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.