Unsurprisingly, given the conflict being reported in Syria today, Fadi Azzam’s debut novel Sarmada has been heralded, in certain literary quarters, as a powerful story of dissent. Indeed, in the preface of the English edition its author is anxious to draw attention to events in his country, and to identify the ‘magic’ of literature with the revolutionary spirit of the time. In Sarmada, however, the eponymous village of Azzam’s novel, set during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the inhabitants appear relatively untouched by the political realities of the day. They take in their stride the military defeats to Israel, Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights, and ultimate failure in the October War, all of which are, according to the official line of the Ba’athist government, mere ‘setbacks’. But then again such excuses have little bearing on Sarmada, which in Azzam’s imaginative and, at times, overwrought mind, is enveloped by an aura of mysticism. The villagers’ lives are intertwined inexorably, their destiny determined by some kind of mythical miasma.
In recent decades, the ‘mystery’, or, more accurately, the esotericism of Middle Eastern culture and society has been displaced in western consciousness by the media image of terrorism, tyranny, petty sectarianism, and intolerance. Rather than the normative characterization of Eastern spirituality as a benign form of primitivism that gives rise to an inferior ‘other’ – if, for a moment, we recall Edward Said’s conceptualization of the Orient – a different stereotype now prevails, one that is dogmatic, aggressive, unimaginative. The readers’ preconceptions render uncanny the story of Sarmada. Azzam allows us to glimpse a familiar way of rural life, but in conveying the profoundly superstitious minds of the villagers, who invoke a plenitude of Christian and Muslim authorities, he appears to articulate an ideological barbarism, a bastardized version of Arab culture.
Azzam describes events and daily rituals in Sarmada, exploring vividly the lives of three of its female characters – Azza, Farida, and Buthayna. The major theme of the novel is allurement, the captivating power of mystery and seduction. The villagers are deeply religious and yet, at the same time, highly sensual beings, who will turn a blind eye to illicit behavior. In Sarmada a bohemian lifestyle satiates desires. The novel’s sexual content is explicit and, in places, profoundly unsettling. Azzam does not shirk the topics of homoeroticism, pedophilia, incest and bestiality. The metaphors and systems of representation are a hybrid of truths and half-truths, illusion and myth, religious orthodoxy and heresy. Sarmada has its dark secrets, tales of seduction, temptation, and sensual pleasures. The villagers are driven by their base desires, but equally they are subject to the pangs of guilt and remorse. They pray for redemption, partake in purifying rituals, and freely consult pagan necromancers, Muslim shaykhs, and Christian priests.
The novel begins with a chance meeting in Paris between Rafi Azmi, a Syrian filmmaker, and Azza Tawfiq, a professor of quantum physics at the Sorbonne. Azza explains that in a former life she had been Hela Mansour, a woman from Sarmada murdered by her brothers for marrying outside her sect. Transmigration (taqamus), the metempsychosis of the Druze, explains her existence. Rafi, upon his return to Sarmada, investigates Hela’s murder, finding confirmation of her story among villagers, who recall how in 1968 she had met her death in a savage manner. The brutal act of sororicide goes unpunished, but, as always, it is intriguing to learn about the inherent contradictions of Eastern culture, and in the second part of the novel, which tells the story of Farida, whose lascivious and commodified lifestyle fulfills the desires of the young men, Azzam presents an intriguing counterpoint to Hela’s persecution.
Before the murder, the Mansour brothers invoke universal religious sanction – they ‘stacked the Epistles, the Quran, and the Bible’ and all swore a ‘savage oath’ against Hela. The horrific death of this young woman is marked by the ringing of church bells, the muezzin’s call for prayer, and the shaykhs reciting the Epistles of Wisdom, the holy book of the Druze. Admittedly, such religious syncretism has in Syria and Lebanon, for instance, traditionally manifested itself in peaceful tolerance and extended to Druze and Christians celebrating each other’s births, weddings, and funerals. In Azzam’s novel readers are introduced to a world where the Druze religion not only encourages co-existence but also assimilates the guiding principles of other faiths. However, one has to question whether this form of religious harmony is undermined by the novel’s increasingly bizarre and absurd events. Then again, it may be argued that this heightened form of realism allows the imagination free play.
A twelfth-century visitor to Syria described the Druze as inhabiting ‘the high mountains and the recesses of the rocks and there is no king or judge over them’. However, can such a fiercely independent tribal existence bring us any closer to an understanding of current events in Syria? In the hands of an authoritarian regime the socialist ideals of Ba’athism failed a long time ago and widespread impoverishment and disillusionment fuel today’s irrepressible struggle for change. Azzam’s Sarmada is a searing indictment of the Syrian government, which prohibits any form of opposition to its rule, and a denunciation of past ideological movements whose leaders promised so much yet delivered so little. For Azzam political repression numbs the intellect and stifles the senses. But for all the creeping modernization, the electricity and asphalt roads that opened Sarmada to government infiltration in the early 1970s, the drab machine of politics fails, ultimately, to permeate the enduring ‘spirit of the place’. Sarmada’s magic lingers in the mind and its astonishing images gradually build ‘fortification against the meaninglessness of life.’ ‘Words make us free’ and Azzam’s work bears testimony to this belief.
As a final note, Sarmada has been translated from Arabic, which is after all the ‘sacred’ language of the novel. The English text may have lost some of the poetic resonance of the original. However, Adam Talib’s impressively lyrical translation manages to retain the book’s captivating imagery.
Myrna Nader completed her PhD at Brunel University on Anglo-American female poetry and the philosophy of perception. She previously taught at the American University of Beirut and now teaches at Brunel. Her current research is focused on Edward Said and the notion of “other” in contemporary Lebanese society. She lives and works in London.