Well, this is a bit of one-upmanship, reading a book about Oman IN Oman. And look how beautiful the background, hard sometimes not to just put the book down and sit and stare. But this book was so different from the novels I usually read that it wasn’t just the charming note at the beginning: ‘those living elsewhere will have to take the time difference into account’ that kept me reading.
The book starts with Khalid Bakhit so passionate about his village that he weeps so loudly every night when dark wipes it out that he almost causes a riot …
‘Did you know that spaceships are taking pictures of you now? The pictures they take will be broadcast on satellite television, and the visllage will appear as a mass of light. So you can thank me for this free service!’ Muhammad ibn Sa’id clapped his hands. ‘The man’s lost his mind! THe man’s lost his mind!’ Walad Shamshum chimed in spitefully, ‘Your homeland’s died, then and we’ll have a peaceful, happy life from now on.’ ‘It hasn’t died,’ I shot back.’I was only lamenting the fact that it’s left. It leaves me every night and comes back the next morning. it’s sure to come back. It’s sure to come back.’
Thoroughly exasperated, they turn to go home.
And then we hear the voices of other village members and understand a little more, the politics and petty arguments, generosity and small minded victories, tragedies and some comedy too. And what happens when villagers who have moved away come home, and when strangers come to a village too. There were moments I laughed out loud, and other times I wanted to cry. This is a novel that isn’t afraid to be emotional, and made me want to know more about Oman so I could understand what I guessed were some deeper references too. In a bizarre way it reminded me of the EF Benson novels, and how, never mind how different Rye and Muscat might be, humans are still the same.
Well, for obvious reasons I didn’t read this book in Syria, but having been there in spring 2011, it’s a country I think about so much. What’s happened to these two men above, for example, clutching their flowers? I can’t bear to think. So one of the books I’ve read in 2015 is Diana Darke’s My House in Damascus, a book I thoroughly recommend if anyone wants to understand a little more. Diana Darke is a journalist and fluent Arabian speaker who fell in love with Damascus and, as the title suggests, built a house there. As the book ends, her home is full of her friends, who have now become refugees, and Diana can only dream of going back there herself. She describes the complexities of what is going on for the ordinary people and away from the newsheadlines. Here’s another Syrian I think about often too.
But Diana’s book didn’t really fit my challenge as it was written ABOUT a country rather than literature from a country (which I’m learning will nearly all be translated so this is really a project honouring all those wonderful translators out there. THANK YOU!). The author of CINNAMON though has also written another book I want to read, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. She won the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Prize for that book, and Samar is apparently living in hiding, as she has been an outspoken critic of the Assad revolution.
Cinnamon is her first novel to be translated into English, and is written about Damascus before revolution. It tells the story of two women – one, indeed, of a group of women in a similar position – who is forced into a loveless marriage and lives a luxurious but claustrophobic existence, and the other, a maid from the Damascus slums, who, not surprisingly takes what she can from the plenty all around her. Although the book itself is set during just one night, it explores the decades in which the women, Hanan and Aliyah, become close, lovers and loved. However, they never treat each other equally and it’s this that makes the explosion that happens almost inevitable. If you are interested in Syrian life before revolution, as I am, this book is a very intense portrait of an important if admittedly small section of it, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of relationships, and how we all carry the seed of our own destruction.