This book is about Aleppo, Syria. The city. The people. Their past. Their dreams. Their future.
Who wouldn’t be fascinated and curious by the title of this book. But to be honest, for me, this was not an easy book to get into. I had to put this book numerous times because I just really can’t put my self into it. I remember picking this last December and bringing it with me in the province for me to read during the holiday break. I read a couple of pages but decided to put it down because I sensed that the vibe is not that festive for a holiday read. Then I again picked and tried reading and finishing it numerous times last January but, I don’t know, it was a slow read. When I stop and put it down and picked it up again the next day to continue, I have to always reacquaint myself with what happened to the book. For some unknown reasons, I can’t remember what I read the previous night. Then #DiverseAThon came, finally found the best reason to motivate myself in finishing this book. This is the third book that I read for #DiverseAThon. The book won the Naguib Mahfouz medal for literature. The book was translated from Arab by Leri Price.
The book follows the story of our unnamed narrator who’s living in Aleppo, a city located in Northern Syria. This book is not only about our narrator but also a story that followed the life of those people around our narrator: friends, family and neighbors. Serving as the backdrop to their life is Aleppo’s tumultuous environment. The book chronicled the life of the people and situation in Aleppo, Syria from the after effects (and even on-going effects) of the first world war, the looming civil war to even the American occupation of Iraq. The book followed the collapse of the political, cultural and social institutions in Syria and how the people of Aleppo dealth with it. The book became a a study of Aleppo, a city with respective people, distinctive tradition and rich in culture that is now crippling.
The book’s characters are colorful, there’s no doubt about that. They were all driven by their individual desires and their dreams making them stood out from each other. The focus of the story is the narrator’s family. Two characters stood out for me. There’s Nizar, the narrator’s gay uncle who had to fight for his place in his own family circle and also to the society. We follow as he try to move between places finding solace in music and meeting people. I like how the author was able to handle the topic of homosexuality in an Arab nation. Homosexuality is a topic, I understand, that is quite not that well discuss in that part of the world in this time and age. For me, the author was able to write about it with caution but with depth and honesty and sincerity. Then there’s Sawsan, the narrator’s sister, who’s numerously described in the book as irrepressible. From all the books that I read, if I were to name a character that’s the most unpredictable, it would be her. She easily changes her mind. Her mood easily shift. She make unacceptable decisions that made me shake my head numerous times. She’s this restless girl who when she find herself not satisfied at a certain place, she leaves that place then after leaving, she’ll start questioning what she did then returns to that place only to experience the same fate. She keeps returning to people who made her life terrible. She’s this character that’s hard to love and understand and if that’s the purpose of the author while writing this book, we’ll he’s successful.
The theme of this book revolves around shame. In a country undergoing drastic changes, its people tries adapting. In this novel, people showed fear in a lot of ways and one that stands out is being shameful to a lot of things. The characters started doubting things and confused as to what is acceptable and not. Shame in this novel became contagious that it eventually enveloped the whole city. There’s shame of one’s past, shame of body, shame of sexuality, shame of your own family lineage, shame of your own family members, shame of questioning religious beliefs, shame of contradicting the government and shame of believing the true and real events.
Like what I said earlier, this was not an easy book for me to get into. It’s dense as there’s no dialogues in the book. This is the first time I read something like it and man, it required a lot of concentration. It did not help that the focus moves between the characters and I had to re-read chapters to reacquaint myself. The story is episodic and not linear meaning things happen in the book not in chronological order. And as the focus moves, the characters also move between places. I have to ask myself where are they, who they are with and what time period it is. I also have to create a mental lineage of the characters to know their connections between each other. The book is meant to be read slowly and savored.
The best thing that I got from this book is, it helped me get a few information in understanding present-day Syria. We all know what’s happening now in Syria and I appreciate how the book, in a way, made me understand the country. This book tickled my curiosity making me want to know more. We now often associate Syria with war that we often times fail to acknowledge the people living there. This book as it moves within the city of Aleppo also moves within the life of its people. Albeit the fact that time has changed, it couldn’t be denied that to better understand the current situation of Syria is to understand the country’s past which the book did.
Overall, aside from the structure, I enjoyed the book for being an eye-opener. I like the book for being brave and bold in its examination of Aleppo. I like it for being sincere in its intention of making people understand Syria’s current situation. This is a book I want to read again in the future in one sitting. Maybe by that time, I’ll appreciate its structure more.
3 star out of 5.
Note: My gratitude to The American University in Cairo Press for providing me a review copy in exchange for a honest and unbiased review. In no way was my opinion about the book influenced.
Author: Khaled Khalifa
Translator: Leri Price
Part of a Series: No
Release Year: October 2016
Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
No. of Pages: 240 pages
About the Author
Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964, in a village close to Aleppo, Syria. He is the fifth child of a family of thirteen siblings.
He studied law at Aleppo University and actively participated in the foundation of Aleph magazine with a group of writers and poets. A few months later, the magazine was closed down by Syrian censorship.
He currently lives in Damascus where he writes scripts for cinema and television.