when he wrote his manuscript, he had tours in prisons, work, political theorizing and translating intellectual books, in addition to his close experience and knowledge of the details of the lives of the people in the villages of Lattakia, where he grew up. Which made the kidnapping of the village more like guidelines for the industry of subservience and oppression of people. But Kilo, on the other hand, with the sensitivity of an artist, made beauty the engine of events; Jamal Kulthum, who captures the hearts of the villagers with her charm and the tragedy of the mysterious disappearance of her mother. The disappearance that the village elders referred to the legend of a hyena inhabiting the cave among the rocks.

Kulthum also disappears within a plot like a puzzle, and the misfortunes alternate for the people of the village for six days, when they are invaded by wolves and snakes, they are adjacent to the wilderness, or, rather, the wilderness is their home. Then Kulthum appears, and Sheikh Hamdan saves her by stipulating that he marry her. With his heroic act, he excludes – for the residents – another current in the village, the current of his opponents, who are miserable at the ends. Sheikh Hamdan gradually controls the people of the village by erasing their memories and reshaping their relationships, as if renewed loyalty, or one that renews itself in an eternal way, assumes in a political writer, such as Kilo, the absence of memory. Alliances change and yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends, or vice versa. Then we discover that Sheikh Hamdan was the one who kidnapped Kulthum from the beginning, and he was the one who rescued her, and he was also the one who destroyed her beauty.

Michel Kilo’s novel is a revealing text, which we read today with a time shift of nearly three decades. It is an event as delayed as its discovery. The writer, who dealt with the Syrian countryside, dealt with magical realism on the one hand, and on the other hand, he showed the reality of subjugating man and making him submissive in the most severe manner.

In the novel, a missing page reminds us that it is a manuscript recovered from pre-revolutionary times, despite the awareness of what motivates the groups, and it is in the “Bear Shrine” an aesthetic awareness, as if the group, which lives there, were looking for someone to save camels as a value. Which led to their fate in front of the gang that rules them. But what is beauty if it is not a quest for freedom? Freedom of belief, thought and opinion. Kilo was an example of all this, and in his restored narrative he did not limit what his followers knew of positions and opinions, especially before the collapse – with the setback of the revolutions – every aesthetic that was expected.

* A novelist from Syria