x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rafik Schami's subtle arabesques

The Calligrapher's Secret offers a meandering blend of German and Syrian identities.

The Calligrapher's Secret

Rafik Schami

Arabia Books

Dh117

Does Rafik Schami belong to German or Arabic letters? He grew up in Syria and his fiction tends to gravitate to themes about Damascene life. But he writes in German, a leading figure in the school of "Gastarbeiterliteratur" (guest-worker literature). His latest novel to reach English readers, a meandering account of the marriage between the master calligrapher Hamid Farsi and the beautiful Noura, is superficially Arabic and deeply German.

Schami's style is conversational, mimicking the digressions and prolepses of an oral story-teller. Seemingly every incidental character gets a backstory, usually a rather picturesque one, so that the novel as a whole appears like a kind of tapestry -an almost stereotypically Arabic effect. At the same time, there's something rather chilly and cerebral about Schami's concerns. Hamid, for instance, is part of a secret society which is trying to reform classical Arabic script to make it more precise - a blasphemous quest which occasions a number of extended disquisitions on the history of Arabic writing. That, and Schami's interest in the grotesque side of sex, seems very German, at times almost Gunter Grass-like.