Author Emily Robbins tells Ben East why she hopes her debut novel will remind the world there is more to a city she fell in love with than war.
A Word for Love showcases American author Emily Robbins’s love for Damascus
Plenty of writers have attempted to make sense of the tragedy that is Syria, with Khaled Khalifa (In Praise of Hatred), Samar Yazbek (The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria) and Nihad Sirees (The Silence and the Roar) just three brilliant examples.
It is surprising, encouraging even, that the latest author we can add to that list is a 30-something American whose debut is essentially a love story set on the cusp, but largely before the unrest. There are no tanks, fighter jets or even references to specific Syrian cities in A Word for Love.
But Emily Robbins has a quick answer for anyone who thinks she might be a westerner airbrushing nearly six years of turmoil.
“We now see Syria as a place only of violence,” she says. “But anyone who has spent any time there knows it’s so much more than that. We need a reminder of what is at stake.”
Arabic-speaker Robbins spent a lot of time in Syria, first as an exchange student and then learning the Quran with Houda Al Habash’s women’s mosque movement, which shot to fame in the award-winning 2011 documentary The Light in Her Eyes.
And while her experiences are not exactly replicated in A Word for Love, they certainly provided her with the tone and feel of the story, which is narrated by an American exchange student called Bea.
Caught up in the lives of her host family, and a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between a policeman and an Indonesian maid, Bea comes of age as secrets, impending war and an ancient tale – dubbed The Astonishing Text – all intertwine.
“It’s a love story on two levels, because it’s also about how to love a city and a language, neither of which are truly your own,” she says. “When I was first learning Arabic, I really fell for the famous story of Qais and Leila, and the idea that once Qais falls in love he takes on her name.
“The idea that language and love can point to a new identity was really exciting to me. And it felt like Arabic, with its beautiful roots and meanings, gave me a whole new vocabulary to work with.”
Robbins clearly has high ambitions for her debut – she admits she wanted to write dialogue like Ernest Hemingway and have the understanding of place that Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Crossfire so beautifully offers.
She inevitably falls short of both grand aims. Nevertheless, A Word for Love remains an important book, if only because it is likely to be read by a western audience who perhaps need to be reminded that Syria exists as more than a news headline.
“I’m also excited and a little apprehensive about how it might be received in the Middle East,” she says, ahead of its publication in Jordan (where Robbins will return next month to complete a Fulbright Fellowship and her second novel).
“What I do know is that people who read Arabic and understand the region seem excited that this is a different narrative about Syria. They can see how deeply I feel about Damascus – and that’s very important for them right now.”
The country isn’t explicitly mentioned in the book at all, even though the publisher’s website loudly proclaims the arrival of “a mesmerising debut set in Syria”.
“Syria had been part of the book for years,” says Robbins. “And when it finally sold, I came to an understanding that this was a story that could transcend Syria, that could be about anywhere that people love, in which there is unrest, in which people are speaking out about what’s important to them. “Basically, it was a story that came out of my love for Damascus – but I didn’t want to be in a position to be asked to speak for Damascus. As a foreigner, that would feel wrong when there are so many Syrian voices speaking so well.” Robbins has kept in touch with some of them. Far from lamenting with her host families about the “mess” that Syria is in, Robbins says she feels a sense of hope that the troubled but vibrant country described in the book might some day return.
“When the revolution started, I was back in America, and I remember feeling excitement, worry and admiration for all the Syrians who were very bravely speaking out at that time,” she says.
“The book became a way to return to Syria in my head, to think through a place that I loved and was changing so quickly. “Now, I just have to hope that Syrian love stories can still happen, still be written about.”
It is surely a matter of some sadness that such a turnaround seems unlikely any time soon.
“Well, I was recently talking to one of my host fathers, who had worked against the government before the revolution,” says Robbins. “I asked him after all that’s happened whether he regretted that decision. This is a man now in exile, but he said: ‘No, but we have no choice but to move forward with hope’.
“So that was very powerful for me. It made me feel that if he felt that way, then I must, too.”
• A Word for Love is out now