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Celebrated Syrian author Khaled Khalifa dead at 59

Khaled Khalifa speaks during an interview with AFP at his home in the Syrian capital Damascus in 2020
— Damascus (AFP)

Syrian writer and veteran government critic Khaled Khalifa has died of cardiac arrest at the age of 59 at his home in Damascus, a close friend told AFP.

Khalifa, who hailed from Maryamin in northwestern Aleppo province, was celebrated for his novels, television screenplays and newspaper columns, and honoured with several of the Arab world's top literary awards.

He "died in his home alone in Damascus" on Saturday, said journalist Yaroub Aleesa, who had spent time with the author during his final days. "We called him repeatedly and he didn't respond. When we went to his home, we found him dead on the sofa."

Doctors at the Abbassiyyin Hospital in Damascus said the cause of death was a heart attack.

Khalifa gained fame as a writer of several popular Syrian TV series in the early 1990s.

He was known as a staunch opponent of the ruling Baath party and his columns criticising the authorities.

But despite his well-known stance, he chose to remain in the country after the 2011 civil war broke out with the repression of protests against the government.

"I am staying because this is my country," he said in a 2019 interview. "I was born here, I live here and I want to die here!"

His 2006 novel "In Praise of Hatred" was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arab Fiction -- often dubbed the Arab Booker prize -- and was translated into six languages.

The novel recounts the story of a young Syrian woman from Aleppo who escapes her sequestered life by joining a jihadist organisation.

In 2013, his novel "No Knives in the Kitchens of this City" won the Naguib Mahfouz literature prize, Egypt's top accolade for writers.

It focuses on the lives of Syrians under the rule of the Baath party headed by President Bashar al-Assad.

The writer's death sparked a wave of condolences on social media from fellow writers and members of Syria's exiled opposition.

"Goodbye, you kind man," wrote Syrian writer and academic Salam Kawakibi.

Khalifa was expected to be buried later on Sunday in Damascus, though details of the funeral had yet to be disclosed.