Rafik Schami: Damascus Nights

“Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the track of its steps… only writing has the power to move a voice through time, and make it as immortal as the gods.”

In an attempt to read something that would get my mind off Philippine politics, I sought asylum at my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent shelf. This is one of the books from a hefty stack that a bookseller set aside for me because he knows of my current preferred literary flavors and reading project. And sure enough, I could hardly put this one down as soon as I started!

It is about a storyteller who loses his voice and the stories that allowed him to retrieve it.

As much as it is a wonderful reflection on writing and storytelling, Damascus Nights is, as you may have already guessed, a play on the Arabian Nights. But Rafik Schami makes the Arabian Nights what I would have preferred it to be! The fantastical quality of the original is still there, but he allows you to feel, smell, and hear the Syria before the humanitarian disaster, the lively early to mid-20th century Damascus, while weaving a social commentary on Damascene life, exploring identity and exile, foreign affairs, corruption, and a none too subtle criticism of its rulers! This turned out to be excessively political — without losing its humor and lightness!

Nevertheless, page 108 made me stop in my reading tracks. It is where an old man is insulted by an official, but his son who owns a teahouse begs him to refrain from retaliating: “‘That would ruin me,’ he said, ‘they’d shut down the place within hours.’ Someone would plant a handful of hashish somewhere, you see, or else a book by Lenin. The police would show up an hour later, and they’d find the hashish and the Lenin exactly where the man from the secret police had stashed them. The place would be closed and its proprietor thrown in prison for ten or twenty years.” Red-tagging and this so-called drug war abused to punish political or personal critics are some of the oldest tricks in the book, my friends. I will not write anything else on the matter. Even in reading, you cannot escape from something you care about.

Rafik Schami is another proof of the claim that we are missing so much as readers if we cease from exploring the literary wonders of this region. And isn’t his About the Author section the most charming you’ve ever encountered?

“…is an award-winning author who used to be a baker but didn’t like the flour and early hours. Since giving up baking, he has tried his hand at chemistry to discover the formula for immortality. What he found was that he could only do that through writing, because only literature lives forever.”

Excuse me as I go hunt for more books by Rafik Schami…

The Beekeepers

Try as we might to hope that the two apian titles speak only of positive lessons from bees — of how theirs is a society where each one functions for the good of the entire colony, of how they continue to work even when everything around them is dying — I am afraid they don’t.

Two beekeepers of neighboring nations; one real, the other fictional. Both written by women; one an Iraqi journalist and poet, the other a novelist who volunteered in refugee centers, herself a daughter of Cypriot refugees.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar is Abdullah Shrem. When DAESH (ISIS) began terrorizing Yazidi communities and abducting their women including Abdullah’s sister, he took advantage of his knowledge of the terrain and select personal contacts to rescue and smuggle women back to safety. Each time he saved a captive woman, he felt that he was also saving his sister.

Among the stolen women was Nadia Murad, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded the prize.

Dunya Mikhail initially inserts poems into a journalistic approach and recounts distressing interviews with the rescued women who were sold, beaten, and raped repeatedly, but who nonetheless opened up to the author so that she could write about their suffering. “It’s important that your book see the light of day, so that the world will know what’s going on here.” The journalistic eventually veers into the poetic, and I feel that this is one of the books from the region that will endure not only as an overwhelming account but also as a literary work.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the fictional Nuri Ibrahim, but through him and the plight he shares with his blind wife, Christy Lefteri expresses the unspeakable realities and consequences of war, of lives ended, uprooted, wasted, abused, and destroyed.

“War,” writes Dunya Mikhail, “comes with various names but with only one face.”

Even though it seems that love and hope is universal, unfortunately, so is war.

“The problem isn’t that the world is going to end, but that it continues without any change.” — Nadia Murad

Zeynab Joukhadar: The Map of Salt and Stars

“People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?”

“If you don’t know the tale of where you come from, the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.”

“Things change too much. We’ve always got to fix the maps, repaint the borders of ourselves.”

“He motioned to the shelves of books, their spines polished gold, tawny brown, and russet leather. “Anyone who wants companionship and knowledge will find what they seek here,” he said. “We are among friends.”

“People think that stories can be walled off, kept outside and separate. They can’t. Stories are inside of you.”

“Then stories map the soul,” Rawiya said, “in the guise of words.”

“Don’t forget, stories ease the pain of living, not dying.”

“Their broken places remind me of how contagious pain is.”

“Is pain poisonous?”

“But the top of my head is pulsing, and my fingers are trembling, and in my head I am counting the broken families I have seen. I am counting the missing fathers and the buried brothers, giving form and breath to those who were left behind…”

“Wealth is no substitute for belonging.”

“Is the world nothing more than a collection of senseless hurts waiting to happen, one long cut waiting to bleed?”

* * *

There are books that are intellectually satisfying, and then there are those that pierce your heart to the core and put your anxieties and problems into perspective. These two belong to the latter. Reading Ahdaf Soueif’s and Elif Shafak’s cerebral women prior to this did not make the 12-year-old narrator seem less profound. In true Arabian Nights fashion, which I find brilliant, this has a story within a story; but these books are, indeed, a starting point for empathy and education on the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Iranian’s remark to the Turkish in Three Daughters of Eve kept playing in my mind, “Lucky you! If you are homesick, it means you have a home somewhere.”

Alia Malek: The Home That Was Our Country

Syria came to international attention in 2013 because of the refugee crisis. Since then, I have been searching for a book that would cover more than its current conflict and tell me about Syria’s history and the everyday lives of its people before the humanitarian disaster.

This book delivered just that. Alia Malek designates her grandmother’s old apartment building in Damascus as the heart of the memoir, and effectively narrates over a century of Syrian history and political phases through the different generations and families that occupied and moved through its space.

In this fine balance between family and national chronicle, one does not overshadow the other; thus allowing history to be accessible and engaging, and leaves room for the captivating details of society and tradition.

The author succinctly outlines Syria’s history from the fall of the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greater Syria, to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and the United Kingdom (resulting in France taking Syria and Lebanon, and the British laying hold of Palestine and Iraq), the foreign-imposed evolution of its borders, its numerous coups, the rise of Hafez al-Assad, and up to the bullet-ridden Syria that we see on the news.

Probably owing to being both journalist and lawyer, Alia Malek does away with over-sentimentality despite the painful undercurrents but writes with great sensitivity and insight.  This did not rend my heart the way other books about Syria have done, but at the end of the acknowledgments a line still managed to ambush me and stirred up tears: “Lastly, to Syria and the generations before, which gave us life, beauty, and this profound pain, thank you for making us your children. And may you find it possible to forgive us.”

Through the memoir we are shown a Syria and a people that we do not often see portrayed; a Syria of rich cultural heritage, a multi-cultural and colorful nation of Arab Jews, Armenians, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, and Alawites. After all, Syria was once a haven for the persecuted during the Armenian genocide, a significant punctuation in the Silk Route, a place of Crusader castles, and the site of many Roman metropolises. Yet Syrians arrive at the doors of our consciousness either as despots, extremists, or refugees. We are guilty of viewing people from this region monolithically, and it is time we realize that the loss of their home and heritage is the world’s loss, too.

Eva Nour: City of Sparrows

“The birds have been a natural part of the city. That the sky was now devoid of the fluttering of wings was a clear sign that life had changed.”

One might find this in the fiction section of a bookstore, but only because the character’s real name and certain details had to be fictionalized to protect his identity and the identities of loved ones who are still living in Syria. Eva Nour is a pseudonym of the journalist who penned this.

This account is unusual for the different vantage points it acquaints us with, through the same character in different stages of his life — a regular boy growing up in peaceful Homs and whose father dismisses conversations on Hafez al-Assad’s dictatorship out of fear; an adolescent serving time in the government’s army when the protests against the regime begin; a rebel against the same army and regime but this time under Bashar al-Assad; a disillusioned man whose faith in the Free Syrian Army becomes tarnished in the midst of the mass exodus; a photographer who dangerously documents the inhumanity and the deaths so the world would be made aware; and after immeasurable suffering, an exile.

In a book about a place where the antagonist is the same government supposedly assigned to protect its people, would you expect to find these lines? “Poetry didn’t have anything to do with words. It was a way of viewing the world.”

I try hard not to abuse the word “beautiful” in my reviews even though the books that have come my way these days do not fall short of the adjective. This one, for all its gruesome and horrifying details, did not fit the description in almost its entirety — until I arrived at the last page and nearly uttered the word out loud.

Through my readings, I have realized how narratives from the Middle East are so important not only for the reader but more so for the storyteller, because their stories can either be one of three difficult things; an act of healing, an act of protest, or an act of love. In this case, it is all three at once.