April 30, 2012 by markstani
Spanning eight hundred and ninety-six pages and three sprawling generations of Syrian families, Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side Of Love (pub Arabia Books; trans. Anthea Bell) is a massive, monumental paean to passion in all its tragic glory.
Decades in its creation, Schami’s work consists of three hundred and four separate fragments ordered together in the same intricate manner as the mosaics which adorn the Arab world’s most splendid mosques. ‘Each of these pieces tells a story, and when you have read them they show you their own secret colours,’ says the author in his afterword, relaying the vivid dream he says finally presented him with the concept for this narrative form. ‘As soon as you have read all the stories, you will see the picture.’
Seldom have books this long and exhaustive remained so utterly compelling from the first page to the last. Schami has not left as much as a single tile out of place.
‘The Dark Side Of Love’ starts with a murder and ends with its solution. But this is no detective novel. This is first and foremost a book about Syrian love, unfurled in startling vignettes of tragic, forbidden trysts that sprinkle its pages like the sugar-coated fennel seeds which fall onto the streets of Damascus one night as if by magic.
Two strangers gallop into the remote, mountain village of Mala in 1907, fugitives from a brutal arranged marriage, and inadvertently begin a feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans which will spill the blood of generations to come. Some seventy years later in Damascus, the teenaged Farid Mushtak will meet and fall in love with a girl whom fate cruelly dictates is a Shahin. Their choice is stark: to deny their passion, or face death.
Embracing a breathtaking array of characters, but managing to retain a clarity characteristic of so much translated Arabic fiction, Schami proceeds to fill in the gap of those three-score years, revealing why Farid and Rana’s nascent love is doomed.
Schami’s work is in itself a love letter to a Damascus which in the course of his book survives the turmoil of occupation by the French, the terror of a never-ending series of brutal dictators and their Secret Service goons, short-lived union with Egypt and the birth of Israel. Yet so richly painted is Schami’s picture of Damascene life that through all its turmoil and tragedies, the city never loses its allure.
Damascus isn’t so much a city, a place marked in an atlas, as a fairy tale clothed in houses and streets, stories, scents and rumours.
The Old Town has fallen victim to epidemics, wars and fire countless times in its eight thousand years of history, and for want of anywhere better was always rebuilt on the same site. The hand that has moulded Damascus to this day was that of a Greek town planner, Hippodamos of Miletus. He divided the city into strictly geometrical quarters with fine streets, all laid out at right angles. The Greeks loved straight lines, whereas the Arabs preferred curves and bends. Some say it has something to do with their exhausting journeys straight across the desert. A bend shortens the distance, at least for the eye. Others claim that life is expressed in curves: the olive tree bows under the weight of its fruits, a pregnant woman’s belly is curved, the branches of a palm tree form a rounded shape. The old Damascenes had a more prosaic explanation: the more bends in your streets, the easier they are to defend.
The novel develops through countless doomed affairs and periods of suppression, both individual and collective. In the ‘Book Of Laughter’, there are beautiful anecdotes about Damascene childhood; in the ‘Book Of Hell’, a nightmarish portrayal of life in Syria’s secret prisons. It involves an extraordinary amount of sex, but this is not the kind of gratuitous or perfunctory copulation prevalent in so many philosophical modern novels – there are no ‘Bad Sex Awards’ here: the sex in this book is straight-forward and stallion-esque, which only the most tiresome prude would deny is not entirely in keeping with Schami’s exploration of passion’s extremes: the price for such ecstasy is often certain death.
Schami’s prose is simple and his outlook avowedly realist: beyond the occasional dream, he squeezes the whims of fate and fantasy from life itself. This realism makes ‘The Dark Side Of Love’ deeply affecting: haunting, heart-breaking and undeniably pertinent given the tragedy centred on Schami’s beloved city today.
Others have been right to question Schami’s choice of title for his book, for this is not simply about love’s ‘dark side’, but about love in all its glory – the kind of love that conquers all, even death.
An old storyteller tells his rapt audience:
“A woman once loved a man with a large wart on his nose. She thought him the most handsome man in the world. Years later, however, she noticed the wart one morning. ‘How long have you had that wart on your nose?’ she asked. ‘Ever since you stopped loving me,’ said the man sadly.”
Some say this is the great Syrian novel. I haven’t read enough Syrian novels to venture an opinion beyond declaring it almost unfathomable that many, if any, Syrian novels could possibly be this good. It’s the kind of book you truly wish will never end, and mercifully it takes a long time to do just that. Like the mosaics in the mosque, its intricate colours will shine out for generations to come.