Cover of States of Passion by Nihad SireesBill Swainson reviews

States of Passion
by Nihad Sirees
Translated by Max Weiss
Pushkin Press, London, 2018
ISBN: 9781782273479. Pbk, 256pp, £12.99 / USD15.68

It was on a dark and stormy night . . .

Nihad Sirees is best known in the West as the author of the 2004 novel, The Silence and the Roar, translated into English by Max Weiss and published in the US by the Other Press and in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2013. An Orwellian parable with Kafkaesque overtones, it is set in an unnamed country in which the writer-narrator Fathi must choose between joining the loud chorus of approval for the country’s leader and silence. Banned in Syria, The Silence and the Roar has also been translated into a number of other languages including Czech, Dutch, French, German Italian and Turkish.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in the Middle East, Sirees is better known as the creator of popular and challenging TV dramas, including The Silk Market (series 1, 23 parts, 1996; series 2, 25 parts, 1998), which explored Syria’s union with Egypt in the late 1950s and early ’60s through a wide range of characters in the Aleppo silk market. Also broadcast in Germany and Australia (with subtitles), the series was considered controversial by the Syrian government, and afterwards the threat of censorship meant that other TV dramas, including a life of Kahlil Gibran (2008) and Al Khait Al Abiadh (The First Gleam of Dawn, 2004), an unvarnished depiction of Syria’s government-controlled media, had to be made outside the country. Following increasing surveillance and pressure from the government, Nihad Sirees left Syria in 2012, and after brief spells in Egypt and the USA now lives in Berlin.

It’s worth rehearsing this literary biography, because Sirees’ work for TV and several of his novels are concerned with history and politics, and it would be easy to characterise him as a writer of realist historical fiction – four of his seven novels, including his most recent, the novel of The Silk Market TV series (2005) fall into this category. However, his first novel, The Cancer (1987) and The Silence and the Roar (2004) do not. States of Passion, which has a contemporary setting but tells a complicated love story from the 1930s, falls somewhere in between.

An unnamed bureaucrat working for the Agricultural Bank is on a field trip to a number of tiny villages with two colleagues when their Land Rover breaks down on a desert road in the middle of nowhere. As our expert was the one who proposed moving on to the next village that evening for an early start the following morning in hopes of a swift return to Aleppo, his two colleagues, who had been looking forward to warm hospitality where they were, are not best pleased. It’s up to him to go and find help. Setting out in pouring rain, he soon finds himself surrounded by prowling dogs and, fearing for his life, is mightily relieved to find that an even larger pair of eyes up ahead turns out to be the lights of a substantial house. Inside an old man sits by the fire, while the butler opens the door. Once inside, the narrator remembers his stranded colleagues and while the butler reluctantly goes to look for them, the narrator, curiosity piqued, says in Max Weiss’s English, which is most comfortable with narration, but veers rather unsteadily when attempting highly formal or colloquial speech:

“Tell me, respected sir, what made you come and live here? It may be impolite to ask but the question keeps nagging at me.”
He raised his head, gazed at me with a gentle and resigned expression, and said:

“You have every right to ask, my new friend, but mine is a long story. It would take a very long time to hear the whole thing. To tell you the truth, I enjoy telling it, and would love to have someone around who wanted to hear my stories, but my butler keeps me from talking too much, because he says it’s better for my health not to.”

“Please, old man, tell me the story. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve loved stories. I’ve craved hearing them.”
And then the old man “began to tell his tale, which was strangest thing I had ever heard in my entire life”.

The tale he tells on that dark and stormy night is the story of a doubly forbidden love affair between the old man in his youth and an innocent young dancer called Widad. Widad belongs to banat al-ishreh, the world of women who live, love, dance and play music together, which flourished in Aleppo of the 1930s, where, as the old man says, “women are with other women the same way that men are with women”. This lesbian world that co-exists with the public world of marriage and children is affectionately evoked, and here Sirees’s skill as a historical novelist comes to the fore, but it also has something of the feel of a film like Grand Hotel Budapest, which fun though it was, perhaps revelled to excess in its excesses.

Meanwhile, as the old man’s story takes five days and nights to tell, the butler becomes increasingly determined to force the narrator to leave, fearful, among other things that it would be unfair to reveal here, that the old man will not survive the telling of the tale, but suffice to say that a scorpion, poison and a gun are involved.

If The Silence and the Roar is a modernist parable, then States of Passion has something of the feel of one of Sandor Marai’s tales like Embers (1942, English translation by Carol Brown Janeway, 2001), or perhaps also the Turkish writer Sabahattin Ali’s novel Madonna in a Fur Coat (1943, English translation by Maureen Freely with Alexander Dawe, 2017). But both of these novels succeed because in the first case the writer keeps to one story and a single, but engaging tone, and in the other because the love affair, with a similar time sequence to States of Passion, is utterly convincing. States of Passion presents an uneasy mix of narrative sophistication that doesn’t quite come off and a love affair set in a historical world evoked as fantasy. Yet, something is happening here that makes me want to read what Nihad Sirees writes next from what he calls the ‘disorder’ of exile.

Published in Banipal 63 – The 100 Best Arabic Novels (Autumn/Winter 2018)

back to all selections