By ROBERT F. WORTH
DAMASCUS,Syria _ PEOPLE still talk about what happened here in the 1980s as "the Events," as if they were too awful to describe. The Syrian military's bloody struggle with militant Islamists left at least 10,000 dead in the city of Hama, and produced a trauma the authorities do not like to hear discussed.
So when Khaled Khalifa decided to write about it in his latest novel, "In Praise of Hatred," he knew he was touching a taboo subject. The book, a Balzacian tale full of romance and murder that ranges from Afghanistan to Yemen to Syria, was promptly banned when it was first published here in 2006.
Last month, the novel, republished in Beirut in 2007, became a finalist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a new award modeled on Britain's Man Booker Prize. It is now being translated into English and other languages.
All that has given Mr. Khalifa, who is better known here for his television screenplays, a new prominence as one of the rising stars of Arab fiction, and a rare public voice on a largely forbidden topic.
"If I had won the Booker, the regime would have had a huge problem," he said with a barrel-chested laugh. "I think the culture minister breathed a big sigh when I lost." (The top prize went to an Egyptian novelist, Bahaa Taher, the éminence grise of Arab letters.)
A bearish man with a boiling corona of steel-gray hair, Mr. Khalifa, 44, has a clownish humor that undercuts his large literary ambitions. He smoked, drank and plowed through a table full of appetizers during a late-night interview at Ninar, a Damascus restaurant popular with Syrian artists and intellectuals, his long answers interrupted by bursts of raucous laughter.