Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Fadi Azzam's Sarmada reviewed

Better late than never? I wrote this review of Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada about 6 months ago, and then agonised for a while about what to do with it, to the point where the original commission seemed out-of-date. Then I showed it to a friend yesterday and got told that it deserved to be published somewhere… so here it is. Some of the circumstances have changed – Azzam’s fellow IPAF longlistee Rabee Jaber ended up winning the prize for the marvellous Druze of Belgrade. But the review of Sarmada still stands, I think.

Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada is the first book from the new Swallow Editions imprint at Arabia Books, and was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (although it didn’t make the shortlist). The brainchild of Syrian-German author Rafik Schami, Swallow launches unpublished titles in Arabic and English on a not-for-profit basis. It’s an exciting and important development in making new writing from the Arab world available to readers in English. So what of the venture’s inaugural novel?

Well, let’s get the sex out of the way first, shall we?

Sarmada has attracted some comment from readers and reviewers for its explicit sex scenes. There are a number of these, some quite protracted and graphic. They are probably no more frequent or explicit than in many Western novels, but a lot more so than in most fiction (at least in translation into English) emanating from the Arab world. I don’t intrinsically have a problem with this – most of Azzam’s scenes are perfectly well-written and shift tone according to their context and purpose. A few descend into mildly amusing metaphors – “His fingers began to climb up her ivory thighs like a flock of hungry goats” – but there are no real contenders for the Bad Sex Awards.

My main problem with the book’s sexual content is, however, this: Sarmada is being promoted as a book in which women take centre stage. The profile page on Arabia Books’ website describes the book thus: “Three women struggle against the forces of society, family, and passion in a small Druze village… Druze women are expected to marry a Druze man, settle down, and have children, and there’s no forgiving those who step out of line. And yet some brave souls still do. Some women risk their lives to follow their hearts and Sarmada is their story”. The cover blurb says that “The stories… are told and re-told by the women who live there, who are both its protagonists and its protectors…”

Given the centrality of women to the book, however, the sex scenes are disappointingly permeated by male fantasy rather than female reality. Sometimes this is fairly harmless: both Farida and Buthayna, for instance, manage to achieve uncountable multiple orgasms with unpractised young lovers who in the real world would be more likely to leave an older woman surprised at their energy but exasperated at their unskilled fumblings. Sometimes it is more sinister, as in one of the key sex scenes, when the male partner forces anal sex on a woman, “ignoring her pleas. ‘Stop! You’re hurting me. Stop!’”. If this was a description of a non-consensual act which was appropriate to the plot, fair enough. But no – the woman in question then decides she is enjoying it. Azzam seems to have bought straight into the myth of the woman who ‘says no but means yes’. It’s a dangerous development in a supposedly pro-women novel, as well as being a tediously antiquated view of female sexuality.

Some readers may feel to deal at length with the book’s sexual content just betrays my own obsessions. Perhaps. But there is a lot of sex in Sarmada – not just between people of various genders, but also involving trees, animals, solo acts, books, kitchen implements and public rites of passage. Azzam seems to see it as an underlying force driving much of what goes on in his fictional village. So how it’s portrayed, and the power relationships revealed by it, are significant.

The attitudes which seep out in the scene described above go, perhaps, beyond the bedroom. While the blurb makes it sound as if the female protagonists will be women who challenge the strictures of village life, in the end those who do break the rules pay the price. Hela voluntarily returns in the knowledge that she will be killed for running away with her lover; Farida, remembered with fondness by the village men whose sexual enlightenment she provided but who pines over her wayward son, seeks to eradicate her own sexuality in an act of extreme self-injury. Sarmada’s publicity claims for its female ‘protagonists and protectors’ the status of ‘brave souls’, but to be female in Sarmada seems rather to mean a life of passivity and pain. Men – whether Azaday the beautiful, mysterious Algerian traveller from the beginning of the book or Bulkhayr the longed-for son at the end – can, at least to some extent, leave (and while women’s fate seems bound up with their lost loves, Bulkhayr escapes his sexual entanglement with Buthayna by falling in love with Rimbaud instead). But those women who try to go are inexorably drawn back to suffer their punishment – violent death for Hela, or lonely depression for Buthayna. Even small acts of female routine are tied up with love and pain: “The two women sat together in the evening after Bulkhayr had settled into bed and decided to have a sugaring party to get rid of their unwanted hair, as a parallel means of washing themselves clean of love’s burnt-up gunk and purifying themselves in depilatory pain”.

Despite that extended criticism, Sarmada is worth the read. If one can transcend the dubious gender politics (anyone searching for stories of Levantine village life from an explicitly female perspective would be better off starting with, for example, Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt), Sarmada is an intriguing exploration of sectarian identity, memory and the slowly-encroaching impacts of modernity on rural life. The Druze faith is not one often depicted in fiction available in English (we can only hope that Sarmada’s fellow IPAF long-listee, Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade, gets translated too), and although Azzam is sometimes a little clunky in his expositions, few Western readers might otherwise encounter Druze concepts of reincarnation or the practice of Seeing Marriage.

As Robin Yassin-Kassab noted in his review of Sarmada in The Independent, Azzam’s depiction of his mythical village owes a certain amount to the magical realism of Garcia Marquez, with its strange physical deformities. The sweep through several generations is reminiscent of the likes of 100 Years of Solitude, whilst the structure of the early part of the book, centred on Hela’s murder, pays homage to Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Although Azzam does refer to events such as Syria’s wars with Israel and incorporates some (at times rather heavy-handed) political metaphors, the magical realist style reinforces the idea of Sarmada as a village existing out of ordinary time and space, where the extraordinary and the ordinary co-exist and overlap.

The name of the book and the village refers to ideas of immutability and permanence, and behind the passionate and often bloody events of Sarmada there is a strong sense of the mountains, weather patterns, trees and rocks over which human actions brush like the dusty wind of the nearby plains. The structure of the first two-thirds of the novel, which punctuates the increasingly bizarre history of the village with the narrator’s text-message interactions with the outside world, heightens the isolation. Sadly the bagginess of the final portion loses this juxtaposition, as well as much of the book’s sense of coherence. But despite a few spurious attempts to present Sarmada as a novel of the ‘Arab Spring’, Azzam’s portrait of Sarmada’s sceptical, long-suffering villagers is a deeper and more complex look at a this corner of Syrian society than any attempt to find a newsworthy hook could imply.

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