Book review: A sprawling portrayal of life and love in Damascus | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 15.06.2011
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Book review: A sprawling portrayal of life and love in Damascus

As a child, German-Syrian writer Rafik Schami used to hang out on the streets of Damascus making up stories for friends. His warmhearted novel, "The Calligrapher's Secret," shows he's still a master yarnspinner.

Rafik Schami

Author Rafik Schami has lived in Germany for 40 years

The Old Town of Damascus lay still under the grey cloak of twilight before dawn when an incredible rumor began making its way to the tables of the little snack bars, and circulating among the first customers at the bakeries. It seemed that Noura, the beautiful wife of that highly regarded and prosperous calligrapher Hamid Farsi, had run away.

"The Calligrapher's Secret," the latest novel by Rafik Schami, begins like one of Scheherazad's folk tales and comes complete with all the classic elements of traditional Arabic storytelling - from foreshadowing to repeated references to fate and destiny.

But with its colorful cast of wronged women, low-life schemers and opportunistic aristocrats, the kaleidoscopic narrative is equally reminiscent of European writers such as Charles Dickens and Honore de Balzac. And like them, Schami makes the city into a character in its own right. As his philandering protagonist Nasri Abbani says:

He loved his native city the way he loved women: addictively and beyond all measure. He was a true Damascene who thought the city was paradise. Every time he had to leave Damascus it felt like a kind of torture, and he was sure his journey would end in darkness and cold - and a life of toil and tribulation.

The writer himself went into exile in 1971 when he moved to Germany, and his own love of Damascus seeps through every page. Setting his central plot in the 1950s, roughly a decade after Syrian independence, he brings the city to life with descriptions so vivid the reader can actually smell the lemon blossom, taste the cardamom and hear the call of the muezzin as the tale unfolds.

It does so at the same leisurely pace as an afternoon chat between old friends in a cafe on Straight Street over a few glasses of arak.

Interwoven tales

Rafik Schami's 'Das Geheimnis des Kalligraphen'

Anthea Bell translated from the German

The novel is divided into two sections, called "The First Kernel of the Truth" and "The Second Kernel of the Truth."

Broadly, the first is the story of Noura and Salman - although they only actually meet towards the end of Part One. Intellectual Noura is the daughter of a respected Sufi sheikh and grows up in comfort in the affluent Midan Quarter, while Salman is a Christian brought up by an alcoholic, abusive father and an ailing mother in a slum known as Grace and Favour Yard. At the age of 17, Noura submits to an arranged marriage with the cold and arrogant Hamid Farsi.

He is the calligrapher of the title, and - without giving too much away - his secret is that he is a Grand Master of the Society of the Wise, an association of calligraphers founded in the 13th century.

The business of the Society was to work not publicly, but in secret through the circle of initiates and the semi-wise to root out weaknesses of the Arabic language and its script, so that one day it would truly deserve to be called divine.

His plans to reform Arabic script, however, make him a sworn enemy of the Pure Ones, another secret society of religious fanatics who believe Arabic is divinely created and therefore sacred. Part Two of the book tells his story.

But the calligrapher is not the only character with a secret. In fact, the novel is all about secrets, revolving as it does around clandestine relationships that are played out in the lush gardens hidden away from neighbors' prying eyes in the Old Town's courtyards, where the air is heady with the scent of damask roses and jasmine.

Confusing - but endearing

Schami's arcane digressions into the history and tradition of calligraphy raise many serious questions about the repercussions of making Arabic script more modern. But the rights and wrongs of removing and adding letters to the Arabic alphabet aside, the novel is for the most part as riveting as a good soap opera, populated by a sometimes head-spinning array of characters.

Some of them have just walk-on roles, and in keeping with the Arabian flavor of the novel - a quality that perhaps explains why the book works just as well in English as it does in German - these characters tend to be archetypal. There's Kamil the traffic cop, Shimon the Jewish vegetable seller and Elias the confectioner - in Schami's Damascus, multiculturalism is taken for granted.

The knife grinders of Damascus came from Afghanistan, the watchmakers were Armenian, the carpet dealers Persian, and the men who sold the nuts in the street were from Sudan.

Other minor characters are given what some readers might feel are over-lengthy backstories, such as Karam the scheming cafe-owner, Dalia the dressmaker and Asmahan the whore, whose greatest passion happens to be calligraphy.

Nasri was surprised that the young whore, just like the president, could discuss at length details of calligraphy that had escaped him. When the words were intertwined like an impenetrable forest of fine lines, he couldn't even decipher many of them.

Overall, Schami's novel has a similar effect. Its tangled web of people and plots is occasionally somewhat impenetrable. But as Nasri says at one point, "Calligraphy rejoices the heart even if you can't decipher the words."

Author: Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen

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