Damascus in Literature

Damascus in Literature

Desirée Custers

Desirée Custers

25-year old from the Netherlands. Master student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the KU Leuven. Holds an MA in International Politics and Conflict Studies, University of Leiden and Utrecht

In the month of February 2019, Brussels will be all about the Syrian capital of Damascus as it is this year’s Moussem city of focus. All around Brussels activities are organized that offer Syrian artists a platform to share their profession, through which the city can be seen from different perspectives. In light of this wonderful initiative which you can find out about more on www.damascus.moussem.be/en, including the events that Lagrange contributed to the festival, this article will describe a few literary works that focus on city.  

For many Arabic literary works have focused on the city’s social and political developments. During the 19th century for example, Damascus was part of the Ottoman empire, a period reflected upon in Saʿd Allah Wannous’s ground-breaking play Ṭuqūs al-Ishārāt wa al-Taḥawwulāt (1994, English trans. Rituals of Signs and Transformations, 1997). This play is set amid a rivalry over power between the Mufti of Damascus and the city’s leading notables, which leads to this former’s arrest. However, the Mufti does not give up and his reaction sets off a chain of events that confront all characters with another side of themselves changing them in ways that that challenge the socially dominant model of masculinity. One of them for example, al-ʿAfsa, the mufti’s henchman, openly claims his homosexual desire and his love for the ultra-macho ʿAbbās.

Dima Wannous, Saʿad Allahs’s daughter, will talk about her own novel al- khāʾifūn (‘The frightened’, 2017)in Brussels onthe 2nd of February. This novel describes Syria of the last 40 years in which fear has dominated every aspect of society and private life. It centers on Sulima who finds the unfinished novel of her lover after he flees the country. Heroine of this novel resembles herself as well as the author, one shared element being that they all come from an Alawite minority background.

 The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous

The Syrian politician, military man and poet Fakhr al-Barudi in his memoir Mudhakkirāt al-Barūdī (‘Memoir of al- Barudi’, 1951) is also set in the Ottoman period as he describes the general Damascene atmosphere in the pre- World War I period. He begins with his childhood memories and descriptions of its folklore aspects in Damascus followed by the increasingly tensions between Arabs and Turks in his school as feelings of Arab nationalism intensifying.

Moving to the period after World War I, Ulfat Idilbi’s Dimashq Yā baṣmat al-ḥuzn (1981, English trans. Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet, 2003) portrays the city of Damascus in the 1920s. Its heroine is Sabriyah’s journey to define herself is intertwined with national awareness in the context of revolt against oppressive French imperial power. While the revolt is crushed by French forces, her personal emancipation limited by traditional values.

Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet by Ulfat Idilbi

Rafik Schami’s Das Geheimnes des Kalligraphen (2008, English trans. The Calligrapher’s Secret, 2011), written in German by the Damascus born Schami, is set in period between 1931 and 1956, and portrays the life of several characters and their families in Damascus. One of them is a calligrapher, Hamid, who faces threats by conservatives when he tries to modernize the Arabic script by for example introducing modern lexicon. Schami also wrote Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (2004, English trans. The Dark Side of Love, 2009) which is set in Damascus of the 1960s, when its citizens are less and less capable of co-existence. It starts with the discovery of the body of a murdered Muslim army officer: the result of a generation’s old blood feud between the Catholic Mushtaqs and the Orthodox Shahins.

The Calligraphers Secret by Rafik Schami

In 1963 the repressive Baʿth party took control over Syria, a grim period the Belgian writer Lieve Joris described in her novel Poorten van Damascus, (1993, English trans. Gates of Damascus, 1996). Based on her stay in the city, she describes the life of her friend whose husband is imprisoned by the Hafez al-Assad Assad regime. The novel offers a portrait of Damascene daily life at the time, and how this life was effected by politics.

The control the Baʿth party remained as power was handed over from father to son, Bashar al- Assad, in 2000. And in 2011 the Syrian uprisings against this regime, although it begun with optimist, led to an internal conflict in the country between different local, national and international parties.

Aside from the earlier mentioned novel by Dima Wannous, Khalid Khalifa’s al-mawt ʿamal shāq (2015, English trans. Death is Hard Work, 2019) is also set in a Syria of civil war in which the elderly ʿAbd al- Laṭīf’s final wish when he is laying in a hospital bed in Damascus, is to be buried in his village of al- Anabiya. His three sons attempt to honor their father’s wish by setting their differences aside and embark on a life-threatening journey through their childhood area which has changed in a free-for-all country.   

Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa

Besides these examples there is also a literary discourse that supports the Baʿth regime within the context of the recent civil war. Such as Hazwan al- Wazz’ (the regime’s current minister of education) novel Kitaab damashq: ḥāʾ al-ḥubb wa rāʾ al-ḥarb (‘Book of Damascus: L for love and W for war’, 2015) who looks at the Syrian civil war as being a conspiracy by Western imperial power against Arabs in general, and Syria in particular.

These examples of novels, although limited in their number, can offer the reader who is inspired by next month’s ‘Damascus in Brussel’ a literary lens through which to see the city and its social and historical history next to the literary, art and architectural lens that Moussem city offers.

For more articles written by this author visit her blog at: https://issabramil.wordpress.com/