One could do worse, in trying to gain some perspective on the bloodbath that is Syria, than read Rafik Schami’s novel The Dark Side of Love, translated from German by Anthea Bell. The 853-page book has been praised by one reviewer as “The Great Arab Novel,” a compliment that shades into dark irony when one considers that the novel was written neither in Arabic nor in an Arabic-speaking country. Yet that physical and linguistic exile is itself testament to the pathologies explored in this rich, often deliciously sensual mosaic of a novel.
Born to a Syrian Christian family, Schami is a proud Damascene; even today he calls Damascus “the most beautiful city in the world.” Yet he fled Syria for Germany more than forty years ago, and his literary career has unfolded in German. The author of a number of novels, The Dark Side of Love is his magnum opus, and he worked on it, in one way or another, for twenty years. The novel’s painful source was Schami’s experience, as a teen, witnessing an honor killing. While the book deals in some form with Mideast history, it is not really a historical novel or political analysis, but rather a cumulative portrait of a society’s brutality and the possibility of love growing in its midst. The sprawling tale is by turns tragic and beautiful, grim and lusty, tender and explosive.
In the following passage, typical of the novel’s pointed, Mitteleuropean humor, Schami satirizes the Falstaffian boastfulness of anti-Israel propaganda in the Arab world:
But one day Munir had worse on his mind. He used to listen to the news every morning before coming to the university, and one day he began meticulously writing down the losses allegedly suffered by Israel in its military confrontations with the Arab countries or the thirteen groups of Palestinian freedom fighters. Since January 1965 the Palestinians had been plastering the walls of the city of Damascus with reports of their huge successes, never guessing that Munir was carefully writing it all down.
One April morning in 1967 he came into the cafeteria, climbed on a chair and asked for silence. Because it was Munir did fall silent at once, although they wouldn’t usually even in the lecture hall.
“Dear friends and comrades,” he began, almost inaudibly.
“Louder!” shouted his fellow students at the back of the big room.
Munir cleared his throat. “Dear friends and comrades!” he repeated. “It is my privilege to announce that Israel has finally been defeated. According to the casualty figures of the dead on all fronts, there isn’t a single Israeli left capable of bearing arms. Any survivors are severely injured and lying in the ruins of bridges, buildings, and the burning remains of their military vehicles, helicopters, and tanks, all destroyed by our brave men, so now we must allow humanitarian aid to get through to those poor wounded Israelis, as we’ve been in duty bound to do ever since Saladin’s time.”