‘Don’t squander your precious words… Words are responsibility’
I had my doubts about this one. Having picked it up on a whim in Foyle’s (which makes it one of the handful of books I’ll be reading this year that are easily available on the UK high street), I began to question its authenticity as an example of Syrian literature when I realised it had been written in German.
After all, I’d had so many intriguing recommendations for literature written in Arabic that it seemed hard to justify deviating from those for the sake of what may turn out to be a sort of hybrid fiction, caught between the Arab and Western worlds.
In fact award-winning author Rafik Schami, who emigrated from Syria to Germany at the age of 25 and holds dual nationality, makes the difficulty of telling stories across cultures one of the themes of this book. Incorporating the tales told by the seven friends of Salim the coachman, Damascus’s best storyteller, in an effort to lift an enchantment that has struck him dumb, his witty and engrossing narrative includes a discourse from Tuma the emigrant, who, having lived in America for 10 years, attempts to explain his time in the West to his friends.
Describing how he found it difficult to speak in the US (‘How are you going to talk to people who don’t have the faintest idea about the things that really matter to you?’), he then goes on to discover similar difficulties in trying to interpret Western culture for his friends. In the end, frustrated by their repeated dismissal of his words as ‘fairytales’, he decides to lie instead.
At this point, it’s hard not to picture Schami smirking at his typewriter (he wrote this in 1989), and to wonder how much of the colour of the Damascus he describes, ‘a city where legends and pistachio pastries are but two of a thousand and one delights’, is shaded in for the benefit of his European readers.
But what cuts through this playful jousting with truth is a sense of the crucial importance of communication. Storytelling is a vital force in the novel: it’s the way that cafe owners keep their customers coming back each day, how deals are done and friendships cemented and, in many of the stories, a matter of life and death. What matters is not the truth or otherwise of what is related but that it is related.
Set in 1959 against the uneasy backdrop of the United Arab Republic, a union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt, which saw the region awash with secret police and transistor radios designed to allow the government ‘to proclaim the one and only valid truth’ because ‘governments in Syria, without exception, made a habit of proclaiming peace and order just when they were on the verge of collapse’, the novel’s presentation of the need for a plurality of voices and accounts is deeply moving. It finds its echo in the events of today and deserves to be read in the West, the Middle East and throughout the world.
Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Philip Boehm). Publisher (this edition): Arabia Books (2011)