Damascus – a historical mosaic

If you are curious about Syria’s other side, you might as well dare to digest Rafik Schami’s weighty oeuvre The Dark Side of Love.

If Rafik Schami does not sound like a household name, I’d mention that he is one of the most important post-colonial authors of German language. The man and his book are interesting even to those that are not necessarily interested in the history and theory of literature – because his novel presents an opportunity to relive more than a half-century of Syrian history. At first sight, the sheer length of The Dark Side of Love could frighten readers. And indeed a tome of 1000-plus pages strikes at first like a monumental reading task. But after the first few chapters, the reader is caught up in Schami’s web of narratives and hopes it will never end.

Schami is known for reviving the ancient and notorious Arabic culture of storytelling through his books. Despite a clear framework of a background story, this turns The Dark Side of Love into an ocean of minor yarns. Through the prism of the overarching tale of the tribal feud between the Muschtak and Schahin families and the Romeo & Juliet style love story between two of their respective members, Schami covers more than a half-century of recent Syrian history. Readers can track the country’s evolution from French colonial rule through independence and various military dictatorships to the present day, with almost constant presence in the daily news.

As if this were not enough, Schami not only paints his protagonists but often enough digresses, loses himself in little stories about the daily life of peripheral characters and so he weaves a tight-knit web of anecdotes that altogether form a wistful image of Damascus, Syria and the pluralism of Arab societies. While all this is permeated by the exiled author’s critical comments on the strict rules and laws and religious strife that forced him once to leave his homeland, it also makes his mosaic so coherent.

The sentiments the author conveys to his readers of his homeland is not misty-eyed, the picture is not perfect and quite a few mosaic stones are scratched and broken, or perhaps just painted wrongly. Schami is well aware of the region’s many flaws and inconsistencies. With a detached pen, he presents us with a sketch of this world but does not mean to say that it deserves rejection.

Schami has penned a haunting declaration of love for Syria and Damascus, a world amazingly, terrifyingly, bewitchingly wonderful and yet in a dreamy way shatteringly real. The fabulous, skillfully interwoven with the brutal daily routine of a torn country, renders The Dark Side of Love such an impressionist novel and so difficult to break free from ist magic. In our time, one would do well to peek beyond the rim and take time for an epic legend of this kind, for an excursion into the mentality and history of a state likely to dominate political news as one of the most virulent problem areas still for some years to come.

Dare to turn the first page. I guarantee that no one will regret it.

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