11 Novels about Syria

Feeling a bit ignorant about Syrian life and culture? There’s still a bit of time to read up before the arrival of some 25, 000 new Syrian Canadians. It turns out that a “brisk new Anglophone market for the art and culture of the so-called Arab Spring” has facilitated an increase in available translations of contemporary Syrian fiction. From a graphic memoir to “the Great Arab novel,” this eclectic list might just lead you to your new favorite book. (Special thanks to English department member and Arab North American literature specialist Dr. Lamees Al Ethari for her feedback.)–JLH

Lina, Portrait of a Damascene Girl, Samar Attar
Samar Attar has addressed the difficulty of translation by translating her own works, Lina, Portrait of a Damascene Girl and The House on Arnus Square. Set in the 1950s, Lina is “in part a close emotional study of its protagonist, Lina, and in part a rather severe critique of Syrian society conveyed through Lina’s reactions as she awakens to the world around her.”

Sarmada, Fadi Azzam
The New Yorker
called Sarmada “the essential novel of the Syrian Spring”; it was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The Independent writes “Brimful of magic, Sarmada is a book to be swallowed in rapturous gulps.”

In Praise of Hatred, Khaled Khalifa
Also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, Khlaifa’s novel is set during the civil war between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawite Muslim government in the 1980s. The unnamed female narrator chronicles the impact on her family; her aunts in particular are, according to a review in The Guardian, “gloriously vivacious and nuanced creations, from Maryam, at war with her own ‘filthy and rebellious’ body, to Marwa, a Juliet figure, chained to her bed to prevent her marrying an officer of the other sect.”

Fragments of Memory, Hanna Mina
Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and told through a child’s perspective, the novel “folds story into story, episode into episode in a leisurely, exfoliate manner.” Mina documents the family dynamic, while also providing an “account of the decay of Ottoman control and the increasing pressures of the French Mandate.”

BEIRUT ’75, Ghada Samman
Two characters from Damascus hope seek better lives in Lebanon. As one reviewer writes, “Samman’s work in “Beirut ’75” is not only unequivocally feminist, but is also a powerful example of an engaged post-coloniality–where magic realism, surrealism, and the macabre become tools for transcribing violent political realities.”

The Arab of the Future
, Riad Sattouf
A best-selling graphic novel, The Arab of the Future is Sattouf’s tale of his father’s experience in France, and the family’s return to Syria. A reviewer writes: “Sattouf’s work is laced with astute observations of human beings. His memoirs often dwell on their failings: hypocrisy, cowardice, bullying. Yet there’s humour too – mainly because his humans are so helplessly absurd.”

The Dark Side of Love, Rafik Schami
The Independent gushed “At last, the Great Arab Novel.” Like Schami’s The Calligrapher’s Secret and Damascus Nights this was also a bestseller. The Guardian notes its stylistic innovation, writingHis basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is melded with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive.”

The Silence and the Roar, Nihad Sirees
According to The Independent: “The Silence and the Roar follows a day in the life of Fathi Sheen, a once popular writer condemned to obscurity for being ‘unpatriotic.’ As he makes his way across town to visit his mother and girlfriend, an unnamed leader is celebrating his 20th anniversary in power, and people pour onto the streets to express their devotion.” The Guardian argues it should be “required reading.”

Writing Love, Khalil Sweileh
As the committee which awarded Sweileh the 2009 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for this novel commented, “[He] seduces his readers through multiple narrative ruses into the labyrinth of writing, where they finally discover that they were not reading a novel but rather a novel about writing a novel.”

Daughter of Damascus, Siham Tergeman
The press describes it so well: “Daughter of Damascus presents a personal account of a Syrian woman’s youth in the Suq Saruja (“old city”) quarter of Damascus in the 1940s. Siham Tergeman wrote this book to preserve the details of a ‘genuine Arab past’ for Syrian young people. In it, she relates the customs pertaining to marriage, birth, circumcision, and death. She writes of Ramadan festivities, family picnics to the orchards of the Ghuta, weekly trips to the public bath, her school experiences, Damascene cooking, peddlers’ calls, and proverbs. She includes the well-known dramatic skits, songs, and tales of the Syrian Hakawati storytellers. And, through the words of her father, she describes the difficult period when Syrians were involved in the Balkans War and World War I. All this wealth of ethnographic detail is set in real-life vignettes that make the book lively and entertaining reading.”

Cinnamon, Samar Yazbek
Publishers Weekly
writes: “There’s a pulsing vitality to the lives of the characters, despite their brutal circumstances, in this compelling novel by PEN Pinter Prize–winning Syrian author Yazbek.” The author of this novella may also be known to readers through her memoir A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution.


One response to “11 Novels about Syria

  1. A wealth of reading here–sound like compelling novels. Thank you for the list.

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