I am starting with a new overview of a few novels about Syria, a country currently at the heart of news, often for dramatic reasons. Xavier suggested this search. In 1993, during a long overland trip in Asia, we spent a few weeks in Syria. The country was still peaceful, even if tensions were visible: bus controlled by security services agents carrying machine guns, traces of the massacres that crushed the insurrection in the city of Hama in 1982.
We visited Palmyra, since then destroyed by the barbarians from ISIL. We wandered in the bazars in Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest cities in the world. I recently read four books written by Syrian authors. All cover the period before the current civil war, but in addition to being very good novels, they offer great insights into life in Syria: its multiple religious, tribal and political fractures, how love is difficult in a very traditional society, and the daily frustrations and exactions under the iron fist of the Assad regimes.
A book which I read with a lot of pleasure is “The Dark Side of Love” by Rafik Schami, a Syrian writer living in Germany. The novel, initially written in German (“Die dunkle Seite der Liebe”) is 850 pages long, but it is a page turner. Farid and Rana come from two clans which have been hating each other for generations in a mountain village close to Lebanon. They meet secretly and love each other in Damascus. The city is the third central character in the book. Schami composed his novel like a mosaic where the Syrian history, the political struggles and repressions, the religious antagonisms, the family feuds and the daily life in Damascus’ streets are the colored stones that create the backdrop and enrich one of the most passionate love story I have ever read.
I also read the novella “Just Like a River” by Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib. First published in Arabic in 1984, the book is still very relevant. This is another difficult love story, a recurring theme in Syrian literature. But the obstacles to their love are Yussuf and Dallal’s own hesitations, their misplaced prides, their fears to commit to a « modern » love in a very traditional society. The book is very subtly written, flowing « just like a river ».
I also liked « The Silence and the Roar” written by by Nihad Sirees in 2004. In the streets of a city that is not named but which is likely Damascus, the masses are celebrating the 20 years in power of the Supreme Leader. This is a never ending series of loud marches and processions. Fathi, a famous writer tries to avoid the roar by going his girlfriend Lama’s flat and forgot it all in bed with her. But as soon as he sets foot in the street, he is taken in a whirlwind and ends up at the police station and then in a hospital. The regime even pursues him within his family circle since one of the President’s advisers is planning to marry his mother and offers him to become a spokesperson for the government. For Fathi, the only remaining issue to avoid the regime’s grip is silence.
“Sarmada”, a novel by Fadi Azzam tells the surprising stories experienced by several generations of women over the last 50 years in Sarmada, a village in the Druze Mountains. In the vein of magical realism, the book addresses the issues of forbidden love and honor killings. It appears very difficult to love freely in Syria. The book also offers an interesting window into the Druze culture, a little known heterodox Muslim sect.
For a very good article about the Syrian refugee crisis, I recommend « Ten Borders » by Nicholas Schmidle in « The New Yorker » (10/26/2015 issue). A long and well documented article which follows the Ghaith’s epic escape from Syria. He is a law student who wants to avoid the civil war and being drafted in Assad regime’s army. He is seeking to reach his brother who already made it to Sweden. He leaves behind him his wife hoping that she will be able to be reunited with him once he is established in Sweden. After long waits and many attempts, via Lebanon and Turkey, Ghaith crosses ten borders and arrives in Gothenburg. An article which gives a very human dimension to the refugee crisis.
I usually end my overviews with one or two movies. However, unless I am mistaken, decades of censorship in Syria have only allowed propaganda or poor quality productions. The documentary « A Syrian Love Story » by British director Sean Mcallister follows during five years a couple and their children who oppose the Assad regime: from jail in Syria to exile in Europe, from love to separation. This seems like a great movie, but it has not yet been released in US even as video on demand. If you have seen it, I would be happy to have your opinion. Here is the trailer: