by Fawaz Azem
In his latest novel, “Sophia,” the Syrian-German ‘hakawati’ Rafik Schami returns yet again to the well of modern Syria, mining it for tales of romance and intrigue. The “Sophia” of the title, a willful, beautiful, Christian woman, jilts her Muslim lover, Karim, in favor of marrying a rich Damascene Christian goldsmith, Yusuf Baladi. Sophia’s son, Salman, proves the real hero of the novel, the eponymous title notwithstanding. Having fled Syria to Lebanon, he seeks shelter with his aunt Amalia, whose family ostracized her for having married a Protestant.
Thus begins Salman’s three decade odyssey (Spring 1970- Summer 2010). He travels from Beirut to Heidelberg, where he studies philosophy and falls in love with a beautiful Italian, Stella, who immigrates with him to Rome, where they marry, settle down and have a son, Paolo. Eventually, Stella becomes a professor of pharmacology, while Salman becomes a successful entrepreneur.
As he gets older, Salman increasingly yearns for Damascus, feeling as if his soul now wanders the city, haunting the streets of his childhood. However, his return would not be without risk, due to his fugitive status. Originally, he fled Syria after wounding a policeman during Salman’s participation in an idealistic, Marxist-inspired, but ultimately doomed, armed revolt to topple the dictatorship. In the wake of a general amnesty proclaimed by the President, and after Salman’s parents have paid his cousin Elias, a senior security officer, $10,000 to ensure none of the 15 security agencies intend to pursue him any longer, Salman returns home.
The Damascus he returns to, however, bears little resemblance to the one he has haunted in his lonely dreams. Syria has become “a fear factory,” and Syrians, “the loudest people in the Middle East, have become quiet cowards.” Soon, after facing false accusations of murder, and with his past once more dredged up, Salman himself becomes prey for the security agencies. Running for his life, he goes underground, with the novel seamlessly morphing into a political thriller that holds the reader in suspense till the very last page. At this point, Sophia comes to her son’s rescue, enlisting the aid of Karim, whom she once helped exonerate from being framed for an ‘honor killing.’ Now an elderly widower blissfully in love with Aida, a Christian divorcee, Karim lives with an estranged daughter in a large house in the Christian quarter. Since none of the security agencies have him under scrutiny, Karim takes Salman in, and meticulously sets in motion an elaborate process that culminates in the fugitive’s eventual departure.
As in his previous novel “The Dark Side of Love,” Schami trains his sights on the political situation in Syria, giving a resounding indictment of the regime. However, in “Sophia,” the writer proves more direct, pulling no punches. He succinctly portrays Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the present ruler, as someone “who could boast neither charm nor eloquence…secretive, brutal and a master conspirator.” Schami describes corruption as “the only reliable instrument of the State,” and states that Syrians live by the principle, “Let them rule in peace, and they’ll let you live.”
Schami also lays bare the hypocrisy in both religion and politics. Although Karim’s father urges him to ‘save the honor of the family’ by killing his sister for marrying a Christian, after his death the man proves a hypocrite who fathered several children with various women in different countries. The elderly women in the Christian quarter vocally disapprove of Aida for her disregard of her Christian religion, but “their own knowledge of religion only [runs] as deeply as the Hail Mary and Our Father, for most of them.” The Arab oppositionists who gather in Beirut, “the Swiss mirage,” hoping “to agitate against their own dictators, are, more often than not financed by other dictators.
Readers who accompany Salman on his odyssey can expect a treat. Not only will they come upon such aphoristic gems as “Salvation and death are the children of audacity,” and “the desperate feed on illusion,” but they will also share Salman’s perceptive insights into culture, society and politics. Readers tag along with him as he walks the streets of Rome such as the Viadei Condotti on his way to his favorite haunts such as the elegant Café Greco. They also accompany him as he walks along the streets of old Damascus, visiting such sites as the Biblical Straight Street, where, behind the plain facades of old houses, “inner courtyards [open] to the sky, bearing witness to the Damascenes’ sensual way of life.” Bon Voyage.
Sophia: or The Beginning of All Tales
By Rafik Schami
Interlink Books, 2018
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 75, 2018.
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