The Syrian author Rafik Schami's latest novel is a sprawling mosaic of of 20th-century life in his home country. MA Orthofer reads a tale of rival clans, family honour, and forbidden romance. The Dark Side of Love Rafik Schami Translated from the German by Anthea Bell Arabia Books Dh76 In 1962, Rafik Schami witnessed the so-called honour killing of a Syrian Muslim woman who had fallen in love with a Christian. The final chapter of his novel The Dark Side of Love, originally published in German in 2004 but only recently translated into English, amounts to a postscript in which Schami describes how the trauma of this event inspired him to write a novel on the myriad varieties of "forbidden love" in the Arab world. He spent decades grappling with the subject, writing dozens of books in the meantime, unable to find the appropriate approach. Finally, he decided: "Mosaic is the form for a story like this, I thought, a story with a thousand and one pieces in it, doing justice to life in Arabia with all its flaws. And like a mosaic, the further from the observer the picture appears, the smoother and more harmonious it will be."
Most of Schami's previous works have an Arabian Nights structure, with multiple narrators telling stories nested within stories. In The Dark Side of Love there is a single omniscient narrator (until the final chapter, when Schami steps forward), but the emphasis on multiple, overlapping stories remains. The novel consists of 304 chapters grouped together in sections with titles such as "Book of Loneliness", "Book of the Clan", "Book of Growth" and "Book of Butterflies". The sections include anywhere from one to dozens of chapters each - and are generally not presented in their entirety all at once. The "Book of Love", for example, is divided into seven parts spread across the entire novel, with only two chapters presented in direct succession.
The result is a panoramic novel of 20th-century Syrian life, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s, that ranges from the clan-dominated countryside to urban Damascus to the enormous Tad prison camp (modelled on the real Tadmor prison in the country's eastern desert). At the centre of this sprawling story is the love affair between Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin. The two meet in Damascus, but both hail from clans based in the mountain village of Mala: the Orthodox Christian Shahins and the Catholic Mushtaks. These are the two most powerful families in the region, and for generations bad blood has poisoned all relations between them. Though no one can pinpoint the origins of the mutual hatred, "even the children of both families were convinced they would sooner make friends with the devil than one of the enemy clan". They are unaware of their respective backgrounds when they first meet as teenagers in 1953- each takes the other for a Muslim - but all becomes clear soon enough, dooming any chance they have for a normal romance.
The first chapter is set in 1960, at which point Farid and Rana have already been in love for several years. The book's opening sentence is a question he asks her: "Do you really think our love stands any chance?" The literal translation of the German, however, would read: "And you really believe that our love stands a chance?" It is regrettable that Anthea Bell - whose translation is otherwise remarkably sure-handed and lapse-free - dropped that and, the open-ended, in medias res quality of which cleverly signals that this is not the beginning of a linear narrative, but rather one of many possible entry points to the large mosaic. The next chapter starts by jumping ahead to 1969 and a murder mystery: a man's body has been found in a basket hanging over a chapel in Damascus, and one Commissioner Barudi is one the case. Just a few pages later the narrative is back in 1953.
Of course, it is unthinkable that Farid and Rana could ever be united in marriage. In their society family ties, religion and economic considerations determine who is a suitable spouse; for Farid, Rana and countless others, one of the lessons of adulthood is that "love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart". Matches are arranged; women, in particular, are left with little say in the choice of their husbands. And love is not just frowned upon; it is also seen as a threat, and often merely thwarting it is not sufficient. No, love must be crushed completely, and those who bring dishonour upon their families by indulging in it must be killed.
"You marry Hassan or you die," a knife-wielding 14-year-old boy threatens his sister, Laila, in an all-too typical scene; he has realised she is in love with someone other than the man chosen for her, having seen "her happiness in her face. Clumsily, like a careless puppy, it gave everything away." Only the intercession of their mother prevents the boy from stabbing his sister then and there. Soon Laila and her lover escape, but the family of Hassan Kashat, the man whose fifth wife she was supposed to become, retaliates by crippling her younger brother and butchering her lover's entire family. But: "Laila's family had thereby saved its honour in the eyes of its neighbours, and atoned for its guilt to the powerful Kashat."
The Dark Side of Love is replete with similar examples of lovers being punished for their feelings or fleeing abroad in order to escape the reach of their unforgiving families. But honour is largely a matter of appearances, and hidden loves abound; so do illicit and casual encounters. For long stretches, even Farid and Rana are allowed to be in love freely; more open-minded family members and friends help them by turning a blind eye to their transgression. Rana doesn't understand why she must suffer. "We're young, we were born here in Damascus, what can we do about the feud between our parents and grandparents?" she asks. But even a sympathetic aunt, who suffered for "honour" herself, knows that family obligation, however wrong-headed, is undeterred by generations or physical distance."If you're after another bloodbath, then go on meeting this boy," she tells Rana, "but never come in my apartment again."
Schami insistently describes so many cases and consequences of forbidden love because he sees them as symptomatic of Syrian society's failures. There are decent, kind members of the Mushtak and Shahin clans, but both families have rotten pieces at their core. Pettiness, hypocrisy, arbitrary attachment to false concepts of honour, the inability to forgive or forget, a tendency to react intemperately and disproportionately: these elements condemn families, institutions and nations alike to misery. Revenge killings beget revenge killings in a seemingly unbreakable cycle. Again and again, throughout the novel, those who wield power - whether in a family, school, jail or the government - abuse it simply to prove that they are able to do so.
The long middle of The Dark Side of Love settles into a straightforward telling of Farid's story (Rana is a significant part of this, but they are often separated for long stretches). Here the novel is a fairly traditional Bildungsroman in which many of Farid's formative experiences closely mirror Schami's own. The author was born Suheil Fadél in 1946; his pen name translates as "Damascene friend" or "companion from Damascus", and it reflects his lasting tie to his beloved birthplace, which he describes nostalgically as "a fairy tale clothed in houses and streets, stories, scents and rumours". His evident love for Syria and its people is all the more poignant for being set against a story of self-destructive faults.
Like Farid, Schami made childhood visits to the village of Mala (historic Malula, famous as the spot where Jesus Christ's mother tongue, Aramaic, is still widely spoken); apprenticed with a calligrapher; spent years studying in a monastery where only French was spoken; taught school in remote corners in the country; and was active in the Communist Party. In Farid's case, at least, it is more the "magnetic attraction of forbidden fruit" than any political conviction that motivates his activism; this, of course, does not keep him from serving a term in Tad prison (a fate Schami avoided). The story of Schami's fictional counterpart comes to a close in 1969, as he is leaving Beirut for Germany; Schami himself made that journey in 1970 and 1971, just as Hafez al Assad was consolidating power, first as prime minster and then president.
He has not returned since, and has largely avoided addressing life under the Assad regimes directly in his fiction. His major works - the bestselling Damascus Nights, The Dark Side of Love, and the not-yet-translated 2008 novel Das Geheimmis des Kalligraphen - are all set in the Syria of the 1950s and 1960s that he knows so intimately. Even in his treatment of these years, however, political figures remain, at most, secondary characters. In The Dark Side of Love, regimes fall with comic regularity, but always far in the background. The ill-fated union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961 is portrayed primarily in terms of the instability and uncertainty it added to everyday life. The only national leader who appears in person, Colonel Shaklan (clearly modelled on former Syrian President Adib al Shishakli) is portrayed as a farcical figure who keels over dead drunk in the middle of a grand birthday party thrown in his honour (and is toppled from power soon after).
Farid's time at school, his prison years, the people he meets, the intertwined histories of the Mushtaks and Shahins - it all plays a role in explaining how a dead body ended up in a basket in a Damascus chapel in 1969. But only in the final chapters does Commissioner Barudi reappear, putting the last pieces of the mosaic in place to complete the picture. It's a nice turn, one that's key to the novel; unfortunately, after 800 pages of other storylines, its impact is distinctly lessened. This same fate is met by numerous other narratives as they dissipate across this massive tome. Schami is a wonderful storyteller, but the many stories he presents here do not entirely cohere; indeed, the very heft of the book undermines their individual power.
Schami seems to be aware of the dangers of lost threads and forgotten details as he moves between far-flung sections of his mosaic. When, near the end of the book, the time finally comes for Rana to answer Farid's question, he gives the reader a helpful reminder: Rana has an answer "to the question he had asked her nine and a half years before". But Farid is drowsing off to sleep, and he has no idea what she's talking about, even though she's crying out at the top of her voice.
MA Orthofer is the managing editor of The Complete Review, a book review website that focuses on international fiction.