A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in The Independent.
Places have moods, this novel reminds us. Sometimes Sarmada, a mountain village rising from the Hauran plain of southern Syria, is all “oblivion, dust and tedium”; at other times it’s a shimmering delight, each rock, tree, spring, cliff and cave owning rich meanings and histories. Sarmada is also “a Sheherazade”, a generator of tales, so many tales we can’t possibly hear them all. “I thought about telling her the joke about the overweight fortune-teller,” Azzam writes, “but..”
Like the Arabian Nights, “Sarmada” contains stories within a frame story. The frame and trigger is a meeting with Azza Tawfiq, an expert in chaos theory at the Sorbonne who (following the Druze tenet of transmigration) believes she lived in Sarmada in a past life as a murdered girl called Hela Mansour. Bemused, disbelieving, the narrator returns from “chasing dreams in Paris and delusions in Dubai” to excavate the village’s memories, at first on Azza’s behalf.
Hela’s crime was to fall in love with an itinerant Algerian. A double crime: “love is a disgrace,” for a start, and this love, to a non-Druze stranger, is considered a “defection.” The Mansour brothers purify their honour by butchering Hela, only to find their shame superseded by guilt and, in the youngest brother’s case, by desire for Farida, an assertive beauty and the second of three women to dominate the novel.
Farida marries herself to a gambler who dies on the second night of the wedding festivities. Her next husband dies of an immediate heart attack, and her third is killed in the 1973 war with Israel. Farida redeems her consequent ill-starred status by becoming the village’s foremost herbalist. She drains the monstrous swelling of an old woman’s breasts (the first in a series of Marquezian deformities) and concocts a crying cure for grief with the resulting milk. The entire village samples the brew, including the plants, which burst into sap and nectar tears.
Farida is thrown back into disrepute by her seductions of teenage boys. One such liason leads to the birth of Bulkhayr, who grows to become an ardent lover of Rimbaud. Bulkhayr’s earliest romance with words is played out in molasses juice on the voluptuous body of Buthayna, Farida’s erstwhile enemy.
If there’s a growing shapelessness in the novel’s last third, it really doesn’t matter. Brimful of magic, “Sarmada” is a book to be swallowed in a few rapturous gulps. It’s beautifully written and, save the rare, discordant plunge into cliche (“a boy who’d rocked her fourteen-year-old world”) beautifully translated. The treatment of its major theme – frustrated and unleashed libido – slides only once towards unimaginative porn mode.
It’s a very Syrian novel, illustrating sectarian co-existence and providing glimpses of the country’s mystical and literary wonders, as well as village ceremonies and coming of age rituals (including a startling use for a terebinth tree).
The beams in a cow shed stolen from the Ottoman-built Hejaz railway, the villagers’ steady emigration to South America, the consequent appearance of yerba mate, the ‘setback’ of the 1967 defeat, the raised hopes of the peasants and the esoteric sects when the Baath rose to rule “for an endless forever” – political history is integrated smoothly into the narrative. Fadi Azzam’s criticism of dictatorship is scathingly precise. There’s a devastating portrait of a Baathist faux-intellectual: a child-hating headmaster who arranges to have a boy tortured.
“Sarmada” is finally, indirectly, an early novel of the contemporary Arab revolutions. Liberty, Azzam hints, must break out as surely as smothered sexuality: “All it takes is one breeze to make dust the ruler of the place.”