A book review for the Guardian:
Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they’d attended in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into group performance of jokes, laments, myths, and conspiracies. Even the Syrians’ surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk’s-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt, and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”
Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs’ master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany. Here is the Great Syrian Novel, and its author Rafik Schami.
In “The Dark Side of Love” Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is sculpted with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty of itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveal a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.
It starts with an unsolved murder. “Knowledge is a lock,” says a policeman, “and the key to it is a question, but we’re not allowed to ask questions in this country…which is why there isn’t a single good crime novel in Syria. Crime novels feed on questions.”
Commissioner Barudi dares to ask. The answer is an epic of violent enmity between families, and between clashing ideas of love. The first idea is easily stated: “Love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart.”
‘Identity card’ means religion and sect and, more fundamentally, the all-powerful clan – that haven of solidarity and comfort which “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” In the mountain village of Mala, the Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins feud and kill for honour and revenge. In nearby Damascus, Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin prefer the approach of Syria’s greatest Sufi saint, Ibn Arabi, who cried, “Love is my religion!” Like Romeo and Juliette, or Majnun and Laila, Farid and Rana’s romance shines secretly, ill-fatedly. It is a compelling and complete love story.
Schami’s Mala is on a par with Marquez’s Macondo for colour and resonance, although nothing more magical than real life happens here – only seductions and insanities, a visit by a dangerously drunk president, a peasant uprising, a bandit siege.
Damascus, “a lost luggage office” refined and trampled by 40 civilisations over 8,000 years, is experienced through its cafes, hammams and family homes, its puppet shows, Eid festivals, and hunger riots, via the underground press, a boxing match, and a brothel. The canvas is vast and closely painted. It feels encyclopedic, in psychological observation as well as social breadth.
There are no faux-magical pyrotechnics in the telling, but richly detailed characters working through real situations, characters whose inherited wounds the reader comes to care deeply about. Each is vividly drawn, with quiet and acute intelligence. The patriarch George Mushtak is an elemental force. So too is his philandering, repenting son, Elias. Farid, who we know best of all, grows by enduring a tyrannous father, Israeli bombs, and a ‘political’ prison camp.
“The Dark Side of Love” is a fiction which accurately (if selectively) documents Syrian social history. Its sweep reaches from 1907 to 1970, through the French occupation, the chaotic coup years, the rise of the Ba’ath, and the disastrous June war. Farid and Rana swim on the great currents of 20th Century Syrian thought – Communism, feminism, nationalism, Islamism – and witness the poisoning of the waters. Farid’s torture scenes are painfully, brilliantly narrated. Relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between the countryside and the city, between men and women, and between political factions, are explored with subtlety and honesty.
It is translated very well from the German, although annoying Germanic orthography remains – so that Yusuf is written ‘Jusuf’ and the Damascus quarter Muhajireen becomes ‘Muhayirin’. And perhaps a glossary of dictators’ names would have been useful. Schami disguises the actual characters with names whose comic impact will be lost on those who don’t speak Arabic. Abdul Nasser, for instance, is called Satlan, which means ‘stoned’.
The weakest part of the book is its title. “The Dark Side of Love” illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel’s structure is as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as ‘War and Peace’.