My quiet, isolated retreat in Zurich

Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa shares his thoughts on isolation during a six-month stay in Zurich, as part of a creative writing programme.

Khaled Khalifa.
Getty / AFP / Majalla
Khaled Khalifa.

My quiet, isolated retreat in Zurich

Zurich: In less than a week, I’ll be leaving Zurich and heading back to Damascus. Ever since I began to pack my bags, a question has haunted me. What’s left of cities when we leave? Do they infiltrate our memories and daydreams?

Surely, I would have to leave to find out. Alas, I digress. First, let’s rewind to the beginning.

I arrived to Zurich a few days after New Year’s Eve, on a cold January night.

The city was silent and still. The Limmat River was dark, with traces of snow lingering on its banks. I’d never imagined living there for more than a few days, but I was excited at the prospect.

In my experience, Zurich is full of contradictions – brimming with signs that shatter my expectations.

The first time I visited in 2020, I was on the German-speaking leg of my book tour and was scheduled for a reading of my novel, “Death is Hard Work”. My friend, translator Larissa Binder, was by my side.

During the event, a woman in her nineties rose from her seat and asked if she could share her story. She was in a hurry; she had to catch a train back to her village soon.

According to the woman, she had outlived the Second World War and had held out hope that someone would one day write about her, but they never did.

“Then, all these years later, you came along and wrote about me,” she said, pointing in my direction. “I’m Bolbol,” she added, the name of the protagonist in my book.

That was it. She left, but her words still ring in my ears today.

My second visit to the city was in 2022, to promote “No One Prayed Over Their Graves”. Zurich was the third and penultimate stop on my tour.

During a book signing, a woman in her fifties came up to me and explained that she had left all my books at home; she asked me to sign a blank sheet of paper instead. I obliged.

Then, she opened her palm to reveal 10 Swiss Francs. I soon understood that she meant for me to take the money. I was embarrassed as I tried to explain that I didn’t need it; the host and the publisher had already paid us enough.

But after ten attempts at dissuading her, a tear escaped the corner of her eye. “You have to take it; it will bring me good luck,” she said, just as someone behind her chimed in, agreeing.

I accepted it, and when I returned home, I gifted it to my friends in Damascus, raising a toast in honour of that kind reader.

To me, ignoring such signs is inconceivable. I’m a firm believer in symbols and signals; my childhood was governed by similar concepts, thanks to my mother.

After she passed away, her legacy of good omens turned into a world of hope, which boiled down to one simple idea: kind-hearted people will inevitably contribute to the goodness of humanity.

To me, ignoring such signs is inconceivable. I'm a firm believer in symbols and signals. My childhood was governed by similar concepts, thanks to my mother. 

The rhythm of a city

Everything in Zurich is quiet. The city marches to its own hushed beat, eventually becoming one with you.

I've always thought that cities nestled by riverbanks have their own definitions of time. I noticed this in Cairo, Boston, Deir Ezzor, and Baghdad. The weight of time in each city differs greatly. Eternity seemed to be an important part of understanding time; in Zurich, you can feel eternity everywhere.

Didier Marti / Getty Images
Sunset over Zurich's old town with the Limmat River.

Everything moves slowly here. It never rushes but never stops. By the first week, this became abundantly clear. Save for weekends, the city sleeps early; cafes, pubs and streets are virtually deserted after 10 pm.

This was my third sign: I was being offered a chance to enjoy a long, isolated retreat.

The idea of embracing solitude had occurred to me before. Three years earlier, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I revelled in the seclusion of my small house near the sea.

I'd wished I had lived my entire life in such tranquillity; time expanded, evenings passed by without hurry, and daybreak slithered slowly out of the night sky like a thread slipping between your fingers.

Han'na and the lake

I've often thought that writing "No One Prayed Over Their Graves" changed me. Ten years of living with Han'na, my protagonist had made me resemble him more and more.

I thought of my renewed urge to contemplate nature, and I often pondered his final moments, in which he chose to dive into the river and vanish.

In autumn in Zurich, I sat alone on the terrace, surrounded by silence and darkness, staring at a particular spot in the sea that reflected a new colour each moment. To my amazement, I discovered it's possible to live without the daily ruckus of humans.

To my amazement, I discovered it's possible to live without the daily ruckus of humans.

Could it be that I had had enough of crowds and noise? Am I simply too old for the commotion? Is this, perhaps, the prelude to my return to my family home in the village, to be near the graves of my ancestors, to choose my own grave near my mother's for when it all ends?

Every night, I would walk along the banks of the Limmat River until I arrived at the lake, thinking that Han'na might emerge from the water. A century should be enough time for him to reach Zurich from his village of Hosh Hanna.

Roman Sandoz / Getty Images
Ariel night shot of Lake Zurich.

I would wander further, so slowly that I would feel as if I had been born there. Sometimes, I would only need four steps to catch the tram. Instead, I'd wait another seven minutes for the next tram, exalted in the ecstasy of slow-paced living, which Zurich tells me is the key to its people's happiness.

I'd think, sometimes, of how hectic it is in the Grand Central Terminal in New York, where you have to run to catch your train; time is so cruel in the Big Apple.

In Zurich, tram and train stations embody serenity. You don't have to worry if you miss your ride. The next one would be there soon.

As for me, my exercise in solitude started in earnest on my third day in the city.

Slowly, I'd wake, have coffee, make breakfast, reply to messages, and then stroll to the river until I reached the Literaturhaus (literature house).

Inside, the vast, calm library hall would welcome me, and I'd take my regular seat. Through the windows, I'd glimpse the sky, rain, and snow, but still, I'd feel warm.

Within days, the faces around me became familiar ones, and I would greet them before getting to work.

Monotony becomes you

At night, I'd retrace my steps back home. There, I made food and turned the characters (of the novel I'm working on) over in my head, inspired by the wonderful stillness that surrounded me.

Two weeks in, the rhythm of my life started to mirror the monotony of the city. My lessons in isolation began to pick up steam. I contemplated the last five years of my life and how they had changed me, but that ship had sailed; the past was but a memory now.

Two weeks in, the rhythm of my life started to mirror the monotony of the city. My lessons in isolation began to pick up steam. 

Every day, I would see the Limmat in a new light. I would acquire a new skill from my solitude. I wondered why thoughts of Damascus only appeared in the mornings and evenings but not during the day. Many questions were left unanswered, but I wasn't particularly eager to keep looking.

Before arriving in Zurich, I had the notion that the novel I have been writing for four years must be finished. I was terrified of writer's block, which loomed over me many times in my career. But after my time at the Literaturhaus, the words seemed to flow, strong and clear, like the waters of the Limmat themselves.

The nightmares didn't subside completely. They were less frequent but more intense. This was standard fare for those of us who had lived next door to death for so many years.

But there's no time here, amid my soothing retreat in Switzerland, to relive those memories of Damascus. I was not running away – I just wanted to enjoy the temporary reprieve that Zurich offered me.

But there's no time here, amid my soothing retreat in Switzerland, to relive those memories of Damascus. I was not running away – I just wanted to enjoy the temporary reprieve that Zurich offered me.

Then came the Turkey–Syria earthquake in February, taking its revenge on me. Suddenly, it felt ridiculous to be far away from the bodies of my loved ones. For three consecutive days, I wept on my own. I walked along the river that I had grown to know and saw nothing but a bleak torrent staring back.

Tears would run their own rivers down my face. Fortunately, the cold weather stopped others from studying my face too closely. But I wasn't content to be far away from home. Sharing in the tragedy of death with those you love can afford you a deep solace that distance cannot provide.

A few days after I arrived in the city, all those days ago, a friend of mine stood in the middle of Bahnhofstrasse – one of the world's most expensive streets – and tapped the ground with his shoe. "All the world's gold is under this street," he told me. "Our stolen gold, too?" I asked, to which he replied, "Oh, most certainly."

Andrew Merry / Getty Images
Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich.

I suppose that's the other face of this city; the savage one that disappears and cannot easily be found.

A new myth, I suppose, to add to my thoughts on the city. The city that I will depart from in a few days, so I can go back to my own dark world, which I dearly miss. But I have no doubt that this long exercise of solitude in Zurich will leave a permanent trace on my soul, body, and life.   

Many lessons later, I discover that isolation can take the form of a noisy life – new, sweet and hectic, all at once.

font change

Related Articles