I really wanted to like Sarmada by Fadi Azzam, translated by Adam Talib.
I still really want to like it.
The reviews and the blurbs promised the stories of women living their lives in a small town set against the backdrop of the political situation that has created today’s Syria – the wars, the politics and the religions. The book opens with “About the Author (in a way).” This preface promises
“Words make us free. Anytime a place or a period of time goes wrong, the suffering turn to words. Words console, they give us hope.”
I read Sarmada looking both to understand the suffering and to give myself hope.
That’s a lot to ask of one book.
In many ways, Sarmada delivered on everything it promised. It told the stories of people, many of them women, and their lives, their families, their schools and their foods. It describes their celebrations and their sorrows. And these characters do sometimes break through in hilarious human moments, pointing out everyday absurdities. In one scene, the school principal has just cruelly convinced the class to bully two children, leaving them behind from a school trip. While the victims are punched, kicked, and knocked to the ground off the bus,
“The principal, meanwhile, was busy chatting to Ms. Camellia, reeling off his really quite impressive track record of imposing discipline on the students and the village at large, while she, for her part, tried to fake a bland smile as she wondered just how she’d managed to forget her maxi-pads on the counter at home.”
But more often, the characters did not feel that human.
While the book does focus on its female characters, they are often viewed and described from a man’s perspective. The framing of the book is a man who returns to his hometown of Sarmada after meeting a woman who may or may not have lived in Sarmada in a past life. That woman was murdered by her brothers for marrying against the wishes of the community. While the narrator is in Sarmada, another woman dies. This woman is also defined by her sexuality. The narrator reflects
“A whole generation of men in Sarmada crossed into manhood over her body’s bridge.”
The narrator wonders at the town’s different responses to these women’s choices and sexuality.
Why had they consented to the murder of one woman and not done anything about the other? He decides the answer is to tell the story of the town, partly in hope of better understanding how he was shaped by it.
Of course, the story of a man returning to his hometown to learn about the people and himself can be a great one. But the narrator disappeared at some point in the book. After finishing the book, I checked online to make sure my copy hadn’t somehow been printed without the last chapter.
And it wasn’t just at the end that I thought I was missing something.
In many instances throughout the book, I knew I was. The book made references to historical events, people and communities that were not very familiar to me. It was hard for me to balance my desire to look things up and learn what happened against my desire to keep reading and try to stay in the story. Sometimes this balance worked out well enough. Between the book and various online searches, I do feel that I have a slightly better sense of the different religions co-existing in Syria. But I know there was a lot happening in the book that was lost on me. I don’t feel like I have a better sense now of what it was like to live through the rise of the Ba’ath party and the other historical events and consequences that have made Syria the place I read about in the news.
But again, that’s a lot to ask of one book.
Pick up a copy using this link and we make pennies.