Last summer, as the Arab Spring protests in Libya and Egypt were in full swing, a sector of the literary world was abuzz with hopes about Arabic literature. Words Without Borders, a literary magazine with an international focus, dedicated two issues to the literature coming out of the turbulence. The Moroccan novelist Ben Taher Jelloun, who published a collection of essays about the Arab Spring, predicted that there would be a creative boom in the countries whose citizens now enjoyed greater freedom.
So it’s both surprising and fitting that an author from Syria, a country where the protests haven’t been successful, has written the gem of the Arabic literature of dissent. Fadi Azzam, a journalist who has been exiled in Dubai since 2001, has published a book “Sarmada,” which is in the running for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Azzam’s book is ambitious for a début novel, and it wasn’t shocking to learn that his editor and mentor was one of the most celebrated Syrian novelists in exile, Rafik Schami. Last year, Schami was looking for a novel for Swallow Editions, a new literary series devoted to publishing Arabic-language novels by young writers and translating them into English. Schami’s books are banned in Syria, and he wanted to build a literary platform that would completely circumvent the Arab publishing world, which he believes is overly influenced by the government and oil sheiks, and is full of publishers that “have never heard of an author’s dignity.” His motto for the series would eventually become “free of oil, tedium, and dictatorship.”
The story of “Sarmada” traces the lives of three Druze women living in an isolated town in the Syrian hills—not, at first glance, the stuff of political literature. The book isn’t narrowly political and doesn’t paint a portrait of the uprisings themselves. Instead, it gives us something much more valuable: a detailed view of the entire mechanism of a culture—its connection to the land, its way of telling stories, and its idiosyncrasies.
Azzam eases us into “Sarmada” with a familiar setting—Paris in 2010—and a narrator named Rafi, whom we feel we have met before in many of our own modern novels: he’s cosmopolitan, skeptical, intrusive, a reporter. But right away his skepticism is put to the test when a woman scientist tells him that she has the soul of another woman from Sarmada, his hometown, living inside of her. This woman was brutally murdered by her brothers. Here, the narrator explains how transmigration in the Druze religion “gives the community a feeling of blood purity and unadulterated lineage because Druze souls only ever transmigrate into Druze bodies.” This is the first clue that the story won’t continue in a realistic vein. Yet the narrator’s view is still aligned with our own: “Not once in my life had I ever given the topic the slightest thought. I just considered it to be one of the many charming religious spectacles that Syria takes such pleasure in.” Still, when the woman asks him to return to Sarmada to investigate the killing, he agrees to go and listen to the townspeople’s stories.
When the setting moves to Sarmada, Azzam lets loose. While the story of Hela, the woman living inside of the scientist, is still told with the narrator’s distrustful eye and realist perspective, it soon melts into the tale of a second woman. The voice of the narrator retreats after he tells us, “I’d better disappear and let the place tell its own story. I’ll watch from a distance, silent but with every sense piqued.” Then, as if the story just couldn’t be told straight and still evoke the land, religion, and local lore of the town, the entire world of the novel shifts from realism to magical realism.
Channeling Marquez and Borges, Azzam winds the plot audaciously, bringing the story to highly surreal and disquieting places. The second story begins with an act of senseless violence: at the wedding of a townsperson to the main character of the story, Farida, a stray bullet fired in celebration ends up in the groom’s chest, killing him. As the man’s mother grieves for her son, her breasts begin to swell up with a substance called grief milk. One morning, the man’s widow Farida has a mystical dream, and when she wakes up, she walks over to her mother-in-law and slits her breasts with a razor, pouring the spurting grief milk into several bottles. Later she uses it in sweets, and feeds them to the villagers, who are all suffering from a curse of melancholia after the death of the woman’s son. Upon eating the desserts, they writhe and cry for hours before experiencing catharsis and a sense of peace. Later, in some of the graphic sex scenes that caused Azzam’s first translator to pull out of the project, she feeds the sweets to teen-age boys in her home before taking their virginities.
The story only gets more bizarre from there, but it remains rooted in the topography of the mountainous terrain and the history and culture of the Druze village. Through a conversation early in the book that the narrator has with an old man in the village, Azzam gives us justification of the book’s surrealist elements. The narrator has just responded with incredulity to the man’s claim that soon after the death of Farida’s first husband, her second husband dies in bed on their wedding night. The old man scolds him, saying, “You know, a little emotion can melt away cold reason. If you just listen and pay attention, you’ll discover how ridiculous death is, how cheap. Why would I lie?” Of course, the narrator and the old man both know the answer: he would lie because lying is sometimes the only way to express a larger truth or ask a difficult question—an old trope from oral storytelling.
Under repressive regimes, truths and hard questions are entangled with politics: Syria’s turbulent, violent history under French colonial rule and the Ba’ath Party is at the core of this otherworldly story, but surfaces only at rare, glimmering points in the narration. These large-scale political and historical events that at first seem external to the insular world of the village are absorbed and accepted into the consciousness of the characters through Azzam’s surreal devices. The beginning of Farida’s story is set shortly after the Six Day War, when “the people of Sarmada were living with a shooting pain that seemed to burn at something inside of them.” We soon understand that the violent, absurd act at the beginning of the story is a parallel to the war, and in the magical-realism realm the villagers’ pain takes a material form in the concept of grief milk. Through this and similar strange contrivances, Azzam develops the central dilemma of the book: how the member of a small, geographically concentrated sect can reconcile the effects of modern Syrian and Arab conflicts—often involving rarefied concepts like Pan-Arabism—with the traditional beliefs and culture of their community.
The world of Azzam’s Druze characters is small and seemingly not representative of Syria as a whole, considering the Druze make up only three per cent of the country’s population. But Syria’s political situation—and arguably more than a few other conflicts in the rest of the Arab world—is tied up in the struggles of minority sects like the Druze, of the people in villages like Sarmada. A fact that is central to the past rhetoric of Bashar Assad is that he belongs to the Alawite sect and supposedly protects the interests of Syria’s minority groups. Now, as the U.S. and Turkey discuss the possibility of civil war in Syria between the sects should Assad be overthrown, the major question of Azzam’s book is politically imperative. The struggle of the Syrian citizen to come to terms with the history and political truths of Syria and the interests and beliefs of his or her sect is at the heart of the story of how Syria will forge a national identity, and how any future government will achieve legitimacy. So while “Sarmada” may not be full of the immediate thrills of riots or protests, it’s politically meaningful. The novel’s gaze reaches toward an understanding of what Syria will need to grapple with in order to bring about a true Syrian Spring.
Reviewed by Alexia Nader