by Ghada Samman
Translated by Nancy Roberts
Darf Publishers, UK, 2017
Pbkk, 246pp, £9.00 / $14.95.
The boulder of Mount Qasioun takes wing
Ghada Samman’s latest novel in English translation, Farewell, Damascus, was published in Arabic in 2014 and is set in mid-sixties Damascus and Beirut. At this time in the 21st century when Syria is in flames and existential turmoil, the author looks back to when she was a young woman in Damascus seeking freedom and independence. An important Syrian novelist and poet, Samman was born in 1942 into a prominent Damascene family – her father was a president of Damascus University – and worked as a translator, broadcaster and translator before starting to write fiction in the early 1960s. She was a force to reckon with, setting up her own publishing house so that she could publish her work uncensored. To date Ghada Samman has over 40 works of stories, essays, novels and dramas including, in translation, The Square Moon: Supernatural Tales, the well-known Beirut ’75, Beirut Nightmares and The Night of the First Billion. The latter three are also translated by Nancy Roberts – what a successful partnership of great empathy this is!
The main character of Farewell, Damascus is 18-year-old Zain who has fallen out of love with her husband after almost a year of marriage as the continual demands of a traditional wedded life proved worse than the constraints of living at home as a single girl, not to mention an unwanted pregnancy, which was for her the last straw. She had to get rid of both for good so that she could concentrate on being a writer. Instead of being a silkworm just producing its “precious, traditional treasure”, she was going to “sprout wings and break out of her cocoon”. Dr Manahili, who performed the abortion, turned out to be a friend of her father, and was very supportive of her writings that upset people who didn’t “question inherited ideas and beliefs”. He was born after his mother had tried to have him aborted, and he was obsessed with helping to ensure safe abortions for countless women.
The doctor was delighted to see Zain take “life by the horns rather than playing the miserable, helpless divorcée” as she forges a career for herself, writing, broadcasting, and studying. She has, like the author had, huge support also from her father, a well-known lawyer, who feels guilty that he was never supportive of the writings of her mother and so is always there to help his daughter.
The book is styled as straightforward narrative, following Zain’s life from her abortion to her hurried departure for Beirut and her father’s sudden heart attack when he finds a way to pay her a surprise visit there, interwoven with numerous flashbacks, musings, and the thoughts of the different characters as they react inwardly (and outwardly) to family situations, such as the news from Zain that she is divorcing her husband, that an arranged marriage is answered by an elopement, or a headscarf is not long enough to preserve one’s modesty. Zain’s grandmother has a clever and successful way of thwarting would-be gossipmongers – “just say, ‘It was never meant to be!’ After all, everybody believes in fate.”
The central theme of the novel, which is carried through from the protagonist to most of the other characters – her cousins, aunts, former mother-in-law and the doctor, is the traditionally unequal, macho, chauvinist and abusive treatment of women by most men, the pressures put on girls to leave school, marry early and have kids, and basically give up on any chance of life apart from that of being a servant to the needs of their future husband. Zain’s mother-in-law recounts to herself how she had been married off to her cousin, had many children and forever regretted having had to stop her education. She didn’t want that to happen to Zain.
The ‘60s was the time of social upheaval and rebellion against society’s mores and customs when Zain and her female relatives are struggling for independence as women. The fact that the thoughts of most of them are only thoughts (and therefore italicized in the text) that they would hardly dare to say out loud, is a vivid part of the narrative – the voices of the silenced speaking out. At times the italicized font threatens to take over the story line as Zain recounts conversations with her cousins, and her dreams, and has many comments interjected into ongoing narrative, and this reader sometimes does a double-take.
The cronyism and corruption that are the adjuncts of the Syrian dictatorial regime are clearly described via a particularly unsavoury macho character whom Zain comes up against when she discovers she has to get an exit visa to leave Syria. She ends up being hunted down as a West German spy, but manages to cross the border to Lebanon when Dr Manahili calls in a favour.
Two other themes that run through the novel are Zain’s relationship to Damascus and her mother’s town of Latakia, and her love of writing and literature. The little owl, the spirit of her mother, that accompanies her, flying with her to freedom, is a hidden strength for Zain, who always, anyway, was determined to be a rock, “a boulder on Mount Qasioun”, which overlooks the city of Damascus. However, when she looks out over her “beloved city”, she imagines “My life is nothing but a tiny speck in Damascus’s vast sky. Thinking this way makes my own troubles seem less scary.”
When her father has a fatal heart attack in Beirut, and she follows the hearse containing his body as far as the border, she calls out the depth of her loss of country and her new predicament in a powerful inner thought: “Let it be known to Latakia, beloved of my mother, and Damascus, beloved of my father, that I’ll never let anybody demean me again. I’d sooner live the rest of my life homeless and alone than suffer a fate like that.” At that moment, also, she feels she is “no boulder. I’m just a speck of dust that’s been blown by dark winds” . . . But she picks herself up when she describes how she thinks others see her: “Revolutionaries see me as some sort of petty, spoiled girl, who, even though she might be a rebel, is still loyal to her bourgeois class, and publishes books as a kind of decorative façade. The bourgeois see me as a dirty radical who needs to be straightened out with a blow to the head. The so-called Muslims want to have me flogged and hanged from their long beards. And as for my family in Ziqaq Al Yasmin, they think I’m a bad example to other girls in the clan.” She concludes by saying: “I have wings, and I’m soaring.”
Coming from the same generation as the author, and also powerfully influenced and affected by the worldwide social changes of the ‘60s, I welcome this novel as a heart-felt salutation to women who struggled to change society’s traditional views of women’s so-called “place” in the world, as well as a reminder to others to keep on doing that.
Millions of Syrians over the last few years will have also been saying “Farewell, Damascus” as they fled their country’s borders, while the novel’s protagonist reminds us that, though she wanted to “jump into the abyss” and end everything after her father died, all she really wanted (perhaps echoing the horrific journeys across the Mediterranean of the thousands of refugees) “was a hand to hold in these choppy seas – not to rescue me and draw me safely to shore, but just to keep me company as I battle the waves”. Zain definitely has my hand, Ghada too.
Published in Banipal 60 - Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)
Reviewed by Margaret Obank
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